War Wounded (1960)
Last time the convergence of artistic creativity and critical thinking inspired the rise of the art as a political movement was during the first two decades of the last century. Fascism in Germany & Italy and communism in Russia brought an end to the inspirational hopes of the artist communities in these leading countries, while Franco’s brutal rise to power ended the dreams of young artists from all over the world who not only used their tools but also took up arms to fight against fascism in the Spanish civil war – to no avail. Thereafter by and large it was (and still is) only a few individual artists who still spoke (and speak) up up against oppression and social, economic and political injustice – through their art and actions.
One of those artists was Irving Norman (1906-1989) who witnessed and actively took part in some of the monumental social and political upheaval of his time. Norman was a Jewish immigrant from Poland (he was born Irving Noachowitz), who came to the United States in 1923, living first in New York and then Los Angeles. His already tumultuous life was forever transformed in 1938 when he went to Spain to defend the Republic against the fascism of General Francisco Franco. Norman did not think he would survive the Spanish Civil War, but he ultimately returned to California [where he settled and] began to express the atrocities he witnessed through drawing and then painting.
The Bus (1953)
I find Norman’s paintings both extremely beautiful and unsettling. They are bold, striking and eye-catching while at the same time arresting. Charley Parker (of Argon Zark! fame) quite passionately describes Norman’s work on his blog as “… powerful, visually and intellectually rich and complex, masterfully painted and emotionally haunting. [Norman] painted dramatic, large scale canvasses exploding with colour and detail, in which dozens, even hundreds of figures dance the dances of humanity in the throes of being at their most vulnerable, their most cruel, their most fragile, their most cursed and most noble in suffering”. Parker also talks about why Norman even today unjustifiably is still not recognised as a great 20th century painter because of decade of resistance within the political and arts establishments.
According to the Irving Norman website, the artist “saw everything in human terms. His paintings are monumental in scale, yet they teem with detail and are populated by swarming, clone-like figures. These figures are constricted by small urban spaces, caught in the crunch of the urban rush hour, and decimated by the pain of poverty and the horror of war. These themes manifest Norman’s perceptions of modern life and the society in which he lived …”. And while this society was not open to his messages, Norman nevertheless did not give up speaking his mind through his brush strokes and standing up for the truth he believed in. He certainly pulled no punches and his paintings are “profound, shocking, and revealing”. ‘”‘He scares people. . . ,” explained San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein, “Norman’s social criticism hits below the belt.” Unmasking the realities of human nature and the contemporary society in which we live, Norman himself aimed only “to tell the truth of our time”. “I try to go beyond illusions,” he explained, “that doesn’t always make me popular.”
Norman harnessed colossal scale and infinite detail to make the immensity and atrocities of war and contemporary society comprehensible. He didn’t just paint, he let his conscience speak his truth and conviction, which combined with his art lifts him high above most of his peers past and present.
From Work (1978)
Related Figures (1962)
The links below are from Charley Parker’s site and give access to further material on Irving Norman:
- Mark Vallen, on his “Art for a Change” blog, provides an overview on Norman’s life and his struggle with the various forces inspiring and resisting him
- The official Irving Norman website which not only provides background information on Norman’s life but also has a great collection of images of his work
- The Traditional Fine Arts Organisation offers an essay on the artist and his work together with some larger size images of his paintings
- There is a travelling museum exhibit called Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism, that originated at the Crocker Art Museum and then moved to the Pasadena Museum of California Art. It is now at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University until October 20, 2007, and will then go to the Katzen Art Center, at American University in Washington, D.C.
- Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism is a book that accompanies the exhibition