SAN FRANCISCO — White clouds. Green apples. Black umbrellas. A man in a bowler hat. Perfume of enigma. . . . You know already that I am writing about René Magritte. But there was a period when Magritte wanted to show everyone that their mental picture of him was all wrong.
We meet this other Magritte in the first gallery of “René Magritte: The Fifth Season,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It’s as though the artist’s signature bowler-hatted Everyman, seen from behind, had turned around and made a sarcastic, vicious face.
Then, almost as suddenly (you simply walk into the show’s second gallery), he turns around again. The Magritte we know returns: calm, cool, uncanny. What happened?
Quite simply, a crisis. In 1943, Magritte was 44. Belgium, his homeland, was under the control of the Nazis, who considered Magritte and his fellow surrealists “degenerate.” Magritte lived in fear of raids on his studio and home.
What’s more, all the surrealists, even those who felt safe, were facing a reckoning. With the world burning, who had time for images of burning giraffes or melting clocks or, for that matter, men in bowler hats? Irrationality was not, it seemed, the liberating force the surrealists hoped it would be. The war had put everything in perspective.
Magritte summed up the problem in a letter to his friend and champion, André Breton. Breton, before the war, had organized a huge surrealist exhibition in Paris. To heighten the drama, the sense of childlike wonder, of this extravaganza, visitors had been supplied with flashlights so they could see the works in the gallery’s womblike darkness.
But, as Magritte noted in his letter, “We had this experience during the Occupation, and it wasn’t funny. The confusion and panic that Surrealism had wanted to create to bring everything into question were achieved much better by the Nazi idiots than by us.”
It’s hard to imagine a more devastating indictment.
So now, as trapped or isolated people often do, Magritte sought temporary asylum in perversity. Instead of images of invincible calm, their surfaces licked smooth, their content as unapproachable as a dream, he started painting with broken, brightly colored brushstrokes in the manner of — of all people — Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Why Renoir? Nobody seems to know. The phase, lasting several years, became known as Magritte’s “Renoir period,” or “sunlit surrealism.” In one small gouache, a giraffe stands in a giant glass. In another, a young woman eats the raw flesh of a feathered bird. In an oil painting, a sleeping nude with different-colored limbs reclines on a bed against an opalescent landscape.
The imagery, that’s to say, remained “surreal.” But the way it was painted changed radically.
Magritte wrote a manifesto in defense of his new pseudo-impressionist manner. He gushed about charm and joy and “taking refuge in the ideal world of art.” “The noisier reality becomes,” he wrote, “the less reluctant I am to escape from it as much as possible.”
Was he sincere? To venture an answer, you need to know that there was another aspect to Magritte’s crisis. Despising fascism, he had turned, like so many others, to the Communist Party. He joined its Belgian branch twice in the 1930s. But he couldn’t tolerate party mandates forcing art into the service of propaganda and left before they could kick him out.
So there was something more than a little sardonic in Magritte’s new attitude. In a space becoming tighter by the hour, here was an artist determined to vouchsafe whatever freedom he could for his imagination.
Breton, for one, hated “sunlit surrealism.” Magritte, he thought, had lost the plot. They parted ways on bad terms.
Even when the war ended, the crisis did not. Magritte’s work wasn’t selling. His frustration boiled over. For several weeks in 1948, he abandoned sunlit surrealism and painted in a coarse, cartoonish style: bright colors, crude outlines, clumsily applied paint.
The subject matter was vile, bestial or just plain dumb. A bearded rube with a red nose smoking eight pipes. Five heads trying to eat one another. You smell a kind of bad faith, a refusal to conform born of pure perversity — but it’s liberating.
This brief interlude became known as Magritte’s “vache” period — “vache” being French for cow (and loaded with pejorative connotations). It was accompanied by a series of statements in which Magritte poured scorn on patriotism and reveled in obscenity. And then it was over. The childish, hateful sneer vanished. Normal programming resumed.
These 1940s works open SFMOMA’s show, which was organized by Caitlin Haskell. It’s a brilliant ploy. Instead of seeing an old, familiar friend, whose best-known motifs (pipes that aren’t pipes, bowler hats and so on) have leaked into every aspect of popular culture, we are confronted with a man who seems to be undergoing a breakdown. The familiar Magritte quickly returns. But he no longer strikes us as quite so familiar.
The show as a whole casts a powerful spell. Haskell works to establish continuities between the anomalous, 1940s works and late, “fifth season” Magritte. “The Liberator,” for instance, with its thin band of Renoiresque landscape, was painted in 1947, then reworked six years later into “The Enchanted Domain,” an extended multi-panel panorama. But there’s no way to paper over the weirdness of the rupture.
In its wake, Magritte, who lived until 1967, returned often to earlier ideas and obsessions. But he wasn’t just repeating himself. His best late paintings — SFMOMA’s “Personal Values,” “The Seducer,” “The World of Images” and the “Dominion of Light” series (reunited here) — are like philosophical questions clearly posed — but always by an unreliable narrator. They are Zen koans. Riddles you can’t crack.
Magritte was preoccupied with what Haskell, in the catalogue, calls “the idea of false recognition.” In “Les promenades d’Euclide (Where Euclid Walked)” an easel in front of a window holds a painting that overlaps with the view it obstructs (a favorite Magrittean conceit). In the painting’s foreground is the conical turret of a castle. Beside it, a road runs back to the horizon. Although they describe things that are completely distinct, the two shapes are virtually identical. Somehow, Magritte’s ploy embarrasses us into an awareness of all the fragile conventions (perspective, scale, shading) on which painted appearances depend. The entire edifice feels suddenly jerry-built.
Magritte had worked in advertising. He played like a virtuoso on our tendency to treat what is represented in a picture as reality. That susceptibility, as Haskell notes, makes every convention of picture-making “potentially a Trojan horse providing cover for new, unsanctioned ideas to sneak into our unconscious.”
Nothing, I confess, that any of the surrealists painted resembles anything I recognize from my unconscious. Even so, Magritte’s idea that conventions governing how we see can act as Trojan horses does feel freshly relevant.
Cable news networks such as CNN and Fox News, for instance, use long-established conventions to create the illusion that we are watching news. But, of course, we are not. We are watching entertainment, red herrings, ratings-bait. The interfaces of social media operate similarly. Designed to trigger the feeling that we are engaged in friendly, compassionate or useful behavior, their programs are Trojan horses for motives that have nothing to do with community — that are instead about the competition for attention and the manipulation of desire for commercial profit.
In both examples, hard politics and communal life are surely taking place — but elsewhere. This same feeling — a kind of poetics of “elsewhereness” — comes off Magritte’s ironed-flat imagery like steam. It is the perfume of our time.
René Magritte: The Fifth Season Through Oct. 28 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco. sfmoma.org.