An artist 100 years in the making: Sylvia Fein

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UC Berkeley alumna Sylvia Fein has reached the extraordinary age of 100, yet continues to create surrealist masterpieces. She is currently bringing the public a special exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, spanning her paintings from the 1940s to this very decade. Displaying the terror of World War II, imaginary worlds and intimate depictions of herself, Fein’s work is a testament to the longevity of life and everything existing in between. 

The pieces are arranged chronologically to allow viewers to follow the transitions in subjects throughout time. Fein reached fame early on while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison with her group, the Midwest Surrealists. At the beginning of her career, Fein was more fixated on the fantastical — one example being “View of the Valley” from 1956. Opting for broad, defining strokes that shape and transform the landscape, the piece is perhaps the most vibrant out of the exhibition’s collection. The unnatural hues and forms leave the landscape somewhat hidden but open, pulsating with life. 

A nearby description portrays Fein as inspired “by the highly detailed style of Northern Renaissance painters such as Hieronymus Bosch and by the fourteenth-century medium of egg tempera.” It is clear from the displayed array of paintings that Fein has stayed loyal to her chosen medium. Egg tempera is a special type of painting medium that binds colored pigments with egg yolk and water rather than with oil. This produces what a description on the wall calls a “distinctive texture and transparent quality” that can’t be replicated with other painting mediums. This medium also adds to the idiosyncratic effects of Fein’s works, an example being the way Fein used the technique to employ rough strokes that resemble scratches, creating a reflective appearance through the light. 

As her paintings progress into the modern sense, they have become less delineated and more centralized on symbolism. “Kitty in the Garden” (2005) features a kitten’s face with amber eyes surrounded by flowers and plants. Recently, Fein has populated her works with eyes that appear human, cosmic and mystical while utilizing a semi-pointillist painting technique in which little dots are used in a pattern to craft an image. Her more contemporary work latches onto an idea itself, rather than beginning at material landscapes and having the audience pull meaning from them. 

A unique attribute to the way Fein displays her collection is by attaching elaborate frames to accompany each image, accentuating her illusory and evocative interpretations. The color matching casings were designed as layers, guiding the viewer to zone in on specific areas and simulating a version of an optical illusion. It’s a mesmerizing style that enhances the audience’s visual perception, especially since a large portion of her work focuses on the nature she has experienced.

A lifelong journey spanning 70 years, Fein’s art has aged into an autobiography of the places she has been both physically and emotionally, and she is still painting. Painting has become the way Fein exists beyond the limitations of age and the realistic world, giving us a treasure chest full of memorabilia. 

It’s hard to imagine a 100-year-old woman still pushing the envelope, but the exhibition sketches the image of her life, detailing that “Fein continues to paint daily at her home in Martinez California, where she also cultivates an extensive orchard of olive trees.” This setup sounds too simple to be true for such an impeccable artist whose surrealist contemporaries are none other than Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning. But it also etches a peculiar picture of her artistic journey, one that begs many questions. As an artist, does one ever stop creating? What is the relationship between creating for pleasure and creating as a job? When, if ever, does one retire? 

These are questions with multiple answers, none of them right and none of them wrong. All are up to the individual. For Fein, it’s a lifestyle — a manner of living that, like her, is timeless.

Contact Cameron Opartkiettikul at [email protected].