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Review: Helen Lundeberg: Enigma of Reality

As a student, Helen Lundeberg (1908–1999) thought she might become a “minor poet,” as she put it. Fortunately, fate had other plans. By the time she graduated with a major in English from California’s Pasadena Junior College in 1930, the Great Depression had set in, leaving no extant funds for young Lundeberg to continue her education at a four-year university. Instead, a sympathetic family friend, noting her talent for drawing, offered to send her to art school. Yet the surreal paintings in Lundeberg’s exhibition “Enigma of Reality” made clear that her literary inclinations never went away, as she sublimated them into her art with an emotional poetic force.

Lundeberg was still developing her unique voice when she painted the earliest work in this show, Portrait of Inez, 1933, which she likely made around the time she finished her studies at Pasadena’s Stickney Memorial School of Fine Arts. Demonstrating her early preoccupation with classical subject matter, the artist depicts her younger sister in a tightly cropped composition recalling early Renaissance portraits. Rendered in oil on Celotex particleboard, the work’s surface has the toothy, weathered appearance of an old fresco. Inez’s stark, scrupulously defined profile appears almost numismatically chiseled, like the namesake figure adorning the obverse of a Mercury dime. Sitting with hands folded calmly in her lap before a gloomy riparian landscape, she seems musingly resigned yet also determined, perhaps betokening the toll the Depression and their mother’s chronic illness would take on the sisters.

The following year Lundeberg, along with her former painting teacher and eventual husband Lorser Feitelson, cofounded a movement the pair dubbed New Classicism, better known as Post-Surrealism. She wrote a manifesto stating that, in contrast to the European Surrealists, who emphasized subconsciously minded automatism, the New Classicists sought to employ principles of rationally organized pictorial structure that would appeal to a logical intellect and induce “an ordered, pleasurable, introspective activity” within the viewer. Lundeberg later departed from the rigid doctrines she outlined in that 1934 essay, but the contemplative spirit of Post-Surrealism would permeate her work for decades to come. See, for instance, the cryptic views and interior corridors featured in the canvases Enigma of Reality, 1955, and The Mirror, (The Mirror III or The Mirror and Pink Shell), 1956, which serve as points of departure for pondering the mystery of existence and perception.

Also featured were a selection of moody, intimately scaled paintings that were created in reaction to the massive scale and impersonal content of the Works Progress Administration murals Lundeberg was commissioned to make at the time. These sparse, tenebrous scenes of vast deserts, desolate beaches, empty rooms, and seascapes seem as though they are all different locales from the same serene and eerie universe. A self-described “armchair traveler” who never left the United States, the reclusive painter was a voracious reader whose vivid imagination transported her to far-flung lands. Even what might have otherwise been an ordinary depiction of flowers in a vase, Pansies, 1947, becomes a kind of landscape—the juncture between the table and wall in the picture is a horizon, where cloudy sky meets terrain as far as the eye can see.

In Selma, 1957, a neatly manicured hand holds a pair of asteraceous yellow posies beneath a painted portrait of the artist’s mother, Selma Edmund Lundeberg, who died in 1941. The likeness was taken from a black-and-white photograph of Selma at the age of twenty, but here she appears in full color, radiantly frozen in time. The right third of the canvas is dominated by a bleak landscape whose austerity bespeaks the artist’s sorrow, while stylistically presaging her imminent transition to compositions formed entirely of hard-edge color blocks. Another pair of posies withers on the windowsill; in this empty space, one might imagine the artist’s father, who died in 1950. Yet the other two blossoms, in the subject’s grasp, remain full of élan vital, like Helen and Inez, who as children loved to bring home bunches of wildflowers. One could readily imagine the artist wishing her mother still lived, the offering of freshly picked blooms a gesture of remembrance and enduring love.

— Annabel Osberg

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