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January 25, 2014 – April 27, 2014

installation view of an exhibition with an arrangement of walls


Real/Surreal explores the interconnections between the real and the imagined in American art in the years before, during, and immediately after the Second World War (1939–1945). Surrealism was an international movement in literature and art that originated in Paris in the 1920s. Through the incorporation of chance effects and unexpected juxtapositions, its practitioners wished to visualize the imaginative workings of the inner mind, especially of dreams. While some employed abstraction and used the subconscious to directly influence the structure of their work, others developed a meticulously detailed realism with strong roots in representational painting. This latter vein of Surrealism flourished most famously in the art of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, and it influenced a host of artists in the United States, many of whom are represented in Real/Surreal. As the movement spread internationally and some of its major figures moved to this country in the upheavals of war, its ideas became more diffuse and infiltrated both art and popular culture.

The term realism has many connotations but in its broadest sense refers to believable depictions of what we see. Most of the artists in Real/Surreal were academically trained in this tradition and had a full command of illusionistic painting and drawing techniques. Those American artists directly connected to European Surrealism or strongly influenced by it, such as Peter Blume, Federico Castellón, and May Ray, used these techniques to subvert and alter the observable world and create fanciful imagery. Harder to categorize are those artists whose work has certain qualities in common with Surrealism but who tinkered more subtly with reality rather than dramatically changing it, creating a plausible reality that was magical or fantastic. Many of these artists, including Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker, have been referred to as Magic Realists. Other artists, like Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, who eschewed the overtly fantastic, may still be associated with the Surrealists and Magic Realists in creating enigmatic, often haunting, works of art. All of these artists, in their various ways, wished to find an uncanny space between reality and the improbable. Sigmund Freud, who pioneered modern ideas about the psyche and whose theories were seminal to Surrealism, posited in a 1919 essay that the uncanny happens when “the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced,” a fitting description of the work in this exhibition.

Exhibition Support

Real/Surreal was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Unless otherwise noted, all works are from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Additions to the exhibition are drawn from the permanent collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Generous support for Real/Surreal has been provided by Mary Ellyn and Joe Sensenbrenner; Mildred and Marv Conney; Ellen S. Rosner and Paul J. Reckwerdt; James and Sylvia Vaccaro; Peggy and Tom Pyle; Marvin J. Levy; the Steinhauer Charitable Trust; Nancy Doll and Michael Bernhard; Deirdre Garton; JoAnne Robbins and David Falk; Hooper Corporation/General Heating and Air Conditioning; McGladrey; Webcrafters-Frautschi Foundation; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.