Category: Surrealism

The Death of Franklin Rosemont

ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion - Cover art for the 1989 edition. Franklin Rosemont was editor of the journal, which hailed from Chicago, Illinois.

ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion - Cover art for the 1989 edition. Franklin Rosemont was editor of the journal, which hailed from Chicago, Illinois.

Though he passed away last April, I feel compelled to note the death of the American surrealist artist, historian, author, poet, and activist, Franklin Rosemont (Oct. 2, 1943 – April 12, 2009). The few press accounts taking note of his passing wax lyrical about a colorful figure whose journey through the late 20th century put him in intimate contact with the counterculture of the U.S., from the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to the Beat poets and beyond. But Rosemont will surely be remembered for his role in familiarizing Americans with the actual founder of surrealism – the French poet André Breton.

 On my bookshelf there are two works by Rosemont. The first being, What Is Surrealism?: Selected Writings What is Surrealism: Selected Writings of André Breton, a compilation of essays and theoretical writings from Breton that were brought together and first published by Rosemont in 1978. Already well versed in the tenets of the surrealist school, I acquired Rosemont’s tome the year of its publication, and reading it cover to cover was nothing less than revelatory. What is Surrealism is the antidote for all those suffering under the illusion that Salvador Dalí best exemplified the surrealist movement. No greater tribute to Rosemont can be offered than to quote from the foreword he wrote for What is Surrealism;

“I hope no one seriously expects surrealism to have any positive meaning except to those who are aware that the existing order cries out to be negated and transformed. That there is no solution to the decisive problems of human existence outside proletarian revolution is, for surrealism, a first principle that is beyond argument. Nothing would be more difficult than reconciling surrealism to bourgeois culture.

I know that everything continues normally today, as yesterday, as if life were an IOU punctuated now and then with a yawn, a shrug of the shoulders or a punch in the nose. Immobilized beneath a seemingly inflexible net of counterfeit hopes and fears - hopeless and fearless at the same time before a destiny that could hardly be more ruinous to the free development of the human personality - men and women go on fabricating illusory foresights and pitiful afterthoughts as if nothing more important were at stake than the price of cigarettes.

But in this grim charade, fortunately, nothing is foolproof. A split second is sufficient to say no, to let the lions escape, to open the wounds of reality, to stop the assembly line, to set out for the unknown. Accidents do happen. With surrealism the phoenix of anticipation emerges unfailingly from the ashes of everyday distraction, rising defiantly on wings of vitriol and amber, putting to shame the musty compromises that provide the glue with which the existing agony adheres to so many passing thoughts. Dispelling the mirage of futility, traversing the mirror of fatality, surrealism is resolved to stop at nothing.”

The other book by Franklin Rosemont that has a place in my library is an edition of ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion, a compendium of surrealist poetry, art, diatribes, and histories published by Black Swan Press and edited by Rosemont. Whenever I crack open the large paperback brimming with bizarre dream-like graphics, nonsensical prose, and frenzied invective against “reality” - I am always heartened. I acquired this specific edition of the long running periodical when it was published in 1989, eighteen years after the first copy of ARSENAL made its appearance in print. While the journal is filled with ecstatic giddiness and lunacy, it is far from being frivolous, in fact it possesses the steely earnestness and intensity one expects from a revolutionary tract. Again, Rosemont’s own words best serve as his eulogy - these taken from “Now’s The Time”, the opening editorial he penned for the ‘89 volume of ARSENAL;

“Most assuredly, if surrealism continues to develop it will be because surrealists continue to develop it. And even if every one of those who call themselves surrealists today threw in the towel, the fight would hardly be over. Surrealism’s questions, in any case, remain defiantly and even horribly open - the festering wounds all over the bloated body of christian-capitalist hypocrisy - and quite unphased by the would-be curative incantations of those whose job it is to reassure society’s self-appointed managers that surrealism, like working class emancipation, is safely obsolete.

Even were we to join the inane conformists’ chorus that sings surrealism’s death, it would make little difference, for those who resolve to pursue these questions must sooner of later discover for themselves that inevitably it lives again, albeit perhaps in forms not immediately apprehensible to the pontifically glib horn-tooters of total counter-revolution.

(….) Surrealism continues to advance today, and to make a difference, because it refuses to compromise with unfreedom, because it holds true to its own irreducibly wild and untamable means, outside all repressive frameworks. Anti-statist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-religious, anti-anthropocentric, anti-academic, allergic to Western civilization and its values and institutions, surrealism passes with flying colors what John Muir, one of the greatest of American presurrealists, called the test of the wilderness. ‘And how do we reach this truly free society?’ Start by dreaming. Those who don’t know how to cross their bridges before they come to them will never get anywhere.”

Josep Renau: Commitment and Culture

The people of Spain have been celebrating the 100th birthday of the Spanish painter, poster designer, and muralist, Josep Renau, through a number of tributes, not the least of which has been a traveling exhibition; Josep Renau (1907-1982): Commitment and Culture. Organized by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the University of Valencia, Spain, the exhibit is now running at the Universidad de Zaragoza until January 30th, 2009 (View the Spanish language or English translated website). Comprised of over 200 works including photomontage creations, drawings, paintings, and posters, the exhibit spans the artist’s entire influential career.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Celebridades Norte Americanas /North American Celebrities. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1956-65. ]

In 1992 the Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) in San Diego, California, presented the very first exhibition in the U.S. of Renau’s magnum opus photomontage series - Fata Morgana USA: The American Way of Life. I attended that exhibit and found it full of acidly sardonic photomontage works that lived up to the title of the series. Unfortunately the MoPA website does not even list the slightest detail concerning its ‘92 exhibit. Luckily for all however, the museum website does sell the brilliant catalogue book, Fata Morgana USA: The American Way of Life, which is an indispensable resource regarding the life and art of Renau.

When reading about the early radical proponents of photomontage, rarely is the name of Renau mentioned, yet he played a significant role in the development of the art. His montage works should be regarded with the same sense of appreciation given to the creations of John Heartfield, George Grosz, Alexander Rodchenko, Raul Hausmann, or Hannah Hoch.

Art by Josep Renau

[ El Presidente Habla Sobre La Paz /The President Speaks About Peace. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1952. ]

The MoPA exhibit of Fata Morgana USA gave us Renau’s view of America as it existed from the Cold War years of the late 1940s to the early ’60s. He depicted a country arrogantly projecting its military power across the globe; a land enthralled by the rise of mass media and hyper-consumerism, embroiled in anticommunist witch-hunts, and terribly divided along racial lines. In fact, some of Renau’s most engaging images had to do with America’s shameful history of racism.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Orgasmo Racial /Racial Orgasm - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1951.]

At a time when African Americans could neither vote nor use facilities marked “For Whites Only”, Renau’s images called attention to the fact that democracy in the U.S. was a dream left unfulfilled for millions. Perhaps his most volatile artwork on the subject was the photomontage titled Orgasmo Racial (Racial Orgasm - 1951); which presented a close-up portrait of a skull-faced white man from whose mind sprang the most fearsome imaginings, tortured and murdered black men roasting in fires set by flag waving members of the Ku Klux Klan. No less blistering a condemnation of racism was the artist’s Sombras en la Plantación (Plantation Shadows - 1955); a depiction of a Southern Belle gently swaying to and fro in a tree swing on her estate - the tree casting shadows in which you can see the agonized faces of impoverished Blacks.

To say that Renau is not widely known in the United States would be an understatement. But what is the reason for this unfamiliarity? No doubt his ideology had much to do with it, since he joined the Communist Party of Spain in 1931 and remained a lifelong member until his death. He once said, “I’m not a Communist painter, just a Communist that paints”. A continued ignorance regarding his works, especially for artists at this juncture in history, is nothing short of inexcusable.

Born in Valencia, Spain, Renau graduated from art school in 1925, and then succeeded in making a living as a drawing professor - devoting himself to painting and advertising poster design. He created his first photomontage, The Arctic Man, in 1929. He would be hailed internationally in the years to come for his significant work in developing the art form. When the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936, he designed posters in support of the Spanish Republic against the insurgent army of General Francisco Franco and his fascist allies Hitler and Mussolini. That same year the Republican government appointed Renau General Director of the Arts, giving him the responsibility of safeguarding Spain’s cultural heritage during the war, and he would transfer part of the Prado Museum’s collection in Madrid to save it from fascist bombardment. In 1937 Renau helped design the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Paris, France, where he commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a mural for the Pavilion in support of the Spanish Republic. The result would be Picasso’s Guernica.

When the fascists succeeded in crushing the Spanish Republic in 1939, Renau, like millions of Spaniards, went into exile. He first traveled to France and then to Mexico, where a large number of Republican exiles settled. Upon his arrival in Mexico he began a collaboration with the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, helping to paint Retrato de la Burguesia (Portrait of the Bourgeoisie), a revolutionary mural for the Electrician’s Union headquarters in Mexico City.

In 1940 Renau became a Mexican citizen, and being well versed in advertising art he made a living designing posters for the Mexican film industry. Eventually he turned his critical gaze toward American culture, and imagined the beginnings of his masterwork, Fata Morgana USA. Those familiar with medieval studies will recognize “Fata Morgana” as the Italian name for Morgan LaFée, King Arthur’s fairy half-sister who produced mirages in order to bewilder enemies. But Renau was interested in the name because it defined a “mirage” as an actual phenomenon, and he had it in mind to use his caustic photomontage art to expose American myths as the greatest of all illusions.

To accomplish his task Renau combined his mastery of photomontage with his expertise in the language of mass media and advertising design; not to conjure up a forerunner to pop art, which was accommodationist to corporate power, but to create a visual language that would subvert advertising and the system it sprang from. Renau began compiling thousands of photographs from the pages of American magazines and newspapers, inventing a catalog system for the collection of images to facilitate the construction of his montages. With precision Renau used the simple tools of razor blade and glue to combine photographic elements, putting the last touches on a montage by painting out unwanted areas or filling in details with pencil or brush. When a finalized work was photographed for publication, the constructed image appeared altogether seamless. Years later the artist would comment on the beginnings of his project, saying that it:

“(….) was to a considerable part drafted in Mexico, the only Latin American country which has a joint border with the United States and where, for this reason, the physical, psychological and political pressure of Yankee imperialism is expressed more directly and brutally than anywhere else.

(….) It is noteworthy how much society in USA is most effectively softened up by the powerful eroding action of the big monopolies and how it has become sensitive to the striking feed-back of the mass media (film, radio, television, newspapers, comics, magazines, etc.). This takes place to such a degree that the formula ‘American way of life’ - partially and tendentiously abstracted from social reality itself - is taking on the shape of a real ‘model’; this concerns a considerable part of the US population which has of necessity formed itself in accordance with the commandments of such an abstraction.”

In 1958 Renau moved to the German Democratic Republic where his work on Fata Morgana USA began in earnest. When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Renau visited Spain the next year for the first time since his exile, taking the opportunity to exhibit some of his Fata Morgana USA images in several cities. As part of the Venice Biennial of ‘76, Renau would show his completed Fata Morgana USA series consisting of 69 images. It was not until ‘77 that Renau published 40 select works in book form under the title of Fata Morgana USA. In 1982 Renau died in East Berlin at the age of 75.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Recién Casados /Just Married. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1957.]

While influenced by dada and surrealism, Renau’s works never offered incoherent rage or dream-like escapism. His was a didactic art that peeled away layers of myth and obfuscation to reveal unpleasant realities. Sometimes his images accomplished this through whimsy, at other times with a frank bluntness, but he always made his point in a highly imaginative way. Take for example his photomontage Recién Casados (Just Married - 1957), depicting a blushing bride, who in actuality is a metaphorical stand-in for the U.S. public. Joined in matrimonial bliss to a robber baron who has an oil drill bit as a head, the bride carries what appears to be a heart shaped floral arrangement, but in reality it is nothing more than another oil drill bit. At the feet of the lovebirds, drooling paparazzi jockey for position, while in the background a gushing oil well symbolizes the couple’s consummated relationship. This rumination on the oligarchy and its relationship to the public was also a prescient comment on gender politics, a topic to which Renau would return time and again.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Miss Bistec de Chicago /Miss Beefsteak of Chicago - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1960/66.]

A continually running narrative throughout Fata Morgana USA is the subjugation and objectification of women, which Renau not only attributed to the workings of capitalism, but insisted was necessary for the system to work at all. In Dia de la Victoria (Day of Victory - 1953), Renau constructed his photomontage around a full page photo of an alluring lingerie model posing in Life magazine. At first glance the montage seems festive with its marching band, confetti, streamers and fluttering flags, until one notices the barely concealed caption to the original photo; “Victory Lingerie: A top U.S. designer creates models to welcome home service husbands”. A second glance reveals the scantily clad model is surrounded by U.S. veterans of the Korean War - and they are all amputees.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Sociedad de Consumidor /Consumer Society. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1972.]

Taken as a whole, Fata Morgana USA can be seen as a comprehensive denunciation of capitalist culture, but of the dozens of images in the series that strike at commercialism, perhaps none cut so deeply as the 1972 photomontage, Sociedad de Consumidor (Consumer Society). Here Renau visualized the citizen being reduced to nothing more than a mindless consumer, ingesting without hesitation an endless stream of manufactured goods and desires that includes the ideology of capitalism itself. But while the word “consumption” denotes the act or process of consuming things, it is also an archaic medical term that refers to the wasting away of the body; and the physical presence of Renau’s consumer has withered into an undemanding and simple receptacle. We are left to wonder how the artist would have commented on the “Black Friday” 2008 Christmas season in the U.S., when hundreds of holiday shoppers in a mad rush to buy cheap consumer goods at a New York Wal-Mart trampled an employee to death.

Irving Norman Exhibit in New York

On October 30th, 2008, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City opened the exhibition, Irving Norman, a major display of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints. For those who possess an appetite for art with deep humanistic meaning - this is definitely an exhibit not to be missed.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ Persecution - Irving Norman. 1950. Oil on canvas. Norman’s work offered unflinching examinations of the human condition, often portraying humanity at odds with authoritarian forces. The artist became the target of unrelenting and brazen government spying. ]

In early 2007 I published an enthusiastic article on this web log titled, The Social Surrealism of Irving Norman, written after viewing the retrospective of his work presented by the Pasadena Museum of California Art. My piece also marked what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday (1906-1989). I received numerous e-mails from people who discovered the works of Norman through my article, so I am thrilled to announce the exhibit of his works at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Established in 1989 and now the exclusive representative of the Irving Norman estate, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery specializes in twentieth-century American art, from social realism and surrealism to abstract expressionism. Irving Norman runs from October 30th through December 20th, 2008.

1930s: The Making of “The New Man”

Those fortunate to see the latest exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, 1930s: The Making of “The New Man”, will not only have the opportunity to feast their eyes upon some of the greatest artworks of the 20th century - they will be given ample evidence of how artists once responded to calamity and social crisis. On view until September 7, 2008, the exhibit presents over 200 paintings, sculptures, and photographs from world renowned artists the likes of Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, John Heartfield, George Grosz, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Rodchenko, Walker Evans, Salvador Dalí, Philip Guston, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, Otto Dix, Henri Matisse, and others too numerous to list here.

My general praise of the exhibit however, does not come without criticism. There is an inexcusable lack of women artists represented in what purports to be “a new look at this important historical era”, and I am dubious of the museum’s premise for the exhibition; which stresses how “in the 1930s, biology became a force for change”.

In the 1930s those on the left and center of the political spectrum used the metaphorical phrase, “a new man”, to articulate a belief in the betterment of society and the advancement of humanity, not through eugenics, but by the application of economic policies and scientific progress. The popular expression was optimistically tied to modernist conceptualizations of communal development and a utopian future. It was the Nazis who twisted the concept of biological determinism into a nightmare of forced sterilizations and mass killings in the pursuit of racial purity. For the National Gallery of Canada to suggest that 1930s modernism on the whole was fixated on biology as “a force for change” is indeed a bizarre stretching of the facts.

My misgivings regarding curatorial approach aside, I feel the National Gallery of Canada has brought together an amazing number of profound works for their “New Man” exhibit, and I would like to comment on two of my favorites. Those with an appetite for more information on the art of the 1930s should purchase the exhibition catalog.

Aficionados of surrealism will be happy to know that L’Ange du Foyer (Fireside Angel), by German painter Max Ernst, is included in the exhibit. Like many German artists of the period, Ernst served four hellish years as a soldier on the battlefields of World War I (1914-1918). Immediately after the war he co-founded the Cologne Dada group, which introduced him to an ever widening circle of radical artists. He left Germany in 1922 to settle in Montparnasse, France, where he joined the Surrealist group founded by André Breton.

Painting by Max Ernst

[ Fireside Angel - Max Ernst. Oil on canvas. 1937. Private collection. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. ]

While in France he created the masterwork Fireside Angel in 1937. It was not exactly a prescient work, as anyone who was following events closely could see what was becoming of the world. The reign of Hitler had begun in 1933, the Italian fascists under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936, while General Franco and his fascist movement were in arms against the Spanish Republic. Nevertheless, Ernst’s painting well expressed the gathering menace then engulfing the world. Fireside Angel is the depiction of an indescribable creature as it storms with rage through a desolate landscape. By referring to his impossible beast as an “angel”, the artist warned that in embracing lofty and exalted ideas, we sometimes end up with the devil. It seems we never succeeded in banishing the Fireside Angel Ernst caught a glimpse of, and if we would only pay close attention - we could see the monster riding roughshod over humanity today.

Painting by Rudolf Schlichter

[ Blinde Macht (Blind Power) - Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas. 1938. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. In 1937 Schlichter was forbidden by the Nazis to create or exhibit artworks. That same year the fascist authorities displayed seventeen of the artist’s paintings in their infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibit, and Schlichter’s response to being banned was to secretively paint this canvas. It depicted a brawny warrior blinded by his own power, brandishing a sword and workmen’s tools - walking off a cliff. Demons are clasped to the doomed warrior’s chest, eating him alive. In the background all the accomplishments of civilization burn to the ground. ]

The American surrealist painter, Peter Blume (1906-1992), was once highly regarded as an American figurative painter, though today he is unfortunately almost entirely forgotten. Employing the same techniques utilized by Renaissance artists, Blume’s paintings made use of a near photographic realism, but his narrative works were permeated with surrealist vision and social realist spirit. Blume spent 1932 in Rome, Italy, on a Guggenheim grant, the same year the Italian fascist movement celebrated the tenth anniversary of its so-called “March on Rome”, the coup d’état that brought dictator Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party to power. After returning to the U.S. Blume brooded over what he had witnessed before starting work in 1934 on The Eternal City, a painting that would take him three years to complete and which is now part of “The New Man” exhibit.

As he was working on the final touches of his painting in 1936, Blume wrote a proclamation against war and fascism titled “The Artist Must Choose“. In his essay he exclaimed; “We, as artists, must take our place in this crisis on the side of growth and civilization against barbarism and reaction, and help to create a better social order.”

Painting by Peter Blume

[ The Eternal City - Peter Blume. Oil on board. 45 ½ in. x 59 ½ in. 1934-37. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. ]

Blume used a contemporaneous view of the Roman Forum, the political and religious center of the ancient Empire, as the setting for his picture, but the charming ruins made a farce of the city’s nickname - The Eternal City. In the painting’s distant background Fascist troops can be seen attacking a worker’s demonstration, while in the foreground a number of portentous images vie for our attention. On the left can be seen a polychromed wood statue of Christ situated in a building without a roof, sunrays illuminating the religious figurine mockingly bedecked with military epaulettes and swords. Directly below that tableau a crippled beggar can be seen sitting amongst the broken marble statues and columns of civilization laid low. At right, Mussolini as a gaudy and malevolent jack-in-the-box looms over the entire scene, and lurking in the disintegrating tunnels of the Forum beneath Il Duce’s giant green head, a grinning blackshirt thug and his capitalist paymaster can be seen.

Upon completing The Eternal City in 1937, Blume exhibited the painting at the Julien Levy Gallery in Manhattan. Even though the message of Blume’s anti-fascist work was unambiguous, especially when combined with his written proclamation, numerous critics voiced thickheaded and imperceptive remarks concerning the work. The New York Sun’s widely read art critic, Henry McBride, made this vinegary comment about Blume and his painting: “He won, it seems, a Guggenheim fellowship, and went to Italy nominally as an art student but actually as a political spy, and returns with a picture that pretends to mock Mussolini. This, of course, is an odd undertaking for an American artist.” Edward Alden Jewell, art critic for the New York Times wrote: “The political aspects of this treatise are not altogether clear. We are left in doubt as to whether the propagandist considers this modern dictator a self-sprung megalomaniac or a figurehead manipulated by social forces that have taken control of the situation in Italy. Scarcely more convincing is the religious symbol employed. There is nowhere evident the great transfiguring principle itself of Christian love and Christian sacrifice.”

That Edward Alden Jewell referred to Blume as a “propagandist” is revealing, especially since The Eternal City was the only explicitly political painting ever created by Blume. The open hostility that American art critics displayed towards Blume’s painting was but one indication of the growing disfavor to fall upon figurative and social realist artists in the late 1930s. In a letter to the New York Times in 1943, painters Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman called for an art that would transcend real world issues in favor of pure abstraction. Refuting realism, they declared that meaning in art can only “come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker”, further stating that “We want to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms, because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” Abstract Expressionism soon came to dominate American art, and to the detriment of us all, the realism practiced by Peter Blume was declared hopelessly passé by “serious” critics, collectors, and museums.

Spectators of the exhibition, 1930s: The Making of “The New Man”, will no doubt be left with some gnawing questions regarding the state of contemporary art. After taking in the exhibit and seeing Pablo Picasso’s composition studies for his Guernica mural, Philip Guston’s painting excoriating the air war against civilians during the Spanish Civil War, the acerbic wit displayed in the photomontage works of John Heartfield, and the compassion shown to America’s underclass in the photographs of Walker Evans; the viewer might ask, “Why are we not seeing socially conscious art today?” I would argue that such works are indeed being created, as to why we are not seeing them, or hearing of them - is another matter entirely.

The Social Surrealism of Irving Norman

Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism, is an extremely important exhibition of paintings that will be on view at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in Logan, Utah, starting June 5th, 2007. Until his death in 1989, Irving Norman had painted in California since the early 1940’s - and my having discovered the art works of the brilliant artist only a few years ago is a testament to the state of a blinkered art world. The irony of my discovery is that it wasn’t facilitated by a fellow artist or an art historian, critic or journal, but by a political activist who wrote to me one day in November of 2003 to ask if I had ever heard of the painter. Embarrassed by my unfamiliarity with the artist, I did a bit of research on Norman and was astounded at what I found.

Michael Duncan, a curator of contemporary art and corresponding editor for Art in America, wrote a July 2003 article for that magazine in which he described the paintings of Norman as “jaw-droppingly effective social indictments that would have been endorsed by Orwell and Huxley. The unrestrained passion and monumental energy of this work blows most contemporary political art out of the water.” Duncan’s remark is no understatement - all the works of today’s supposed “guerilla artists” who’ve made careers out of radical posturing, look feeble compared to those of Norman, especially when one considers the personal sacrifices he made in pursuit of his art.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ Spain 1938 - Irving Norman 1942. Oil on canvas. This stark painting of a bomb shattered tree filled with bloody human body parts, is based on the artist’s battlefield experiences in the Spanish Civil War. While Picasso’s Guernica is the most famous painting depicting the war, Norman’s canvas is imbued with a frightful immediacy that came from his direct wartime encounters. ]


An émigré from Poland in 1923, Norman first lived on New York’s Lower East Side before settling in Los Angeles in 1934. In 1938 he joined the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade, part of the international brigades who fought to save the Spanish Republic from fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Norman’s experiences in that conflagration not only shaped his world view, they inspired him to become a painter. Returning to the states in 1939, he enrolled in art school and by 1941 had a solo exhibit of drawings at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Norman’s works began to garner praise in the press, even though his drawings and paintings portrayed troublesome realities. In 1946 he would study with Social Realist Reginald Marsh in New York City and travel to Mexico to see the works of the Mexican Muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco.

Although influenced by the Social Realists of his time, Norman’s style of figuration was set apart by a predilection for caricature - a realism inflamed by the fantastic rather than the natural. The horror and futility of war as experienced by the artist in Spain certainly equipped him with an apocalyptic vision. Norman was creating meticulously detailed realistic paintings and making use of “cartoon” aesthetics decades before the advent of Photorealism or the current “low-brow” fad as exemplified in magazines like Juxtapoz. But unlike those genres, Norman’s gripping critical visions possess a knife-edge clarity, empathy, and non-pretentiousness - a seriousness and compassion for humanity not found in the postmodern.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ Persecution - Irving Norman 1950. Oil on canvas. Norman’s work offered unflinching examinations of the human condition, often portraying humanity at odds with authoritarian forces. Not surprisingly, the artist himself became the target of unrelenting and brazen government spying. ]

You’d think that an artist as talented and dedicated to painting as Norman would have been on the fast track to success, but in late 1940’s America two portentous trends were about to sideline the artist’s works to obscurity - McCarthyism and Abstract Expressionism. In the introduction to the excellent catalog book, Dark Metropolis, Scott A. Shields, Chief Curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, wrote:

To FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the link between the Communist Party and the Spanish Civil War made all veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade suspect of potential disloyalty. With the approval of President Roosevelt, Hoover ordered the surveillance of all ’subversive activities,’ which included the investigation of propaganda ‘opposed to the American way of life’ and the oversight of agitators who aroused ‘class hatred.’ Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were promptly put under surveillance by the federal investigators. Many were blatantly harassed at home and at work, both in person and by telephone, and many lost their jobs and faced occupational blacklists.

Hela Norman believes that her husband was the victim of such a blacklist. ‘Curators and museum directors would come to visit and were jumping up and down they were so excited by the work,’ she remembered. ‘They would promise to purchase work and host museum exhibits - and then nothing. We would never hear from them again.’ The FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act confirm that Norman’s activities were heavily monitored and perhaps stifled. The degree to which these government activities negatively impacted Norman’s stature as an artist may never be known. Entire pages of the FBI files are redacted. Those pages that are legible include clear documentation that Norman’s career and progress were closely tracked by the government for over twenty years, beginning in the early 1950’s, first by FBI agents and then by the United States Postal Service.

(….) The harassment of the Normans became so great that in 1958 the couple sought the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully persuaded the FBI to stop their visits and interrogations. However, the Postal Service continued its surveillance until 1974, when Norman’s file finally stopped growing. Hela Norman remembers the FBI’s last visit, when an agent told Irving, ‘We consider you unfriendly.’”

But government repression was perhaps the lesser of Norman’s problems, because by the late 1940’s figurative realism fell out of fashion and gave way to the detached and non-narrative world of abstract color field painting. Adam Gopnik, a writer for New Yorker magazine, described the dominance of abstract art during this period in the following manner: “Oversized abstract watercolors had become the single style of the American museum, forcing two generations of realists to live in basements and pass still-lifes around like samizdat.” By the late 1950’s abstract expressionism had become what could only be described as art official, and there was little room in the art world for those who contested the canon of conformity. Under these conditions Irving Norman worked in isolation, heroically painting gigantic canvasses in his studio that flew in the face of prevailing tastes as dictated by art elites. As modern art grew empty to the point of meaninglessness, Norman’s tremendously detailed and defiantly humanist paintings screamed the nightmares of modern society. Though it’s true the artist had a small circle of supporters, especially in the San Francisco Bay area where he lived and worked, it’s also a matter of fact that he was largely ignored by the art establishment.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ The Bus - Irving Norman 1953. Oil on canvas. Much of the artist’s work depicted people trying to survive in the brutal, heartless environs of a "dark metropolis" - a place driven by alienation, power and greed. ]


In retrospect, the shunning of Irving Norman seems wholly ridiculous. The stylistic tyranny of abstract expressionism is thankfully but a memory, and a socially engaged artist is no longer thought of as an eccentric in the arts community. It seems the art world has at last caught up with Norman’s vision - or has it? The so-called pluralism of today’s postmodern art scene makes room for the type of outsider art Norman championed decades ago; but given contemporary art’s present flight from social responsibility, it’s more than likely that Norman’s aesthetics will be embraced - while his humanistic vision and belief in art as a force for social change will be ignored. That being the case, there is much work to be done in preserving Norman’s legacy.

[ War and Peace - Irving Norman 1964. Triptych. Oil on canvas. 106" x 210". Filled with extraordinarily rich detail, this painting is indicative of the artist’s finest work. I’m standing before the canvas in this photo to give you a sense of the painting’s size. The central panel depicts two gargantuan warriors battling one another while crushing humanity underfoot. The side panels present the world at "peace," but these are glimpes of an oppressive urban world devoid of justice. From afar the painting has the luminescent appearance of a Gothic stained glass window, but up close one can see the painting is composed of hundreds of small vignettes, each telling its own unique horror story. There are easily a thousand tiny portraits of people included in this mind-boggling painting. The image below is a detail from the central panel, depicting the combatant shown in the right-hand side of the composition. ]

Detail from central panel of, War and Peace

Irving Norman deserves not only to be a recognizable name, but a lauded one. The Dark Metropolis traveling exhibit and catalog are blazing steps in the right direction, both should be given full support, and hopefully they’ll lead to further exhibits, retrospectives, academic attention, and public awareness. But most importantly, these social surrealist works should provide inspiration to contemporary artists, who with any luck - will pick up Irving Norman’s banner and run with it.

Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism, will next show at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum in Logan, Utah, where it will run from June 5th, 2007 to October 20th, 2007. After that the exhibit will travel to the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, D.C., where it will show from November 13th, 2007 to January 23rd, 2008. The show at the Katzen should be especially interesting since the Abu Ghraib paintings of Fernando Botero will be exhibited there during the same time frame (Nov. 6th - Dec. 30th, 2007 - a show not to be missed! ) For those unable to attend these exhibits, be sure to visit www.irvingnorman.com, the official and very informative website maintained by the artist’s estate. The beautifully illustrated and enlightening catalog book, Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism, is available from Amazon.com.

Art of the Psychedelic Era

The UK Tate Gallery has mounted an exhibition titled, Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, an exhibit that, “attempts to uncover this forgotten and repressed aesthetic that continues to exert an increasingly powerful influence on many contemporary artists.” The Tate also developed an adjunct show on the aesthetics of psychedelia for the Kunsthalle in Vienna - both exhibits are running concurrently until September, 2006.

Painting by Abdul Mati Klarwein

[ Detail from Astral Body Asleep, by Abdul Mati Klarwein. Oil on canvas. 1968 ]

Having been a teenager in 1960s Los Angeles, I’m more than a little familiar with the art and culture presented in the groundbreaking Summer of Love exhibit, and I’m happy to see the genre finally receiving acknowledgment and serious examination. Most people associate psychedelic visual art with the Art Nouveau inspired day glow posters that announced Acid Rock concerts - and there’s no doubt psychedelia left a strong imprint on the music of the era. Bands like Country Joe and the Fish and Jefferson Airplane exemplified the sound - but the aesthetic might best be summed up in the Beatle’s 1966 song, Tomorrow Never Knows, “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream, it is not dying. (….) But listen to the color of your dreams, is it not living?” We have a fair record of 60s psychedelic music, but little serious attention has been paid to the visual arts of the period - until the Tate’s landmark examination.

Image by Ernst Fuchs

[ Ernst Fuchs, 1955. This photograph of a painted figure wearing a felt headdress was one of the artist’s early attempts at approximating a peyote experience. ]

I won’t dwell on the thrills and excesses of the Psychedelic movement, that’s simply not within the scope of this web log. That some counter-culturalists advocated the ingesting of mind-altering psychoactive substances like LSD, mescaline, and peyote in order to achieve an “altered” or “expanded consciousness”, while others promoted yoga and meditation to achieve the same end - is not the point of this article. The point is, those seekers broke from mainstream culture, inspiring artists to create a psychedelic aesthetic that would impact the wider society. Psychedelic artists left their mark on graphic design, typography, fashion, fine art - and invented new forms like light shows and “happenings”, the predecessor of performance art. The Tate has produced an excellent catalog book for the exhibit that details all of this and more. I was most excited to learn the exhibit includes works by Ernst Fuchs and Abdul Mati Klarwein, painters I was fascinated by as a teenager, but the exhibit also includes works by Richard Avedon, Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol and a host of others.

Painting by Isaac Abrams

[ Cosmic Orchid - Isaac Abrams, Oil on canvas. 1967. ]

Ernst Fuchs founded the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism with fellow Viennese artists in 1948. Moving away from the radical surrealist idea of art springing from the unconscious mind, Fuchs thematically pursued a visionary mysticism buttressed by a technical virtuosity reminiscent of early Flemish painting. While Fuchs experimented with peyote during the late 1950’s, his hallucinatory artworks were already transcendent and terrifying, filled with luminous beings, mythological creatures, fantastic landscapes and vibrant colors. Needless to say his works both inspired and attracted the attention of those artists who were fashioning the psychedelic art movement of the 1960’s - and the genre is near impossible to imagine without the far-reaching influence of Fuchs.

Abdul Mati Klarwein was taught the painting methods of the old masters by Ernst Fuchs, and Klarwein’s staggering psychedelic images graced the album covers of Miles Davis and Santana - bringing psychedelic aesthetics into the homes of millions. Klarwein counted Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary among his close personal friends, with Leary advising the painter he didn’t need psychedelics to create his art. “I painted psychedelically before I took psychedelics,” said Mati, “It’s like what Dali said, I don’t take drugs, I am drugs.” However, Klarwein’s paintings, like those of his fellow psychedelic artists, were spurned by the gallery system of the time. The Tate noted this was because the works “went entirely against the cool, literal tendencies of the period”, which says a lot about the gallery system past and present.

Painting by Alan Atwell

[ Psychedelic Temple - Allen Atwell, Casein on plaster. 1964. An apocalyptic inner landscape painted on the walls, ceiling and adjoining spaces of a room in a New York apartment. Atwell is not included in the exhibit, but his works were typical of the psychedelic style. ]

What we’ve been told about the Psychedelic movement up to this point is generally a load of crap, and it pains me to no end that such a vibrant and original school has been reduced to a handful of cheap, mocking and inaccurate clichés. It’s wonderful that the Tate and Kunsthalle museums are making an effort at sorting out the Psychedelic movement, giving it some context and attempting to make some sense of it all - but voluminous studies are still needed to cover the wide range of psychedelic aesthetic practices and their motivations. In a time of manic consumerism and militarism, we might benefit from considering and understanding psychedelia’s messages concerning universal peace and love. These days, we could all use a bit of “expanded consciousness.”

– // –

UPDATE 4/8/2016: Ernst Fuchs died at the age of 85 on November 9, 2015.

Videographer James Kalm walked through the Summer of Love exhibit at the Whitney with a video camera, and his 10 minute film found at www.youtube.com captures some of the flavor of the show. Most notable in the video are the rooms displaying psychedelic lightshows, and a glimpse of the room-like shrine made from reproductions of paintings by Abdul Mati Klarwein. Kalm also visited New York’s Microcosm Gallery to videotape an exhibit of psychedelic paintings by Isaac Abrams. ]

Dada at New York’s MoMA

In a June 16th New York Times article titled, Dada at MoMa: The Moment When Artists Took Over the Asylum, critic Michael Kimmelman wrote about the rise of Dada, “When governments were lying, and soldiers were dying, and society looked like it was going bananas. Not unreasonably the Dadaists figured that art’s only sane option, in its impotence, was to go nuts too.” Kimmelman’s opening remarks concerning the exhibit Dada at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, detracts from Dadaism’s serious intent. Its adherents were not concerned with a society that “looked” like it was going insane - they furiously railed against a society that was insane. The Dadaist objective was not simply to “go nuts too”, it sought a revolutionary course for liberation and the overthrow of bourgeois society.

At the time, millions were dying in the trenches of World War I, where newly invented machines of war butchered soldiers and civilians alike in astounding numbers. In the face of this ferocious mechanized carnage, the art of polite society suddenly became an enormous joke - and from Zurich to New York, Dada rushed in to fill the vacuum.

In reading Michael Kimmelman’s review of the MoMA exhibit, I got the feeling he understood the deeper meanings Dada had for its era, and also the continued reverberations it has in our own time. He hints at our current state of affairs when he writes, “Politicians were responsible for mass murder, advertisers were conmen, the press self-censoring. So Dadaists figured it was time to throw away the rules,” but Kimmelman otherwise refrains from making direct comparisons to our present-day morass. Still, he’s a perceptive fellow for writing that MoMA’s exhibit, as “an official survey” is “an oxymoron.” He astutely stresses that “nearly all 450 or so objects in it look elegant, which they were certainly never intended to look.” Indeed, the Dadaists did not aim to please, and would no doubt be horrified that their works had been enshrined in a mausoleum-like setting, stripped of content and outrage.

Montage by George Grosz, 1919

A Victim of Society” - George Grosz, mixed media 1919. The artist’s timeless portrait of citizen dunderhead.

One of the Dadaist mischief makers featured in the MoMA exhibit is George Grosz, and his caustic diatribes aptly sum up the non-conformist stance of Dadaism. In a letter he wrote in 1916, Grosz described his feelings about his fellow Germans: “It is true I am opposed to war; that is to say I am opposed to any system that coerces me. From an aesthetic point of view, on the other hand, I rejoice over every German who dies a hero’s death on the field of honor (how touching!). To be a German means invariably to be crude, stupid, ugly, fat and inflexible - it means to be unable to climb up a ladder at forty, to be badly dressed - to be a German means: to be a reactionary of the worst kind; it means only one amongst a hundred will, occasionally, wash all over.

One asks oneself how it is possible that there are millions of people completely lacking a soul, unable to observe real events soberly, people whose dull and stupid eyes have been blinkered ever since they were small, whose minds have been crammed with the emblems of stultifying reaction, such as God, fatherland, and militarism. How is it possible to boast publicly that we are one of the most enlightened nations - when the worse possible principles are already disseminated in schools - principles which, from the very beginning, gag every vestige of freedom of the individual, but instead educate him to become one who follows the crowd, devoid of independent thought, feelings or will.”

The First International Dada Fair

The First International Dada Fair at Dr. Otto Burchard’s Berlin art gallery. Schlichter’s pig soldier can be seen hanging from the ceiling, while George Grosz stands at right with hat and cane.

Such thoughts were made visibly manifest in Grosz’s artworks and the shocking creations of his compatriots. They attacked conservatism, militarism, ultra-nationalism; it’s not hard to imagine how this was all received at the time by German society as it inexorably edged its way towards fascism. In 1920, Grosz, along with fellow artists Raoul Hausmann, and John Heartfield, organized the First International Dada Fair at the Berlin art gallery of Dr. Otto Burchard.

The exhibit displayed 174 paintings, collages and objects by Max Ernst, Otto Dix, Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, George Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, and others. The exhibit included Grosz’s portfolio of drawings, Gott mit uns (God is with us), which included a sketch of a crucified Jesus wearing a gasmask and combat boots. From the ceiling of one of the exhibit rooms, Schlichter displayed the effigy of a German soldier with the head of a pig. The exhibit outraged patriotic citizens, and the authorities charged Dr. Buchard, Grosz, Heartfield, and Schlichter of “grossly insulting the German army.” At their trial Grosz and Heartfield were fined, while the other defendants were acquitted.

Sculpture by Raoul Hausmann

“Mechanical Head - Spirit of Our Age” - Raoul Hausmann. Made from a mannequin head, parts of a camera and watch, a tape measure and other objects, Hausmann’s sculpture could just as well be made from an iPod and mobile cell phone headset. The message is still the same. ]

German Dadaists were certainly reviled as unpatriotic, anti-German, and dangerous to the war effort - but who today would dare say they were wrong? While the artifacts of the Dada explosion are now safely tucked away in the halls of MoMA, depoliticized and presented as objects of mere aesthetic interest, we should recall the intent of the original movement. If, as Michael Kimmelman put it, Dada represented a time past when the “artists took over the asylum” - we must asked ourselves, “where are the artists of today who will challenge the weaponized madhouse?”

The New René Magritte Museum

The Lovers - Painting by Magritte
Though it may not show in my work, I’ve always been interested in the points of view and politics of the Surrealist movement. So naturally I took great delight in learning that a new museum dedicated to one of my favorite surrealist painters, René Magritte, will open in Brussels sometime in early 2007. The collection will include around 150 works that encompass Magritte’s paintings, drawings and sketches - as well as other original creations. The prolific Magritte, who died in 1967 at the age of 68, painted startling dream-like canvases that juxtaposed commonplace objects with people set in impossible surroundings. An artist friend of mine has teased me for being as fastidiously clean and organized a painter as Magritte, reminding me that Monsieur Magritte painted at his easel dressed immaculately in a suit. While I don’t dress myself in formal attire while painting, I admit to being meticulous when it comes to organizing my work station and caring for my brushes and related tools. I was pleasantly surprised - in fact, honored, when last year my friend’s husband (a philosophy teacher) compared a painting of mine to a work by Magritte. Not until it was pointed out to me did I see a similarity between Magritte’s The Lovers (shown above) and my painting, Masked II (below). It can’t be said that I was stylistically influenced in any appreciable way by the Belgium surrealist… yet it’s fascinating to see those echoes reverberating across time.

My painting - Masked II
René Magritte lived for some 30 years in a beautiful three story home he rented in Brussels with his wife. Today that dwelling is the current Magritte Museum, and many visitors are amazed to see that the objects and rooms depicted in the artist’s surreal paintings were actually part of his surroundings. In fact, seeing the windows, staircases, and fireplaces of Magritte’s old residence is to see his paintings come to life. It is not clear to me what will happen to the artist’s home-museum once the new building that will house his collection opens on Brussels’ Place Royale, but in all probability it will remain open to the public.

Salvador Dalí’s Mohawk Haircut

Salvador Dalí’s Mohawk Haircut
Long before his famous antenna moustache, Salvador Dalí antagonized those around him by sporting a Mohawk haircut. I discovered this in the early 1980’s when I found a photo of the young artist published in an obscure punk rock fanzine. While I don’t remember the name of the diminutive self-published zine, I never forgot the stridently non-conformist look of that defiant artist as he stared at me from out of the past. At the time I was deeply involved in the cultural insurgency of the L.A. punk rock scene, and I had already created an influential cover illustration for SLASH Magazine that promoted the radical maverick hair-do, so the photo of the youthful surrealist really struck a chord with me. For years I kicked myself for not having purchased that slapdash xeroxed punk zine, as I never saw the photograph of Dalí published anywhere again. Over the decades I kept my eyes open for the elusive snapshot, but to no avail. Out of curiosity I recently conducted a web search for the image, but that also turned up nothing. As chance would have it, this past June found me in my local library exploring the shelves of art books. I randomly picked up an interesting volume called Writers on Artists, and when I cracked the hardback open, low and behold… there was my long sought after photograph of Dalí.