Sunday, February 4, 2018

Bror Anders Wikstrom at NOMA

Dragon by Bror Anders Wikstrom, Proteus, 1904

When I was an art student at the University of New Orleans, I would stare at the name Wikstrom on the frieze of the New Orleans Museum of Art and mutter, “what the...” I had never seen that name in any art history book. Only later, when researching Mardi Gras, did it become clear he was a float designer. That seemed weird, but when I later saw some of his wilder imagery I realized his name belonged there – as a father of surrealism. His design for a 1907 Proteus parade float bedecked with humanoid sea creatures in a kind of kelp forest initially seemed like a deja-vu. Why? Then one day I noticed its similarity to one of my favorite Max Ernst paintings at NOMA, his circa 1943 Everyone Here Speaks Latin, which was considered radical at the time. Who was this guy?

Proteus Parade Float, 1907

Proteus Costume 1907
Bror Anders Wikstrom was a Swedish émigré painter active in Paris and New Orleans, where he eventually became a chief designer for Rex and Proteus. What stands out is the extent to which his designs paralleled the avant garde imagery of the Parisian symbolist painters such as Gustave Moreau or Odilon Redon. His 1904 Proteus Dragon float design, top, looks fairy tale-ish at first, but look again and all the diabolical terrors of Moreau, Redon and Ernst -- not to mention Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo -- are quivering in the details.

Max Ernst: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945
Likewise, his 1898 Proteus float, Devil's Basket features renaissance bon vivants and a fair-faced version of the devil himself. All seem to be having a nice time, recalling Mark Twain's admonition: “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.” It's all par for the course for an expo that includes twenty float plates from the 1904 Krewe of Proteus parade and a bound set of float designs for the 1910 Rex "Freaks of Fable" parade. While Wikstrom's legacy as the all time king of carnival designers is well deserved, some of his contemporaries were often equally surreal and sophisticated in ways that are, with notable exceptions, somewhat less prevalent today. ~Bookhardt/ Bror Anders Wikstrom: Bringing Fantasy to Carnival, Through April 1, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100. More>>