Art Review: ‘Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1925-1938’ at MoMA

The paintings of Belgian surrealist René Magritte, famous for book covers, college dorm walls, record albums, and myriad other subtle and less subtle pop culture appropriations, are a bit like epigrams: clever, concise and not always as deep as they first seem. To see many of them together in one exhibition, at New York’s modern Art Museum, it’s like reading a book of one-paragraph quotes or anecdotes: a sparse experience, fun at first, then increasingly frustrating as the effort put in by the viewer yields less and less substance.

Lovers of Magritte’s shy style, his particular silences and his intriguing enigmas will find their happiness in “Magritte: the mystery of the ordinary, 1925-1938”. Many of the most famous works are here, depicting the artist’s conversion and development of his characteristic Surrealist style, in which faces are blank, settings spared, and all is rendered with the clarity and rigorous design of the commercial art, but aware of the stylistic games of modernism and the history of academic and classical art.

Among the icons: The train coming out of a chimney (“The Stabbed Duration”), the man standing in front of a mirror which reflects the back of his head and not his face (“La Reproduction Interdite”) and the sign representing a pipe accompanied by the paradoxical affirmation 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 of the philosophy and literary criticism sections, where it looks like Magritte is licensed as a quasi-official illustrator for all things representational. , paradox and slipperiness. of language.

When asked why there hadn’t been a major Magritte exhibition in New York for decades, MoMA curator Anne Umland replied that it might be because the paintings were so famous. We know them so well that there is no reason to devote resources to studying them further. A good retrospective challenges this complacency, but the prerequisite for a good retrospective is great art, and it is not always clear that Magritte’s work rises to that level.

Stories with a twist

So why is his work so popular?

“The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe).” René Magritte. 1929. Oil on canvas. (Charly Herscovici/ADAGP–ARS, 2013; Museum Associates/LACMA, Licensed by Art Resource, NY)

Magritte was intelligent and had a nose for spotting flaws in traditional representation. He found concise and visually compelling ways to discover new possibilities for using paint to represent seemingly impossible things. In his “Discovery” of 1927, Magritte paints a woman whose skin is transformed into wood grain, a recurring texture in the collages of Picasso and Braque. In 1928’s “The Ideas of the Acrobat,” a female figure that might have been sliced ​​and diced by a Cubist in multiple planes and angles was sinuously connected into a serpent-like creature holding a tuba, her anatomy as disjointed as anything by Picasso, but clearly rendered in one flowing, fleshy figure.

The broader Surrealist movement also offered viewers an alternative to the break with representation that so many other artists have pursued over the past century. Magritte’s paintings may disconcert us, but they always speak of something. In some of his early works, made in the 1920s, they seem to have obscure tales – a girl eats a live bird, men play a kind of ball game in a forest of carved wooden poles – although in the most of his later work, the 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’re not visually inscrutable.

Points of sale

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 leader of the Belgian Surrealists, who wrote strange, short texts to accompany Magritte’s illustrations of fur coats in a 1928 catalog of a Belgian furrier. Seemingly a form of commercial promotion, it blurs the line between Magritte’s later surrealist work and the lighthearted, teasing provocations of adventurous advertising. In an exhibition catalog 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 stay in Paris, was forced to return there during the lean times of the 1930s. From publicity he learned a infallible sense of graphic design, and he also seems to have foreseen the dystopian future of commercial art: the way it clutters our lives with images and messages.

On a purely visual level, Magritte’s art still seduces today because it is stripped down, clean and above all empty. Its people may be ciphers, living in apocalyptically empty rooms, but today the emptiness seems rather inviting. The crisp, sharp lines of architectural modernism haunt even the most old-fashioned of its interior spaces, and while many of them are settings of dark, ominous messages, they remain oddly attractive places.

Magritte’s paintings also do limited artistic work very well. They start one place, then take you to another, with a satisfying sense of unraveling or unlocking meaning. They reduce artistic research to an almost addictive level, with a clear and rewarding payoff for a small amount of study.

But they are extremely repetitive and not always well painted. Magritte gravitated again and again to certain games: metamorphosis (a fish with human legs), illusions of windows and mirrors, images that complement and subvert the thing they represent, and objects that are grossly mislabeled. Some of the best works are those where the game is not immediately apprehended, as in 1928’s “The Gigantic Days” where a female figure is groped by a man whose shadowy form is entirely contained within his silhouette. It seems like she puts it on or takes it off, like a piece of clothing, it’s all over her “like a cheap suit.” But with his dark palette and a trace of angst on his face, it also looks distinctly like an act of sexual assault. Thus, painting cannot be entirely contained within an intelligent turn of representation. This has consequences.

It is, however, one of the few to achieve emotional impact outside the carefully confined parameters of visual paradox.

Unfortunately, there is no point in looking too closely at Magritte’s painting technique, which is often clumsy. The hands are often rendered stiff and rough, and when he tries to introduce expression into his generically pristine, mask-pretty faces, he usually fails, as in 1928’s “La Lectrice submitted.” of his paintings look better – smoother and more finished – in reproductions than on the wall.

Die-hard Magritte supporters will argue that most of these failures were all part of the artist’s plan, which was to thwart easy viewing and use the tools of advertising and consumerism to unmask and critique much of what that we take for granted in bourgeois society. , including our easy relationship to images and representation. May be. He was a leftist and occasional member of the Communist Party.

But after spending time with the approximately 80 paintings, collages and other pieces in the exhibition (including a small number of interesting sculptures and painted objects), you may wish Magritte had more to offer. Joan Miro went through a surrealism without locking herself into it. While Magritte produced some interesting and atmospheric paintings after the period on display in the MoMA exhibit, he mostly continued to make variations on the same handful of jokes.

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938

at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, until January 12. For more information, visit