The paintings of the Belgian surrealist RenéMagritte, famous from book covers, walls of college dorm rooms, record albums and myriad other subtle and not so subtle pop-culture appropriations, are a bit like epigrams: Clever, pithy, and not always as profound as they at first seem. Seeing a lot of them together in one exhibition, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is like reading a book of quotations or one-paragraph anecdotes: A scattered experience, fun at first, then increasingly frustrating as the effort poured in by the viewer yields less and less substance.
Lovers of Magritte’s coy style, his peculiar silences and intriguing enigmas will find plenty to enjoy in “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1925-1938.” Many of the most famous works are here, representing the artist’s conversion to and development of his signature surrealist style, in which the faces are blank, the settings spare, and everything is rendered with the clarity and rigorous design of commercial art, yet cognizant of the stylistic games of modernism and the history of academic and classical art.
Among the icons: The train emerging from a fireplace (“La Durée Poignardée”), the man standing in front of a mirror, which reflects the back of his head not his face (“La Reproduction Interdite”) and the signboard rendering of a pipe accompanied by the paradoxical statement that “this is not a pipe” (“La Trahison des images”). If you’ve forgotten what these paintings look like, go to a bookstore and check out the covers in the philosophy and literary criticism sections, where it seems Magritte is under license as a quasi-official illustrator for anything involving representation, paradox and the slipperiness of language.
When asked why there hasn’t been a major Magritte show in New York in decades, MoMA curator Anne Umland said it might be because the paintings are so famous. We know them so well there’s no reason to devote resources to studying them further. A good retrospective challenges that complacency, but the prerequisite for a good retrospective is great art, and it’s not always clear Magritte’s work rises to that level.
So why is his work so popular?
Magritte was smart, and had a nose for locating the fault lines of traditional representation. He found concise, visually compelling ways to tease out new possibilities for using paint to depict seemingly impossible things. In his 1927 “Découverte,” Magritte paints a woman whose skin is transforming into wood grain, a recurring texture in the collages of Picasso and Braque. In the 1928 “Les idées de l’acrobate,” a female figure that might have been sliced and diced by a cubist into multiple planes and angles has been sinuously connected into a snake-like creature holding a tuba, her anatomy as disjointed as anything by Picasso, but clearly rendered in a single, flowing, fleshy figure.
The larger surrealist movement also offered viewers an alternative to the break with representation that so many other artists pursued over the past century. Magritte’s paintings may baffle us, but they’re always about something. In some of his earliest works, made in the 1920s, they seem to have obscure narratives — a girl eats a bird alive, men play some kind of ballgame in a forest of carved wooden posts — though in most of his later work, narrative falls away and the paintings are about painting, and the difference between a thing and the representation of a thing. They may be philosophical, but they aren’t visually impenetrable.
Magritte also came from the visually reductive and seductive world of commercial art. One of the most fascinating pieces in the exhibition is an early collaboration with Paul Nougé, the intellectual ringleader of the Belgian surrealists, who wrote strange, short texts to accompany Magritte’s illustrations of fur coats in a 1928 catalogue of a Belgian furrier. Ostensibly a form of commercial promotion, it blurs the line between Magritte’s later surrealist work, and the teasing, light provocations of adventurous advertising. In an exhibition catalogue essay, Umland calls it “an insidiously subtle Surrealist manifesto.”
Magritte drew a sharp line between commercial work and art, and even collaborated on an angry manifesto against the former. Yet he knew the tricks of the trade, and, after failing to build his career during an extended sojourn in Paris, was forced to return to it during the lean times of the 1930s. From advertising, he learned an unfailing sense of graphic design, and he also seems to have intuited the dystopian future of commercial art: The way it clutters our life with images and messages.
On a purely visual level, Magritte’s art still appeals today because it is spare, clean, and mostly empty. His people may be ciphers, living in apocalyptically empty rooms, but today empty is looking pretty inviting. The clean, precise lines of architectural modernism haunt even the most old-fashioned of his interior spaces, and while many of them are stage settings for dark and disturbing messages, they remain strangely appealing places.
Magritte’s paintings also do one, limited kind of artistic work very well. They begin one place, then take you to another, with a satisfying sense of unraveling or unlocking the meaning. They reduce artistic looking to an almost addictive level, with a clear and rewarding payoff for a small amount of study.
But they are tremendously repetitious and not always well painted. Magritte gravitated to certain games again and again: Metamorphosis (a fish with human legs), illusions involving windows and mirrors, pictures that supplement and subvert the thing they represent and objects that are bluntly mis-captioned. Some of the best works are those in which the game can’t be immediately apprehended, as in the 1928 “Les Jours gigantesque,” in which a female figure is groped by a man whose shadowy form is entirely contained within her outline. It appears that she is putting him on, or pulling him off, like a piece of clothing, that he is all over her “like a cheap suit.” But with its dark palette, and a trace of anguish on her face it also feels distinctly like an act of sexual aggression. So the painting can’t be contained entirely within a clever twist on representation. It has consequences.
It is one of the few, however, that reaches for emotional impact outside the neatly confined parameters of visual paradox.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay to look too closely at Magritte’s painting technique, which is often clumsy. Hands are frequently rendered in a stiff and approximate way, and when he attempts to introduce expression into his generically blank and pretty masque-like faces, he usually fails, as in the 1928 “La Lectrice soumise.” Many of his paintings look better — smoother and more finished — in reproductions than they do on the wall.
Hard-core Magritte partisans will say that most of these failings were all part of the artist’s plan, which was to frustrate easy viewing, and to use the tools of advertising and consumerism to unmask and criticize much of what we take for granted about bourgeois society, including our facile relation to images and representation. Maybe. He was a man of the Left and occasional member of the Communist Party.
But after spending time with the exhibition’s 80-some paintings, collages and other pieces (including a small number of interesting sculpture and painted objects), you may wish that Magritte had more to offer. Joan Miro passed through a surrealism without getting stuck there. While Magritte produced some interesting and atmospheric paintings after the period on display in the MoMA show, mostly he kept cracking variations on the same handful of jokes.
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, through Jan. 12. For more information, visit www.moma.org.