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The work of the painter René Magritte is well known, if not as art, then at least as image. Magritte himself claimed that looking at a reproduction of his works was every bit as good as looking at a painting. The exhibition Magritte: Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 sets out to disprove this notion, foregrounding the materiality of Magritte’s work alongside his conceptual preoccupations. Foremost among those preoccupations is the resistance—even refusal—of Magritte’s painted objects to operate according to their material constrictions. And so the Menil has set up an appropriately counterintuitive project—the exhibition is physically grounded in our perception of Magritte’s work, even as that work undermines our conceptions of reality.
Magritte: Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 focuses on a limited period of Magritte’s long career, but the years covered are some of Magritte’s most fertile. We see him establishing his characteristic ideas about framing, language, and object lessons, but also get a sense of his darker, clinical approach to violence and sexuality.
Entering the exhibition, the viewer is faced with The Menaced Assassin (1927), which was the centerpiece of Magritte’s first solo exhibition in Brussels in 1927, where it garnered vitriolic reviews (David Sylvester, Rene Magritte: Catalogue Raisonne, vol. 1, London: Philip Wilson, 1992, 68). The painting is theatrical in its composition—a murder has taken place at center stage, and in the foreground two bowler-hatted men are armed to overtake the assassin in the central space, who complacently listens to a phonograph. The painting is a strange commentary on watching and waiting, which we, as viewers, also find ourselves apprehensively doing. For Magritte, the act of looking is inherently rendered suspect.
The Menil Collection is particularly appropriate for making this point. As an institutional policy, it does not offer didactic text in the galleries; the experience of viewing is meant to be primary—a phenomenological, not pedagogical, experience. Also enhancing the relationship between viewer and work is the intimacy of the Menil’s galleries, a result of the domestic scale of the museum’s architecture that was meant to evoke the personal relationship John and Dominique de Menil had with their collection—and with the artists they collected. The Menils were ardent supporters of Magritte and brought him to Houston in 1965, just after his first and, until now, only solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
In the exhibition’s incarnation at MoMA, curators Anne Umland and Danielle Johnson organized the show under geographic markers to provide a historical framework for Magritte’s artistic evolution, grouping paintings in the context of when and where the works were made (Brussels, Paris, London); by contrast, Menil curators Josef Helfenstein and Clare Elliott seem more interested in setting up confrontations between the viewer and the artist’s conceptual investigations (Stephanie D’Alessandro curated the Art Institute of Chicago iteration). Works are still hung roughly chronologically, but variations in gallery configuration, size, and lighting foreground the viewer’s experience of the work as well as the work itself. The Menil also repeats the tradition of displaying Surrealist works against darkly colored walls (in this case various shades of grey—Dominique de Menil’s favorite color). In this way, Magritte is visually tied to the museum’s Surrealist galleries down the hall, where more Magritte paintings are displayed, as well as to the Menil’s accompanying exhibition Memories of a Voyage: The Late Work of René Magritte (February 14−July 13, 2014), which features Magritte’s later work and is drawn entirely from the Menil’s collection. The museum’s ability to display Magritte in so many versions—separate solo shows of his early and late work, as well as paintings in the context of the permanent Surrealist galleries—speaks to the breadth and depth of the Menil’s collection of Magritte’s oeuvre, which is the largest outside of Brussels.
This first room of the exhibition is filled with early images of bourgeois men engaged in incomprehensible, yet seemingly sinister, activities. The conceptual opacity of these paintings is fascinating to consider alongside Magritte’s burgeoning advertising career. A vitrine in this room displays Magritte’s fashion illustrations, which demonstrate how he translated elements of his avant-garde investigations to marketable ends. The fur catalogue that Magritte produced with Paul Nougé showcases fashionable fur coats in eerie juxtaposition with Surrealist visual devices, including a disembodied head with eyes closed that is visually reminiscent of the bowler-hatted man in Magritte’s The Meaning of Night (1927) on the wall behind the vitrine. Though Surrealism intended to overthrow bourgeois culture, it also gave commercial culture some of its most beguiling visual strategies.
The second room also incorporates the tension between vanguard and vernacular as the curators present Magritte’s examination of the process of collage—either literally, as in the smaller intricate works composed of sheet music pasted onto paper, clustered salon-style on one wall; or figuratively, in paintings that juxtapose discrete elements. One painting in this room, The Prince of Objects (1927), operates as a subtle intermediary example. Upon close looking, the viewer can discern that there are extra bits of painted canvas affixed to its surface, making it both painting and collage. Through his use of collage, Magritte begins to appear as an almost postmodern player of semiotic games. An End to Contemplation (1927) consists of two identical images of a woman from profile and frontal views that is palpably interrupted by small bolts or snaps that pierce the canvas. The snaps underscore the imperfect joining of two elements, both pictorially and physically. Magritte’s depiction of the woman’s face(s) deliberately resembles cut paper, and, according to conservators, he likely used a template to create the painting. While it is installed opposite the wall of paper collages, it also looks back to a painting hung in roughly the same place on a wall just outside the exhibition—Andy Warhol’s Double Mona Lisa (1963). Perhaps viewers are not intended to notice the Warhol until exiting the galleries of the Magritte show, with Warhol’s screenprint bringing Magritte’s use of a template to its most subversive conclusion. Collage was one way to undercut the supremacy of painting; printing was another. In both cases, doubling also undoes the primacy of the original, a strategy Magritte (and Warhol) employed within works of art as well as between them. In another room of the exhibition, Magritte’s “cut up” paintings—clusters of canvases in which the viewer must mentally fill in the gaps to create a coherent image—develop the dialogue between representation and fragmentation even further while also presaging Minimalist artists’ use of the wall itself as an integral element of their work.
Magritte started his career closely affiliated with the Surrealist movement, and the third and fourth rooms of the exhibition feature works that he completed during his three-year sojourn in Paris. Many of these deal with psychosexual relations, standard exploratory ground for the Surrealists, though for Magritte this is manifested as an almost anatomical visual dissection. In Attempting the Impossible (1928), Magritte reimagines the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea as a double portrait of himself in the act of painting his naked wife, though he paints her not as a painting, but as a figure occupying his same space. Four photographs appear on the wall perpendicular to the painting. One reveals that Georgette Magritte posed for the painting clothed, her left arm akimbo. It is a small but telling detail. In the finished work, her left arm is left unpainted, and so her hand-on-hip stance—and its demonstration of agency—is lost; the figure in the painting stands mute. Instead of the painter bringing her to life through his brush, Magritte has turned her into an automaton. Paradoxically, the mechanical reproduction of the photograph seems more intimate than the painter’s portrait of painting.
The fourth room of the exhibition is an exhilarating exploration of Magritte’s use of text and/as image. Here is Magritte’s most famous contribution to the history of art, The Treachery of Images (1929), in which he depicted a pipe as illusionistically as possible above the phrase, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The pipe is undermined by these words as well as by the way Magritte paints it. The sheen on the pipe that is meant to convey its three-dimensionality also resembles a wisp of smoke being sucked through it, hollowing it out; that sheen or wisp (opposites in terms of what they would accomplish pictorially) is also the same color as the background, allowing one to imagine a scenario in which the pipe is flat and the creamy background seeps through to saturate the foreground, dissolving the distance between them. The Treachery of Images undercuts the systems of representation many times over.
Despite this, The Treachery of Images manages to harness the power of the object in a way that contemporary artists would later transform into Pop iconography. The painting was first exhibited in the United States in 1954 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, where contemporary artists and critics finally took notice of Magritte (however, even then Janis’s show was far from a commercial success). Janis called his show Word vs. Image, and the Menil curators centrally position Magritte’s illustrated text Word and Image (both the hand-drawn original and its reproduction in a 1929 issue of La Révolution Surréaliste) in which Magritte uses both visual and verbal registers to explore the flexibility and frustrations of representation. Like the unassuming period at the end of a sentence, The Treachery of Images punctuates the room—and the exhibition—without dominating it. Likewise, Magritte’s contemporaneity echoes throughout the exhibition, especially when one looks closely at the labels to notice works borrowed from the collections of such artists as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Toward the end of the exhibition, the curators have created a very small room with large paintings (commissioned by the British patron Edward James) to allow Magritte’s play of scale and compartmentalization to come to life. Only four people are allowed in this room at any one time, and the effect, even when alone in the space, is stifling. Flanking the entrance to this alcove is a photograph of James by Magritte, turned away from the viewer and toward On the Threshold of Liberty (1937), the painting that fills the main wall of the tiny room. Thus, visitors on the threshold of the gallery mimic James’s stance, and are implicated in the confined mental space constructed by Magritte’s paintings.
One of the most illuminating aspects of this exhibition is that Magritte’s materiality matters—his scale, the properties of his (many) mediums, and the conversations that arise between seemingly discrete works. It is fitting, too, that the exhibition includes several examples of Magritte’s multiples—either through reproduction in magazines or repeated versions of different canvases. Surrealism meant to cast doubt on everything, but the Menil demonstrates that not only was painting a problem for Magritte, occasionally it was a solution. Magritte’s work manages to unhinge all the expected divisions—truth merges with fiction, nature with artifice, and perhaps most especially, the mysterious and the ordinary collide. If we can feel conviction about anything, it is that the world should be approached with deep skepticism.
Associate Professor of Art History, School of Art, University of Houston
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