This work by Helen Lundeberg depicts bright purple irises

An Introduction to Helen Lundeberg with "Irises (The Sentinels)"

"Irises (The Sentinels)" addresses the theme of life and death.

By Beth Hamilton

Helen Lundeberg was born in 1908 in Chicago, Illinois to second-generation Swedish parents. At the age of four, her family moved to Pasadena, at that time a rural enclave of Southern California experiencing rapid cultural growth. As a child, Lundeberg was a participant in a Stanford University program for gifted children. She was an avid reader of poetry, novels, and travel books and would later credit her artistic imagination to the knowledge absorbed during her youth.

Lundeberg’s artistic immersion began in 1930 after graduating from Pasadena Junior College. Recognizing her innate artistic talent, a family friend sponsored the young Lundeberg to attend the Stickney Memorial School of Art in Pasadena. There, Lundeberg was a pupil of Lorser Feitelson, a New York artist recently returned from Paris to study the French avant-garde movement. Under his training, Lundeberg studied the principles of Renaissance and Modern masters, and would carry these lessons into her mature career. Eventually, Feitelson and Lundeberg married and would become lifelong artistic collaborators.

Lundeberg’s early works demonstrate the principles of Post-Surrealism, a movement she co-founded with Feitelson. The style was one of the first American responses to the recent wave of European Surrealism and developments in psychology. While European Surrealists explored the chaotic confusion of the subconscious, Post-Surrealists used a more classical approach to content and structure. Lundeberg’s paintings invite the viewer to develop a rational understanding of a work through recognizable symbols arranged in a readable narrative.

In Irises (The Sentinels), Lundeberg addresses the theme of life and death. Two vivid purple irises are monumental in scale against the rising mountains in the distance. Their position and stature suggest their role as sentinels over the empty desert landscape, largely devoid of life. Lundeberg’s early interest in botany is revealed in the exquisite detailing of veining and the sinuous growth of the leaves. The two buds at left are rendered in full bloom, while one remains closed either in the phase of growth or decay. The withering stalks and dead leaves draped at its base remind the viewer of the tenuous nature of life. Further, the iris flower is symbolically linked with death, as Iris is the mythological Greek goddess who transported women’s souls to the underworld. The dreamlike, transcendental nature of the flowering plants in an arid, desert environment suggest the influence of Georgia O’Keeffe on Lundeberg.

The depicted mountain range in Irises may suggest the dominating Arroyo Seco, a canyon interrupted by the arched concrete Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena. This particular geography features prominently in other paintings through- out her career, even as she evolved into a style known as Hard-Edge painting during the 1950s.

Lundeberg exhibited her early Post-Surrealist works at seminal exhibitions in Southern California during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936, her work was featured in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism.” Lundeberg was also included in the 1942 exhibition at MoMA entitled, “Americans 1942 / 18 Artists from 9 States.

This work by Helen Lundeberg depicts bright purple irises
Helen Lundeberg, American, 1908–1999. Irises, (The Sentinels), 1936. Oil on canvas. 30 x 25 inches. Signed lower left

Cover image: Helen Lundeberg, American, 1908–1999. Irises (The Sentinels) (detail), 1936. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches. Signed lower left