René Magritte, Clairvoyance (1946), oil on canvas, 54.5 x 65.5 cm.; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York
* * *
The most damning criticism of Surrealist art is also the most ironic given its source: the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. After meeting Salvador Dalí, Freud stated that he found the Spaniard’s conscious mind of greater interest than his unconscious mind. Freudian theory was, if not the sine qua non of Surrealism, then an inescapable touchstone. His comment, then, was a veritable dismissal of Dalí’s attempts at tapping into “the mystery without which the world would not exist.” Dalí isn’t the whole of Surrealist art, of course, and shouldn’t be the gauge by which the genre is measured. But his example did come to mind while I was viewing Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, an overview of paintings and works-on-paper by the Belgian artist René Magritte (1898–1967). Both artists pursued a brand of Surrealism that rendered the bizarre plausible. There would be no plumbing the depths of the psyche through painterly means à la Miró and André Masson. Instead, dutiful attention would be paid to the concrete and recognizable, however unlikely, icky, or weird.
Magritte, like Dalí, achieved a fame that continues to extend well beyond the parameters of the art world. The Beatles based the distinctive logo for Apple Corps. Ltd., their multi-media corporation, on Magritte’s Le Jeu de Mourre (1966), and the iconic Man in the Bowler Hat has become a staple of popular culture, inspiring everyone from fashion designers to the creators of The Simpsons. But if The Mystery of the Ordinary proves anything, it’s that Magritte wasn’t Dalí or, for that matter, any number of lesser figures given to delineating portent-laden vistas inhabited by spooky goings-on. You don’t have to know that Magritte lived a life of bourgeois predictability to glean a welcome lack of flamboyance. It’s there to see in the work’s uneventful, even-handed craftsmanship. All the same, Magritte did put on a show. A drab hand had better hone his vision if he expects anyone to give it the time of day. Tightlipped absurdism was yoked to concise means. Magritte had his moments.
MOMA makes damned sure those moments set the tone. The primary reason The Mystery of the Ordinary succeeds is its focus: the twelve years during which Magritte created and refined his Surrealist “Lifeline.” “La Ligne de vie” was, in fact, a lecture delivered by the artist in 1938 at Antwerp’s Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunst. In it, Magritte traces his development as a “skeptical” artist who, having convinced himself to “live with danger”, sought to create art that “puts the real world on trial.” Though he lived almost another thirty years, Magritte pretty much concluded this “trial” by the exhibition’s end-date. From that point on, he became a painter adept at gratifying public opinion—Magritte the Brand. You can’t blame him. After years of hardship it’s difficult to resist the comforts renown can bring. (Though you can blame Magritte for the financial gains earned by forging paintings by Picasso and Renoir during the Nazi occupation of Belgium.) Still, those craving a Surrealism that retains its integrity could do worse than visit MOMA’s crowd-pleaser.
* * *
The Mystery of the Ordinary begins with The Menaced Assassin (1927), a staple of the museum’s permanent collection, and culminates with On the Threshold of Liberty (1937), a monumental canvas in which the artist juxtaposes a cannon, poised to shoot, with an inventory of favorite motifs: the female nude, blue skies and idyllic clouds, a decorative paper cut-out, a verdant forest, and metallic spheres hovering in front of an array of vertical pipes. In between, there are signature pictures like The Lovers (1928), wherein a man and woman kiss between layers of fabric, Titanic Days (1928), Rape (1928), and The Treachery of Images (1929), or, as it is commonly referred to, “This is not a pipe.” A generation of art history students can attest to the revolutionary nature of the latter image—it questions, don’t you know, the nature of reality. At this late date, Magritte’s one-liner comes off as blandly tendentious. Tell us something we don’t know, René.
One-liners were Magritte’s specialty and he deployed a stockpile of ready motifs to create a deadpan sense of mystery—not quite poetry, but akin to it. Though he sought to make “everyday objects shriek aloud,” the appeal of Magritte’s art lies in its enveloping quietude, as well as a blunt tendency toward punning—take, for instance, the shameless nose-as-phallus trope in The Philosopher’s Lamp (1936). Clairvoyance (1946) is cute: Magritte is seen at his easel, observing an egg but painting a bird. Surrealism’s promise of liberating the viewer from the tyranny of rationalism is, here and there, fulfilled. Love Disarmed (1935) depicts a pair of women’s shoes in front of an oval mirror; reflected in the glass is the hair which streams from out of them. As an imagistic non-sequitur, the painting has a hypnotic appeal. It’s as creepy, if not as epochal, as Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur (1936).
René Magritte, Love Disarmed (1935), oil on canvas, 72 cm. x 54 cm.; Private Collection
* * *
An illustrator by trade, Magritte didn’t extend himself when putting brush to canvas. The requisite job and nothing more—technique wasn’t allowed to intrude on the artist’s dreamscapes. But neither were they endowed with life. Signs are designed, not to entrance, but to communicate effectively, and so it is with Magritte’s conundrums. Give him this much credit: Magritte did get better. The initial galleries feature canvases notable as much for an oppressive lack of tonal range as for their morphing bodies, fractured dioramas and enigmatic rebuses. Round about 1929, not a few years after arriving in Paris, the lights get turned on: The images become illuminated. Perhaps it was close proximity to the Surrealist group and crystalline artisans like Dalí and Tanguy that spurred Magritte’s art. Whatever the case, a consequent variability in value and an increased finesse in execution do much to end The Mystery of the Ordinary on a happy note. That Magritte filled out the rest of his life with more of the same constitutes a deflating artistic denouement MOMA spares us. For that we should be grateful.
© 2013 Mario Naves
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of The New Criterion.