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Exhibition examines how artists depicted their experiences of conflict through monsters and mythic figures
Roberto Matta, Prescience, 1939, Oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund (1941.389). © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

HARTFORD, CONN.- The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art will present Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s, the first major exhibition to examine how European and American artists depicted their experiences of conflict through monsters and mythic figures. The horrors of war propelled Surrealist artists to pursue these iconographies. The exhibition chronicles the emergence of particular themes that reference the political chaos of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Co-organized with The Baltimore Museum of Art, Monsters and Myths brings together 64 works of art by artists including Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, André Masson, Joan Miró, Wolfgang Paalen, and Yves Tanguy. The exhibition opens Oct. 20, 2018 and continues through Jan. 13, 2019.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, Surrealists saw their worst nightmares become reality,” says Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art Oliver Tostmann. “Facing despair, displacement, and destruction, they turned to ancient mythologies to express their anxieties and overcome the turmoil of their time. Images of gods, heroes, and monsters are still an understudied, yet crucial part of the Surrealist imagination.”

Classical mythology offered fertile inspiration for Surrealists to represent their own experience of war and conflict. Some had served as soldiers in World War I and found themselves in a cycle of violence and turmoil with the rise of Hitler and the spread of Fascism in Europe. Many artists became refugees and fled to safety in the Americas, bringing with them their fascination in gods, heroes, monsters, and the folklore of the past.

Both the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and The Baltimore Museum of Art were at the forefront of promoting Surrealist art in the United States. Upon arriving in America via New York City, some of the Surrealists travelled the country during the war years, attracted by its sheer vastness. Many eventually chose to live and work in rural areas close to New York, such as Litchfield County, Connecticut. In Hartford they found a welcoming institution in the Wadsworth Atheneum, which exhibited them and purchased work for the collection. They found inspiration in the landscape of their new surroundings. Artists like André Masson and Max Ernst combined the mythological with imagery from the American countryside, incorporating images of the animal and plant life they encountered and turning their attention to nature and the cosmos. The work of the displaced European artists influenced young American artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Dorothea Tanning, who began experimenting with some of the same subjects and artistic techniques.

“Each age confronts its political and social challenges through the arts,” says Dr. Thomas J. Loughman, Ph.D., Director and CEO of the Wadsworth Atheneum. “In the case of the Surrealists—dissident resisters who became refugees—we see a bold effort to summon the memory of Europe’s founding legends through a radical repurposing of realist forms. This exhibition couldn’t be more timely, and illuminating, given the entropy and anxiety of today.”

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