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Born in Basel in 1900, Kurt Seligmann studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva, then at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. He moved to Paris near the end of the Twenties where he came in contact with members of Surrealism, then became a member of the Abstraction-Création group in 1937. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he moved to New York where he showed his work in 1939 at the Karl Nierendorf Gallery. He participated in the exhibitions First Papers of Surrealism (1941) and Artists in Exile (1942), and actively collaborated in the magazines View and VVV, which together helped introduce the themes and principals of Surrealism to an American audience.
In 1948 he published a study on magic, the occult, and popular folklore called The Mirror of Magic. Its themes are prevalent in the complex iconography of his paintings, often rich with symbolism alluding to alchemy and the kabala. The fantastic and anguished imagery that emerge from his paintings and numerous woodcuts are a testament to, among other things, two artistic traditions: First, his examination of deformed and frightened visions evoked from the subconscious is typical of Surrealism, and Second, it owes much to the rich Swiss-German figurative tradition exposed to Seligmann as a boy. Matthias Grunewald, Albrecht Altdorfer, Urs Graf, and Niklas Manuel Deutsch, but also Johann Heinrich Fussli and Ferdinand Hodler are sources of influence to his artwork, often rooted in a Nordic environment of the medieval variety, populated by devils, suits of armour, heraldic imagery, threatening beings, and anthropomorphic creatures.
In addition to being a painter and woodcut artist, Seligmann also excelled in set design, creating costumes and scenery for Harry Holm and Balanchine. Shortly after his premier of the ballet The Golden Fleece. Una fantasia alchemica in 1941, the artist met Peggy Guggenheim as she was returning to New York from Europe, and thus entered into her circle. Among other things, he was a mentor and master to significant artists such as Robert Motherwell and Nell Blaine, an important member of American cultural circles, and an instructor at Briarcliff Junior College and Brooklyn College in New York. He died in Sugar Loaf, New York, on January 2, 1962.