A European Art Movement Liberates the Minds of American Hicks

The shock of surrealism's 1924 Paris debut may have been blunted by the generations of turgid illustration the movement inspired, but this far-ranging exhibit from both sides of the Atlantic reminds us that European dreamscapes helped drag American art out of the sticks. Of course, you have to slog through some corn pone first. Alexandre Hogue's 1936 Dust Bowl melodrama, Mother Earth Laid Bare, reveals a Brobdingnagian nude amid parched arroyos; another oil from the same year, Lorser Feitelson's Love: Eternal Recurrence, parrots the flaccid flesh of a Dal without any of that Old World master's fetishistic charge. Other homegrown artists more successfully channel surrealism's scandalous impact: David Hare's disturbing 1942 photo of a nude, with much of her body inked out, evokes the graphic obliteration of "unpersons" from Soviet publications during Stalin's Terror; Gertrude Abercrombie's 1948 canvas Indecision brings together a blindfolded maiden, gleaming turret, baleful moon, and closed door to form an enigmatic tableau that elevates rudimentary draftsmanship to American Gothic.

David Smith acted on André Breton's philosophy—"The first condition for the liberation of mind is the liberation of man"—by forging "Medals for Dishonor," a 1939 series of discus-size bronze reliefs; in Bombing Civilian Populations, "Stuka storks" drop bombs on a city, impaling children on pointed nose cones. Decades later, abstract birds (if not overt politics) would recur in Smith's soaring steel totems. Automatic writing and Jungian analysis merge with American Indian sand painting to unleash Jackson Pollock's own Bird (1941), a turbulent composition of avian and human heads foreshadowing the explosion of his drip paintings.

From David Smith’s "Medals for Dishonor"
image: National Academy Museum
From David Smith’s "Medals for Dishonor"

A native New Yorker, however, ultimately transcends imported influences: Joseph Cornell's early-1930s assemblage of a porcelain angel entrapped by a spring and sealed in a bell jar isn't European or American—it's a visitation from the sui generis surrealist of Utopia Parkway.

 
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