Saturday, November 16, 2013

Magritte again

"To be a surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen and being always on the lookout for what has never been."
~ René  Magritte

Ceci n'est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe), René Magritte 1929
Property of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
In 1965, when I was in high school, New York's Museum of Modern Art held a sweeping exhibition of the work of René Magritte. My friend Dawn and I went together, not quite sure what to expect. As we walked from room to room, taking in the gigantic green apples, the flaming tubas, the men in bowler hats raining from the sky, the landscape views with landscape paintings in them, we were overcome with giggles. It was pure, exhilarating joy. We were puzzled by the reactions of the adults, who seemed so serious. (Of course, as Dawn recently pointed out, the adults no doubt thought we were obnoxious.)

Now, 48 years later, MoMA has another Magritte exhibition. Titled "The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938", it chronicles the years when Magritte and his fellow surrealists were developing their ideas about art. When I went to this show (twice so far), I only giggled a few times — I've become one of the serious adults, apparently — but I learned much I hadn't known.

"Everything tends to make one think there is little relation between an object and that which represents it."
~ René  Magritte

Clairvoyance, René Magritte, 1928
Property of Mr. & Mrs. Wilbur Ross
Magritte spoke of painting as "a tool for thinking" and said he wanted to make "everyday objects shriek out loud". He accomplished this by forcing the viewer to see ordinary objects in surprising new ways.

Magritte was fascinated with the difference between a word and what it represents, and a painting and what it represents. He said, "An object is not so possessed of its name that one cannot find for it another which suits it better."

One of the explanatory placards at the museum quotes his 1938 lecture "La Ligne de vie" ("Lifeline"): "The titles of paintings were chosen in such a way as to inspire in the spectator an appropriate mistrust of any mediocre tendency to facile self-assurance."

The two paintings below make his point insistently. In the painting at left, "The Key to Dreams" (1930), each object is given the name of something else. An egg is an acacia, a shoe is the moon, a bowler hat is snow, a candle is a ceiling, a drinking glass is a storm and a hammer is a desert. In the painting at right, "The Key to Dreams" (1935), which was created in preparation for his first gallery show in the U.S., he used English labels for the same, intentionally disorienting effect.

Key to Dreams, René Magritte, 1930
Private Collection
Key to Dreams, René Magritte, 1935

The Human Condition, René Magritte, 1933
Property of National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
This painting above, The Human Condition, is one of a handful that were included in both the 1965 and 2013 Magritte exhibitions at MoMA. To me, it is a nearly literal depiction of Magritte's statement that "Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see."

One final painting from MoMA delivers the meaning of this quote to me: "The Surreal is but reality that has not been disconnected from its mystery."

(Not to be reproduced), René Magritte, 1937
Property of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

His pipe and passport

To learn more about the MoMA exhibition "The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-38", visit

To learn more about René Magritte, see:

No comments:

Post a Comment