Magic Realism in Cleveland 1930-1960

Paul Riba, Oriental, Oil on board.

In 1942, the Museum of Modern Art in New York showcased magic realism in a groundbreaking exhibition titled American Realists and Magic Realists. It featured works by a variety of artists, including Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Cleveland’s own Clarence Carter. In works that were often bizarre and mysterious, sometimes psychologically disturbing, the artists attempted to grapple with the frightening undercurrents of contemporary life. During and immediately following World War II, audiences responded to this new genre that reflected so clearly their own prevailing feelings of angst and disillusionment.

One region where magic realism quietly held sway was Cleveland. A small group of artists whose members were heavily influenced by the work and instruction of Clarence Carter were located around the Cleveland Institute of Art. These midwestern artists drawing on their own personal traumas found an expressive voice in the forms of magic realism. Painting together in art-school class, exhibiting together in the Cleveland Museum’s annual May Shows, and sharing studio space, the Cleveland group learned from one another and clearly influenced each other’s work. Their art reflected on the state of the world and their own lives.

Magic realism remains an elusive term. While these artists all strove to create in their art a psychological atmosphere that evoked the strangeness of everyday existence, their widely differing techniques and imagery make their style hard to define. Much of this variance is rooted in the underlying forces motivating each artist. For artists such as Clarence Carter and Hughie Lee-Smith, early childhood traumas had a profound influence on their work. While for others, such as Dean Ellis and Raphael Gleitsmann, their art reflected harrowing wartime experiences.

America today is also going through a time of dramatic changes and uncertainties. It is not surprising that magic realism has found a new audience speaking as it does to our own questioning of reality.

The current exhibition offers a first look at this group of regional artists whose work encompassed the mysterious and the fantastic—a group of artists whose work in fact is very closely in tune with the American psyche of the times, theirs and ours.

Magic Realism in Cleveland 1930-1960 opens Third Friday, May 21 and runs through August 28. Visit for more details.