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Of Algerian-Jewish descent, Jean-Michel Atlan was born in Constantine (French Algeria) and moved to Paris in 1930 where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. He did not start painting until 1941 and was self-taught. His first paintings, though violently expressionist, contained images of figures and landscape, he soon developed a more or less abstract style with dramatic rhythmical heavy black lines and metamorphic shapes
Arrested by the Nazis in 1942 for being Jewish and for his political activism, he pleaded insanity and was confined to the Sainte Anne asylum until 1944. In the sanatorium, Atlan encountered a world beyond the realms of everyday thinking which left a remaining imprint on his work. In 1944 he published a volume of poems Le Sang Profond and had his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie de l'Arc-en-Ciel, Paris.
In 1946 he met Asger Jorn and became involved with the CoBrA art group, and his studio became a meeting place for the collective in Paris. He produced fantastical, abstract animal shapes that were strongly influenced by the group and participated in their exhibitions. However, after achieving considerable initial success, he passed through a period of neglect and poverty and between 1947 and 1956 had no one-man exhibitions in Paris.
By 1956 his style was consolidated; strong, black, winding lines enclosing pastel coloured areas, which evoke organic and vegetable associations. That year Atlan achieved his breakthrough as an artist with a poster he designed for the exhibition of the new 'École de Paris' at the Charpentier gallery and an exhibition at the Bing Gallery in Paris. He received extensive attention in France, Japan, Britain and the US and was considered one of the most important exponents of 'Nouvelle École de Paris'.
Jean-Michel Atlan died in 1960 and in 1963 he was honoured with a retrospective at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris. He left approximately 220 works, including tapestries and illustrations.