This essay began as a sort of sequel to one John Berger wrote almost twenty-five years ago*. He looked at Francisco de Zurbaran’s painting, The Holy House of Nazareth, and examined the strange mix of physical and metaphysical space in it, and how the center constituted a “hinge” that held them together.
Spatially the painting makes no sense. It has the feel of a collage. The flowers, the doves, and the square of sky – not exactly a window, as it appears flat and laid atop the wall rather than recessed into it – seem imported from some other painting. On the table there are several objects, but they are not arranged as a still life. The symbolism of various elements is plain, if you known your Christian iconography, and is laid out without need for connecting elements. Everyone who looked at this painting was expected to understand it at once.
Mary and young Jesus are presented in a flat plane in the front of the painting. This gives it the feel of a stage set. Mary looks askance, but she is not looking at her son; rather, she looks beyond him. Her eyes seem heavy as if with worry; all of her seems weighted down. Look at the solidity of her hands, and how her cheek is pressed into her left hand. Jesus, by contrast, seems weightless, in his own indefinite space, which Berger describes as “a space that is indefinable, and opens on to angels.” Although he is close by his mother he does not look at her. They relate through the space between them, linked by the oddly tilted table, which awkwardly intersects with the back of Jesus’ head, then angles backward to make space for the Virgin. What connects mother and child more intimately is drops – hers tears, his blood.
I thought to return to Zurbaran because of Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis, an exhibition which recently showed at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) and is now open at (full disclosure: my former employer) the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Note: don’t call it WAMA. Few people like the acronym.) An important part of the exhibition is Blume’s painting, The Italian Straw Hat, shown above. It is in some ways the opposite of The Holy House of Nazareth: devoid of people, but a complete environment that carries its own metaphysical weight.
As with Zurbaran, space here is inconsistent, but Peter Blume is different because the dislocation is most visible outside the windows. Inside there is a subtler, dreamlike emphasis on the architecture and the objects in the room that give it an intensity usually referred to as “dreamlike,” though it has little to do with the actual experience of a dream. Dreams have an inner consistency, one vastly different from the waking world, which was deeply attractive to Surrealism. As a result, a Blume looks more whole than a Zurabaran such as The Holy House of Nazareth, yet it is not. Without the pre-existing symbolism of Christianity to use as shorthand, Blume must bring a consistent otherness, one that calls attention to itself, to the scene. When Zurbaran succeeds, the discontinuity is lost to the viewer. A painting need not make sense spatially if the artist is good enough to convince the viewer that unity exists in some other fashion. For Blume, the space outside the door or the space within the imagination have parity; in Zurbaran, the background serves to limit space, a curtain before which the mystery is performed.
Blume sits in an important position in American art; a Modernist who evoked folk art, Regionalism and Surrealism at once, as though bridging a hitherto unknown gap in art history from Thomas Hart Benton to Remedios Varo. You could put his work next to either artist’s work and see affinities. If Blume has been overshadowed by the world-changing movements that came in his lifetime as well as his own limited output, he remains an important second-rank artist.
What Blume and some other Surrealists share with Zurbaran is religiosity. Surrealism’s anti-religious stance, which was really anti-clerical, is more about egalitarianism. In surrealism everything is raised or lowered to the same level – the direction is irrelevant, for the result is identical. The earthly becomes divine and the divine becomes linked to the earthly. The breaking of that equality is what makes Dali’s late religious works so problematic. Surrealism is a deeply spiritual art.
Let me clarify, as “spiritual” and “religious” are often bandied about casually. Spirituality is akin to bedrock. It’s just there, pre-existing, natural. Religion is the building humans have built atop this foundation. If the building is ugly or unsafe, many people are inclined to blame the foundation. Where the “new atheists” fail is that so many of them are unable to differentiate between the man-made components of belief and those which are innate, and perhaps even hard-wired into our neurological makeup. Surrealism, by creating its own building, threw aside both the strengths and weaknesses of previous systems and substituted its own, limited, and even decorative (in the pejorative sense) liturgy. It’s no surprise that Surrealism with the capital letter has died away. Yet, like the best of religious art, there is a clear sense of a defining worldview, a consistency that is reassuring and even attractive. Blume, though a minor surrealist, presents such a worldview. He is the Zurbaran not of his day and his unique place, but of a moment.
American Surrealism, like it’s Impressionist counterpart, is a different animal from the European model, and usually regarded as the…”poor cousin” seems harsh. Let’s say, the “upper middle-class cousin;” a bit sheltered; not quite in tune with the currents that started the European versions; in its own world. This provided the opportunity, as with American Impressionism, to follow its own path. In Surrealist art on either side of the Atlantic, artists found their own paths, creating a multi-branched path that led into comics and films both live-action and animated. Blume has not had a museum retrospective since 1976, making Nature and Metamorphosis a welcome arrival.
Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis runs from July 3–September 20, 2015 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford CT.
*John Berger, “A Household,” Keeping A Rendezvous, Pantheon Books, 1991, pp. 169-178