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Hopper, Man Ray, Sage, Wyeth and more featured in survey exhibition at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts
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.

NASHVILLE, TN.- This summer the Frist Center for the Visual Arts presents the critically acclaimed Real/Surreal: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art from June 27–October 13, 2014, in the Center’s Upper-Level Galleries. 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 many more.

Drawn from the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, the exhibition features more than 60 paintings, photographs and prints. At the thematic 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. “This exhibition seeks to challenge and break down the traditional art historical categories of realism and Surrealism,” says 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.”

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. Ms. Delmez notes, “Most people don’t immediately think of Edward Hopper or Thomas Hart Benton as being influenced by Surrealism, but there are in fact links, in particular the notion of something unsettling lying beneath the surface.”

The subject matter depicted in Real/Surreal ranges from commonplace objects and experiences to fantastic and cryptic imagery as is the case in Man Ray’s La Fortune (1938) in which a billiard table grounded in a barren landscape inexplicably projects into a sky of boldly colored clouds. Federico Castellón’s haunting and foreboding painting The Dark Figure (1938) pairs crisp hyperrealism with fantastic imagery of familiar forms such as disembodied limbs in contorted positions, decaying architectural forms and a faceless silhouette.

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. Ms. Delmez explains, “Hopper specializes in portraying the psychological isolation that many people were feeling at the time, 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. The unnaturally diffused lighting and lack of human figures or other signs of habitation or life, aside from half drawn window shades, evoke a literal loneliness and sense that something is not quite right.”

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,” says Ms. Delmez.

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June 29, 2014

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