Detroit Institute of Arts adds first surrealist painting by a woman artist

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Detroit Institute of Arts adds first surrealist painting by a woman artist
Acquisition of works by Rita Kernn-Larsen and Wolfgang Paalen bolsters museum’s surrealism collection.

DETROIT, MICH.- The Detroit Institute of Arts’ board of directors has approved the purchase of a work by Danish artist Rita Kernn-Larsen (1904-1998), furthering the museum’s goal of increasing the number of works by women artists in the collection.

This will be the first work by the artist—and the first Surrealist painting by a woman—to enter the museum’s collection; it will also be one of the only paintings by Kernn-Larsen in an American museum collection. “And Life Anew…” will bolster and diversify the DIA’s holdings of Scandinavian art as well as modern European Surrealist art, which includes such masterpieces as “Shadow Country” (1927) by Yves Tanguy and “Self-Portrait II” (1938) by Joan Miró. The museum also recently acquired a Surrealist sculpture by Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959).

“We are thrilled to bring Rita Kernn-Larsen’s painting into our collection. It has a deep resonance with other Surrealist works in the DIA’s collection, and we are happy to expand our modern European holdings to include those artists who have been largely overlooked in the canon,” says Jill Shaw, Rebecca A. Boylan and Thomas W. Sidlik Curator of European Art, 1850-1970, and Interim Head of the James Pearson Duffy Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the DIA.

Born in Hillerřd, Denmark, a town north of Copenhagen, Kernn-Larsen attended art schools in Oslo and Copenhagen in the 1920s. She left for Paris in 1929, and there she became a prominent student of Fernand Léger at his Académie Moderne. Shortly upon returning to Denmark, she had her first solo exhibition (1934) and met the Danish Surrealist group in Copenhagen, with whom she began to exhibit. Kernn-Larsen’s international debut took place in 1936, when she was invited to submit to the International Surrealist Exhibition at The New Burlington Galleries in London. In that same year, photographs of her work were displayed alongside other Scandinavian Surrealists in Alfred Barr’s landmark Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Although Kernn-Larsen’s work remains largely unknown in the United States today, it was an American—art patron and dealer Peggy Guggenheim—who provided her with one of the biggest breaks of her career. In 1938—the same year that Kernn-Larsen participated in the landmark International Surrealist Exhibition with Salvador Dalí and many other notable Surrealists at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris—Guggenheim gave her a major exhibition at her newly opened gallery in London. Kernn-Larsen and her future husband, Isaac Grünberg, traveled to London for the exhibition and were forced to stay there due to the impending war; they remained until the end of World War II.

While in London, Kernn-Larsen remained active as an artist, exhibited frequently, and continued to develop her Surrealist style. It was also there, in 1940, that she painted “And Life Anew…,” a composition that featured the femme-arbre (woman-tree) motif, a theme that had appeared in her work since at least 1934. But in this particular painting, her femme-arbre was likely more personal than ever before—according to the dedication on the back of the canvas, this was a work she made for her first and only child, Danielle, who was born in September 1940.

The work will be on view later this year in the DIA’s gallery of Surrealist art.

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