Irving Norman
A film on the life of Irving Norman is playing as part of SFIndiefest. Photo courtesy Dirk Bohlen

Irving Norman, a European immigrant who lived in Half Moon Bay for 27 years before his death in 1989, believed that art could inspire. His work grappled with overarching problems of the world in the hopes that viewers would take away something new. His life and body of work are getting new attention around the globe due to a 2018 documentary, “Truth Be Told: Irving Norman and the Human Predicament.”

The film is directed by Ray Day, a Half Moon Bay-based filmmaker. But compiling Norman’s art began in 2006 when Day edited a book of his work, “Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism” which was collected by Norman’s wife. Day’s film has won awards at more than a dozen film festivals, most recently the Best Documentary award at the International Open Film Festival last month.

The film is part of this month’s San Francisco Independent Film Festival, which is being screened virtually. The 23rd annual “SF Indie-fest” features 42 shorts and 38 features from 20 countries and is online from Feb. 4 to Feb. 21. To watch the trailer, view Norman’s work and learn more about his life, visit irvingnormanfilm.com. For more information on the film festival and ticket prices, go to sfindie.com.

Norman’s art matched his bold vision. His sophisticated imagery gives the viewer a lesson in contrast. His work is a social commentary on broad and complex problems, but it’s done in extravagant, creative and haunting methods. There are ghoulish depictions of humans, often not clothed and depicted as suffering. His mural-like pieces show vivid images of war, classism, poverty, overbearing technology, consumer culture, free will and human vices. Like the issues he wanted people to consider, Norman’s oil paintings are large in scale and filled with rich details.

“His main idea was that by pouring all his energy into his work and getting people to sit down and look at his work, they would be changed,” Day said. “Their opinions and ideas would be changed for the better. They would become more humane. That was his goal.”

Born in 1906 as Irving Noachowitz in what is now the capital of Lithuania, he immigrated to New York City at age 17. It was there that Norman began thinking more critically about social activism and helping underserved communities.

In 1938, he signed on to the American Lincoln Battalion during the Spanish Civil War. His experience during the war shaped his art in the years to come. He honed his skill at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts and gained acclaim for his drawing in the 1940s.

Day also explores Norman’s relationship with his wife, Hela, a German immigrant whom he met in San Francisco in 1954. They married a year later. Day explains how Hela was crucial in

keeping Norman’s work and philosophy alive after his passing. She played an important role by helping him develop his art and supporting the family, often at the expense of her own goals and desires. The couple moved to Tunitas Creek in 1962. It was there, isolated in his small studio on the coast, in between trips spanning the globe for inspiration, that Norman created some of his most renowned artwork while working at a barbershop in town.

Critics categorize his work somewhere between “social surrealism” and “American expressionism” art movements.

Today, many find his work captivating. It is featured in top museums around the world. But in his heyday, Norman was adamant about avoiding abstract painting to make his point. As a result, Day explained, he struggled to find much commercial success. While his work was recognized by some artists at the time, Norman thought his paintings would be

most effective in museums, where more people could see them and consider their meaning. His work didn’t sell particularly well as home decor,

partly because of the size, but his dark, often harsh-looking images required rapt attention.

“Everyone was telling Irving he was talented, and if he wanted to make money, why not paint abstractly?” Day said. “But he just wouldn’t do it. That wasn’t him. He had something to say. And, by golly, he was going to say it.”

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