MMoCA depicts ‘Curious Worlds’ of Ellen Lanyon
The realm of surrealism isn’t owned by men like Salvador Dalí, René Magritte or Marcel Duchamp. Consider Méret Oppenheim, famous for her 1936 work “Breakfast in Fur” in which she covered a cup, saucer and spoon with fur from Chinese gazelle. Or Frida Kahlo, the 20th-century Mexican painter who always denied any surrealist connection but nonetheless draws on some of the same ideas in her work.
More timely to consider is the work of Ellen Lanyon, a luminary of the Chicago School who helped introduce the phrase “magic realism” into the public realm. Starting this month, art fans will have a chance to examine 14 of Lanyon’s paintings and prints in Curious Worlds: The Art of Ellen Lanyon, on display through April 17 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Lanyon’s highly expressive style helped push the dreamscapes of Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and even Pablo Picasso into kinder, gentler and, ultimately, more accessible imagery, helping to create a new art genre in the process.
The Chicago School, of which Lanyon was part, was known for its figurative and accessible style, and its artists occasionally threaded their imagery with fantastic themes, according to Richard Axsom, senior curator for MMOCA. Lanyon picked up that thread in 1969, when her former pop-art approach to people, landscapes and sports figures began taking on a more imaginative bent. Curious Worlds focuses on work done between the years 1969 and 1984, which the artist called her “magic” period.
“Ellen Lanyon is the most highly acknowledged female magic realist and that’s a title I think she deserves,” Axsom says. “I think viewers will really enjoy the show.”
The differences between Lanyon’s form of magic realism and more classic surrealism are subtle as well as substantive. Surrealism took shape between WWI and WWII and was primarily a European art movement dominated by men, which Axsom says accounts for the lack of more familiar female surrealists.
“Surrealism’s primary aim was to make visible the unconscious through what Dalí called ‘picture postcards of dreams,’ with imagery that tended toward edgy, ominous hallucination,” says Axsom, who taught art history at the University of Michigan for 30 years.
“Lanyon’s magic realism tends to be much softer, lyrical and subtle with a feminine sensibility to the work,” Axsom adds. “It’s something that’s generous, not cynical, with an apparent concern for the environment and a strong feminist streak that is both maternal and nurturing.”
Lanyon’s style shift in 1969 led her to draw on curios and collectables from her family’s attic that had special meaning for her. She began combining these items with natural images of plants and animals in unusual ways in her paintings, the curator explains.
“Birds, amphibians, lizards, bunnies and mice were mixed up in unexpected combinations,” Axsom explains. “Surrealists would say that the approach puts your mind in play through a wide range of free associations.”
Lanyon’s interest in the natural aspects of magic realism were further heightened in 1976 when the U.S. Department of the Interior commissioned the artist to do a painting called “America ‘76” that would tour the country in support of the U.S. bicentennial celebration. Lanyon was sent to the Florida Everglades to capture the environment and wildlife. Her large two-panel canvas didn’t quite deliver the message the government was seeking.
“Her feeling was that what she was seeing in Florida was endangered,” Axsom says. “The Everglades were already threatened and you can see that captured in her work.”
Lanyon’s work following the Florida trip began to dwell even more heavily on the fragility of nature and the interconnectedness of living things, the curator says. Two of the show’s black-and-white lithographs, “Black Egret” and “Eagle Beak,” both created in 1985, show the majestic birds in habitats almost too pristine to be real. The swirl of activity pictured in the works reflects the artist’s love of nature and memorializes scenes she may already be too late to save.
The show also features a large, fourpanel work called “Chromos: Winter I, Autumn II, Spring III, Summer IV” (1982– 83) that Axsom says serves as an allegorical approach to life’s cyclical nature and embodies many of the tromp-l’oeil techniques associated with magic realism. Lanyon departs from the familiar approach, shuffling the seasons out of order in her presentation to accentuate commonality of colors, and animals and birds play major roles in all four panels.
These and other works in the exhibit combine to give viewers greater insight into Lanyon’s style, the Chicago School and its contributions to 20th-century art, Axsom says.
“One Chicago critic in the 1960s referred to Lanyon’s work as that of ‘a Cornbelt surrealist,’” Axsom says. “I think that’s called damning with faint praise, but I love that description.”