Irving Norman

Biography

Irving Norman, born Irving Noachowitz in Poland in 1906, immigrated to the United States in 1923 where he changed his last name to Norman and pursued a career in painting.  Norman's paintings are infinitely complex and reveal an artist who drew upon many historical schools of painting to portray a very particular understanding of the modern world and of the relationship between people and their contemporary society.
Norman's choice of subject matter in his paintings was heavily influenced by his experience in 1938 fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.  Like many young idealists of his generation, he fought alongside other volunteers against General Franco.  He witnessed many atrocities and barely survived the war.  Upon his return to the United States, he depicted in his paintings the pain and suffering he had witnessed.  The FBI took an interest in Norman's communist sympathies and watched him closely for more than twenty years, an experience which adds to the tension and underlying horror of his paintings. 

Regarding his style, Norman can perhaps best be compared to the Dutch Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose fantastical canvases peopled with animals, humans and other unnamed beasts and objects, create an unearthly atmosphere with sadistic undertones.  Norman, like Bosch, avoids didacticism and instead paints worlds inhabited by figures that seem to be subjected to forces beyond their control.  There are greater powers at work in Norman's conjured worlds, powers that seem to tip towards evil rather than good.  Norman's paintings also contain an element of allegory, and many of them may be interpreted to represent the dehumanizing aspect of modern culture and the factory type homogeneity that threatens to subdue the human spirit.  His works retain, however, a strong mystical element, that defies strict interpretation and imbues them with a wealth of potential meaning. 

After studying in New York City, Norman settled permanently in the San Francisco Bay area where he continued to paint up until the end of his life.  Although a successful artist, Norman was always uncomfortable with the idea of commercial success feeling that his paintings best belonged in museums where the general public would be able to see and to study them.  This commitment to public edification rather than personal gain testifies to the fact that Norman viewed his art as inherently hopeful.  Rather than simply paint his atrocity-inspired vision of the world, Norman believed that art could help to propel society beyond its own horrors by acting as a cathartic cleansing from the past and a prohibitive warning for the future.  It is this hopefulness that gives Norman's painting a lasting legacy.

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