The painted oil landscape has mountains, trees and stone ruins, but the scene is not a peaceful one. Toppled and broken statues, a beggar woman, Roman soldiers and a menacing green jack-in-the-box beckon you to look a little deeper into this surrealist painting, “The Eternal City” by American Peter Blume.
The painting represents Rome and aspects of Roman culture; the jack-in-the-box head depicts fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
“Blume was in Italy in the early 1930, during Mussolini's rise to power. He found Mussolini and fascism appalling,” says Brady Roberts, curator of modern and contemporary art at Phoenix Art Museum. “That's what the painting is about: The destruction and chaos and social disorder and violence that Mussolini brought to Italy, and the broader implications of that.”
Blume's painting is among the more than 100 works included in “Surrealism USA,” the first major survey of American surrealism in more than 25 years.
Opening Sunday at the Phoenix Art Museum, the exhibit features paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, and will be accompanied by a film festival and companion show of surrealist works from the museum's permanent collection.
On display are works by Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Arshile Gorky, Joseph Cornell and Federico Castellon, as well as Max Ernst, who lived in Arizona from 1946 to 1953. Most of the artists were heavily influenced by Dali, whose name became synonymous with surrealism in the 1930s, Roberts says.
Surrealist artists were known for their revolutionary ideas and abstract styles of painting. Some were famous for their methods of free-form drawings and paintings based on Freudian ideas; others, for their shocking films, paintings and other expressions on the topics of social injustice, poverty and fascism.
“Surrealism is very much about exploring the subconscious mind. These artists were interested in tapping into this inner world and bringing it into the real world,” Roberts says. What began as a literary movement in Paris in the early 1900s evolved into an art movement in the 1920s.
Surrealism spread from Europe to the United States in the 1930s as artists emigrated to the U.S. to flee an impending World War II, and American artists began experimenting with their techniques.
“There were a lot of artists looking at the destruction caused by World War I — it was unprecedented,” Roberts says. “These people were horrified by what had occurred, and they were questioning the values of a society that would bring about that kind of war.” “It was a very anti-establishment kind of movement,” he says. “They were against the conventions of society ... they tried to do things that were shocking.”
The appeal of surrealism for most people is “sort of its general weirdness,” says Betsy Fahlman, professor of art at Arizona State University.
“When you think of (art) training that those artists had gotten up to that point, it was sort of rationalist training,” Fahlman says. “You looked at the human figure, and you drew what you saw. “That was the source for a great deal of art. And as a surrealist, you led into something that was much more subjective, much more emotional,” she says. “It wasn't necessarily something abstract, but it is getting away from that rationality of viewing the real world.”
Surrealism's greatest impact for artists and the art world was the liberation of the unconscious, she says.
“Surrealism USA” also has works by a specific branch of American surrealist painters called social surrealists, whose art concerned social injustice and environmental concerns in the 1930s and '40s, especially during the Great Depression and World War II.
Some examples are David Smith's bronze sculptures “Medal(s) for Dishonor,” showing the chaotic results of bombs and warheads; Alexandre Hogue's “Erosion No. 2 — Mother Earth Laid Bare,” rendering a stark landscape as a naked woman; and O. Louis Guglielmi's paintings depicting the idealism of communism (“Phoenix”) and the imagined results of a fascist attack on the Brooklyn Bridge (“Mental Geography”).
Phoenix Art Museum will host a number of events through the summer in conjunction with “Surrealism USA,” and will also feature a surrealist film series. A panel discussion on “What Is Surrealism?” will be 7 p.m. June 9 at the museum.
When: Sunday through Sept. 25. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (except 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays).
Where: Phoenix Art Museum
1625 N. Central Ave
Cost: $9 adults, $7 seniors
and full-time students, $3 children 6 to 17
Information: (602) 257-1880 or www.phxart.org