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(artists include: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, Edward Laning, George Platt Lynes, PAJAMA, Bernard Perlin, George Tooker)
In celebration of the Art of the Americas Wing opening at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Childs Gallery explores a significant, yet rarely shown period of 20th century Modern American Art: The Magic Realists.
In 1943, the Museum of Modern Art in New York produced an exhibition and catalogue titled “American Realists and Magic Realists.” At a time when abstract expressionism ruled the city’s art avant-garde, the show gave voice and imprimatur to a contrarian group of figurative painters, including New Yorkers Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) and Jared French (1905-1988).
Together with George Tooker (1920- ), they created sober, unsettling scenes combining a heightened realism, often of everyday city life, with elements of bizarre fantasy. Expressed through linear perspectives, sculptural qualities, and painting techniques of Renaissance times, the works evoke an otherworldly eeriness.
Other shared hallmarks of Magic Realism include an unsentimental view of life, the juxtaposition of near and far figural placement, and an emphasis on muscular male figures with great heft and power, clearly evident in Cadmus’s powerful drawing "Male Nude (Jon Anderson)", on view at Childs.
These solid body types also bring an unexpected sense of the heroic to mundane activities, such as Cadmus’s "Youth With Kite" (1941), depicting an athletic young man holding a simple box kite to the sky as if he were Atlas supporting the world; or Jared French’s "Loading Dock", jam-packed with working men and women pushing the limits of the drawing’s boundaries with their forward motion and energy.
Cadmus and French were lifelong friends and sometime lovers, traveling Europe together in the 1930s. Though modernists, they became enamored of 15th century Italian masters like Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli, and Andrea Mantegna. French meticulously studied their centuries-old egg tempera painting technique, in turn teaching the traditional medium to Cadmus, and later Tooker, who began painting after graduating from Harvard University. The smooth, thin application of egg tempera would become a signature of American Magic Realism, which each artist interpreted in his own distinct manner.
Cadmus reveled in the suggestive, satirical and controversial, as with "The Fleets In!", a scathing caricature of sailors on shore leave painted for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1934. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy insisted the defamatory work be removed from public display, which only led to the image being nationally publicized in the press, bringing Cadmus overnight fame. Ironically, the “disreputable” painting now hangs at the Navy Art Gallery at the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capitol.
French is the most classically influenced of the three, infusing his idealized human figures with a dreamlike quality in allegorical and mythic settings, as in the superb egg tempera on gesso panel "Shelter" (c.1944), portraying a fantastical scene from ancient Greece. Also on view at Childs are several sculpted heads by French, underscoring his skill at bringing a three-dimensionality to his drawn and painted figures.
Tooker’s works have an unsettling, often mystical quality that tends to distance the viewer. Though his seemingly airless, glass-like spaces fascinate, they are also off-putting, as in the extraordinary painting "Un Ballo en Maschera" (The Masked Ball), a compelling, yet ominous costume party scene.
Cadmus, French, and Tooker were classmates at the Art Students League of New York, where Edward Laning (1906-1981), another Magic Realist, was an instructor from 1932-33. Having been taught by Ashcan artists such as Max Weber and Reginald Marsh, Laning was clearly influenced by their urban realist social commentary, which he combined with the same mystical, classical references as Cadmus, whom he met at school.
An outstanding example is "The Attic" (1951-52), an enigmatic painting of a vaulted room in an old house filled with modern revelers dancing around a monumental ancient Roman statue. The gaiety is about to be spoiled by a primly dressed woman who has climbed the stairs into their private bacchanal. While clues abound, the scene’s interpretation is left up to each viewer.
There’s a mythic, symbolist theme to much of Laning’s work, well-suited to his frequent mural commissions, including those at the New York Public Library and Ellis Island, still on view today.
Not surprisingly for a group of realist artists, photography - of and by them - helped refine and define their works. Childs is pleased to include many fine vintage silver prints from the Cadmus/French circle by George Platt Lynes (1907-1955) and PaJaMa.
The latter was an amalgam of the first initials in the names of Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and his wife Margaret French, who alternated looking through the camera lens. The precise, often surreal images of the artists and their friends carefully posed on the beaches of Fire Island and Provincetown echo the otherworldliness and classic geometry of Magic Realist paintings.
A former fashion photographer, Lynes met Lincoln Kirstein - founder of the New York City Ballet and brother-in-law of Paul Cadmus - when he was hired to shoot the Company’s principal dancers. His "Orpheus and Eros" (1936) is the embodiment of the Cadmus/French towering, supernatural nude.
“Though well-represented in New York collections and museums, like the Whitney and MOMA, the Magic Realists have rarely, if ever, been shown together in Boston,” says Richard Baiano, president of Childs Gallery. “We’re delighted this exhibit coincides with the opening of the Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA, offering New Englanders an opportunity to learn more about these highly influential modern American artists.”