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Exhibition at Akron Art Museum examines how artists employed real and surreal approaches
George Tooker, The Subway, 1950, egg tempera on composition board, overall (sight): 18 1/8 x 36 1/8in. 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 D.C. Moore Gallery, N.Y. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins.

AKRON, OH.- The Akron Art Museum presents Real/Surreal, an exhibition that examines how artists employed what have long been considered two distinctly separate approaches to art—Realism and Surrealism—in the years leading up to World War II. More than 60 outstanding paintings, drawings, prints and photographs drawn from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art demonstrate how artists responded to the social and political upheaval of the 1920s, 30s and 40s by treating reality as a subjective state of mind rather than as an unalterable truth.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, many American artists backed away from abstract European modernist styles in favor of creating artworks that were distinctively American. During these years, they were introduced to stylistic elements of both Realism and Surrealism in their academic studies, at exhibitions, when they traveled abroad and while interacting with European artists in this country.

Paintings such as Charles Sheeler’s River Rouge Plant or Andrew Wyeth’s Juniper and Alder boast many of the distinguishing characteristics of Realism. They believably represent the exterior world using naturalistic color, lighting effects and perspective. In contrast, works such as Man Ray’s La Fortune, with its dreamlike imagery, unlikely juxtaposition of objects, lurid colors and incongruous shifts in scale, exemplify key aspects of Surrealism.

Many artists represented in Real/Surreal merge elements of the Realist and Surrealist styles. George Tooker used egg tempera paint, a centuries-old technique, to create meticulously detailed compositions. However, the low ceilings, triple perspective and haunted figures of The Subway create an unsettling composition, adding to its surrealistic effect. Similarly, while the figures in Jared French’s State Park are carefully rendered within realistic seaside setting, their stiff poses suggest their physical and psychological alienation from one another.

Real/Surreal offers a fascinating reflection of a tumultuous era. Peter Blume’s Light of the World documents 1930s fascination with new technologies, in contrast to a widely-felt sense of longing and nostalgia for a way of life that was rapidly being abandoned, elicited in Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Sunset. Federico Castellón and Henry Koerner’s powerful compositions respond to the spread of Fascist regimes across Europe while Joe Jones references the ravages of the Dust Bowl.

A landscape by Andrew Wyeth, an enhanced selection of Surrealist photography and three short films are among the additions to the Akron Art Museum’s showing of Real/Surreal. Wyeth’s Juniper and Alder, a large 1941 watercolor, incorporates dissonances in scale with realistic representation. The photographs of Frederick Sommer and Clarence John Laughlin add to a diverse selection of Surrealist photography. Their work demonstrates the variety of photographic techniques employed by the Surrealists, including experimental processes such as solarization, unconventional choice of subjects and the use of distorting mirrors in the creation of staged tableaux. Short films by Joseph Cornell, Man Ray and Maya Deren show how artists used camera angles and cuts between shots to express surreal ideas through images of the real world.

Sigmund Freud’s pioneering theories about the psyche and the unconscious mind were seminal to Surrealist ideas. In a 1919 essay Freud posited that the uncanny occurs when “the distinction between the imagination and reality is effaced,” a fitting description of much of the work in the exhibition.
Real/Surreal, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, complements the collection of the Akron Art Museum, which includes works by many of the artists in this exhibition as part of its mission to collect and display art created from 1850 to the present.

This exhibition was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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