PAFA presents ‘Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer’

"Hard-working housewife" makes good

A belated retrospective of an underappreciated artist, Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer, with 45 paintings, sketches, drawings, photographs, and prints, is now on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA).

Honoré Sharrer's 1984 painting "Resurrection of a Waitress." (Photo courtesy of PAFA.)

The daughter of an army officer father and artist mother, Sharrer (1920–2009) was celebrated for exquisitely rendered paintings that wittily examined the real, ideal, and surreal. But early notoriety did not prepare her for what would come.

When her sharp political and social commentary fell out of step with the times, her rise stalled. Besides, being a woman made it easier for the art world to marginalize Sharrer. Nevertheless, she persisted, regaining currency in the iconoclastic 1960s. Sharrer continued commenting through her multimedia art into the 21st century.

An early splash

At the dawn of Sharrer’s career, art did not shrink from commentary. While in her 20s, Sharrer was mentioned in any discussion of emerging American artists, and her work was included in shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Whitney. Her first solo exhibition was covered by TIME, Life, and Newsweek magazines.

When she was 24, Sharrer’s Workers and Paintings (1943) was donated to MoMA by New York City Ballet co-founder Lincoln Kirstein. The long, horizontal painting, considered Sharrer’s first major work, displayed themes she would plumb throughout her career.

A mural study, it depicts everyday people, black and white: women in housedresses, men clutching lunch pails, and a gaggle of mischievous children. They stand in an unruly line before a darkened cityscape of factories and tenements. Interspersed are Sharrer’s painstaking replicas of well-known art, such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Picasso’s Girl Before the Mirror. The iconic pieces are treated with neither reverence nor disdain; they’re simply part of the scenery, reflecting the labor-movement view that the highest achievements of society belong to its workers.

Honoré Sharrer's 1958
Honoré Sharrer's 1958 "Reception." Sharrer inserted noted anti-communists of the day -- including Francis Cardinal Spellman, Clare Booth Luce, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joseph McCarthy. (Photo courtesy of PAFA.)

Progressive tendencies inhibit progress

Sharrer earned her pro-labor sentiment: during World War II, she worked as a welder in the San Francisco and New Jersey shipyards. Her sympathies led her to join the American Communist Party, which supported a constellation of progressive causes from the 1920s to the 1940s, including labor and civil rights.

Sharrer’s politics, plus her status as a career woman before feminism, were a bad fit in an increasingly conservative, Communist-fearing country. Ironically, her masterful expression of respect for average citizens, Tribute to the American Working People (1946–1951), was created on the cusp of the restrictive 1950s.

A large canvas flanked by four small ones, Tribute has been compared to Renaissance altarpieces. It’s a kaleidoscopic view of middle America: a country fair, a parlor, a farm, a schoolroom, and, at center, a factory reminiscent of a Roman coliseum. The building features rows of coved windows rather than marble arches, through which we see not heroic gladiators but workmen in aprons and dungarees. Some look up and smile.

Finding the faces

Sharrer’s art was mined from what she saw, read, and experienced. She incorporated items she read in newspapers and magazines, on billboards, and in advertising. She referenced mythology and the work of artists she admired. She cast her paintings as a theater director would a play.

For Tribute’s classroom teacher, Sharrer staked out a store in Amherst, Massachusetts. Finding the sweet-faced, grey-haired shopper she desired, Sharrer photographed her, but later decided to use just her hair and hand: the woman’s expression was not quite right.

Honoré Sharrer's 1971
Honoré Sharrer's 1971 "Nursery Rhyme." (Photo courtesy of PAFA.)

Verisimilitude on canvas

Sharrer’s canvasses read like time capsules, similar to the those of Norman Rockwell but more acidic and with an occasional surreal twist: a black crow, a bent fork, or a man with a cranium of chrysanthemums.

Tribute’s parlor scene reveals how families spent time before television and smartphones: girls play cards, a teenage boy swings a pocketknife on a chain, women pin a dress for alteration. The room is decorated with things the family values: a piano, framed photographs, a religious statue.

Sharrer said of the piece, “I have tried to paint this picture so that it would smack and smell of real life… to paint people as I found them… these people are to me the vital determining majority.”

Woman in art

Though Sharrer was recognized in a 1951 issue of TIME magazine, the section about her was entitled “Hard-Working Housewife,” implying that, unlike male artists, her work was nothing more than a time-consuming hobby. Fortunately, she was undeterred by sexism and the McCarthy era, creating art that expressed her social conscience, satirical style, and sense of humor.

Experts consider Sharrer a bridge between early surrealism and Pop Art. The Smithsonian Institution even devoted a 2007 exhibition solely to Tribute to the American Working People.

Sharrer said she painted ordinary things. That’s true enough, but in her hands, the ordinary was revered. In noting the everyday and committing it to canvas, Sharrer forces us to look into every face, every parlor, and every workplace and see the humanity there. 

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