Strange visions in Chicago

Frances Brent

Frances Brent Exhibitions

Under the shadow of the Depression, at the same time Chicago was developing its reputation as a gritty, neon-lit city of realists—from big-shouldered street toughs to Saul Bellow—a small circle of local artists was hard at work in the realm of dreams. The Arts Club of Chicago is presenting an intriguing exhibition, A Home for Surrealism: Fantastic Painting in Midcentury Chicago, showcasing eight of these visionary artists, who painted and exhibited in the Chicago area between 1931 and 1970. They include Eldzier Cortor, Julio de Diego, Dorothea Tanning, Ivan Albright (the subject of a summer show at the Art Institute of Chicago), and Gertrude Abercrombie, whose work was on view this winter in a show that debuted at the Elmhurst Museum (see story in March/April issue), among others.

An American Interior by John Wilde, 1942. Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, acquisition with funds from the Art Ball 2015.

Part of a loosely connected group (several of them worked for the WPA or were associated with the School of the Art Institute, and all shared a passion for jazz), they created uncanny narratives filled with images of entranced women, telephones, butterflies, cats, the night sky, and architectural ruins. As the title of the show suggests, many Chicago institutions, among them the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Katharine Kuh Gallery, and the Arts Club itself, nurtured a homegrown brand of surrealism. The paintings present fantastical imagined spaces and dislocated, eerie landscapes. One of the delights of the show is John Wilde’s large and meticulously detailed An American Interior. It depicts a mustachioed man with a cane and a Derby hat, standing in front of a group of what look like theater scrims. While planets and stars float overhead, other male figures march behind, and an assortment of random objects—a flowerpot, an umbrella stand, a chair and a ball, a drawing of a plover—convey a sense of the sundry things that might be drifting through his mind.

Full Moon by Julia Thecla, 1945. Photograph courtesy of Schwartz Fine Arts, Chicago.

A Home for Surrealism: Fantastic Painting in Midcentury Chicago • Arts Club of Chicago • to August 17 • artsclubchicago.org