Important Art by Helen Lundeberg
An interior domestic scene, Lundeberg's painting The Red Planet features a small round window on which rests a small red coin. Equally though, the window looks like a table and the 'coin' appears to be a floating sphere. Behind the window/table is an open door with gold doorknob, or another otherworldly globe. On the left side of the canvas on the floor next to the table is an image of the night sky propped up against a stack of books. Amazingly, it is as though pieces of the sky have been brought inside the room and have then been both implausibly and magically framed for our contemplation.
One of Lundeberg's early Surrealist works, this painting shows the influence of Salvador Dalí in that here, like in many of his works, she has employed the use of double images. The work too recalls early drawings by Max Ernst who enjoyed designing magical apparatus, and looks forward to the celestial paintings of Remedios Varo. What seem at first to be a coin and doorknob could instead or also be viewed as planets. According to art curator Ilene Susan Fort, these objects "...appear to float as orbs. Echoing the idea of Mars, nicknamed the red planet, the objects refer to the title of the painting as well as to the title of the book on the floor."
The well thought out, often autobiographical elements of Lundeberg's works, helped to set her apart from many of her Surrealist contemporaries who relied more on the subconscious and random assembling of objects to render their paintings. We see here that the depiction of objects relate to science and more specifically to astronomy; a subject that Lundeberg explored extensively in college before officially deciding to become an artist. She is attracted to the same motifs as many other Surrealist artists - for example the sphere, the form that René Magritte too returned to again and again throughout his career - but has a tendency to lay out her subject matter with rigorous text book type organization.
Again here, there is not only the sense that Helen Lundeberg is depicting the intricacies of the world around her, but also that she is trying to solve a scientific and spiritual conundrum. Plant and Animal Analogies is rich in imagery including in the background, a large tree beside which stand a woman and small child. In the foreground are various objects including a knife, cherries, half a green pepper, and a dissected cross-sectional image of a brain. On the right side connected to these other images by white dashed lines is the dissected half of a female uterus. The overall message of the painting is that within the universe there is an overall sense of design, and for those who look closely enough, design features are repeated everywhere. Everything is linked. This connectivity extends beyond the natural world and into the trajectory of art history. Indeed, the specifically flesh-colored torso of a female body resting in a window structure offers visual proof that the Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico was an early influence on Lundeberg. Furthermore, the message behind the work is very similar to that of Edward Weston's from his series of close-up photographed fruits and vegetables also made in the early 1930s. As in Ithell Colquhoun's early work, and for Lundeberg, the most acute observation and deepest dissection of nature results in the dissolution of opposites and a merging of all things.
The importance of this early work, according to Ilene Susan Fort is that it is, "the only painting illustrating the New (or Subjective) Classicism manifesto" co-authored by Lundeberg and Feitelson which served to introduce Post-Surrealism. Every image was thought out and intentionally depicted for the intended larger message, that of the relationship between woman and child. The connections are made bolder by the dashed lines employed to connect the objects which Fort explains, "...led the observer from one disparate object to another: for example, on the left is the brain of a three-month old human fetus that is connected to the large human uterus on the right [...] The mind of the spectator associates the brain with the pepper because of the similarity of their shapes and interiors. All the objects conceptually refer to their functions, which involve various aspects of fertilization and creation. The mother and child in the distant horizon were added later in 1935, possibly to assure the proper reading of the foreground objects cluttered on the windowsill." The pair stands as the ultimate guarantee for the continued cycle of life.
In this painting, a small child holding an unopened flower sits at a desk on which rests a blank sheet of paper and a clock. A long shadow of a female figure is cast on the wall behind her partially covering a painting featuring a woman holding a red flower at a desk with a small open dish in the shape of a globe. The painting is typically interpreted - as the title also directs us- as a self-portrait of the artist through time. Given the fact that the artist's own state of never having had children, there is also a great sense of longing and loss in the reflection of an experience that will never be. Read is this way, the painting becomes uncannily connected to Dorothea Tanning's Maternity (1946), a similar scene of longing for a relationship that does not exist.
While Lundeberg often created self-portraits, this work is unique in that it offers two images of the artist. The depiction of herself as a child based on an early photograph and as an adult seen in the self-portrait painting hanging on the wall - a reproduction of the 1934 painting Artist, Flowers, and Hemispheres - is clever and intends to illustrate the journey from childhood to adult life. According to the Luce Center Label for this work in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, "the time on the clock represents the child's age of two and a quarter, and the blank paper suggests her unknown future. She holds a flower bud to emphasize her undeveloped state, whereas the adult figure holds a blooming flower to show that she has experienced sex and love. Lundeberg connected the young girl to the grown woman with a shadow to suggest that the two parts of her life are "psychologically bridged."
This work can also be interpreted as a statement about the passing away of innocence leading to the personal and artistic maturity that developed once Lundeberg had met and started a relationship with Lorser Feitelson. According to Ilene Susan Fort, "The inclusion of both the child and adult suggests Lundeberg knew about the surrealist belief in the femme-enfant, the woman-child, who through her purity and naïveté possessed a direct path to the unconscious". Through known archive photography, Lundeberg looked like a femme-enfant when Feitelson first met her. It seems that this painting, however, which is one of her largest early canvases, was the artist's declaration that she had now matured and had left that stage of her life behind.