The Surrealism of Banality: Real/Surreal at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

I encourage everyone to see Real/Surreal at the GRAM regardless of how you feel about Surrealism, since it features works by Modernists who are not typically associated with the movement. Two of the most recognized Surrealists, Salvador Dali and René Magritte, are notably absent, however the GRAM has on display Dali’s 1973 series Twelve Tribes of Israel, and frankly, there is not much to be gained from seeing Magritte paintings first-hand (sorry René).  I am impressed with the range of works, which includes many European proponents, even though it was assembled from the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.  I was also immediately struck with how very appropriate the choices were to the theme of the exhibition.  The selection features images that are all the more surreal because they proximate reality.  Everyone has had the experience of recounting a nightmare, only to realize that it was more absurd than horrific.

There are several Edward Hopper paintings that resemble uninhabited stage sets, or recently cleared crime scenes. Charles Burchfield’s Winter Twilight (1930) depicts a snow-covered main street that abruptly stops, affording us a view of rural farmland suspended in the middle ground. Paul Cadmus’ erotically charged Fantasia on a Theme by Dr. S, features a blond Adonis, surreptitiously admired by two housemates.  Wearing only a sailor hat and very small bathing trunks, he stands on the balls of his feet, in a pose suggesting crucifixion, while mirroring the penguin yard ornament just to the left.

The two pieces that best express the irrational or absurd were Mirror of Life (1946) by Henry Koerner, and Children’s Ward (1940) by Robert Riggs.  Formally the two seem unrelated; the former painting owes much to Medieval influences, the latter is a monochromatic lithograph that seems like a photograph accompanying a Life magazine article.  Two children are featured in the foreground including a toddler wearing a body cast that only allows full mobility of her head and arms.  Positioned above her, is a young boy strapped to a hospital bed in a reverse incline, playing with a toy gun. This gesture, and the amused reaction of his ward mates, makes it difficult to look at and their pitiful bodies and innocent resilience, without feeling shame. There is something remarkably surreal about the arbitrary nature of illness, particularly when it affects children.

Henry Koerner’s Mirror of Life (1946) reminded me of Hieronymus Bosch’s grisaille sphere of creation, depicted on the exterior panels of the Garden of Earthly Delights. We are drawn into the image by a male figure leaning out of his apartment window, so raptly interested in two wrestling figures, that he has forgotten about his lover who waits with some annoyance on the bed inside. Two-thirds of the composition is filled with a sharply angled landscape populated with contemporary figures.  A placid elderly couple sits on their porch, behind which is staged a curiously solemn dinner party. In the middle ground is a group of women engaged in conversation, and just visible in the far background is an amusement park. The two wrestling figures are identified as Cain and Abel.  In light of this, every other figure in the composition, as a result of fear or apathy, is complicit to the act of fratricide.

The didactic information accompanying Koerner’s painting indicated that he was a court illustrator at the Nuremberg trials in 1945. The painting was completed in 1946, sixteen years before the trials of Nazi lieutenant colonel Adolph Eichmann, but the connection between the painting and the Eichmann trial is compelling.  Political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote about the trials in Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).  When Eichmann was brought to trial, he maintained that he was only following orders, thus deferring responsibility for his actions upon his superiors.  Using Eichmann as a primary example, Arendt argued that acts of profound evil are not executed by sociopaths, but by individuals who acted upon orders without consideration of the consequences upon others.  Just as Eichmann did not see his actions as either remarkable or abhorrent, the cast of characters in Mirror of Life, do not regard themselves as accomplices to the murder of Abel.

Surrealism is among a few art movements that I feel have been unfairly dismissed or maligned. If the iconography veers towards the cliché, it is because the vocabulary of Surrealism has been so widely adopted into popular culture by way of fashion photography, film, music videos, and high school art projects.

My love affair with Surrealism probably owes much to my early exposure to the Edwin and Lindy Bergman collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. It doesn’t receive the kind of recognition it deserves, probably because the Surrealists don’t sell merchandise or draw crowds like the Impressionists, and when Surrealism fell out of vogue it was with an audible thump. America’s venture into Surrealism was soon overshadowed by the heroic übermensch of Abstract Expressionism.

Fortunately, Surrealism has been re-examined with some seriousness.  When I wrote my thesis on Joseph Cornell in the 1990s, I owned every available monograph or catalog that featured the artist, which added-up to maybe ten books.  In the past ten years, I have noticed many books on the subject of Surrealism published by academic presses.  There have also been a number of exhibitions featuring the work of Surrealist artists: Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design (2007), Surreal Friends:  Leonora Carrington, Remidios Varo and Kati Horna (2010), just this week the Pompidou Center in Paris opened a Salvador Dali exhibition, and In Wonderland:  The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, is currently on display at Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.  Both In Wonderland, and Real/Surreal close at their respective venues on January 13, 2013, a surreal coincidence indeed.

-Tamara Fox

2 Responses to “The Surrealism of Banality: Real/Surreal at the Grand Rapids Art Museum”
  1. Cindy Buckner says:

    Dear Tamara,
    Thank you for the thoughtful review of our exhibition. I did want to clear up one point, however. The wall label for Henry Koerner’s Mirror of Life relays the fact that Koerner was a court illustrator for the Nuremberg Trials (those beginning in 1945), not the much later trial of former Nazi Adolph Eichmann. This does not invalidate your point about individuals denying their own culpability in the events surrounding them, but rather emphasizes the immediate context for Koerner’s painting.
    Cindy Buckner
    Associate Curator, Grand Rapids Art Museum

  2. arthack1 says:

    Novice that I am, I should have double-checked. Thanks for bringing that to my attention Cindy!

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