“A Home for Surrealism: Fantastic Painting in Midcentury Chicago”

The Arts Club of Chicago


What is home? Is it the architecture? The landscape? The accoutrements of a building? Or the behavior of its inhabitants? Perhaps home is a mode of existing within space. And, if so, does that locate home inside our bodies and minds? American Surrealists distinguished themselves from their European counterparts by exploring these kinds of questions.

While the political fuel of war and Existentialism formed the big questions propelling the Parisian Surrealists, American Surrealists queried the constructions of cities spreading into America’s expansive landscape and, extending from this, the construction of identities—both those of the self and of their culture.

In “A Home for Surrealism: Fantastic Painting in Midcentury Chicago,” the Arts Club of Chicago offers space to consider the work of several Chicago-based Surrealist painters. The paintings propose alienation as a form of the uncanny rather than the extreme absurdity associated with Surrealism’s broader influence.

The exhibition seems structured to highlight three areas of focus. In the first room, the work is divided into a section for self-portraiture and a section for small paintings of rooms, objects and furniture. The second room expands out of the mind and home, pivoting toward relationships, neighborhoods and culture.


Harold Noecker. The Genius?, c. 1943. Oil on canvas; 30 x 36 in. (76.2 x 91.4 cm). Collection of Bernard Friedman, Chicago. Courtesy of The Arts Club of Chicago.


In Harold Noecker’s self-portrait, The Genius?, we are confronted with a man staring at us from inside a large room. With his eyes in shadow, we cannot fully connect with him despite his direct stare. As he stares, he draws a stick figure. Is it himself or the viewer that he portrays? Behind him, there hangs a framed painting of a house-lined street beside a jagged open doorway revealing an arid, uninhabited wilderness. The artist is positioned between the two.

In Gertrude Abercrombie’s Self-Portrait, the Striped Blouse, there is a similar relationship to an interior looking out into wilderness. However, the interior is cramped, and the wilderness appears fertile. The artist stares past us and, although similarly in shadow, her eyes are legible.

These artists were contemplating the relationships of their inner worlds with the expansiveness of the uncolonized landscape, juxtaposing the idea of a constructed self with the wilderness of the world outside the mind. What does it mean to be at home in one’s own mind? Does it require the construction of an individual identity? Or does it require the capacity to resist such construction and let the wilderness in?

The small—sometimes tiny—paintings of rooms, doors and mostly unoccupied spaces are displayed on a wall with a faux fireplace mantel. The arrangement may be intended to evoke the coziness of a home, but it more effectively operates as a reminder of the objectness of the paintings and the items within them.

Abercrombie’s The Past and the Present depicts a small room with a daybed and little else. There are two doors to the room—one blocked by the daybed and one door with a window above it. A framed image of an empty landscape with a solitary building hangs above the daybed. The small paintings offer much of the same emotional resonance as the self-portraits. The primary difference is that, because of their scale, they compel you to come close and feel the confined spaces of the rooms more viscerally, heightening awareness of the space that we occupy outside of the paintings.

The paintings in the larger room consider relationships, neighborhoods, and landscaping. In Julio de Diego’s Blueprint of the Future, we see robed characters in a landscape of ancient ruins conversing over their plans for something new. In Eldzier Cortor’s The Couple, one person sleeps enclosed within a mesh of cosmos while a second person stares directly at us, awake, alert, and connecting with us outside of the painting. Above their head hangs an unlit light bulb with a newspaper crumbled around it. The bulb’s cord falls to the center of the person’s forehead with a die at its end. This character sees us and is connected to the events of the present while their partner is bound within the netted abstraction of spacetime. This room asks questions about how mind and space are occupied to build the spaces we call home.

The exhibition succeeds in building a case that notions of home were a distinctive and pronounced interest for Chicago’s Surrealists. This case seems so concise that it leaves no surprises, which is the exhibition’s weakness. Its strength lies in that it has brought together many lesser-known American Surrealist artists, like John Wilde and Julia Thecla, who illustrate America’s complicated, disorienting and ever-changing ideals about the nature of “Home.”


Shanna Zentner


Shanna Zentner is a Post-MFA teaching fellow in the Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) at the University .of Chicago. This is her second appearance in these pages.

Julia Thecla. People and Planets, 1946. Oil on panel; 15 1/4 x 14 in. (38.7 x 35.6 cm). Collection of Bernard Friedman, Chicago. Courtesy of The Arts Club of Chicago.



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