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Post-Surrealism and the Flux: Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, and Knud Merrild

Artistic activity in California during the 1930s and 1940s was a process of reciprocity and encounter between artists of many regions and many nationalities. Art thrives on such mixing, clashing, cross-fertilization, and critical difference. European surrealism blended with indigenous styles, enriching regional art and creating interesting hybrids.[4] One example of this crossbreeding is the Post-Surrealism inaugurated in 1934 by the Los Angeles artists Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson. Post-Surrealism differed radically from surrealism in affirming a conscious rather than unconscious use of materials and the clarification of rational ideas. It maintained a distinct identity, reflecting and invigorating the locale of its birth.

Lorser Feitelson, educated in New York, came to Southern California in 1927; he was to be one of the most influential pioneers of modern art in the region. In the early 1920s Feitelson had visited Paris, where surrealism was incipient and neoclassicism had taken hold. It was the latter that first attracted him, along with Renaissance and Mannerist art.

In 1930 in Los Angeles, Feitelson was introduced to Walter and Louise Arensberg and their European modernist collection, which included masterworks of dada and surrealism and was a nexus for the intellectual/artistic community of Los Angeles.[5] Around this time, Feitelson started teaching at Chouinard School of Art and at the Stickney Memorial Art School in Pasadena, where he met Helen Lundeberg. Thereafter, Feitelson and Lundeberg formulated ideas that crystallized in 1934 into what they called subjective classicism, new classicism, or Post-Surrealism.

In creating their new art, Lundeberg and Feitelson grafted the neoclassicism Feitelson had picked up in Paris onto the metaphysical element he found in the paintings of de Chirico (which the Stendahl Galleries had exhibited in Los Angeles in 1930). The works that followed proclaim that connection: in their theatrical intensity, their insistence on strange encounters between objects, the clarity with which chosen fragments of reality are represented, and the depiction of deep space. But while de Chirico bathed


Figure 66
Lorser Feitelson, Genesis #2 , 1934. Oil on fiberboard, 40 ¼ × 47 7/8 in. 
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, museum purchase.

his enigmatic paintings in warm, late-afternoon sunlight, Feitelson and Lundeberg used pale, cool colors to create an atmosphere conducive to calm and to contemplation.

Feitelson and Lundeberg sought to create a reasoned response in the viewer that was profoundly at odds with Bretonian surrealism. Like the Belgian René Magritte, the Post-Surrealists created puzzles and told stories using objects. But while Magritte's tales were insistently unsolvable, Post-Surrealist narratives were always related to a larger theme and therefore had little to do with surrealist incongruity. Reflecting the spirit of the times, Feitelson and Lundeberg created paintings with a conscious message, an art that would be "accessible to the people." But rather than use subjects reflecting the social and political atmosphere, like artists of the American Scene, they selected metaphysical ideas, focusing on such themes as "cosmic birth."[6]

In Genesis #2 (1934; Fig. 66), Feitelson juxtaposed symbols of life forces analogous


in form and in function: an illuminated lightbulb, the half-round of a cut melon full of seeds, a large conch, an eggshell, a mask, and a female breast. He asks the viewer to contemplate the interrelationship of these differing emblems of existence, from the cosmic to the mineral. One of the most compelling features of the painting is the delicate ghostly outline of a woman superimposed over the scene, simultaneously receiving life and giving sustenance—an image expressive of the dialectic between presence and absence that initiates so much of the narrative in Post-Surrealist work.

Feitelson, a natural leader like Breton, assembled a loose circle of friends who had similar aims. Lundeberg, Knud Merrild, Lucien Labaudt, and Grace Clements were the core group, who exhibited together at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1935 and the Brooklyn Museum in 1936. Because of the acclaim the exhibition received in New York, Feitelson, Lundeberg, and Merrild were included in Barr's exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Born in Chicago, Helen Lundeberg was raised in Pasadena, where she received her initial instruction with Feitelson at the Stickney Memorial School of Art beginning in 1930. Lundeberg began her career with exceptional technical skill and stylistic maturity: "Like Athena, she appeared on the artistic scene full-grown."[7] It was Lundeberg who wrote the manifesto of the Post-Surrealist movement.

Lundeberg was interested in a poetic contemplation of subject matter that would bring the viewer to a higher understanding of metaphysical ideas and a deeper experience of the world. Throughout her career her paintings have become increasingly more evocative and mystical. Nearly all her work is about the opening of one space into another, the juxtaposition of internal and cosmic arenas. While she did not make a study of Eastern art and philosophy while engaged in her Post-Surrealist work, she created a contemplative aesthetics of emptiness and stillness characteristic of that art. At the same time, her work showed an American predilection for definite outlines, cool precision, and microscopic attention to detail. Cosmicide (1935; Fig. 67) embodies many of Lundeberg's deepest aims. Believing that the shape of a painting could be dictated by its meaning, she began making shaped canvases. Cosmicide is a trapezoid, narrow at the top to accommodate a single planetary body, the moon. Invoking the eternal cycle of life and death, it illustrates the interrelationship of all things: the influence of the tidal action of the moon upon the smallest living creature.[8] (Lundeberg had studied astronomy and biology.) She introduces into the painting a vast dreamlike landscape reminiscent of the California desert or the infinite space of Tanguy, including the typically western symbol of the cactus. Lundeberg (and Feitelson) depicted such themes as eternal recurrence and the relationship between love and death, without erotic overtones.[9]

In Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1935; Fig. 68) Lundeberg created a pristine and precisely calculated formal structure. She often incorporated her own image into her quiet interior spaces, prefiguring the feminist art that emerged in the 1970s.[10] She described the painting as follows:


Figure 67
Above: Helen Lundeberg, Cosmicide , 1935. Oil on Masonite, 40 × 24 in. 
NAA-Gift of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery,
 University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Figure 68
 Helen Lundeberg,  Double Portrait of the Artist in Time ,
 1935. Oil on fiberboard, 47¾ × 40 in. National Museum of 
American Art, Smithsonian Institution, museum purchase.

For the portrait of myself as a child I used a photograph which I still have, and though the props are a little different in the painting from the photograph, the pose is pretty much exact. I also used the clock to show that it was a quarter past two which corresponds to the child's age. And instead of presenting myself as an adult before a painting of myself as a child, in Double Portrait in Time I reversed this possibility where the child casts a shadow which is that of an adult who appears in the portrait on the wall.[11]

Another of the Post-Surrealists to achieve national distinction was the Danish artist Knud Merrild, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1923. Progressive in art as well as politics, Merrild was attuned to advanced European modernism and quickly found himself at the center of the art scene in Los Angeles. Man Ray and the writer Henry Miller were close friends of his, and he was one of the few American artists collected by Walter and Louise Arensberg.


Figure 69
Knud Merrild,  Aesthetic Function in Space , 1928-33. Painted wood 
construction with painted cutouts of Masonite, painted corrugated
 cardboard, and silvered metal, 31 × 22 ¾ in. Private collection. 
Photograph courtesy, Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles.

In the 1930s Merrild made surrealist paintings and collages as well as relief constructions (some of the earliest assemblages to come out of the region), which owed a debt to Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, and organic surrealism (Fig. 69).[12] His collage Alpha and Omega (1935; Fig. 70) is related formally and thematically to Lundeberg's shaped canvas Cosmicide and Feitelson's 1936 shaped collage-painting Life Begins (Fig. 71), expressing the natural law of regeneration: "a cycle of desire, impregnation, generation and birth."[13] It illustrates the artistic borrowings and interactions common among early Los Angeles modernists.


Figure 70
Above: Knud Merrild,  Alpha and Omega , 1935. Collage: oil cloth, paper, 
magazine and newspaper cutouts, and ink drawing on board, 23 ¼ × 29 ¾ in. 
Photograph courtesy Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles.

Figure 71
Left: Lorser Feitelson, Life Begins , 1936. Oil and photocollage on Masonite, 
22 ½ × 26 ½ in. Photograph courtesy Tobey C. Moss Gallery, Los Angeles.


Figure 72
Knud Merrild, Perpetual Possibility , 1942. Enamel on composition
 board, mounted on plywood, 20 × 16 1/8 in. The Museum
 of Modern Art, New York, gift of Mrs. Knud Merrild.


In the early 1940s Merrild experimented with surrealist automatism, exploring the fortuitous and the unforeseen in his flux paintings. In works such as Perpetual Possibility (1942; Fig. 72) Merrild pooled and dripped house paint onto a fluid surface, which he then tipped, running the colors together to create unexpected effects. These paintings are reminiscent of Onslow-Ford's coulages of 1939 and Pollock's drip paintings of five years later. As Jules Langsner eloquently stated, "The impetus to invention came from the necessity to give form to a considered view of existence. For Merrild, that view was rooted in his belief in the life-giving properties of chance, of growth, of discovery, of susceptibility to that which is new, untapped, of one's own time."[14]

Other artists who periodically exhibited with the Post-Surrealists were students of Feitelson's: Philip Guston (then Goldstein) and Reuben Kadish, who together painted a 1937 fresco for the Los Angeles Tubercular Sanitorium at the City of Hope under Feitelson's supervision.[15] The fresco, which takes alchemy as its subject matter, was one of the few murals completed for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Southern California that shows any modernist experimentation at all. Guston and Kadish were also politically active, later becoming members of the American Artists Congress, which provided a forum for leftist political ideas.[16] Even so, Bretonian surrealism, which sought the transformation of social structures through revolution, was far more political and leftist-oriented than Post-Surrealism.[17]

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