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War Is Surreal, And This Collection Of Artists At Wadsworth Atheneum Proves It

The first artwork visitors see when entering the Wadsworth Atheneum’s new exhibit is a painting by Richard Oelze, which shows a group of people walking across a stark, gray no man’s land under an ominous sky.

One of the last artworks is an oil by Salvador Dalí depicting a man struggling to escape from a broken globe, watched by an emaciated woman and a frightened child.

In 1936, when Oelze painted “Expectation,” his native Germany was three years into Hitler’s reign and the Civil War was just beginning in Spain. In 1943, when Dalí painted “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man,” he was living in the United States, as were many artists from war-torn Europe. By then the fascists had won the war in Spain and Nazi Germany had control of most of the continent.

The Oelze and Dalí paintings are perfect bookends for “Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s,” at the Atheneum Oct. 20 to Jan. 13. The show assembles work by European artists whose disjointed, dreamlike aesthetic was adopted as a response to the trauma of World War I. When they saw war crushing Europe yet again, the idiosyncratic and metaphorical style gave a menacing tone to their artistic commentaries.

“Most of the artists were deeply marked by war. Some were drafted, a few fought in the trenches, many lost family and friends. They witnessed a major catastrophe. They’re thinking, it’s going to repeat itself, and then it did,” says Oliver Tostmann, curator of European art. “They became preoccupied with the unconscious, with dreams, with the irrational as a way to react to this reality.

“They were thinking about their lives, about how little sense everything made, how fragile the civilization is that they’re living in,” he says. “As politically engaged as they were, all of them were thinking about how to overcome moribund western society after World War I and the extremist political movements that came out of it.”

The interior gallery walls wind around the display space, like the labyrinth where the Minotaur lived. The half-man, half-bull of Greek myth was useful imagery to surrealists such as Pablo Picasso and Andre Masson to symbolize the brutal nature of mankind. Animal imagery and mythological motifs were adopted, as human and animal, myth and reality, melded into menacing incomprehensibility. Something is going on among these creatures, one is never quite sure what, but it probably isn’t good.

“The time of hardship forced these artists to think about new iconography and to experiment with their styles, their very techniques,” Tostmann says. “The surrealists were scholarly, they knew indigenous myths, that mythological figures had specific powers in various cultures.”

Dalí’s “Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach,” from 1938, is familiar to fans of the Atheneum, as it usually hangs in Avery Court. In the surrealism show, it takes on added meaning, not just as a surrealist masterpiece but also a tribute to Dalí’s friend, the poet Federico García Lorca, who was executed by the Nationalists in Spain in 1936.

Victor Brauner’s “The Indicator of Space,” from 1934, centers on a half-bird, half-machine in an off-kilter room, as a human hand reaches out of the floor and a creature lies dead behind a wall. Joan Miró’s 1936 “Seated Personages” seats bird creatures in the soil, heads poking out, discussing who knows what.

Max Ernst’s 1937 “The Barbarians” shows a bird-creature with a half-human, half-something. Are they battling? Commiserating? Whichever, they tower over the human below them. Wolfgang Paalen’s “Totemic Landscape,” from 1937, features bat-faced structures ruling over a murky wasteland.

Masson’s “In the Tower of Sleep,” from 1938, is probably the goriest piece in the exhibit, showing a castrated, skinless man creature with an open pomegranate for a face being eaten by a harp.

“He fought in World War I in the trenches. He remembered a dead comrade whose face just exploded. It reminded him of a pomegranate,” Tostmann says.

The final bay of the exhibit examines the influence of the refugee surrealists on the American art scene, as many decamped to the United States until the war was over, or sometimes permanently. “They still used monsters and myths in their imagery, but they looked at them from a slightly different perspective,” Tostmann says.

The exhibit was developed by the Atheneum in collaboration with the Baltimore Museum of Art. It will travel there after it leaves Hartford, and then it will go to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville.

MONSTERS & MYTHS: SURREALISM AND WAR IN THE 1930S AND 1940S is at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, Oct. 20 to Jan. 13. thewadsworth.org

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