Is the work of Peter Blume the first major work of American surrealism?
Like a lot of surreal things, it is and it isn’t.
In the 1920s and 30s, surrealism was not so much a movement you dabbled in, but a club you joined: literally, your name was on a list maintained by the Europeans who developed surrealist theory — in particular the pope of surrealism, Andre Breton.
Blume’s name was not on that list.
“He’s always careful to say, ‘I’m not a joiner. I’m going to be part of that movement,'” said Bob Cozzolino, curator of “Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis.” “But he is willing to take from that movement what he feels is useful to him.”
The retrospective Cozzolino put together at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is Blume’s first in over 40 years. It includes early showstoppers like “South of Scranton,” a landscape of disassociated imagery inspired in part by a car trip through Pennsylvania. When it won the Carnegie International art show in 1934, people complained that it was not art at all.
Controversy followed Blume when he finished “Eternal City” in 1937, an anti-fascist comment about the rise of Mussolini in the artist’s beloved Italy. During a time of modernist expressionism, Blume insisted on representational figures and finely drafted compositions with sharply illuminated highlights.
“For the next couple years there is this argument in the art world if this is the epitome of good political painting, or if it falls dead because of its representational style,” said Cozzolino. “The responsibility weighed heavily on him.”
Blume was a shining light of the American art world, calling people like Alexander Calder and Arshile Gorky friends. But in 1938 he hit a creative wall. After finishing a commission for Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann to be included in their Frank Lloyd Wright house “Fallingwater,” Blume could not figure out how to keep working. The demands of the commission and the controversy surrounding “Eternal City” exhausted him.
To get out of his slump, he turned to automatic drawing — drawing while he was half-awake, in a trance state, or otherwise distracted.
Automatic writing of words was used in Freudian therapy (and spiritualist mediums) to allow patients to tap into unconscious states. It was used to help shellshocked World War I soldiers recover in psychiatric wards in Europe. The technique was later adopted by surrealists to bypass their conscious minds.
“Andre Masson, through his dialogues with [Andre] Breton, starts to appropriate the idea of automatic writing towards automatic drawing,” said Kevin Richards, chair of the PAFA liberal arts department, who teaches art theory. “To move away from the consciousness, and try to get into a quasi-trance state through doodling as an initiatory point to create new compositional devices.”
Blume used the surrealist technique to begin making drawings without an end product in mind. Those drawings (his agent insisted they were automatic drawings while Blume insisted they were just “doodles”) ultimately built “The Rock,” a major work about nature and modernity.
“[His] work is highly crafted. There’s a lot of attention to detail, a lot of attention to the relationship between things to space,” said Cozzolino. “Automatic drawing is supposed to free yourself up from all those kinds of head trips, the expectations your art has.”
Blume’s work may be somewhat psychedelic (his later landscapes in a bright technicolor palette anticipate the color field paintings of the 1960s) but they are always rooted in reality. He drew from life and most of his images, if not all, can be traced to a particular thing he witnessed.
Blume would combine disparate objects and actions and vistas into a single viewing plane, almost like collage, that shook up individual meanings to create something subjective and, perhaps, unconscious. “Recollection of the Flood,” his painting about the Italian city of Florence’s recovery from the devastating 1966 flood of the Arno River, may have veiled references to Blume’s Jewish background.
“He’s saying, I may be looking at something, but how I feel about it is just as real as it’s physical appearance,” said Cozzolino. “That transformation, as it goes through the artist and they put their temperament on, makes the real more real.”