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Vivid Visions, Unsettling Still

January 15, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — For many years one of the most memorable artworks displayed in the permanent collection galleries of the Museum of Modern Art was “The Eternal City” (1934-37) by Peter Blume. A weird, technically dazzling mix of Magic and Social Realism on which the artist worked for nearly three years, it offers a comically nightmarish view of Rome under the Fascist reign of Mussolini. Broken marble statues lie in the foreground. An emaciated Jesus surrounded by shiny ritual objects sits in an electrically lit window of a stone building to the left. To the far right appears the giant green head of an angry, balding man with bright red lips — Mussolini himself. Attached at the neck to a yellow, accordion-pleated device, he pops up like a monstrous jack-in-the- box. In the picture’s middle ground, beleaguered common people wander through the exposed remnants of underground corridors, and, in the background, soldiers attack civilians in the Roman Forum. Hazy purple mountains rise in the far distance. With myriad more details to examine and a superabundance of sacred and profane symbolic meanings to ponder, “The Eternal City” still arrests eye and mind, and it’s the high point of “Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis,” an exceptionally intriguing if uneven survey at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Though not well known today, Mr. Blume (1906-1992) was famous during the 1930s and ’40s. Born in what is now Belarus, he came to the United States as a young boy. He studied at the Educational Alliance Art School in New York and at the Art Students League and began exhibiting his work when he was just 18 at the Daniel Gallery, one of the most progressive galleries in America. In 1934 he won first prize at the 32nd Carnegie International exhibition for his painting “South of Scranton” (1930-31), which is included in the present show. It’s a disjunctive narrative of four men in swimsuits leaping from the futuristic top of a modern warship with a distant view of a d