The work of René Magritte is nothing if not recognizable. His subtle, often humorous subversions of painterly convention and semiotic understanding are foundational elements of the early 20th century avant-garde, from to his classic piece of semantic self-destruction, The Treachery of Images to the dreamlike paintings of imagined worlds and pastiched approaches to conventional subjects. It’s these iconic works that form the center of the artist’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, examining his early works as the foundations of both his own career, and the vital lifeline of Surrealism in the twentieth century.
René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). La durée poignardée (Time Transfixed). 1938. Oil on canvas. 57 7/8 x 39″ (147 x 99 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. Joseph Winterbotham Collection. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013
Approaching text and image in equal measure, Magritte confronts the full scope of the modernist experience, from the newly developed field of psychoanalysis, to the unleashed horrors of World War I in Europe, to the new capabilities for technology in the human condition. The surrealists, springing from the early experiments by the Dadaists, took these diverse inputs, and incorporated them into works that explored the fragmented state of humanity, utilizing a signature blend of incisive humor and occasional moral outrage.
René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (The Treachery of Images [This is Not a Pipe]). 1929. Oil on canvas. 23 3/4 x 31 15/16 x 1 in. (60.33 x 81.12 x 2.54 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013. Photograph: Digital Image © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA,Licensed by Art Resource, NY
It’s perhaps this fragmentation that ultimately underscores what Magritte’s work actually expresses, a metaphorical realization of the increasingly tenuous link between representation and subject. Mirror images, duplicates, self-aware breaks in the painterly frame, and the ever persistent juxtaposition of images on view seem to take the cinematic eye as their foundational point, the emergence of an eye watching itself. Taken at this distance, the surrealist experiment fits lockstep in with the parallel developments in film and cinema, and perhaps explains the medium’s popularity among some of his contemporaries (Buñuel, Dali, etc.).
René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). Le Palais de rideaux, III (The Palace of Curtains, III). 1928-29. Oil on canvas. 32 x 45 7/8″ (81.2 x 116.4 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013
In this context, Magritte’s early works, on view here, can be taken as an early exposition of the pressures caused by the explosion of capabilities in technology, both for the creation of images, and the new relationships these forms create for viewing the world. But aside from any broader themes present here, the works are fascinating for their slow, gradual breaks with the demands of conventional painting for his time. Magritte slowly embraces the surreal, starting with bizarre juxtapositions of the human form, and ending with pieces that take the materials of reality (bed posts, doors), and warps them into strange assemblages on the canvas. Similarly, the body becomes gradually more warped as the show progresses, moving from a mere source of position and form to a site for the traumas of reality.
René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). L’assassin menacé (The Menaced Assassin). 1927. Oil on canvas. 59 1/4″ x 6′ 4 7/8″ (150.4 x 195.2 cm). Museum of Modern Art. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2013
Exploring the new capabilities for art in the modernist landscape, Magritte’s early work provides a broader understanding of the potentials for surrealism as they stood in the early days of the twentieth century, and the artist’s enduring influence throughout the landscape of contemporary art, and shows just how little one can truly understand the meaning of the everyday.
The Mystery of the Ordinary is on view through January 12th.
René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). Les amants (The Lovers). 1928. Oil on canvas. 21 3/8 x 28 7/8″ (54 x 73.4 cm). Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Richard S. Zeisler. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013
René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). La condition humaine (The Human Condition). 1933. Oil on canvas. 100 x 81 x 1.6 cm (39 3/8 x 31 7/8 x 5/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collector’s Committee. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013
René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). Le faux miroir (The False Mirror). 1929. Oil on canvas. 21 1/4 x 31 7/8″ (54 x 80.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013
René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). La reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced). 1937. Oil on canvas. 31 7/8 x 25 9/16 in. (81 x 65 cm). Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013. Photograph: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam
— D. Creahan
The Mystery of the Ordinary [MoMA]