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Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman's Social Surrealism
September 23, 2006 - January 7, 2007
This exhibition, produced on the occasion of what would have been Irving Norman's one-hundredth birthday, features paintings that remain as poignant and relevant today as when they were first created. Norman's dark visions not only reflect a troubled and turbulent world, but they convey a sense that Norman understood and wished for change. He believed that by pointing out the inequities, horrors, and foibles of human behavior that he might somehow cause people to consider the consequences of their actions. He intended his canvases as public art, which he hoped would end up in museums where "all people could come and study them and contemplate."
Norman's monumental paintings teem with detail and are populated by swarming, clone-like humans. These people are constricted by small urban spaces and modern technology, caught in the crunch of rush hour, and decimated by poverty and war. These themes manifest Norman's perceptions of modern life.
Born Isaac Noachowitz (1906-1989) in Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania), which was then under Russian control, Norman came to New York in 1923. In 1938 he volunteered to go to Spain and defend the Republic against the fascism of General Francisco Franco. Upon his return, he settled in Los Angeles and began to express the atrocities he witnessed through drawing and painting. He moved to San Francisco in 1940 to study at the California School of Fine Arts and later continued his art training in New York. When he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area he settled permanently near Half Moon Bay.
Norman's work has only recently begun to attract a broad audience. His youthful political affiliations made him stand out in the McCarthy era -- a period of widespread fear and persecution of communists -- and his earlier obscurity may have stemmed in part from twenty years of FBI surveillance. However chilling the effect of such government scrutiny, Norman's paintings stand as testimony to his talent, his determination, and his dogmatic conscience.
Norman's paintings probe the darkness of human nature and the contemporary society in which we live. Shocking, revealing, and profound, the paintings aim, as Norman himself described, to tell the truth of our time. "I try to go beyond illusions," he explained, "to tell the truth." "That doesn't always make me popular."
-- wall panel text for the exhibit
Irving Norman's life (19061989) was forever transformed in 1938 when he volunteered for service in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The Brigade was one of many organized by the Communist International to defend the Spanish Republic against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. The American volunteer force consisted of some 2,600 men, but volunteers came from fifty-two countries to form a combined force of forty thousand. Like Norman, most members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade belonged to the Communist Party. Also like Norman, many (approximately 33%) were Jewish. These civilian-soldiers represented Marx's ideal: workers of the world united against injustice.
Norman's combat experience in a machine-gun company left an indelible impression of death and destruction on his psyche. One-third of all American volunteers died, and those that survived continued to relive the horrors that they had experienced. Norman himself did not expect to return from battle and gave away his belongings before he left. Speaking about the impetus to volunteer for military service and the reasons that he later decided to express this experience through art he said:
Norman returned from Spain in late 1938. Deeply depressed, he began to exorcize his turmoil through drawing but found his technical skills inadequate to realize the magnitude of his visions. In 1940 he moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco to study at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). He spent much of 1946 in New York, studying at the Art Students League, and also traveled to Mexico to study the work of the Mexican muralists. When he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area he settled permanently near Half Moon Bay, where he lived and painted for the rest of his life, probing the darkness of human nature and the contemporary society in which we live.
-- library panel text for the exhibit
The Truth of Our Time
Irving Norman's (1906-1989) highly detailed paintings are powerful critiques of contemporary life and times painted in the hope of promoting change. Norman believed that by pointing out the inequities, horrors and foibles of human behavior he might somehow cause people to consider the consequences of their actions. He intended his canvases as public art, so he shunned private patronage and commercial viability. Instead, he wanted his work in public institutions, particularly museums, where "all people could come and study them and contemplate."
Norman saw everything in human terms. His paintings are monumental in scale, yet they teem with detail and are populated by swarming, clone-like figures. These people are constricted by small urban spaces and modern technology, caught in the crunch of the urban rush hour, and decimated by the pain of poverty and the horror of war. These themes manifest Norman's perceptions of modern life and the society in which he lived, but this is relieved by the artist's jewel-like color harmonies and sharp wit. Once the spectator is engaged, Norman's unsettling visions cannot be ignored-or forgotten.
Born Isaac Noachowitz in Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania), Norman keenly observed the United States from the standpoint of an outsider. A Jewish immigrant, he came to this country in 1923, living first in New York and then Los Angeles. His already tumultuous life was forever transformed in 1938 when he went to Spain to defend the Republic against the fascism of General Francisco Franco. Norman did not think he would survive the war, but he ultimately returned to California. He began to express the atrocities he witnessed, first through drawing and then painting. In 1940, he moved to San Francisco to study at the California School of Fine Arts and later continued his studies at the Art Students League in New York. When he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, he settled permanently in an idyllic valley south of Half Moon Bay.
Norman's paintings, always uniquely his own, are informed by a sweeping knowledge of art history and manifest the influence of many artists and cultures. During decades dominated by abstraction, he focused carefully on detailed representational imagery and strong social messages. Although today Norman is still little known, his art is now attracting a wider audience. Much of his earlier obscurity stemmed in part from 20 years of surveillance by the FBI. Norman's youthful political affiliations made him stand out in the McCarthy era, which was marked by a widespread fear-and persecution-of communists. However chilling the effect of such government scrutiny upon one man's life, Norman's paintings stand as testimony to his talent, his determination and his dogmatic conscience.
To be sure, Norman pulls no punches and his paintings are profound, shocking and revealing. "He scares people...," explained San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein, "Norman's social criticism hits below the belt." Unmasking the realities of human nature and the contemporary society in which we live, Norman himself aimed only "to tell the truth of our time." He harnesses colossal scale and infinite detail to make the immensity and atrocities of war and contemporary society comprehensible. While often horrific and terrifying, these visions contain a deeper message, and that is one of hope.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 228-page full-color catalogue with essays by Patricia Junker, Curator of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum; Charles C. Eldredge, Ph.D., Hall Distinguished Professor of American Art & Culture at the University of Kansas; Michael Duncan of Art in America, and Scott A. Shields, Ph.D., Chief Curator at the Crocker Art Museum. It is available for $35 from the Museum Store.
The exhibition is partially funded by The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Rolfe Wyer, Martin Sosin/Stratton-Petit Foundation, LEF Foundation, Estate of Moses and Ruth Helen Lasky through Morelle Lasky Levine, and Janice and Maurice Holloway.
-- member magazine article for the exhibit
(above: Irving Norman, CrossRoad, 1973. Oil on canvas, 110 _ x 72 inches. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Hela Norman.)
(above: Irving Norman, To Have and Have Not (Charity Gala), 1979-1980. Oil on Canvas, 92 x 104 inches. Collection of Hela Norman.)
(above: Irving Norman, Celebration, 1953. Oil on canvas, 82 x 30 inches. Crocker Art Museum, loan and promised gift of Richard Graves and Stephen F. Melcher.)
(above: Irving Norman, From Work, 1978. Oil on canvas, 80 x 92 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Hela Norman.)
(above: Irving Norman, Bacchanal, 1954. Oil on canvas,
69 _ x 39 _ inches. Collection of Morelle and Norman Levine.)
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