German painter, born at Magdeburg. He was a taciturn, maverick figure who for his first 40 years led a wandering existence, often in poverty, then lived almost like a hermit for the rest of his days. Recognition did not come until he was almost 60, but he is now regarded as Germany's leading exponent of Surrealism apart from Max Ernst.
Oelze studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar, 1921–5, then for the next few years lived mainly in Dresden and Berlin. From 1933 to 1936 he lived in Paris, where he was associated with the Surrealists (in 1936 his work was shown in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London and in the exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York). After spending two years mainly in Italy and Switzerland he returned to Germany in 1938 and served in the army in the Second World War, during which he was taken prisoner. After his release he settled at Worpswede (see Modersohn-Becker) until 1962, when he moved finally to Posteholz near Hamelin. His reputation began to grow after his work was shown in the 1959 documenta exhibition and in the last years of his life he received various distinctions (including the Max Beckmann Prize of the City of Frankfurt in 1978), although he continued to live a life of solitude, fiercely defending his privacy. He had trained in the precise style of Neue Sachlichkeit and his early work is sometimes classified as Magic Realism. The best-known example is Expectation (1935, MoMA, New York), showing a crowd of apprehensive figures—viewed from the back—looking at or for some unseen presence in the sky. It has an eerie science-fiction feel that is also seen in some of Oelze's later works, notably his weird semi-abstract landscapes made up of vegetable-like as well as geological forms.
From A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art in Oxford Reference.