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Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman's Social Surrealism

January 21 - April 15, 2007


Artist Irving Norman's vast, highly detailed paintings communicate his perceptions of modern life and the society in which he lived. His unsettling visions are at once shocking and unforgettable. As a result of his political beliefs, Norman was under surveillance by the FBI for the last twenty years of his life. (right: Irving Norman, From Work, 1978. Oil on canvas, 80 x 92 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Hela Norman)

Today, Irving Norman's work is being rediscovered, as the dark themes he explored in his art remain as relevant as when they were first composed. Now, in the year that Norman would have turned 100, his powerful works will be explored at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman's Social Surrealism being held January 21 through April 15, 2007

An émigré from Poland who survived World War I as a child, Norman witnessed atrocities as a machine gunner in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War. These experiences prompted him to paint with a dark vision both personal and prophetic. Writing in Art in America (July 2003), critic Michael Duncan described his work as "jaw-droppingly effective social indictments that would have been endorsed by Orwell and Huxley. The unrestrained passion and monumental energy of [his] work blows most contemporary political art out of the water."

Norman's massive canvases abound with teeming figures, drone-like and mechanical in their repetition, yet stubbornly and hauntingly human. The combination of jewel-tone colors, transcendent messages and technical virtuosity make his work unique in the history of American art.

This exhibition, curated by Scott A. Shields, Ph.D., Chief Curator at the Crocker Art Museum, consists of approximately 25 large-scale paintings along with 14 examples of the artist's works on paper, and it is accompanied by a 228-page color catalogue published by Heyday Press.



(above: Irving Norman, The Elders, 1957. Oil on canvas, 74 x 44 inches. Collections of Tom von Tersch and Meg Beeler.)

Wall panels from the exhibition

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."
This exhibition has been underwritten 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
Janice and Maurice Holloway
Irving Norman's life (1906-1989) 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:
I was active in the left-wing movement . . . [and] had to be an example, and when the Communist International called up for volunteers, I volunteered. . . .
And after that experience I realized that my direction was not in the direction of politics. . . .
It's just that I feel that the experience was so powerful and my realization that this society, the foundation of this society, is based on war. So I had to find a way to . . . express that thing, especially the violence of war, and I was looking into the history of artists who did it. And I found very few.
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.

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