CLEVELAND (September 13, 2016) – Recent acquisitions by the Cleveland Museum of Art include Surrealist André Masson’s Paysage au serpent (Landscape with Snake), a rare example of the artist’s automatic painting technique; a new, monumental drawing by leading contemporary artist Kara Walker; and a photograph by Shirin Neshat, an artist who creates still photographs, videos and films that explore gender roles in post-revolutionary Iran.
André Masson’s Paysage au serpent (Landscape with Snake)
Automatic painting created during the most important period of artist’s career
In 1924 André Masson joined the Surrealist movement and began making automatic drawings using a technique that emphasized working spontaneously and intuitively, allowing unconscious thought associations to emerge during the creative process. Inspired by Sigmund Freud and the emergence of psychoanalysis, the Surrealists believed human thoughts and actions are controlled more by the unconscious than the conscious mind, and that true reality can only be grasped by unlocking the secrets of these hidden mental structures. Accordingly, the Surrealists developed methods of exploring unconscious thought such as dream analysis and automatic association, achieved through rapid-fire word games and automatic painting. Masson and Joan Miró, who shared adjoining studios from 1921 to 1926, are widely recognized as the leading proponents and pioneers of automatic painting.
Masson painted Landscape with Snake in 1927, the second half of a two-year period that has been described as the most historically significant in his career. Working rapidly and without stopping to finish or complete forms, he applied fluid, gestural strokes of reddish brown, black, gray, yellow and white over an ochre background, and gouged through areas of still-wet impastoed paint with forceful, flowing strokes of graphite or pencil. While forms occasionally coalesce enough to suggest a snake, bird, or water passing diagonally through a mysterious primeval forest, perhaps alluding to the snake in the Garden of Eden or archetypal memories buried deep within the unconscious, the emphasis remains on the raw, dynamic, energetic painting process.
By abandoning traditional spatial depth and perspective, including the structured geometry of Cubism, Masson forged a radically new form of automatic gestural painting, a momentous development in the history of art. Scholars divide Surrealism into two distinct branches: the veristic or illusionistic dream imagery championed by Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, and the more abstract style of psychic automatic painting developed by Masson and Miró. The latter branch was arguably a more revolutionary and influential development than the former, and the stream-of-consciousness paintings Masson produced from 1926–27 were crucial to the development of Surrealism and rank among the artist’s finest works.
Landscape with Snake is a superb example of automatic painting and one of Masson’s finest works from this seminal moment in his artistic development and is in excellent condition. The painting will go on view in the museum’s European modern art gallery 225 on September 17.
The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads
Recent large-scale work on paper by Kara Walker
Since her work appeared in a show at the Drawing Center in New York in 1994, Kara Walker has become one of the most well-known, accomplished artists of the past two decades, continually examining the inequality of black lives in the United States via the country’s haunting past. The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads is one of the largest and most mesmerizing works on paper that Walker has created to date. In this artwork, one can sense the freedom of Walker’s hand, the loosening of her usually more rigid depictions of human figures, as well as an incredible sense of movement and dynamism. Her iconic silhouettes are referenced by three pale, shadowy figures emerging from the melee. Here, the past, the present, and possibly the future of Walker’s oeuvre are intertwined.
The political group referenced in the title of this work, The Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group, was founded in 1968. One of their primary goals was to create an independent African American country situated in the southeastern United States. As the title suggests, this work imagines the group at a moment of reckoning. The tumultuous composition raises the question of what the consequences would have been if the utopian plan had gained momentum.
The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads is one of a suite of drawings stemming from Walker’s influential time spent in Rome earlier this year and is included in the museum’s current exhibition The Ecstasy of St. Kara (on view through December 31). Crossroads is a transformative work in the museum’s contemporary art collection.
The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads, 2016. Kara Walker (American, b. 1969). Graphite, raw pigment, and watercolor and collage on paper; 273.1 x 522 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art.
Fervor, by Shirin Neshat
Artist examines tensions between gender roles in post-revolutionary Iran
Shirin Neshat is a New York-based artist who creates still photographs, videos, and films that explore the role of women in post-revolutionary Iran. Born and raised in Iran, she is one of the most important and earliest artists from that region to impact the contemporary Western art scene. The newly acquired, large-scale still photograph relates to the video Fervor, created when Neshat was artist in residence at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and is the third in a trilogy examining tensions between male and female roles in Iran.
The video compares an ancient story of adultery with a fictional one about sexual attraction between a man in Western garb and a veiled woman in a present-day Islamic state. This scene from the video depicts a gathering where the audience listens to the tale of the adultery of Zoleikha and Youssef from the Qur’an, blaming the woman for her seductive gaze. The still photograph shows an audience of men and women separated by a tall cloth barrier and seen from behind. Only one face is visible: that of a woman who stands and stares across the wall. A direct, open gaze by a woman at a man is considered transgressive in fundamentalist Islam. With her gesture, she rejects societal norms. The image suggests tensions that are universal: male versus female, personal desire versus cultural taboos. This work will go on view in December 2017 and is purchased with funds donated by William and Margaret Lipscomb in celebration of the museum’s centennial.
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