René Magritte: Mysteries of the Ordinary, 1926-1938
The Menil Collection, Houston, February 14-June 1, 2014
Going to see the Magritte show seemed, along with being fun, a welcome dose of the pleasurably familiar: The mighty giant eye, the pipe, the shine on a bowler hat, the choo-choo in the fireplace. Like a fly in my Grandma’s soup, little bits of Magritte weirdness take their time being osmosis-ized. You may not glean, at first glance, what’s going on in his geek-populated paintings, but, for sure, there’s something he’s poking fun at you about. He sucks you in. Makes you look again and again. Like it’s a puzzle or a game, although you don’t feel stupid because it’s a game: Magritte’s game.
He’s a bit of an anarchist, isn’t he? Why else would he show legs growing out from starched dress shirt collars? But there’s none of the bawdy, bloody, homoeroticism of Salvador Dali. It’s all too gentile and bourgeois. Among painters he fancied the persona of a sort of bureaucratic clerk who just happened to keep a set of paints and some conveniently stretched canvases nearby. Indeed, what’s really interesting about this show is that it features work he was doing before he became the Magritte persona. The yoke of pseudo-ordinariness he persevered with: the geek hacking into everyday life while, in a far right obtuse corner, the rain seen through the window falls upward. There’s nothing else like it.
Born in the Belgian provinces in 1898, Magritte never discussed his early years. Facts are sparse. His father was a tailor. His mother committed suicide when he was 13. Trained as a painter at the ultra-traditionalist, stodgy Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, he married Georgette Berger at the age of 22. She remained his muse, life partner and model for life. He supported himself working as a commercial illustrator and graphic designer. The Magrittes lived a reasonably comfortable existence considering the onset of the Great Depression, and Magritte was moving in Surrealist circles in Brussels by 1926.
These early collages and paintings are very moving, defying logic but only in a very subtle way. Every element of the ordinary, landscapes, kitchens, rain-soaked cobblestones inhabited by both the common and uncommon, side by side sometimes, bent-over elderlies, female nudes, men in bowler hats (always men in bowler hats!). In normal situations such component figures make sense. Yet with their relative scale suddenly rendered ‘off’, the world as we know it seems to be suddenly undergoing a nervous breakdown. There’s a kind of hallucinogenic aspect, but if Dali and Hieronymus Bosch’s images seem somehow drug-induced, Magritte’s fuel is weltshmerz.
Magritte’s first solo exhibition, in Brussels, in 1927 seems to have been mostly ignored, but did get him invited to Paris by the critical mover and shaker of the time, André Breton. Like most Depression-era modernism, it showed a clash between utopian dimensions and perceptual absolutes in a fast changing world. Atypically, “The Menaced Assassin” presents a shocking blend of sadism and grand guignol comedy featuring a cudgel-wielding accountant and a decapitated woman against the background of a spotless room with alpine view.
Yet, once in Paris, Magritte didn’t have it in him to suck up to Breton or enter the trendy Paris art milieu. The Magrittes stayed in the suburbs. Magritte just wanted to paint and paint he did. “The Lovers,” with its cloth-shrouded kissing heads. “The False Mirror,” with its sky-filled eye. Best of all, “Treachery of Images” featuring a shop-sign picture of a pipe labeled “This is not a pipe!” Magritte’s Conceptualism, a world unto itself.
By 1930 the Magrittes had returned to Brussels and survived mostly through his commercial art undertakings. Painting, sculpting and commercialism co-existed as an oeuvre until his death in 1967. Critically celebrated by then, his reputation exploded as he was designated a progenitor of Pop. It made him uncomfortable. Pop artists, he said, just painted reality as it was. His work, he insisted, was suffused with a sense of mystery. Still, whether he liked it or not, Magritte has influenced generations of artists, from Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons.
Many of the images you’ll see have been endlessly reproduced. Yet seeing them in a gallery really changes their context forever. Well worth a visit!