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Meet Sylvia Fein, One of the Last Surrealists Still Painting

Fein, who turns 100 years old today, may be the last Surrealist artist still standing.

Sylvia Fein at her studio (image courtesy the artist) 

BERKELEY, Calif. — Artist Sylvia Fein, born November 20, 1919, is 100 years old today — and still giving gallery talks and interviews, still tending her own olive trees (she recently pressed 82 gallons of oil), and still cracking wise (at a recent talk, Fein mused on hopes for a new husband while a man clipped a mic to her furry vest). Born the same year André Breton and Philippe Soupault penned the first Surrealist work, Fein may be the last Surrealist artist still standing.

There’s a 1988 Guerrilla Girls poster with the headline: THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN ARTIST. One of said “advantages” listed is: Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty. This references artists like Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois, New Yorkers who lived long enough to enjoy some late appreciation and fame. As a Frenchwoman relocated to the United States, Bourgeois had known plenty of Surrealists in Paris whom she re-encountered in Manhattan. She stayed away. “I objected to them,” she said. “They were so lordly and pontifical.”

Sylvia Fein, “Kite Eye (or Eye Kite)” (2006) (collection of the artist)

Male Surrealists had their problems with women, relegating them to model or sex object or, at best, muse, but in the past decade women Surrealists are having a star turn, in books like Whitney Chadwick’s 2017 Farewell to the Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism, and in major museum shows, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)’s In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States from 2012. According to the museum website, the show included, “Iconic figures such as Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo.” Not named is the only artist exhibited who also attended the opening: Sylvia Fein. Not just still alive, but still painting. In the current retrospective of her work, Sylvia Fein / MATRIX 275, at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), a third of the nearly three dozen paintings in the show were done after 2010.

I had the opportunity to hear Fein give an artist’s talk at the opening, then sat down for a conversation with her afterwards.

Sylvia Fein, “Dandelion Eye” (2009) (collection of the artist)

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Fein attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where, after starting as a Home Economics major, she transferred to the Art Department at an auspicious time. “We were drawing from the model. And that meant you had to do it three hours a day, three times a week, for year. … Then along came these Surrealist painters. … It was a move away, rather than a move toward, something. It just happened.” Fein joined a group of influential local artists practicing what’s been called Midwest Surrealism.

Installation view of Sylvia Fein / MATRIX 275 at BAMPFA 

She also learned an old technique, new to her. “At the university, one of the art historians started a class on techniques of the ancients. And he selected about six of us who were pretty savvy to take the course … We started to look into egg tempera and there are many, many different recipes for egg tempera and varieties of egg tempera … I was just doing it as part of the requirement and I guess I fell in love with it. And I started to paint in it more and more and gave up oil painting. So, my move into it was natural and just immanent, I guess. And it suited me. Now I paint in it so easily that I couldn’t tell you how I do it. But I do have like little cups and I mix it as I paint. I love its glossy texture. I love its transparency. I also love its opacity. And it does have a certain underglow that I like.”

That glow gives Fein’s paintings a magical, timeless quality as akin to the Quattrocento as to anything contemporary. The show opens with a 1946 painting, “Island for Cats” (1946), done while Fein lived in Mexico, so delicate, atmospheric, and, yes, glowy, that it could be mistaken for a lost Brueghel.

Sylvia Fein, “Island for Cats” (1946) (collection of Bernard Friedman) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Fein worked diligently and with purpose in Ajijic, Mexico for more than two years while her husband served in the Air Force during World War II. “There was a dealer in New York, Klaus Perls, who was buying up young Surrealists and he said to me before I left, ‘When you have enough paintings, I’ll give you a show in New York.’ A big deal. So that’s what I was painting for. … Here I was 17 or 18 years old and one of the greatest gallery men was waiting for my paintings.”

In 1947, Fein had her first solo show, at Perls Gallery. It was a critical success, including positive ink in The New Yorker. Soon after, Fein and her husband moved to Northern California, where she got her MFA at Berkeley in 1951. “I thought maybe if I got my masters, I could get a job,” Fein said, with deliberate irony. “Women didn’t get the jobs,” she told me. “They didn’t get the museums either.”

Sylvia Fein, “Sylvia with Baby Heidi” (1949) (collection of the artist, photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Still, Fein kept painting. And she had a daughter, Heidi, who in one small oval portrait (Fein and her husband had a boat for years, during which time she made postcard-sized paintings, and smaller) Fein depicts as a naked baby sitting in her mother’s arms. Northern Renaissance meets Northern California, with the artist as her own Madonna, holding her infant who, like Christ sometimes does, holds a pomegranate in one chubby hand.

At Berkeley, and afterwards, Fein studied with art educator Henry Schaefer-Simmern, whose theories on art and evolution led Fein to closely track her own daughter’s artistic development. “I thought, well, I’ll save her drawings and see what happens … So I saved my daughter Heidi’s drawings for about 18 years, until she went to college. … and then I sat down and wrote Heidi’s Horse.” Fein’s celebrated debut, which correlates the innate development of children’s artwork with that of human artistic evolution, was published in 1976, followed by First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking in 1993. While she worked on the books, Fein stopped painting for some 30 years.

Asked if she regrets so many years without painting, Fein is adamant, “Oh no, I had to write Heidi’s Horse! It’ll never happen again in the entire world.” Why’s that? “Because you won’t have me, who was trained by Schaefer-Simmern. And had a daughter who would sit there, and liked to draw, for 16 years. Heidi’s Horse is reproduced, partly, in about 18 books.” Fein is justifiably proud of her writing. But then, in her early 80s, she took up painting again.

She was soon creating a new series of works depicting eyes, cats, the cosmos, and trees. One of the most beautiful and arresting works in the current show, “The Painting Told Me What to Do” (2012), appears to be trees on fire from within. “Something got my hand,” Fein said. “It painted itself.” The ghostly, burning shapes conjure scenes from Dante’s Inferno as well as the seemingly endless fires consuming Northern California, where she’s lived for over 70 years. Throughout her long, productive life, the paintings of Sylvia Fein remain where past and present magically meet.

Sylvia Fein, “The Painting Told Me What To Do” (2012) (collection of the artist)

Sylvia Fein / MATRIX 275 continues at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center St, Berkeley, Calif.) through March 1, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder with Curatorial Assistant Lucia Momoh.

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