MAGRITTE The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926–1938

MoMA | September 28, 2013 – January 12, 2014

The familiarity of Pop-Surrealism and the instant recognition of Rene Magritte’s paintings is a double-edged sword. On one side it makes the images in his work as easily dismissible as déjà vu, and on the other side it encourages a fresh perspective on an artist who gave ordinary life a hallucinatory lift.

René Magritte “L’assassin menacé (The Menaced Assassin).” 1927. Oil on canvas. 59 1/4 × 64 7/8 ̋. Museum of Modern Art. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund. © Charly Herscovici.

The Mystery of the Ordinary, three years in the making by Anne Umland (curator of painting and sculpture) with Danielle Johnson (curatorial assistant), and co-organized with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Menil Collection (where it will travel next year), includes vintage photographs, collages, periodicals illustrated by the artist, and 80 paintings culled from MoMA’s collection and the other institutions and collectors, among them several works produced for the eccentric British patron and poet Edward James.

An eyeball filled with clouds (“The False Mirror,” 1929), a locomotive bursting out of a fireplace (“Time Transfixed,” 1938), a mirror reflecting the back of a head (“Not to Be Reproduced,” 1937), a pipe that isn’t really a pipe (“The Treachery of Images,” 1929), and shoes with toes (“The Red Model,” 1937)—all of them make the visitor to MoMA’s sixth floor feel right at home in cozy recognition, if not quite the disturbance or surprise felt by viewers when these works were new.

Magritte challenged the prevailing visual and literary vocabulary, renaming animals and objects, sometime using puns with sexual connotations, and always with a dry, gloomy wit: “The eye must think!” This show covers 12 essential years (1926 – ’38) during which time he became the “surrealist Magritte,” a poetical/ philosophical painter who achieved his effects through shock and paradox. Magritte dissected the mysterious nature of thought and placed banal, ordinary objects in extraordinary situations, such as an oversized egg stuffed into a birdcage (“Elective Affinities,” 1932). He was influenced primarily by metaphysical paintings of de Chirico, but also by Ernst’s frottages, which Magritte does not lift off the wooden surface but paints on a woman’s naked body in “Discovery” (1927). He spent the crucial years of 1927 until 1930 in Paris, where he playfully exploited the absurd-realism of Dada collage and Duchampian conceptualism in works such as “The Alphabet of Revelations” (1927).

At age 40, in his lecture “La Ligne de Vie” (“Lifeline,” 1938), Magritte confessed: “The titles of paintings were chosen in such a way as to inspire in the spectator an appropriate mistrust of any mediocre tendency to facilitate self-assurance. The titles are not descriptions of the picture, and the pictures are not illustrations of the titles.” And so his illustration of E.L.T. Mesens’s “Trois poemes” (Varietes, 1929, on display in a glass display), in which a key is titled “Ocean,” a wine glass is “Bird,” and a guitar is “Tree,” becomes a kind of picto-poem. However, these strategies have lost some of their effectiveness. They do not inspire mistrust anymore, but a sense of humor and philosophical jocularity.

Throughout his career, Magritte proved to be a sophisticated trickster and a puzzle-maker, qualities that gave him the reputation of a maverick and a dreamer among French and Belgian surrealists. “Collages painted by hand” is how Max Ernst categorized Magritte’s works, which infuriated the artist, claiming in a letter to Breton that in the process of painting from a collage, he was the one who invented “the surrealist painting.” While Breton did not give him that satisfaction, he did, upon viewing “The Red Model” (1937), pronounce: “It’s a marvelous, vital, and disturbing piece of work, hard to put out of one’s mind.”

 “The Menaced Assassin” (1927) is the first big painting that attracts attention as one walks inside the galleries at MoMA. A theatrical composition, it is the recreation of an imaginary crime scene, with several narratives running parallel: the bloody, naked corpse of a young woman placed dead center, three curious heads at an opened window, two homicide detectives hiding in wait, and a threatening assassin listening to music in apparent nostalgia—a perfect combination of cruelty and pleasure, love and death, Eros and Thanatos. It makes one pause and think about such a violent scenario and the way the artist visually narrates a love-tragedy.

Magritte was also nurtured by the visually reductive and seductive world of commercial art (he worked in advertising). One piece in this exhibition is an early collaboration with Paul Nougé, the intellectual ringleader of the Belgian surrealists, who wrote strange, short texts to accompany Magritte’s illustrations of fur coats in the 1928 catalogue of a Belgian furrier. Ostensibly a form of commercial promotion, it blurs the line between Magritte’s later surrealist work and the teasing, light provocations of adventurous advertising. In the lavish accompanying exhibition catalogue, Umland calls this period in Magritte’s art “an insidiously subtle Surrealist manifesto.”

Another painting, “The Reckless Sleeper”(1927), has an atmosphere of a floating dream created masterfully with an inventory of small objects: a hand mirror, a bird, a bowler hat, an apple, a bow, and a candle, all imbedded in low relief, while above a mummified man sleeps inside a coffin-like plywood box. Such artwork, a bit nostalgic and creepy, seems at first banal, reminiscent of police crime recreations, but at closer examination reveals the interpretation of nightmares.

René Magritte, “Les amants (The Lovers).” 1928. Oil on canvas, 21 3/8 × 28 7/8 ̋. Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Richard S. Zeisler. © Charly Herscovici, ADAGP, ARS, 2013.

Meanwhile, the sexuality of his narratives is provocative but predictable. In “The Eternally Obvious” (1930), Magritte deconstructs a nude, with face, breasts, pubis, knees, and feet each in its own frame, reassembled as a standing figure in a sort of fetishistic assemblage sculpture. In another work, the fourth leg of a table is replaced by a female leg with a high heel on its foot, while in “The Lovers” (1928), two hooded heads are seen kissing without seeing each other. Frustrated desires are a common theme in Magritte’s work. Here, a barrier of fabric prevents the intimate embrace between the lovers, transforming an act of passion into one of isolation and frustration.

One of my favorites, “The Human Condition” (1933), is a picture within a picture. It depicts a window in front of which stands a canvas on an easel. The canvas is painted to match the view beyond the window. It marks an interface between inside and outside; reality is separated from the artist and the viewer by a window that also modifies the depth and stillness of the landscape. The composition formulates a contradiction between the three-dimensional space of reality and the two-dimensional space of the canvas.

The shock value may be long gone, but Magritte’s paintings remain innovative, pleasurable, illuminating, and thought-provoking. It is not enough to attempt to straitjacket the work with labels such as Romanticism or Symbolism or Pop.

Magritte’s work proves to be surrealist, maybe even orthodox surrealist. This show is a must-see for all the students of avant-garde and, indeed, all art lovers.

Contributor

Valery Oisteanu

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