The Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 500 University Ave., announced “The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota” exhibition will be on view from July 15 through Sept. 9.
With this exhibition and its accompanying catalog, The Memorial Art Gallery forges new territory in the introduction and exploration of a little-known and unconventional artist of significant talent.
Josephine Tota, 1910–1996, was a seamstress and amateur artist who lived a conventional life among the Italian immigrant community in Rochester. In her 70s, she spent hours painting in the privacy of her home, where she imbued over 90 small jewel-like paintings with the richness of her strange imagination. Themes of metamorphosis, family bonds, physical pain, human frailty, the natural world, loss and tragedy dominate Tota’s depictions. Despite her relative isolation in producing this body of work, Tota was influenced by years of amateur art classes at MAG’s community art school, the Creative Workshop, and her personal interest in medieval and modern art.
It is this body of work — dozens of paintings in egg tempera and gilding on board, completed at the end of her life — that “The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota” explores and advocates for inclusion into the canon of self-taught, visionary art.
“Unusual paintings like these,” writes Curator in Charge/Curator of American Art Jessica Marten, “near death-defying expressions of a little-known artist’s interior world, with incisive inquiries into womanhood, age, and power, rarely find their way inside an art museum’s walls.” Surreal Visions explores the “audacious and radical voice” of a singular artist almost lost to history and challenges our commonly held assumptions about female artists working outside the mainstream.
MAG will offer this scholarly examination in recognition of the quality of Tota’s work and the importance of her story. Because of the power of her paintings, their rich connection with her personal narrative and her transformation of centuries of art-historical sources into an idiosyncratic style, Tota deserves careful review. In a broader sense, the exhibition and catalog explore currents within the American experience primed for deeper art historical inquiry, such as the structural failure of the insider/outsider duality, the far-reaching legacy of surrealism, the marginalization of female visionary artists and the relationship between age and creative agency.
“The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota” features over 90 paintings created by Josephine Tota; 14 from the collection of the Memorial Art Gallery, many never-before-seen paintings on loan from family and friends and a small selection of ceramics and textiles. A fully illustrated catalog of the artist’s late paintings published by RIT Press will accompany the exhibition and will feature essays by Jessica Marten and Janet Catherine Berlo, University of Rochester Professor, Art History/Visual and Cultural Studies. After it premieres at the Memorial Art Gallery, additional venues will be arranged by International Arts & Artists.