Tracing Wisconsin’s Surrealist Roots

Tracing Wisconsin’s Surrealist Roots
"Triangle Inn No. 1" by Santos Zingale

When you stop into the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art‘s artistic funhouse, Real/Surreal, don’t forget to pay a visit to The Mystery Beneath in the main-floor State Street Gallery.

While it’s smaller in scale, this companion show is another treat for fans of Surrealism. Featuring paintings, prints and drawings culled from the museum’s permanent collection, the show explores the practice of Surrealism and Magic Realism in Wisconsin during the twentieth century.

“It’s essentially a presentation of Wisconsin Surrealism,” says MMoCA curator Rick Axsom.

Ideas about Surrealism rippled through Europe, New York City, Chicago and into Milwaukee and Madison. But Wisconsin’s capital also buzzed with its own Surrealist scene in the 1930s and ’40s, attracting such artists as Marshall Glasier, John Wilde, Aaron Bohrod, James Watrous and Santos Zingale.

“This was the most avant-garde movement between the wars,” Axsom says. “Surrealism was the most modern of all modern movements.”

In Madison, the argument for Surrealism was fueled partly as an argument against American Regionalism, the style taught at the University of Wisconsin’s art department and embodied by John Steuart Curry, the artist-in-residence at the time in the UW’s agricultural college. Glasier and his circle of artists maintained that tenets of Surrealism should be the basis for modern art.

“It was a debate about what was authentic American art,” Axsom says.

And The Mystery Beneath can be viewed as proof for their argument, with overtly Surrealistic works as well as those with more subtle undertones.

The exhibition features several works by Wilde, who also maintains a presence in upstairs.

One wall is filled with ten Wilde drawings. All self-portraits, many combine scenes of him walking, fishing, gardening or partaking in other activities with meticulous transcriptions of his automatic writing—a Surrealist device in which one’s thoughts and words go beyond rational control. The precise text and free-flowing thoughts create an interesting juxtaposition.

Nearby, Wilde’s “Portrait of D” oil painting shows a nude woman holding a large green animal. Tiny bones on the ground and a black sky contribute to the eerie, dreamlike feel of the scene.

Three works by Aaron Bohrod clustered together show the artist’s range. “He could behave like a good Regionalist,” Axsom says. His “Reflection in a Shop Window” lithograph seems straightforward at first glance, but closer inspection offers some slightly unsettling qualities in the storefront display. “Carousel Horse,” meanwhile, is a brightly colored depiction of a horse head, with other horse imagery floating throughout the fantastical composition.

But Bohrod’s “Sprouts” demands the closest contemplation. Set to a highly realistic textured-board backdrop are an impossibly glossy cherub figurine and several wrinkly, sprouting potatoes. The artist plays with levels of realism as well as orientation—is that board a surface for the objects or a wall behind them?

A subtle off-kilter sense of space also permeates “Triangle Inn No. 1,” a 1940s oil painting by Santos Zingale. Visible from State Street through the gallery’s windows, the painting shows a small town scene, with snow on the ground and rooftops and a dark, cloudy sky. Two sledders make their way across impossibly steep roads, and close by stands a seemingly deserted inn. No lights illuminate the building—or any others in the town—and this structure maintains a perspective system independent of its neighbors.

A joy of viewing this work—and many of the others in The Mystery Beneath—is picking out these incongruities, as they don’t jump right out at you.

Says Axsom, “There’s nothing here outrageously wrong.”

The Mystery Beneath runs through April 13 at MMoCA. For more information, visit