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Oil Paintings and Water Colors by California Artists. The Post-Surrealists

DATES April 24, 1936 through June 30, 1936
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  • May 1, 1936 Postsurrealist painting, as exemplified by California painters and exhibited currently at the Brooklyn Museum, can perhaps best be approached by the uninitiated as a contemporary manifestation of still-life. We are accustomed to viewing without alarm in still-life miscellaneous and sometimes excessively odd assortments of objects. We look at there calmly for their interest in color and form, the manner in which they are represented, their purely visual relations in form and color, their arrangement in some more or less decorative design both in flat pattern and in space. And we do not ordinarily stop to inquire why anyone left a bunch of grapes, a dead fish, a paper napkin and a mutilated statue on the parlor table. Nor do we try to discover any idea, any subjective relation, in the juxtaposition of fish and sculpture. Nor do we imagine that the ordinary function of those objects and the purely pictorial contatenation of them indicates anything whatsoever about the subconscious life or conscious mental processes of the artist responsible.

    The chief divergence from the tradition in still-life on the part of the California Postsurrealists is in the choice of objects arranged, and in a tendency to permit the category of still-life to infringe more than it customarily does upon the margins of landscape, figure study, portrait and mural, just as Orozco and Rivera have adapted the accessories and the arbitrary caprices of arrangement common in still-life to the purposes of mural decoration.

    To illustrate the selection of subject matter: ---In “Plant and Animal Analogies” by Helen Lundeberg we find a tree, cross-sections of a green pepper, the brain of a foetus, embrionic fruit and a uterus, a knife, a few plums, a system of capillaries and a female torso of red stone. In "Good and Evil” by Knud Merrild we observe two pieces of sculpture, one blue and one red, vaguely reminiscent of Archipenko, both fragmentary and provided with keyholes, a serpent, a gasmask with tube, a bone and a platform. In what might possibly be described as the sky there is a disc pierced with a five-pointed hole through which are to be soon two trees entwined, a table, an apple on a bock and two eggs. In "Shampoo at Mess Beach" by Luçien Labaudt there is a collection of objects rather too long to enumerate. They include a sculptured bust, an arm in a lace mitt, a globular object covered with a cloth, pets and pot lid, a slipper, a table, a knee, a horse’s head, daisies in a tumbler, a lace curtain, a city of playing—card houses, a rocky shore, etc. In “Perpetuation, Conjugation and Death” by Lerser Feitelson, the leader of the group, we find foreshortened lovers embracing on a scaffolding, blocks, clouds, a scarf, a cemetery, a fence, a man’s felt hat, a scroll, etc. In “The Bath” by Helen Klekke we find an intelligible episode representing a woman bathing her feet and attended by a servant, the whole scene overlooking through a broad window a space of level land. Except for a statue of a headless woman on a table there is no accessory not inherent in the subject. Similarly in Grace Clements’ “Eviction” the collection of still—life in the front yard of the empty house under the empty bird house contains nothing that we might not reasonably expect to see if our household goods were unceremoniously dumped on the front lawn.

    The view of Postsurrealist painting as a version of still—life having tendencies toward mural composition of course more or less ignores the tradition in Surrealist painting and in Expressionism, to which latter the California branch of the school appears to be more closely related. In its inception, Surrealism stemmed from Dadaism and was promulgated in Paris in 1924 by Arp, Ernst, Man Ray, etc. It claimed Chirico, Klee and Picasso without their leave, won over Masson and Miro, convinced Tanguy, Giacometti and Salvador Dali. Andre Breton has been its expositor and apologist. It was primarily a branch of abstract painting and in some measure of subconscious emotional automatic painting, which the California version distinctly is not. The artists who have been from time to time described as Surrealists or who have so described themselves have not been especially tenacious of its expressed principles. Lorser Feitelsen, formerly a Neo-classicist, the leader of the California group, first exhibited in New York at the Daniel Gallery in 1925, at the Brooklyn Museum in 1930. The first comprehensive exhibition of Surrealist painting in New York was assembled at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1931. In the work of our own Peter Blume we see something essentially like the California work in general principles though very different in handling, draftsmanship, color and other such technical qualities.

    It is the expressed intention of the Feitelson school to he guided in their compositions by intellectual associative processes, to produce mental rather than emotional or esthetic reactions, to promulgate a semi—personal semi—metaphysical ideas. This is at the opposite pole from the first intentions of Surrealism. In the California work the mental preoccupation is indicated by Helen Lundeberg’s mystical attitude toward rather elementary questions of astronomy, Feitelsen's exploitation of Freudian symbolism, Lucian Labaudt’s studies in contemporary sociology, Grace Clements’ diatribes against war, censorship, etc. Such intellectual intentions obviously enlarge the scope of still—life painting, but would complicate the emotions of any critic who approached academic still—life from this point of view.

    In the effort to free themselves from beautiful color, beautiful form, and other conventional esthetic standards the California school has been moderately successful. They achieve generally a low range of earthy hues in which form is emphasized. Occasionally their color is strident, as in Lucien Labuadt’s “Telepathic Travel to Haiti," Knud Merrilld’s collage called “Alpha and Omega,” and his “Mask.” But in spatial composition, except for crowding in some canvases, the principles of arrangement appear to be quite academic. It is merely the subject that presents a certain novelty. In draftsmanship and form, occasionally in handling, the treatment is also more closely related to the academic than to the sketchy, the highly personal or the impulsive.

    Occupying half of the Gallery fox Living Artists - the other half housing the Postsurrealists — is a collection of water colors by California artists, which have nothing in common with the oil paintings of the Feitelson group. There is much substantial and skillful work in these water colors, much that is decorative, pleasant and effective. Thomas Craig’s “Penetente Morada” is a sombre. study of a mission building, rich in color and carefully modeled in depth. Marie T. Scott’s “Ensenada, Mexico” is a freshly painted and breezy landscape of sloping earthy cliffs beside a winding road and a bit of blue water. Tom P. Lewis’s “Coronada Boathouse” is again a very free vigorous study of and of those ginger bread horrors foisted upon the architecture of the 70’s by the “Household Hints” of the President of the Royal Academy, Charles Eastlake, and repeated throughout this country in railway stations, summer hotels, residences, etc. The picture has taken lessons both from Mann and from Hc3per. “Toast to Mencken” by i~. Brig.n.ntG is the mast amusing example of a rather hard. and brilliant type of still—life painting that runs to somewhat poisonous greens and purples, a palate promulgated by Dodge McKnight though his handling was fresh and free. James Patrick’s "Thunder over Indian Hill" is a decorative and stylized performance in greyish hues given emphasis by contrast in values and facile handling. His “Dynamic Cottonwoods" is a more dramatic subject in which the emphasis is heightened by touches of pure color. Many Robinson Blair’s “Rural Graduation” has a content of authentic local color not to be found in most of the paintings, which might easily have been produced in any section of the country. Not that local color has the supreme value so often attached to it. Overemphasized it leans toward geography rather than art, but it is surprising to find in a California show so little that is typical of California. Leonard 0. Butler’s "Rotting Hew" is a clear and skillful presentation of a somewhat typical water color subject, old ships and wharves. Ben Norris’s "On the Hill in the Bean Field” betrays the Grant Wood influence.

    Olive Barker’s “Hollywood Extra” is the only portrait arid a very competent one, rich and pleasant in color. James Cooper Wright’s "White Church" is a bit shaggy in handling but most refreshing in a presentation of landscape that has personal style and emotion not imitative of predecessors. Hardi Gramatky’s “Play Ground” is one of the few successful figure compositions in landscape. It is surprising to find California represented as so empty of people, as most of these artists would lead us to suppose. Lee Blair’s "A Racket” and “Vagabond Lure” also deal with human interest successfully, without being too illustrative, with distinct pictorial effects and stylistic effects apart from story interest, and in the latter with a very rich and romantic landscape setting in the Winslow Homer tradition.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1931 - 1936. 04-06_1936, 063-4.
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