See Honore Sharrer's Work Before It Closes

 A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer
Smith Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through January 7

1938 self-portrait patterned on Han Memling's 'Portrait of a Man with a pink Carnation'

 If you're anywhere near Northampton between now and January 7, be sure to pop into the Smith College Museum of Art to see a show devoted to Honoré Sharrer (1920-2009). She's one of the lesser-known surrealists for reasons I'll discuss in a moment, but she's worth getting to know. In fact, one of the great joys of college art museums is that they often introduce us to artists whose works fly under the radar screen of major repositories.

Sharrer wasn't always out of the public eye. She was hailed as a rising young talent back in the 1940s, took part in an important exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, was declared Mademoiselle's artist of the year in 1949, had a solo show in 1951, and was a media sensation. Yet she would not get another solo exhibition until 1969, and there have been just three since then: 1987, 2007, and now. If you're thinking that gender played a role in her marginalization, you're partially right, but two other factors loom larger.

Resurrection of the Waitress

The first is that she was generally tagged as either an expressionist or a surrealist and neither of those labels fits comfortably. Some critics today call her work magical realism and though that handle has problems as well, it's closer to the mark. Surrealism is a definitional moving target, but it's hard to place Sharrer's work amidst company such as Dali, Magritte, Picasso, Tanguy, or Maher. Once you know that she was inspired by mythology, art history, nursery rhymes, and popular culture, there's nothing particularly enigmatic about her symbols or intentions. If there are other artists to whom she most compares, it's probably Paul Cadmus, or maybe Frida Kahlo in her non-figurative guise. (Kahlo was also sometimes called a surrealist and it wasn't accurate for her either.) One of Sharrer's more intriguing canvasses is titled Resurrection of the Waitress and it has odd elements such as pulled back hair, an eggbeater, a razor blade, and a bare-breasted airborne woman. But when you learn that she's telling the story of a drowning victim by riffing off a 15th century Bosch painting (Ascent of the Blessed), Sharrer's canvas is simply offbeat, not mysterious. She also liked to twist old myths, with Leda a particular favorite and usually displayed with pudenda exposed. (In Greek myth, Zeus disguised himself as a swan to ravage the beautiful moral Leda, whom he turned into a swan. One of their children was Helen of Troy.) All of this is to say that Sharrer's work was quirky and cheeky, but the viewer's effect isn't akin to standing in front of a Dali and pondering what any of what you see might mean!

Politics was what made Sharrer "dangerous." Like many modernist painters she honed her teeth on representational art—even when it held symbolic meanings. In that phase, Sharrer was an overt leftist who reveled in 1930s rebels. She showed her sympathy for laborers in works such as Workers and Paintings (1943) and Tribute to the American Working People (1951). The first dignifies ordinary folks by posing them amidst art masterpieces; the second is patterned on a 15the century altar piece by Hugo van der Goes. Sharrer lived in Amherst in the late 1940s; her second husband was Amherst history professor Perez Zagorin (1920-2009), an intellectual communist who was blacklisted in 1953. By extension, so was Sharrer. The couple fled to Montreal, where they lived until 1965. Sharrer's Reception (1958) is a subtle commentary on her exile years, as the high sheen guests include such famed anticommunist crusaders as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Cardinal Francis Spellman. 

The Reception

Oddly, it might be another thing that eclipsed Sharrer's star, as it's a fairly static picture—except for the appearance of birds throughout the canvas. These are usually said to be a comment on the obliviousness of the guests, though I suspect Sharrer was coding messages about the culture of innuendo, whispers, and spying. Still, this picture came at a time in which modernism and abstraction were all the rage and it didn't fit those fashions. It certainly didn't help her case that she also rendered a series of drawing that satirized art critics, patrons, and trend-setters. 

In commenting on his wife's work, Zagorin noted it had a "slant view." That's maybe the best way to describe it. We see a naked, orange-hatted St. Jerome sharing space with menacing Japanese figures, a butcher standing amidst porcine carnage and a famed Greek statue, a commentary on modesty patterned after The Trojan Archer, a putdown of the horsey set with a backward riding Godiva, an odd ballet, and a hysterical "ordinary" outing whose elements include a small car, a flamingo, a nude woman, and Pan peeling an apple. Slant views indeed. Sharrer's career revived somewhat when society loosened in the late 1960s, but she never regained her earlier spotlight. By her death in 2009 she was little known outside of the art world's inner circle. The best category for Sharrer is perhaps art's most populous: those that obtain posthumous appreciation.

Rob Weir

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