Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Hartford in a Dream

The mysterious doorway and narrow windows presented here are a small part of a 1975 pastel by Werner Groshans, an artist sometimes called a "magic realist" for his realistic, yet always somewhat strange style of painting. Not quite a Surrealist himself, Groshans shared some of the Surrealists' sensibilities, tending to take realistic scenes and transform them into the slightly off-kilter visions of a dream. The softness of the pastel, visible in this detail, literally blurs the image, contributing to the sensation that the scene is perhaps a hazy image in a fading memory.

The doorway Groshans captures is actually a part of a real building, the Connecticut State Armory in Hartford, built in 1911 and still in use today. This 1920s era postcard gives you an idea of the building itself and its fortress-like quality, an aesthetic shared by many armory buildings. The doorway above can be matched up to this vintage view, though Groshans takes some liberties with the rest of the architecture.
If we compare Groshans' finished work (seen below but also appearing in our current exhibition Inspiration & Impact) to the postcard view, the real-yet-unreal qualities of the pastel rendering become clearer. He's chosen a side-view of the building, emphasizing the large sky-lit drill shed, and has simplified the architectural details of the monumental building. It's the front of the building, though, that gets the greatest magic realist makeover.

In Groshans' version, the armory is partly buried under a hill that does not exist in reality. Out of Groshans' imagined hill grows a large tree, which amazingly dwarfs the 100 foot tall shed, an inconsistency of scale typical of dreams. The erie quality of the building, seemingly being swallowed by the ground and overshadowed by the (shadowless) tree beside it, can be felt even in the tiny detail of the doorway. The passageway does not open into the cavernous space of the building, nor is a real door depicted. Instead Groshans door is as solid and impenetrable as the roof above, providing no access at all, either for the viewer's eye or the imagined inhabitants of this dream version of Hartford.

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