You are probably already familiar with the mainstays of the Belgian artist René Magritte's iconography - the pipe, the apple, the clouds, the bowler hat. Indeed they have ensured his position as one of the most recognized of the Surrealists, just behind Salvador Dali and his melting watches. But the evolution of Magritte, from his early career as a designer and graphic artist to his rank as sovereign of the Surrealists, is an interesting one and the topic is now being explored at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the special exhibition "Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary".
With a focus on the twelve year period (1926-1938) during which the artist was living among the Surrealists in Paris and working intensely on his strategy to make "everyday objects shriek out loud". And shriek they did. You see, despite his rather unremarkable upbringing (his father was a tailor and a cloth merchant and his mother had been a milliner before she killed herself when her son was 13), young René parlayed his artistic talent into a medium to challenge how people look at ordinary objects and situations. Usually incoherent, sometimes violent and often disturbing, René Magritte's depictions of intrinsically benign things cause the viewer to doubt his own eyes.
Painted in a flat, illustrative style, the paintings appear at first glance to be simple and straightforward, but this is almost never really the case. Take for example the work above, "The Menaced Assassin", painted in 1927. What we see are three different scenes. In the foreground we have two dark and threatening men, one carrying a bludgeon the other a net and both wearing bowler hats. In the middle is another man in a dark suit casually listening to a gramophone while a naked woman is lying prostrate on a canape with her throat slit, and in the background are three more men peering at the scene through a window. Though each element is clearly depicted, the scene in its entirety makes no sense.
Another mystery is "Le Portrait
/ The Portrait" done in 1935 and shown above. Once again we have five
very simple objects, except they are not as simple as they seem. The
obvious issue is the eyeball in the middle of the slice of meat which
leads to the question of our perception of daily life and rituals and
the realities thereof.
Or, consider another of Magritte's famous images "La Durée Poignardée / Time Transfixed" painted in 1938 in Brussels (see above). Here we have two symbols of time, the clock and the train, but in this case the train is a substitute for a stovepipe and conversely the hearth is now a tunnel. All of this is a little confusing until you consider the literal translation of the title is "ongoing time stabbed by a dagger".
René Magritte was a master at creating puzzles through words and images that just do not fit our perceptions and ideas of how things should be. Through doubling, repetition, mis-naming and other tricks of visual and language representation he forces us to take another, clearer look at what is really going on. Consider his bold pronouncement "Ceci n'est pas une pipe [This is not a Pipe]" under a picture of what clearly IS a pipe and the challenge this presents to our reality. And then consider his statement "you cannot smoke this pipe therefore it is not a pipe" and it starts to get a little clearer.
The world of René Magritte is witty and imaginative and provokes a lot of questions. This exhibition at MoMA will answer a few, but will probably open a whole new can of worms the more you look. Which is why it is so much fun to visit and test your logic against the mysteries of Magritte!
P.S. With Christmas right around the corner I would like to take this opportunity to wish my readers all the joy and blessings of the season and thank you for your loyalty over the years. Merry Christmas to you and yours!