Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 29, 2005
Evelyn Benesch René Magritte: Der Schlüssel der Träume Vienna: BA-CA Kunstforum in association with Fondation Beyeler, 2004. 204 pp.; 111 color ills.; 24 b/w ills. Paper $30.00
BA-CA Kunstforum, Vienna, April 6–July 24, 2005; Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, August 7–November 25, 2005
René Magritte. The Treachery of Images, 1928/29. Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Courtesy Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Collection. © VBK, Wie / ADAGP, Paris, 2005.

René Magritte’s art has attracted much attention in the past few years. Following 1999’s Magritte in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Humlebaek, Denmark, and the monumental exhibition in the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2003, a new series of Magritte exhibitions attempts to place the Belgian artist into the spotlight of public interest, responding to new developments in art theory and to new ways of thinking about Surrealism. René Magritte: Der Schlüssel der Träume (The Key of Dreams), the first-ever retrospective of Magritte’s art in Austria, presents more than seventy of his paintings and is staged concurrently with the exhibition Magritte et la Photographie at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, offering a comprehensive survey of his work and allowing a reassessment of its importance to Surrealism and to twentieth-century art history. The Vienna show has been organized in cooperation with the Fondation Beyeler, which will also assemble the first Magritte retrospective in German Switzerland from August 7 to November 25, 2005, and has been initiated and supported by the Belgian Fondation René Magritte.

The curators of René Magritte—Steingrim Laursen, Evelyn Benesch, and Ulf Küster—allow the exhibition space and its architecture to interact and form alliances with Magritte’s art. At the entrance to the first hall, the viewer’s gaze is directed to a work that is hung in an alcove, raised well above eye level, and flanked by other paintings and dramatic columns—a setting reminiscent of an altarpiece. Indeed, the name of this artwork is The Annunciation (1930), a rocky landscape incorporating Magritte’s trademark bilboquets and a paper doily against an abstract, metallic curtain of shelllike objects. This secular painting invites comparison to similarly named religious artworks by earlier painters such as Rogier van der Weyden and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Magritte’s annunciation no longer portrays religious beliefs, but instead demonstrates the rigorous modernist dismantling of such beliefs through the painterly analysis of representation, of categories and binaries. Meanwhile, the work’s mystery remains intact, corresponding to Magritte’s claim that his paintings show “total reality, i.e. reality with its mystery, not separated from its mystery.1

One of the strongest points of this exhibition is the placement of similar centerpieces and key artworks such as The Treachery of Images (1928/29) and The Empire of Lights (1961), expressing the exhibition organizers’ understanding of Magritte’s art as “adventures on canvases” (174). These centerpieces are positioned so that they are framed by doorways, acting as sneak previews that announce the artworks to come and echo Magritte’s themes and concerns with representation and framing. In particular, the decision to frame Treachery with a doorway seems to allude not only to the 1965–66 exhibition René Magritte at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which used similar installation devices, but also to Magritte’s own framing of a copy he made of this painting in 1955 (the frame of which, consisting of frames framing frames, he also designed). Here, questions of framing are extended to the exhibition space—the artwork is not only framed by its own frame, but also by the door frame, transforming the gallery space itself into a frame, further detaching the object from what it represents. Treachery hangs in one of the smaller rooms, aside from the main halls, yet the work forms a (or perhaps even the) centerpiece of the exhibition. Through this location, the curators echo Magritte’s ability to play with and subvert notions of centrality and marginality. The paintings to the right and left of Treachery are carefully chosen so that they interact with it: on the right, The Disguised Symbol (1928) offers a further play on framing processes, while on its left, Irène or The Forbidden Lecture (1936) plays on the name Irène, referring to Magritte’s good friend Irène Hamoir as well as to his own first name, demonstrating the multilayeredness and multireferentiality of words and their meanings in his art. This multiplicity of meaning leads to the question of precisely what the word “Ceci” in Treachery refers to—the representation of a pipe, the word, the sentence, or even Magritte’s signature. Or as Michel Foucault argues:

… scarcely has he stated, “This is a pipe,” before he must correct himself and stutter, “This is not a pipe, but a drawing of a pipe,” “This is not a pipe but a sentence saying that this is not a pipe,” “The sentence ‘this is not a pipe,’ is not a pipe,” “In the sentence ‘this is not a pipe,’ this is not a pipe: the painting, written sentence, drawing of a pipe—all this is not a pipe.2

The exhibition space consists of a number of different halls and smaller rooms, lending itself to the grouping of the artworks according to certain themes. Although these groupings are not made too obvious, they are brought loosely together to explore transformation, the play of opposites, and the relations between words and images in Magritte’s art, arrangements that at some moments echo the Jeu de Paume exhibition. While the exhibition’s beginning is fairly chronological, it quickly departs from this sequence to offer looser, thematic, and atmospheric arrangements, emphasizing the uncanny and mysterious elements in Magritte’s art. In this way, the paintings not only enlighten and add meaning to each other, but they also form patterns of rhyme and rhythm, revealing Magritte’s poetry of images. The installation permits enough space to both connect and separate, allowing the viewer to scrutinize each artwork individually; at the same time, interesting sequences and orders form themselves. Further, the wall labels remain neutral and unobtrusive, providing factual information to support viewers’ perceptions and interpretations.

The exhibition offers a coherent—perhaps too coherent—narrative of Magritte’s art, showing the “classic,” “Surrealist” Magritte while at the same time trying to distinguish him from French, and particularly André Breton’s, Surrealism. The painter is represented through an impressive selection of his best-known and perhaps strongest works, such as Treachery, The Lost Jockey (1926), The Subjugated Reader (1928), Carte Blanche (1965), and The Tomb of the Wrestlers (1960). However, Magritte’s oeuvre invites incoherence and contradictions, always smudging and subverting boundaries between oppositions and therefore indefinitely suspending the viewer. Here a specific and popular Magritte is presented. The aim of forming a coherent oeuvre has necessitated the omission of earlier works, which include paintings bearing Cubist and Futurist influences; the earliest work here dates from 1926. His later, still-controversial artistic production from the 1940s is also excluded. Magritte’s later Impressionist, Renoiresque, and Vache periods also interfere with the version of a coherent oeuvre offered here. Including examples of these periods would have perhaps revealed Magritte as a more disruptive (perhaps even self-disruptive) and subversive artist who embraced contradiction, incoherence, and incongruity. In particular, his artworks in 1946, embodying the concept of “Le Surréalisme en Plein Soleil” and his replacement of the word Surrealism with “Extramentalism,” mark the clearest expression of his alienation from Breton’s Surrealism and might have added to the exhibition’s exploration of distinctions between Magritte and Breton.

Most of the works exhibited are oil paintings; other media—photographs, sculptures, objects, and films—are largely absent. However, Magritte’s photographic production returns in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, forming the first and last image of the book and thereby successfully, in wholly Magrittean manner, subverting the priority given to the paintings in the exhibition. The catalogue consists of different sections, including an informative biography (accompanied by even more photographs), extensive reproduction of artworks exhibited, and essays by Laursen, Siegfried Gohr, and Michel Draguet, who discuss Magritte in relation to Surrealism and explore his impact on contemporary art. While the essays are forcefully written, a more thorough positioning and anchoring of Magritte’s oeuvre with respect to Belgian art and culture would have enlarged our understanding of the work.

This exhibition, carefully organized and thoughtfully presented, offers a “classic” Magritte yet invites critical and contemplative responses throughout. The artworks, of course, ultimately supersede their momentary contexts, inviting the viewer’s engagement in Magritte’s stated desire to express the mystery while showing the “calling into doubt of reality by reality itself.3

Patricia Allmer
Research Associate, Manchester Metropolitan University, MIRIAD

1 “Elle montre la réalité complete, c’est-à-dire la réalité avec son mystère, non séparée de son mystère.” Quoted in S. Whitfield and M. Raeburn, “Le Seducteur,” René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné III – Oil Paintings, Objects, and Bronzes 1949–67, ed. David Sylvester (Houston: Menil Foundation, 1993), 174.

2 Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 30.

3 “La mise en doute de la réalité par la réalité elle-même,” in Sylvester, 173, n. 2.