Tag Archives: Surrealism

“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938” at The Museum of Modern Art

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René Magritte, Clairvoyance (1946), oil on canvas, 54.5 x 65.5 cm.; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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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_Menaced_AssassinRené Magritte, The Menaced Assassin (1927), oil on canvas, 59.2″ x 76.9″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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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).

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René Magritte, Love Disarmed (1935), oil on canvas, 72 cm. x 54 cm.; Private Collection

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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.

“Drawing Surrealism” at The Morgan Library & Museum

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Joseph Cornell, Untitled (c. 1930), collage, 9-7/8″ x 7-3/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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If memory serves correctly, it was the critic and artist Sidney Tillim who observed that the Surrealists couldn’t paint well because they were too preoccupied by bad dreams. The point is sardonic, but not off base. In privileging imagery or, to use parlance particular to the style, putrefaction over aesthetics, Surrealism erred on the side of illustration—on rendering, instead of embodying, “bad dreams.” Once an artist begins delineating visions gleaned from the unconscious in an insistently conscious manner, how genuinely surreal can they be? Notwithstanding exceptions like Joan Miró, whose forays into automatism were emboldened by an encompassing playfulness, the Surrealists employed paint not as a forum for possibility and pleasure, but merely as a means, often perfunctory in character, to otherworldly ends.

But what about the famously direct medium of drawing? Drawing lends itself more readily to quixotic musings—the route from the imagination to the page being less fettered by materials and more open to curious fancies and untested ideas. That’s the impression left by Drawing Surrealism, an array of over 160 works on paper by seventy artists. The usual suspects are present and accounted for at the Morgan: Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Miró, André Masson, André Breton (the self-proclaimed “Pope” of Surrealism), Man Ray, and, alas, the overly prolific Max Ernst. Lesser lights and hangers-on are included, as are marquee names—Picasso, Kahlo, Pollock—and a host of artists operating outside the main Surrealist satellites: Adriano del Valle from Spain, Japan’s Ei-Kyu, and Peru’s César Moro. Leslie Jones, the curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the exhibition organizer, extols Surrealism as “a dynamic international discourse.”

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Wolfgang Paalen, Fumage (Smoke Painting) (c. 1938), oil, candle burns and soot on canvas, 10-3/4″ x 16-3/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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Welcome to the age of curatorial globalism. Drawing Surrealism is similar to Inventing Abstraction, a concurrent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, wherein a bevy of inescapable figures is peppered with local heroes, dark horses, and bit players known primarily, if at all, to specialists of the genre. Though Jones pays due diligence to Paris and, later, Manhattan, where Surrealist methodologies informed the nascent New York School, the exhibition is centered less on artistic capitals than on “an approach . . . that can go where no other pictorial practice can.” Given Surrealism’s cultural reach, such a tack isn’t inappropriate. As an evocation of a particular community of artists, however dispersed, Drawing Surrealism is coherent and surprisingly fulsome.

The exhibition succeeds in reverse proportion to the significance of its contents. Most of the pieces are anything but major: they’re small in size, almost willfully slight and remarkably non-committal in their assault on the “reign of logic.” The medium contributes to the casual air, as does the march of time. History has a tendency of ironing out the kinks (and the kinkiness) of techniques and imagery that were, at one time, shocking or repellent. Perhaps Jones hasn’t been illogical enough in setting out the parameters of Surrealist strategies. The exhibition is fairly didactic, being arranged in discrete sections devoted to distinct approaches: among them, frottage, collage, decalcomania, and cadavre exquis, the collaborative Surrealist parlor game. Does the Morgan show conjure up a milieu wherein (as a chapter heading has it) “works on paper [are] in service of the revolution”? Not a chance: a woozy mildness prevails.

Which is welcome given a context that was (in Breton’s words) “beyond all aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” Of course, how much viewers cotton to the visions of Pavel Tchelitchew, Federico Castellón, Leonora Carrington, and Alfonso Ossorio will depend on one’s taste for distant vistas populated by (as a friend bluntly put it) “icky tits-and-ass.” Over-exposure to Surrealist imagery inevitably calls into question its conventions, and pinpoints how meager—how humdrum, really—the imagination can be. It’s worth recalling that Freud, the sine qua non of Surrealist thought, considered Dalí’s conscious mind more interesting than his unconscious mind, and that Alberto Giacometti broke with Surrealism because of its strictures, likening the school’s practices to masturbation. In the end, Surrealism proved a finite and unyielding ethos.

url-1Man Ray, Untitled (Abstract “Smoke”) (1928), gelatin silver, rayograph print, 9-5/8″ x 7-7/8″

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Surrealism found its truest expression in artists who stepped outside the purviews of self and followed the exigencies of their materials. The inherent disjunction of collage lent itself to provocative, often funny and, in the case of the unapproachable Joseph Cornell, tender ruminations on culture and memory. Early experiments in dripping and blotting will look dated (or easy) to contemporary eyes, but not so the pictorial freedom it allowed Miró, Masson, Arshile Gorky, Matta, Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, and, albeit through a long and tortuous process, Mark Rothko. The lone anomalous inclusion at the Morgan is Ellsworth Kelly who, even at his loosest, is a quintessential classicist. But credit Jones with rescuing Man Ray from his own dilettantism. She’s done an impeccable job of winnowing through the photograms and selecting a handful of exquisite apparitions. For those alone, Drawing Surrealism is a must-see.

© 2013 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 2013 edition of The New Criterion.