The giant canvasses teem with masses of clone-like people. Some are squeezed into windowless cubicles; some are trapped in the crush of rush hour, others dismembered by bomb blasts. Whether the violence is caused by the intensity of modern urban life or combat, in Irving Norman's paintings humanity hurtles along with shoulders tensed and eyes closed.
"There is more to art than pretty pictures. It can be an examination of human nature, and we can learn from that. We become aware that not everything is perfect and beautiful in the world."
It was the 25th anniversary of USU's Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, and what better way to celebrate than with its largest exhibition ever. The drawings and paintings in Dark Metropolis may have struck some patrons as overly confrontational for such an occasion, but the shock of recognition is what the painter, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States who survived World War I and the Spanish Civil War, intended with his social surrealism.
Museum director Victoria Rowe characterized the exhibit as "a blockbuster." The term applied not only to the record-breaking attendance but the scope of the exhibit and its impact on viewers. Only three other museums in the country raised the money to exhibit the most comprehensive retrospective yet of a deceased painter whose reputation grows exponentially with the passage of time. Eighteen years after his death, Irving Norman has finally earned his due.
"When people look back at the 20th century, these paintings will resonate. They will tell us a lot about this time, much more so than far better known works today," said exhibit curator Scott Shields of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California.
The exhibit of Norman's lifetime body of work, said Rowe, is the perfect "metaphor for why we exist, why we collect what we collect. There is more to art than pretty pictures. It can be an examination of human nature, and we can learn from that. We become aware that not everything is perfect and beautiful in the world."
Nora Eccles Harrison understood the multiple purposes of art when she donated her ceramics collection to the museum and funded the building. Harrison was a potter herself, who drew inspiration from regular gallery and museum visits. Her descendants continue that legacy through their donations.
Grand-nephew George Wanlass '71Att has been the guiding force behind the museum's acquisitions, including Norman's "Blind Momentum." That pivotal work in Irving's development as an artist was featured on the cover of the
Dark Metropolis catalogue. Wanlass' critical eye and bargain hunting instincts are responsible for building a collection of Western modern art that is unrivalled in the interior West.
Norman's works, painted in California but researched in New York and other megatropolises in Europe and Mexico, comprise one of many temporary exhibits which over the years have complemented the museum's permanent collection of Los Angeles post-surrealism, Bay Area abstract expressionism and San Francisco funk. Rounding out the viewing experience are Native American artifacts displayed in the adjacent Chase Fine Arts Center and Santa Fe transcendentalist paintings that rotate through museum galleries.
University and public school classes, church groups and community book clubs view the exhibits, fulfilling the museum's educational mission. In recent years writing classes in the English department have shown up with notebooks to record their responses to a particular work for an essay assignment. These interactions between witness and actualized artistic vision reinforce the concept behind USU's Caine School of the Arts, which seeks to dissolve artificial boundaries between disciplines.
Special events such as the panel discussion with Scott Shields and Norman's widow Hela break down barriers between so-called experts and neophytes. As with other forums of this nature, students asked lots of questions.
From Shields, students learned that Irving "had multiple masterpieces. Then there is the sheer technical accomplishment. There are 5,000 to 10,000 human figures in most of his paintings, and he did each composition four-to-five times, from drawing to painting. It took one to three years to complete a work. I don't know of any other modern artist with that much tenacity."
After Norman's harrowing experience in the Spanish Civil War, the students learned, he dedicated his life to exorcising the ghosts. As one of the few survivors in the Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers, he came to believe that we have created a culture of war that perpetuates itself beyond the battlefield, in our industrial and urban way of life.
Recognizing his genius, Hela was willing to support her husband as he painted his way out of the abyss. The older she gets, the more she sees in each work. Now that her husband's paintings are finally being shown as they were meant to be shown, in spacious public spaces, his determination "to tell the truth" and "change our behavior" is reaching larger and larger audiences. Norman had only two major solo exhibits during his lifetime; almost all of his shows were confined to small galleries.
"His eyes were always open, watching," Hela recalled. Eighteen years after his death, and 25 years after the founding of the art museum, his paintings, and the museum with the foresight to exhibit them, challenge us to ponder our precarious place in the modern world.
At the entry to Dark Metropolis, visitors were greeted with this quote from Irving Norman: "Our art museums are, or should be, our contemporary cathedrals. ... These are places for contemplating our human existence."
Photo GalleryMouse over thumbnail for detail
Blind Momentum, 1960 by Irving Norman; oil on canvas; Collectoin of Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art,
Utah State University; Marie Eccles Caine Foundation Gift
Nora Eccles Harrison
Museum of Art