Review: Bringing Fantasy to Carnival's surreal float designs_lowres

 

When I was an art student at the University of New Orleans, I would stare at the name Wikstrom on the front frieze of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and wonder. I had never seen that name in any art history book. When researching Carnival, it finally became clear Bror Anders Wikstrom was a float designer. That seemed weird, but when I saw some of his wilder imagery I realized his name belonged on the NOMA facade — as a father of surrealism. His design for a 1907 Krewe of Proteus parade float bedecked with humanoid sea creatures in a kind of kelp forest initially seemed like deja vu. But why? I later noticed its similarity to one of my favorite Max Ernst paintings at NOMA, his circa 1943 Everyone Here Speaks Latin, which was considered radical at the time. Who was this guy?   Wikstrom was a Swedish emigre painter active in Paris and New Orleans, where he eventually became a chief designer of Rex and Proteus floats. What stands out is the extent to which his designs paralleled the avant garde imagery of Parisian symbolist painters such as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon. His 1904 Proteus float design Dragon (pictured) looks fairy tale-ish at first, but look again and all the diabolical terrors of Moreau, Redon or Ernst quiver in the details. Similarly, his 1898 Proteus float Devil's Basket features Renaissance bon vivants and a fair-faced version of the devil himself. All seem to be having a nice time, recalling Mark Twain's admonition, "Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company." It's all par for the course for an expo that includes 20 float plates from the 1904 Krewe of Proteus parade and a bound set of float designs for Rex's "Freaks of Fable" parade in 1910. While Wikstrom's legacy as the all-time king of Carnival designers is well-deserved, some of his contemporaries were equally surreal and sophisticated in ways that are, with notable exceptions, somewhat less prevalent today. Through April 1. New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, New Orleans City Park, (504) 658-4100. www.noma.org.