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Whitney Exhibit Walks the Line Between Real and Surreal

Realists like Edward* Hopper famously captured the world around them, but sometimes with hints of danger and dreaminess.

A new exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York aims to highlight intersections between representation and fantasy. The exhibit, Real/Surreal, which opened this week, showcases art from the museum’s permanent collection that blurs the lines between the two artistic styles. Featuring both well-known and unknown artists of the 1930s and ’40s, the exhibit shows how the uncanny has pervaded the works of realist artists and how surrealists have at times crossed into realism.

The exhibit is just the latest in a multiyear series of exhibitions in anticipation of the museum’s move to a new building. Carter Foster, the curator of the exhibit, says the idea came as he was studying Hopper, a well-known realist painter. In going through his and other artists’ work, Foster realized their style wasn’t purely representative art.

“Their works had a strange and uncanny side to them,” he says.

Foster wanted to show how these artists had playfully manipulated the observable world.

20111007_lily2.jpg“Imagination and subjectivity overtake the aesthetic of a certain piece,” he says.

The oddities seen in the exhibit’s paintings are often perversions of space, scale, mood or atmosphere.

“They would manipulate traditional tools of representation like perspective and pictorial space,” says Foster, explaining the techniques used by the artists.

In the painting “Lily and the Sparrows” by Philip Evergood, the viewer sees a child feeding birds from his perch at a window. Foster points out that while one could imagine seeing such a scene, the child looks strange. Foster says Evergood subverts realism to create a dreamlike picture.

“He picks a moment that’s strange and has an ominous feel to it.”

  • Editor’s note: A previous version listed the incorrect celebrity Hopper. This version has been corrected.

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