Surrealism: The Conjured Life presents more than 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs that demonstrate the deep currents that Surrealism sent through the international art world—and especially through Chicago—since its emergence in the first half of the twentieth century. A global movement that encompassed a wide number of art forms, including film, theater, poetry, and literature, Surrealism came of age with poet André Breton’s formal declaration in 1924. This deeply emotional and psychological art form flourished in the 1930s and 1940s—turbulent times of economic instability, rapidly changing social mores, and war.
Chicago collectors brought the European visual arts aspect of Surrealism to their hometown. Joseph and Jory Shapiro and Edwin and Lindy Bergman traveled to Europe, where they met members of the Surrealist group including Paul Delvaux, Matta, and Magritte, piquing their interest in this “art of the irrational.” Mary and Earle Ludgin collected in depth the works of eccentric American painter Forrest Bess. These arts patrons were among the founders of the MCA, and when the museum began collecting in the mid-1970s, they donated major works by those we now consider “classical” Surrealists, forming an early and continuing collection strength. These artworks also proved inspirational to generations of Chicago-based artists, from the immediate postwar group dubbed the Monster Roster to the Hairy Who and others, a further expression of the continuing lure of “the conjured life” that results in strange, often magical, and sometimes disturbing, imagery.
Though often framed as a largely historical movement, the freedom afforded by Surrealism to explore both formal issues—including experimenting with new materials and techniques—and personal expression has continued to inspire artists to the present day. Thus besides presenting works by the founders of the movement, the surrealist tendency is traced in two other groupings: Surrealist-related works from the 1950s to the present, and Chicago connections. Artists including Balthus, Leonora Carrington, and Dorothea Tanning round out the presentation of the classical Surrealists. Major international contemporary artists such as Lee Bontecou, Mark Grotjahn, Wangechi Mutu, Cindy Sherman, and Francesca Woodman represent the stylistically diverse Surrealist-related grouping. Chicago-based artists on view include Gertrude Abercrombie, Leon Golub, Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg, and H. C. Westermann.
The exhibition highlights one of the most traditional values in the visual arts: looking. All of the artworks that populate The Conjured Life bear close scrutiny, both in observing and exploring the subject matter and noting the various visual strategies and formal means, from the straightforward representation of Magritte to the low-relief plaster technique of Max Ernst; from the shamanistic deer skin, wood, and felt used by Jimmie Durham to the full-size rubber life raft cast in bronze by Jeff Koons.
The exhibition is curated by Lynne Warren, Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The exhibition is presented in the Sylvia Neil and Daniel Fischel Galleries on the museum’s second floor.
The MCA staff is deeply saddened by the passing of Howard Stone (1930–2015). Howard and his wife, Donna, generously supported the MCA and donated more than 90 works of art to the MCA's collection, including the three Francesca Woodman photographs included in this exhibition. We remember Howard with fondness and gratitude.
Support for Surrealism: The Conjured Life is generously provided by The Pritzker Traubert Collection Exhibition Fund, Helen and Sam Zell, Carol and Douglas Cohen, Carolyn S. Bucksbaum, Anonymous, Betsy and Andrew Rosenfield, Richard and Ellen Sandor Family, and Mary E. Ittelson.