Category: Surrealism

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.