Newer Super-Realism, Surréalisme, Superrealism—in the early 1930s the American art lexicon blossomed with terminology meant to describe a new avant-garde art of the imagination that had infiltrated America from Europe. With exhibitions at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (1931) and New York gallery Julien Levy (1932), Surrealism took root and made Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, and Joan Miró, minor celebrities. By the end of the decade, enough American artists had embraced the vocabulary of Surrealism that it had grown into a bona fide American movement.
In 1943, Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art obfuscated the clear-cut 10-year-old American brand of Surrealism by introducing the idea of Magic Realism in a headlining exhibition. According to the controversial MoMA director, the Magic Realists used “exact realistic technique to make plausible and convincing their improbable, dreamlike or fantastic visions.” But how did this really differ from Surrealism? Was there, in fact, a discernable distinction? Hirschl & Adler Galleries will explore the differences—and the similarities—between American Surrealism and Magic Realism in its booth at The Art Show 2020.
Surrealism polarized the American population. Some found it thought-provoking because of its novelty, humor, and radicalism, while others took issue with its ridiculousness. Yet in such an unlikely safe harbor as Hartford, Connecticut, Surrealism flourished, largely due to the pioneering efforts of A. Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr., the progressive-minded director of the Wadsworth Atheneum. Austin organized the first exhibition of European Surrealism in America, and then went to great lengths to discover, mentor, and support homegrown artists who were adopting the vision, including George Marinko (1908–1989) of nearby Waterbury.
With the 1943 MoMA show, American Realists and Magic Realists, Surrealism was supplemented by works produced by contemporary American realists who, in the words of Lincoln Kirstein, the show’s unofficial co-organizer, “try to convince us that extraordinary things are possible simply by painting them as if they existed.” While that may in fact sound very much like Surrealism, Kirstein and MoMA drew an artificial line in the sand, noting that “none of the artists in [the MoMA] exhibition happens to be a member of the official Surrealist group.” Barr’s and Kirstein’s hair-splitting notwithstanding, a broader vision of imagined reality was now fully recognized in the works of Peter Blume, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, O. Louis Guglielmi, and even Andrew Wyeth.
Lincoln Kirstein’s role as impresario for the new realism extended beyond the confines of the show at MoMA. As the staunchest advocate for modernist re- alism in postwar America, Kirstein championed many young artists who worked in what he called “Symbolic Realism,” which only further confused the taxonomy of Surrealism / Magic Realism. One artist who worked in this manner was Thomas Fransioli (1906–1997). Fransioli studied architecture before World War II, served as a photo interpreter in the Pacific theater in 1945, and turned to precise, architectonic painting after the war, creating eerie post-apocalyptic scenes of the American urban landscape from New England to New Orleans. Kirstein was such an advocate of Fransioli’s paintings that he intended to include his work in a larger follow-up exhibition to the MoMA show at a commercial gallery.
Another of Kirstein’s finds in the late 1940s was Honoré Sharrer (1920–2009). Kirstein was one of the artist’s first patrons, buying two of her major early pictures and gifting them to MoMA and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In her maturity, reached during the McCarthy Era when she and her college professor husband fled to Canada due to their leftist politics, Sharrer developed an idiosyncratic vocabulary of fantastic imagery grounded in feminism and the power struggle between men and women in modern society. Her works bend and dis- tort reality in ways that flirt with the surreal, but in their meticulous execution they have just as much in common with the Magic Realism of Barr and Kirstein.
Surrealism or Magic Realism: perhaps the subtle differences between them are not so important after all. In an America polarized by race, social class, and gender, and positioned on the world stage as the dominant military and economic power, the distortions of an alternative reality in the fantastical pictures of the Surrealists and Magic Realists provided both a welcomed escape and an incisive commentary on American society.