Not a pretty picture

Special to The Times

The horrors of war, the injustices of exploitation and the inhumanity of city life cover every square inch of Irving Norman’s huge, detail-packed paintings and drawings, except for a few areas reserved for noble peasant folk and nude figures engaged in what would ordinarily be called the pleasures of the flesh. These sorry citizens are depicted with such vitriol that they come off as alienated automata, hollow shells consumed and dehumanized by carnal desires.

“Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism” paints a relentlessly grim picture of modern life. At the Pasadena Museum of California Art, its 21 paintings and 17 works on paper, made from 1941 to 1988, give graphic shape to society’s ugly underbelly. A laundry list of social ills spills from Norman’s labor-intensive illustrations, including toxic pollution, wage slavery, avaricious elites, schlock entertainment, hypocritical politicians, rampant unemployment, senseless wars, hopeless slums, conspicuous consumption, overcrowded streets, gross inequity and the psychological fallout of all of the above.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that Norman (1906-1989) is onto something -- that society is not all it’s cracked up to be and that art might shed some light on its dark secrets.


You would, however, need to have your head stuck in sand if you were to discover anything new or learn anything specific about the evils of contemporary existence from Norman’s images.

Not much changes, in terms of style or subject, from the earliest drawings to the more recent oils on canvas. Over the years, Norman’s works get bigger, denser and more claustrophobic. But their style remains the same: All appear to be made by a fastidious comic-book artist with a work ethic matched only by his horror vacui and seething contempt for modernity. The same goes for the stories Norman’s paintings tell, which become a generic litany of infamy:

Industrialists plot and scheme in dimly lighted rooms as factories fuel the engines of war. Peons are crammed into jail-like apartments. Victimized plebeians spill into the mean streets, where they are caught up like cogs in the daily grind, some thrust around on public transport and others doing solitary confinement in wedge-shaped automobiles.

Everyone hustles and bustles as if their lives depended on it, but the atmosphere is that of the living dead: zoned-out zombies sufficiently sensitive to know they are suffering but clueless as to why and powerless to do anything about it. If Jean-Paul Sartre designed purgatory, this is what it would look like.

Norman is a terrifically skilled illustrator who is best with graphite, colored pencil and watercolor. His strongest pictures are his smallest: works on paper that must be seen in close-up. They are not intimate because Norman makes no room for such sappy sentimentality. Instead he treats subjectivity as a bourgeois conceit to be overcome for the greater good.

His works on paper are less problematic than his paintings. Such canvases as “My World and Yours (And the Gods Created the World in Their Own Image)” (1954), “War and Peace” (1965-'66), “Meeting of the Elders 3" (1977) and “The Human Condition” (1980-'81) rival the size of medieval altarpieces and approach the scale of modern murals. But they lack the visual impact of works meant to be seen publicly, where crowds or even clusters of people gather.

From a distance, Norman’s works are muddy, the stark contours of their myriad figures and forms lost in a cacophony of detail. Up close, the chockablock scenes snap into focus, the picture plane becoming a vast territory awaiting individual exploration. The experience recalls the “Where’s Waldo” children’s books, without the imaginative richness. It also gives form to a profoundly conservative viewpoint, a me-against-the-world stance in which isolation and futility get dressed up as defiance.

The accumulation of detail in Norman’s paintings never adds up to a convincing worldview or a comprehensive assessment of the social fabric’s complexity. Instead, viewers are left with a narrowly focused and unremittingly simple outlook. Despite the technical facility, these works recall images by outsider artists, whose obsessiveness results in bodies of work that do not develop but hit the same note over and over.

The exhibition is less interesting for what it says about society than for what it says about Norman. It is a chilling self-portrait, by turns creepy, frightening, tragic.

Norman was born Isaac Noachowitz to poor Jewish shopkeepers in Vilnius, which was then and is now the capital of Lithuania. In the meantime, it was occupied by German troops, Polish troops and then the Bolsheviks’ Red Army. Before Norman was 12, his father fled and his two younger siblings were sent to an orphanage. He grew up quickly, enduring malnourishment, illness and imprisonment before emigrating to the United States on his own.

Four weeks after Norman became a naturalized citizen, the stock market crashed. His family emigrated, but they never reconnected. In 1938, Norman volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, defending the republic against the victorious fascists. He witnessed atrocities.

When Norman returned to the U.S., he had no taste for crowds or cities and eventually settled in a rural area south of Half Moon Bay. There he pursued his nightmarish vision with tenacity or the compulsiveness of the traumatized.


‘Dark Metropolis’

What: “Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism”

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Ends: April 15

Price: $4 to $6; 11 and younger, free

Contact: (626) 568-3665;