A rhapsodic display of color and form, Surprise (May Moon) embodies the emotional exuberance and passionate response to nature emblematic of Oscar Bluemner's most successful compositions. In 1935 he wrote, "Scenes reflect the moods we carry into them. I begin with a color theme of two or more tones. Every color has a specific effect on our feelings. I give to such color-effect a corresponding shape in analogy with nature....Indeed, Color creates its own form so that to a specific color, its tone, chroma, hue, a peculiar direction, a position in space, an outline and mass may be assigned by the imaginative artist for the purpose of creating a definite psychical effect." (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, New York, 1991 pp. 122-23) Executed in 1927, shortly after the traumatic death of Bluemner's wife, Lina, Surprise (May Moon) is a triumph of his emotional sensibilities and celebrated Modernist aesthetic.
In 1924, Bluemner began an ambitious series of watercolors that would occupy his artistic output for the following years. He had dedicated himself to this medium which, combined with the principles of traditional Old Master painting and Eastern approaches to subject, form and composition, provided him with new inspiration and means of expression. In November of that same year, he exhibited twenty three of these new works in his first solo exhibition at Neumann's New Art Circle and received abundant praise. Art critic Margaret Breuning wrote, "Bluemner expresses his emotional reactions to the world in colors of arresting quality. He does not appear to be interested in...anything but total harmonies and the expression of emotion through them." (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner-Romantic Modern, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1985, n.p.)
In March 1926, Bluemner's wife passed away. The artist was deeply saddened by the event, and the resulting emotional trauma ultimately drove him to leave his home in New Jersey with his daughter and resettle in South Braintree, Massachusetts, where his son Robert was living. Bluemner would spend his final years here. Beyond geographical relocation, the tragedy steered him toward a new iconography, as he wrote in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, "If [only] I had a vision 40 years ago that I should sit in this very corner of the world, more alone with myself...than the man in the moon! Hence I am painting moons; lunatica." (as quoted in Oscar Bluemner, p. 129) Bluemner produced eighteen celestial motif watercolors which he exhibited at Stieglitz's recently opened Intimate Gallery in February 1928. The title of the exhibition was Suns, Moons, Etc.--Facts and Fancy--Strains Or Moods. As Barbara Haskell writes, "His brilliant orbs of color were successors to O'Keeffe's series, Evening Stars, which she had included in her 1917 show at 291, and precedents for Dove's Sunrise series from 1937. In Bluemner's hands, the imagery became a potent signifier of the conversion of matter into spirit. Concentric bands of colors, radiating from a central core onto natural and man-made forms, fused the polarities of body and soul, life and death, ecstasy and terror, male and female, yin and yang into a 'single, isolated, emotional, ecstatic moment.'" (Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2005, p. 98)
Surprise (May Moon) is a powerful symphony of bold washes and expressive forms. A rich hue of purple and a milky blue radiate from the virile red moon which hangs prominently above the quaint cluster of houses. A commanding orb of rich cadmium, the rising moon denotes an optimism which is emblematic of the artist's intensely spiritual nature. In an unpublished letter, Jeffrey Hayes writes, "[Surprise (May Moon)] occupies an especially 'positive' position within the artist's series of psychologically suggestive Suns & Moons, and Bluemner was personally very pleased that his friend and fellow artist Gaston Lachaise singled it out for praise during the opening of an important solo exhibition at Stieglitz's Intimate Gallery in 1928." (1992)
Hayes writes of the series, "Many of Bluemner's watercolors were conceived with musical subtitles." (Oscar Bluemner, p. 134) Indeed, the title of the present work, which was given by the artist as Surprise (May Moon), is suggestive of Austrian composer, Joseph Hadyn's Symphony No. 94 in G major which is widely known as the "Surprise Symphony." The four-movement score, an orchestral work, is nicknamed for the "surprise"--a startlingly loud chord--that interrupts the otherwise soft and gentle flow of the second movement. Although Bluemner did not expressly relate the present work to this score, he, along with contemporaries Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove, made thematic connections between music and art. Furthermore, Bluemner urged his viewers to recognize the synthesis of the two: "Look at my work in a way as you listen to music--look at the space filled with colors and try to feel; do not insist on 'understanding' what seems strange. When you 'FEEL' colors, you will understand the 'WHY' of their forms. It is so simple. (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, p. 125) The rich palette and pulsing forms of Surprise (May Moon) come together in an uplifting visual forté of significant force representing Bluemner at the height of his talents.