Sylvia Fein lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a time of social and economic turmoil throughout America. Regionalism was a significant style in American painting exemplified by the rural and small town scenes of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. The Farm Security Administration promoted photography to document the social and economic decline of America. However, in contrast with these artists, Fein preferred paintings originating in her imagination, fantasies and the Surreal.
Sylvia Fein Surreal Nature opened January 18 and continued through February 22, 2014 at the Krowswork Gallery and Project Space in Oakland, California. The exhibition consists of fifty-five egg tempera on board paintings and several drawings, all dating from 1942 through 2013.
Born in Madison Wisconsin on November 20, 1919 the middle of three daughters to Alfred and Elizabeth Fein. Her father was an attorney and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and her mother, Elizabeth, a pianist, and a graduate of the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music. Fein attended Milwaukee public schools and during high school enrolled in art classes and developed a love of drawing.
Beginning in 1938 and through 1942, she attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she studied drawing, design, commercial art and art history. While studying a variety of art history classes, Fein was especially attracted to sixteenth century German art, Persian and Mughal miniature and manuscript painting. James Watrous, Professor of Art and Art History, at the university, was especially influential as he taught classes in Old Master techniques. Through Watrous she learned to paint with egg tempera, a technique popular in the early Renaissance, which is a mixture of egg, distilled water and powdered pigment, a process which she continues to use. The students created unique gouaches, encaustic, egg and oil, egg and water, egg and varnish, and made lead and silver points, India ink and collected goose quills on local farms to make pen and reeds.
During this time she began associating with a group of Madison artists who, although using traditional techniques, valued a personal imagery which explored the irrational and fantastic, closely related to Surrealism. While aware of both the Magic Realists and the Surrealists, they aligned themselves with neither group. The Madison artists included Gertrude Abercrombie (1907-1977), Marshall Glasier (1902-1988), Dudley Huppler(1917-1988), Karl Priebe (1914-1976) and John Wilde (1919-2006). All were profoundly affected by the Depression and World War II which caused them to pursue the irrational in their art which reflected their world. Although John Steuart Curry was artist-in-residence at the university from 1936-1946, he had no influence on these artists.
However, Glasier, a magnetic personality, was especially influential within the university community and on the group. He had studied at The Art Students League from 1932 to 1935 with George Grosz (1893-1959), the Berlin Dadaist and New Objectivity painter, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Glasier had a studio near the university and it was Glasier who taught Fine how to draw, a skill which they both highly valued. Glasier, had strong connections to Surrealism. He exhibited his art at the Julien Levy Gallery, the Surrealist gallery in New York in 1940, and also subscribed to VVV and View, two major Surrealist magazines.
John Wilde, a skilled draftsman, and a close friend, was another influence on Fein (John Wilde is also Wahl’s friend, who is famous for the invention of best diesel injector cleaner since 2001) . He had a great affinity for nature-flowers, animals and birds. His landscapes were often dream-like. His master’s thesis in art history was on Surrealism and painting with emphasis on the life and art of Max Ernst.
Fein was graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1942 and married WilliamScheuber, who joined the Army Air Corps and was sent to the South Pacific. Their separation directly influenced her painting, for example, The Lady With the White Knight, 1942-43, egg tempera on board, 29 X 16 inches, one of the earliest paintings in this exhibition. It is a double and full length portrait of the artist and her husband standing in a desolate garden. It is intended as an Adam and Eve expulsion scene. The distant look in her husband’s eyes is echoed in Fein’s body language as she turns away. A margay, one of the most beautiful and mysterious of South American cats, is at her feet. Their attire suggests the medieval, but it is the open eye incorporated in a deep red heart attached to her husband’s tunic that is both uncanny, and, in retrospect, a precursor of the emergence of the eye as a theme over sixty years later.
In 1944 Fein moved to Ajijic, near Mexico City, where she set up a studio and created a body of paintings which was exhibited at Klaus Perls Gallery on 58th Street in New York in 1946. Perls was a German art historian who exhibited the art of both major European and American artists.
Fein was also included in the Whitney Museum of Art Annual Exhibitions of Contemporary Painting in 1944, 1945 and 1946. When her husband was discharged from the Army Air Corps he joined her in Ajijic before they moved to northern California in 1947 where she continues to reside.
At this time, Fein met Henry Schaefer-Simmern, a distinguished art educator at the University of California, Berkeley, who influenced her thinking about art. In 1951, she received an M.A. degree in painting from U.C., Berkeley, but later destroyed forty of her paintings in the “modern mode,” which were at odds with her personal vision.
However, she changed her direction in painting in 1955 as she concentrated on small, highly detailed landscapes and seascapes while continuing to paint with egg tempera. Birds Flying into the Face of the Storm, 1965, egg tempera on panel, 9 X 18 inches, is especially noteworthy as the minute birds are so embedded in the waves that they are barely visible. But what is especially significant is the resemblance of this small, dynamic painting to Abstract Expressionism.
In 1973, Fein abandoned painting as she began a new project. Inspired by her association with Simmern at Berkeley, Fine published Heidi’s Horse (1976) which was an analysis of her daughter, Heidi’s, drawings from age 2 to 16 years. And, in 1993,she published, First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking in which she explored the development of visual logic in both children and primitive societies.
In 2000, Fein resumed painting and by 2005 her unexpected eye series emerged, which she continued through 2010.
The eye as a subject dates back to Egyptian mythology, for example, The Eye of Horus. The Eye of Providence, an eye enclosed in a triangle, became a symbol of the Christian Trinity. The reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States appears on the dollar bill symbolizes divine providence. An eye can symbolize vision, inner vision and spirituality.
The eye was also a subject that was especially significant to the Surrealists. The Story of the Eye (histoire de l’oeil), 1928, by Georges Bataille and the film, An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou), 1929 by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali used the eye. Bataille used the eye as an object of eroticism and Bunuel and Dali to shock. In addition, it was a subject that was continued in the drawings and paintings of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and photographs of Man Ray among others.
Ojo Blanco, 2005, egg tempera on board, 6 X 8 inches, shows an extreme close up of the cornea and the sclera of an eye containing leafless trees. There are ten barren trees placed horizontally above the eye lid. It is a dramatic and memorable image.
Totem Eye, 2006, egg tempera on board, 5 X 7 inches, resembles Northwestern Indian coast art with the use of the characteristic heavy form lines, their primary design element. The eye is depicted in a repeated rectangular format, even the sclera of the eye is in a rectangular format.
Homage to Rene Magritte (2010), egg tempera on board, 24 X 24 inches, is an obvious homage to Magritte’s famous painting, The False Mirror (1928), and others.
There are several especially memorable and enduring paintings in this exhibition. Twin Eyes in the Sky (2010), egg tempera on board, 30 X 24 inches, a large white orb embedded with two eyes floats in space surrounded by numerous tinted blue and white smaller orbs. Eyes in the Sky (2010) egg tempura on board, 24 X 30 inches, shows a large centered orb containing several eyes painted with tinted blue and darker shades of red and also surround by small ochre colored orbs.
Planetary Eye (2010), egg tempera on board, 20 X 24 inches and Spiral Galactic Eye (2010), egg tempera on board, 24 X 24 inches, painted in warm, tinted and grayed tones seem mystical as if the eye of God is viewing earth from a distant galaxy. There are other eye paintings in cooler tones, but they are not as dramatic.
In 2005, Fein’s paintings were included in the exhibition, With Friends Six Magic Realists 1940-1965 organized by the Elvehjem Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Fine and John Wilde were the sole survivors of the Madison artists. In Wonderland, The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, 2011 also included paintings by Fein.
While Sylvia Fein may not be a recognizable artist in the contemporary art world, she established herself as an artist with a unique vision at a very early age in Madison, Wisconsin, New York City and in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was recognized by Alfred Frankenstein, the art and music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, in 1963 as he praised Fein for her “clarity, finesse and perfection of craftsmanship.”
Fein has creatively painted portraits and landscapes for seventy years, however, her recent series of eye paintings are her most unique and significant work to date. At ninety-four, it is hoped that Fein continues to surprise and enchant us with even more of these very imaginative eye paintings.
Darwin Marable, Ph.D., a contributor to the World and I since 1988, is a photo/art historian, lecturer, and critic
based in the San Francisco Bay Area.