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Helen Lundeberg

American
(1908–1999)

The Mirror (Enigma)
1934

Oil on canvas
37.75 x 31.75 x 1.75 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
1986.28

In 1934, only a year out of art school, Helen Lundeberg joined her teacher Lorser Feitelson in a new movement they christened “Post-Surrealism,” dedicated to transcending what they saw as the limitations of surrealism. Their postsurrealist compositions presented specific objects arranged logically so as to accrue metaphorical associations and meanings, similar to the way disparate incidents and images were brought together in modernist poems by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. As Lundeberg stated, the goal was to create for the viewer “an emotional or mood-entity, or intellectual or idea-entity.”

While Lundeberg’s paintings were certainly not intended as biographical or confessional works, several of them presented her sexual anxieties, perhaps related to the unresolved status of her relationship with Feitelson. Lundeberg had begun an affair with her mentor, who was unable to extricate himself from his first unhappy marriage, and would not do so until more than two decades later. At that time, social codes prohibited the couple from openly living together, so for Lundeberg conventional married life and motherhood were not options.

Lundeberg’s odd postsurrealist still life The Mirror can be considered a self-portrait not of the artist’s physical body, but of a set of distinct yet interconnected symbolic parts. Chair legs support a veined plywood body draped with a skinlike sheet of paper, torn to demonstrate its vulnerability. Positioned to be the face of that body, a mirror has been tilted to reflect a naked, eyelike bulb; an open shell at hip level suggests the figure’s genitals. The mind, or eye, of this creation is a reflected light whose controlling power leaves its mark in the chair’s crisp, shadow silhouette. This “mirror,” reflecting the layers of thought and imagery that contribute to a postsurrealist “idea-entity,” is a raw, bare-boned portrait of the artist as a compartmentalized self, given life by a distanced, off-frame light source.

Michael Duncan


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