Art review: ‘Real/Surreal’ bends perceptions at Akron Art Museum

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Kay Sage, No Passing, 1954, oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 38 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 55.10. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins

While the obvious point of the Akron Art Museum’s new exhibit, Real/Surreal, is how the realist painting style can often cross the line into surrealism, there’s another, subtler, even more rewarding aspect to the exhibit that can only be appreciated in person.

That would be the juxtaposition of exactitude and impossibility, or more explicitly, the strange beauty of precision, no matter what the meaning. That there can be beauty with unexpected meaning, or even more strangely, beauty without meaning, is an unexpected revelation of this show.

There’s a phrase, celebrated among surrealists, borrowed from the 19th-century symbolist poet Lautreamont (Isidore Ducasse) that summarizes the desire for an entire aesthetic based on disjunction and displacement: “The chance encounter of a sewing machine and umbrella on an ironing board.”

There’s that, plus the exploration of dreams, automatic drawing, psychology, serendipity and the often-boisterous desire to shock the middle class, which seems to define surrealism.

Then there’s Rene Magritte’s definition, from his explanation of his famous 1935 painting of a huge, open eye, The False Mirror: “The image of the closed eye became a secret sign among Surrealists for the subversion of reality by drawing on interior states. Thus the image of the open eye, ordinarily interpreted as access between the individual and the world, was a false vision or mirror. Reality lay elsewhere.”

This exhibit, then, can be seen as the exploration of false reality and blatant unreality, and how those two views oppose one another to the point of interaction.

You may think I’m messing with you, but wait until you see this show. Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, it can be seen in Akron through Nov. 3.

Originating in Europe in the 1920s, surrealism tapped the subconscious mind to create fantastic, nonrational worlds, but as this exhibit handily shows, nonrational and rational is often a matter of interpretation.

More than 60 impressive paintings, drawings, prints and photographs taken from the Whitney’s collection serve to reveal the ways in which American artists responded to the social and political upheaval of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s by treating reality as a subjective state of mind rather than an inalienable fact.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, many American artists abandoned European modernist styles in favor of creating distinctively American artworks, while re-evaluating older styles and movements. Many American art schools, including the Cleveland Art Institute, recommended that students planning to study abroad go to Munich, where the artists still espoused the classic techniques, rather than Paris, where modernism was all the rage.

So we have artists like Grant Wood and George Tooker studying in Munich, then coming back to this country to create such works as American Gothic and The Subway.

They also interacted with European artists who came to this country in droves after the rise of Nazism.

When we think of realism, however, what we’re often thinking of is photographic realism, and artists like Charles Sheeler filled the bill.

Sheeler’s River Rouge Plant (1932) was done while he was on an assignment commissioned by Henry Ford to photograph his Detroit automobile works. Sheeler, who got his start in photography using a $5 Brownie, based the painting on those photographs. Here we see not merely the world’s largest car factory, but also something infinitely more grand: American industry depicted as monumental as the pyramids on the Nile or the Acropolis in Athens.

This work shows us many of the distinguishing characteristics of realism: believable representation and naturalistic color, lighting and perspective.

By contrast, works such as Yves Tanguy’s The Wish (1949) present us with objects that are precisely drawn, shaded and placed in perspective, unidentifiable, in a mystical, otherworldly landscape.

“He would drip paint onto the canvas, then outline and shade each of the drips, as if they were actual objects,” explained Akron Art Museum Chief Curator Janice Driesbach. “He would build up these forms from the drips and add other forms as the ideas presented themselves.”

Andrew Wyeth, represented in the show by the watercolor on paper Juniper and Alder (1941), is said by many to be a master of American realism. However, in his paintings from the late 1930s and 1940s, the compositional structure and perspective often distort the supposed truthfulness.

Combined with Wyeth’s exaggerated exactitude in painting details, these distortions lead one to view a number of his works as surrealistic.

This exhibit has been divided into themed sections. The first gallery, to the right of the introductory exhibition space, is a selection from both the real and the surreal camps; following that is “Alone in the City,” “Social Concern,” “Surrealist Photography,” “Empty Landscapes,” “Man and Machine,” “Leisure” and “Interior Portraits.”

These works show how many American artists explored the permeability between the real and the imagined, following with the international literary movement of the same name.

Seminal to surrealist ideas were Sigmund Freud’s pioneering theories about the psyche and the unconscious mind. In a 1919 essay Freud proposed that the uncanny occurs when “the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced,” a fitting description for most of the works, both realistic and surrealistic, in this show.

The museum has several special events planned during the course of this exhibit, among them:

ArtTalks@Dusk — 7:30-8 p.m. Thursdays. Free. During Downtown@Dusk band breaks, museum staff and local art professionals speak in the museum’s auditorium.

July 25: Surrealism and Music, Jacob Trombetta, local musician.

Aug. 8: Women of Surrealism, Janice Driesbach, chief curator.

Reading under the Roof Cloud Book Club — 6 p.m. Aug. 22. Free. Discuss Aimee Bender’s novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, tour the exhibit and have a slice of cake.

Real/Surreal Film Series — Surreal celluloid curated by Akron Film+Pixel, 7 p.m. Fridays. Members $5, nonmembers $7. Register online.

Aug. 16: The Exquisite Corpse Project. Director Ben Popik challenged five comedy writers to each write 15 pages of a movie, having read only the previous five pages. The final film combines the scripts created by the writers with documentary footage of the writing process.

Sept. 20: Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, documentary about the acclaimed photographer.

Oct. 18: Spellbound. Psychologist Ingrid Bergman tries to solve a murder by unlocking the clues hidden in the mind of amnesiac suspect Gregory Peck. Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller features a dream sequence by surrealist artist Salvador Dalí.

Art History 101 — 6:30 p.m. Sept. 19. Free. Register online. Explore surrealism with Kent State University art historian Albert Reischuck.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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