Frist exhibition connects Realism, Surrealism

Last updated on November 21st, 2014 at 01:28 pm

George Tooker. The Subway, 1950.Egg tempera on composition board. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award 50.23. Courtesy of the Estate of George Tooker and DC Moore Gallery, N.Y. Photography by Sheldan C.Collins

George Tooker. The Subway, 1950.Egg tempera on composition board. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award 50.23. Courtesy of the Estate of George Tooker and DC Moore Gallery, N.Y. Photography by Sheldan C.Collins

This summer the Frist Center for the Visual Arts presents the critically acclaimed ‘Real/Surreal: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art’ exhibit, focusing on art created between the 1920s and 1950s. The exhibition traces the influence of celebrated European Surrealists on American artists ranging from Man Ray and Federico Castellón to Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and others. It opens Friday, June 27, running through October 13, in the Center’s Upper-Level Galleries.

“This exhibition seeks to challenge and break down the traditional art historical categories of realism and Surrealism,” said Frist Center Curator Katie Delmez. “The two approaches, while seemingly opposite, do have points of convergence and their juxtaposition encourages new ways of looking at American art of this period.”

The exhibition features more than 60 paintings, photographs and prints drawn from the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection. The heart of the exhibition is the meeting of Realism (fidelity to a subject’s observable nature) and Surrealism (artwork that explores the imagination and subconscious in search of deeper realities).

Surrealism was an international movement in art and literature that originated in Europe in the 1920s. While some of its practitioners explored abstraction and used the subconscious to directly influence the formal structure of their work, others developed imagery with strong roots in traditional painting. This vein of Surrealism flourished most famously in the work of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, and it was particularly influential for American artists who were academically trained and had a command of realistic painting and drawing techniques. As the movement spread to the United States, the fundamental ideas behind it became more diffuse and were interpreted in a variety of ways.

Themes of isolation and solitude typically associated with the pressures of contemporary urban life were common during this period. The female subject in George Tooker’s Subway (1950), for example, who is surrounded by ominous and clone-like strangers in a labyrinthine subway station, appears anxious and paranoid. Although the work of American artists Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth did not typically include fanciful imagery, their subject matter and composition often conveys similar moods of unease.

“Hopper specializes in portraying the psychological isolation that many people were feeling at the time,” said Delmez, “either in urban environments as seen in the individual patrons of the diner in his well-known work Nighthawks, or in small towns as demonstrated by Cape Cod Sunset in our exhibition.”

To explain this feeling of despair, scholars point to a litany of historical events and sweeping changes during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s: the rise in industrialization and urbanization, the devastating Great Depression and Dust Bowl, World War II and the realization of mass murder through technology.
“The artists in this exhibition are responding to their times and reflecting some of the anxiety that was then permeating our society,” said Delmez.