Magritte: Portrait by Duane Michaels

Why a new exhibition on Magritte? “René Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” is the Art Institute of Chicago’s season blockbuster. This stunning exhibition is the first that zeroes in on Magritte’s most inventive and experimental years, showing us his seminal experiments of 1926-27 on through 1938.  I was bowled over.

Among art lovers, Magritte is a known commodity and perhaps his work seems commonplace to us now. Many of his arresting images are in the popular vernacular. A case in point is the remake of the film, the Thomas Crown Affair, where the director makes smart use of Magritte’s iconic Man in a Bowler Hat of 1964 (the painting with a white dove blocking the man’s face) and it’s better-known companion painting, The Son of Man, also from 1964, with the signature green apple obliterating the man’s visage. In the Thomas Crown Affair, the protagonist and millionaire playboy Thomas Crown hires dozens of actors of the same height and appearance to replicate the painted bowlered icon so to confuse police who were looking to catch Thomas Crown in the act of returning the valuable Monet landscape he had stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dozens of men in bowler hats and classic wool morning coats carry valises and move through the museum, up and down stairs, through numerous galleries crowded with visitors. It is one of the most delightful scenes in the film. It is as if Magritte’s paintings came to life, baffling the police as Magritte himself delighted in baffling his audience.

Yet, do we really know Magritte? We recognize his tromp le oile technique, which is a hallmark of much of Surrealism and part of Surrealism’s enduring pull, its beautifully painted magic. Salvador Dali exploited oil paint’s exquisite ability to replicate a wisp of smoke, a tearful eye or a scorching desert.  Yves Tanguy used the sensuousness of oil paint to blend his dreamscapes from dark to light, to draw us unto his grayed dreamscapes inhabited by bonelike forms casting evocative shadows onto the arid and unfamiliar landscape. Oil paint is flat out seductive in skilled hands.  The Surrealists, trained in the best European tradition, were skilled.

Matching the brilliant 2013 exhibition “Picasso and Chicago:  the Fearless Pursuit of the Modern” the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2014 Magritte exhibition sweeps us into the dark, dreamlike psychic space of Magritte with paintings carefully placed and showcased on dark gray walls, dramatic spot lighting of the paintings and an excellent pacing and placement of art works.

The Belgian artist René Magritte created some of the 20th century’s most indelible images. The Art Institute exhibition features over 100 of Magritte’s paintings, works on paper and a small group of his Surrealist objects, along with a selection of photographs, periodicals, books and early commercial work. The museum’s goal is to “trace the birth of the themes and strategies Magritte would go on to use throughout his long, productive career—and which make his paintings so unforgettable today.”

Magritte: “Future of Statues” 1931

The show opens with Magritte’s painted object, “The Future of Statues,” an oil on plaster “death mask” with eyes closed.  Is the artist dead or merely in a dream state? The face of the death mask is painted in Magritte’s signature pale sky blue with his signature fluffy white clouds. “I chose this piece for its magical suggestiveness,” said D’Alessandro. “It has an almost telekinetic enticement.”

“Magritte was an amazing artist who has much to offer us today,” said Stephanie D’Alessandro, the Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator of Modern Art at the Art Institute, who was instrumental in assembling this exhibition. “I think that living in an age of mobile phones, in which we are so used to acquiring all sorts of information with great speed — and assuming it is ‘correct’ — has resulted in a loss of the ability to let a picture really take us into its own world, with all its unique habits and customs. So working with installation designer, Robert Carson, I’ve tried to create a series of small, initially quite dark spaces that should help make the experience of each art work more intense and intimate, and will let your imagination tell you where you want to go.”

The exhibition begins with the seminal year for Magritte, 1926. In 1926, Magritte began making small oil paintings and watercolors with collage, some of which employed stage curtains on the sides, tipping the viewer off to the artificiality of the scene viewed within the painting and of the actuality of a painting itself.  We think immediately of his seminal and later “The Treachery of Images” with the sentence “This Is Not a Pipe” (Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) written carefully below the pipe. About this Magritte wrote, “Who could smoke a pipe from one of my paintings?  Nobody. Hence, it is not a pipe.”

It came as a complete surprise to see his 1928 “Biomorphs with Words” which predates “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”  A clumsy pipe and puff of smoke are rendered in thick brown impasto. The pipe is not sleek and the smoke is thick as mud.  “La pipe” is written below. Certainly Magritte was experimenting with ways to deconstruct images with paint. How to paint a pipe so thick it is barely recognizable what for the assurance of “La pipe” clumsily painted below.

Magritte: “The Lovers” 1928

From 1926-27, a group of works on paper shows the birth of the strategies and images of this remarkable period of discovery.  Carefully integrated collage elements from music scores are imbedded in enigmatic forms lending both pattern and confusion to the forms. “The Lost Jockey” employs the black stage curtains, an incongruous form for a scene with a racing horse. Here, with the stage curtains on each side of the painting, Magritte announces the artificiality which will be employed throughout his painting career. In a curious way, Magritte is ushering in the Greenbergian notion of painting-as-object, the critical notion of which came to the art world decades later.  Although Magritte employs high illusion in his carefully-composed and painted works, he undermines the reading of his paintings as an Albertian/Renaissance ‘view through a window’ by providing illogical elements throughout all his paintings.  The tenderly rendered pipe is negated by the painted words below it: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”  The lovers cannot actually kiss because their faces are shrouded in cloth. At every turn, reality is undermined and Magritte announces that this is a painting, it is not the thing I have painted.

Magritte: “The Interpretation of Dreams” 1935

A significant breakthrough came with Magritte’s imitation of the format of children’s picture-books, where the word was printed below the object named. Picture books were meant for learning, and Magritte undermines the rational by writing an incorrect word below three of four objects represented. The paintings are neatly divided into four parts with a black background, reminding us of a schoolroom blackboard. Below a horse head he writes ‘the door,’ below a clock is ‘the wind,’ below a white pitcher is ‘the bird,’ and finally, in the lower right quadrant, ‘the valise’ is written below a valise. We are being tutored, but badly.

I call attention to another use of forms from childhood: Magritte’s repeated us of biblioquettes, a stick and ball game.  The sticks children use are attenuated, as if turned on a lathe, with a round top. These unusual forms populate numerous paintings, as do round, jingle-type bells children pay with. Both items are used in a haunting and one of Magritte’s largest paintings, The Annunciation. Gunmetal gray bells are mounted on a fluted fence wall, with towering biblioquettes and a large paper cut-lace form, all in a Giotto-like landscape of rocks and uniform green trees and shrubs.  It is a perfect stage set for an opera, where we see the setting but not the action. What will happen here?  Where is this place?

The combination of text and image was richly investigated in these years, 1926-1938.  By liberating the object from its written name, Magritte undermines the notion that art panders to human pleasure, that the viewer can mindlessly glance at a landscape or portrait, for example, without much thought.  Magritte, by naming an object incorrectly, calling a clock ‘the wind’ Magritte forces us to wake up, to really look at the image. He is making things difficult.

Another experiment characterizing these seminal years was his development of metamorphosis, morphing or transforming one object into another.  The most troubling experiment in metamorphosis is Magritte’s The Titanic Days of 1928.  A large female nude appears to be struggling with a clothed man who is attacking her though he is fused within her contours.  This painting, like many in the exhibition, was a revelation to me.  We see the same paintings of Magritte reproduced again and again.  Paintings like The Titanic Days are known by few and arresting to see in person.

I close with another lesser known painting, Clairvoyance of 1936. Magritte carefully portrays himself at the easel, brush poised, in the act of painting a life-like bird in flight by staring at an egg on the table next to him. Starting in 1932, Magritte started exploring more enigmatic ways of representing objects.  In Clairvoyance he is conveying that the simple ovoid of a bird’s egg in no way gives evidence of what the bird looks like that emerges from the egg. This further conveys Magritte’s enduring interest in the poetics of objects.  What is the life of an object?  What is it’s secret life? Also, quietude is engaged in this painting – by Magritte’s exquisite use of negative space, where the gray green background is seen in between the few important objects and the artist at work.  Further, we glance at a triangular composition from white egg to white background of canvas on easel to light skin of the artist’s face, where clairvoyance is assured in the quiet environment depicted.

The audience for the exhibition was rapt with attention and engagement was high.  In front of Clairvoyance a pre-teen girl with her father and grandmother said she wished she had some paper so she could remember the names of her favorite paintings. I tore several sheets from my small notebook and with pleasure saw her immediately begin writing.

The show, organized in collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Houston’s Menil Collection, runs through Oct. 13 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.

Cynthia Kukla is a painter living in Illinois who also writes about art.

Cynthia Kukla


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