Must-see show at PAFA gives a funny, edgy artist her spotlight - finally

Detail from Honoré Sharrer’s “Resurrection of the Waitress” (1984) Oil on canvas 22 x 22 in. Collection of Adam Zagorin and the late Perez Zagorin.

A waitress whose hair is tangled in an eggbeater that is in the hands of a bare-breasted angel who is pulling her up to heaven.

A man in a suit at the base of the cross on which Jesus is dying, using the opportunity to smoke a cigarette.

Leda, who had been raped by Zeus as a swan, posing with her family — Gladys and Vernon Presley, parents of Elvis.

These are a few of the unexpected visions to be found in the “Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer,” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through Sept. 3. It is the latest in a series of exhibitions at PAFA spotlighting artists who once won acclaim but who have, for one reason or another, been overlooked. In Sharrer’s case, she seemed to be painting the wrong kind of paintings — realist in style but with magical and mythical elements — and she was a woman during a period when machismo was even stronger in art than usual.

Moreover, her works are often very funny, which can be risky for an artist who wants to be taken seriously.

Her lightness is deceptive. At first glance, her work seems to be a comedy of manners, but it soon becomes apparent that she owes less to Jane Austen than to Hieronymus Bosch. Her work is well worth seeing, and PAFA, which organized the exhibition with the Columbus Museum of Art, in Ohio, has mounted a show that offers most of her major paintings, along with many drawings, studies for paintings, and archival materials that provide insight on how she worked.

Sharrer, who was born in 1920 and died in 2009, had a peripatetic childhood as the child of a U.S. Army officer father and an artist mother. Her career got off to an early start; the San Diego Museum acquired two of her watercolors while she was still in high school. And the earliest painting in this show, Annunciation (Self Portrait), shows the artist at 18.

She is alone, holding a flower, which is a radical twist on one of the most familiar scenes in Christian art: the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will bear Jesus. But there is only one figure in Sharrer’s painting. Who is doing the announcing? What is the news? Women impregnated by gods is a theme that runs through Sharrer’s art, but here, I think, she is announcing her own talent.

Honoré Sharrer’s “Annunciation (Self-Portrait)” (1938). Oil on canvas15 x 19 in. Collection of Adam Zagorin and the late Perez Zagorin.

Sharrer grew up during the Great Depression, and although her own family was relatively well-to-do and she attended an exclusive girls’ school, she identified with workers, writing and drawing for a Communist magazine.

Workers and Paintings (1943), a proposal for a large mural at a museum in Springfield, Mass., combined her enthusiasms by showing highly individualized members of laboring families holding famous paintings from the history of art. It did not win the commission, but her presentation canvas was acquired by Lincoln Kirstein, one of the key figures in introducing modern arts of all sorts to Americans. He gave it, soon after, to the Museum of Modern Art.

About the time Sharrer did that work, she was doing physical labor herself, as a welder at shipyards producing vessels to fight in World War II. Soon after, she began her life’s largest project, Tribute to the American Working People (1946-51), a five-panel secular altarpiece with scenes of a farm, a country fair, a public school, and a family parlor. Though its description makes it sound like agitprop, its overall feeling is tenderness. The people in the painting are individuals, not types, and one senses that many of them would be difficult to get along with.

The painting won wide acclaim and was shown throughout the country, including at PAFA. Time magazine wrote about it, under the headline “Hard-Working Housewife.”

Then something happened, and she did not finish another major painting until 1958. Her husband, Perez Zagorin, a historian, lost his position at Vassar, and other colleges were afraid to hire a leftist during a time of national panic about Communism. From this point on, one of the major themes of Sharrer’s work was repression in American society and the quiet ways in which it was enforced.

Finally, Zagorin was offered a job by McGill University in Montreal, and the couple and their son moved there. While in exile, Sharrer spent years on one painting, Reception (1958).

Honoré Sharrer’s “Reception” (1958). Egg tempera and oil on panel 22½ x 30 in. From the collection of Adam Zagorin and the late Perez Zagorin.

It shows a social event in a lofty peach-colored room, populated by a gaggle of white men in dark suits, a few women, a big lobster on the buffet table, and lots of birds all over.  Cardinal Francis Spellman, long the most important Catholic prelate in America, is in red satin. Nearby are FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Clare Boothe Luce, writer, politician, playwright, and wife of publisher Henry Luce. On the far right, partly obscured by flowers is the notorious Communist-hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The other faces are not recognizable, but most are blandly powerful looking.

The birds, though, are key. “The birds are present,” Sharrer wrote, “as a device to knock and tweak the realism of the situation. They are also there to lend humor and beauty. People who look at the painting are asked to believe that it is the most normal thing in the world to have a scarlet tanager talking to a lobster and a sparrow on the hand of a Cardinal.”

The result is uncanny and unsettling, but the studies on display here show that the finished work is far less fierce than she had originally planned. In her earlier work, the faces were uglier and recognizable, and the creatures to which they were oblivious were rats. She toned down her fury and made the scene more realistic, ambiguous, and powerful.

Her belief that Americans — especially men — hurt themselves by their inability to deal with their desires and emotions comes through strongly in Mother Goose (1960). Three self-consciously cool young men, viewed from roughly crotch level, stand together physically, but are distant from each other and themselves.

Honoré Sharrer’s “Mother Goose” (1960). Oil on canvas 26 ½ x 37 ½ in. Collection of Adam Zagorin and the late Perez Zagorin.

Behind is a row of cars, and one of the men appears to have a Thunderbird between his legs.

Floating above this scene of vacuous male bonding is a voluptuous naked woman riding a goose. She is just what the repressed youths need, but they don’t sense her presence.

She is a bit like the artist herself: a force for liberation that nobody knew was there.

“Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer,” though Sept. 3 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 N. Broad Street. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Mondays. Tickets: $15 (adults), $12 (seniors and students with ID), $8 (youth 13-18). Information: 215-972-7600 or pafa.org.