Magritte And His Defiance Of Life

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 3:28:05 PM

Magritte And His Defiance Of Life
Published: Friday, September 11, 1992

"IF the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of 'common sense,' he realizes something obvious," said Rene Magritte, who is the subject of a stimulating retrospective that opens tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I want nevertheless to add that for me the world is a defiance of common sense."

In a way, Magritte himself defied common sense, or at least conventional expectations.

His depictions of trains steaming out of fireplaces, of rooms stuffed to the brim with giant green apples, of bowler-hatted men raining like hailstones from the sky are among the most enduring images in modern art. For the millions of people who have seen his work co-opted, as it has been over and over again, by advertisers and corporate image makers, Magritte is the essence of Surreal weirdness.

Yet he was said to be like one of his bowler-hatted men, painstakingly punctilious in appearance and in his habits, married to the same woman for 45 years. He was tied not to the glittering scene in Paris, where in fact he failed to achieve popularity for many decades, but to the quieter, more modest milieu of his native Belgium. Unlike the French Surrealists, who sought public scandal, he strove in his personal affairs to be inconspicuous. The grayness of Hainaut, the province where he was born and grew up, which is known as the Black Country for its slag heaps and sooty skies, pervades much of Magritte's art, contributing to its air of mystery. And it is the ethos of his Flemish and Belgian predecessors, from Hieronymus Bosch through James Ensor, with their shared predilection for the bizarre, that Magritte carried forward until his death of pancreatic cancer in 1967, at the age of 68.

The retrospective, the first major overview of his art in the United States in more than a quarter of a century, includes about 150 paintings, drawings and sculptures. Almost all of the famous works are here, from two versions of "The Treachery of Images," with its depiction of a pipe above the text "this is not a pipe," to the earliest version of "The Domination of Light," with its incongruously darkened street below a daylight sky.

The show comes to the Metropolitan from the Hayward Gallery in London, where it was organized by the Magritte scholars David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield, who are putting together the artist's catalogue raisonne. It has been handsomely installed by William S. Lieberman of the Metropolitan, so that the full course of Magritte's career unfolds, as it should, with all its ups and downs.

What emerges is a mixed portrait. Over the years, perhaps especially as they have become commonplace through countless reproductions, Magritte's paintings have lost much of the ability they once had to shock. His sculptures are gimmicky. And his penchant for recycling a handful of ideas only contributes to the impression that he was ultimately a limited artist.

Yet as this retrospective makes clear, he could at his best be a memorable and witty painter, and there is no denying the graphic power of certain images: the absurd ballet of Picassoid limbs performed in "Entr'acte," the sexual terror of "The Titanic Days," the matter-of-factness of an eyeball resting like an olive in the middle of a piece of ham in "The Portrait," and the wonderment of a battalion of loaves of bread, like fantasies from some children's tale, floating across a starry sky in "The Golden Legend."

One of the show's revelations comes with the paintings of 1948, which Magritte in self-parody named his "vache" period, and which has long been derided for its loosely brushed, cartoonish imagery. There is, for example, the image of the one-legged, green-faced, top-hatted Jean-Marie, a painter and transvestite, striding in front of an orange plaid sky, trailed by a rooster. Or the erotic image of a red-headed woman, against a different plaid backdrop, licking her shoulder and caressing her breast. Such works are derived from artists like Renoir and Daumier, and rendered in ways that can also bring to mind Ensor, Francis Picabia and especially Giorgio de Chirico, whose curious career Magritte's echoed at many junctures. Now, these slangy vache paintings seem not all bad, with a vigor and no-holds-barred flair that are all the more striking coming as they do in the midst of Magritte's otherwise painstakingly uninflected canvases.

Another revelation concerns the early works, when Magritte was still affected by the Cubism of artists like Fernand Leger and Albert Gleizes and also by the smooth curves of Art Deco, which he carried over to his paintings from the advertising layouts he did for fashion houses. Even in these earliest efforts are intimations of the Surreal art that, under the sway of de Chirico, Magritte suddenly began to produce in 1925. The eroticism, the preference for crisp forms that hints at his carpentry skills, and even certain leitmotifs, like open windows, drawn curtains and faceless figures, are already to be found.

It did not take long, once Magritte turned to Surrealism, for almost his entire repertory of themes to evolve. There was the rectangular block of sky, the jigsaw pieces, the shattered face and the severed body part. There was the claustrophobia of the large object crammed in a box, like the tree in "The Vulture's Park." There was the bilboquet, a kind of baluster or table leg or giant chess piece, which took on many roles, often a very human, phallic, one. Magritte saw the instability in everything around him and his art was full of objects metamorphosing, of musical instruments as bodies, of faces as torsos, of men as women, and of pieces of fruit as blocks of stone.

There was also the grelot, or slotted bell, which could hover in the sky like a U.F.O. And there was the hooded figure, whose eerie presence harks back to the suicide by drowning of Magritte's mother; he said she was found with her nightgown pulled up over her face. The hooded figures also suggest the sense of something hidden and unknowable that is recurrent in Magritte's art. His paintings were intended as insoluble riddles.

Yet what made them all the more puzzling was their apparent straight forwardness, a straightforwardness that can recall the art of Magritte's Flemish forebears, Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Clinically detailed, frontal, with objects laid out in compartments or aligned as if they were hieroglyphs, Magritte's images seemed to invite translation, only, like dreams or nightmares, to frustrate the literal-minded. A work like "Discovery" resists simple translation. Does it depict a woman painted with wood grain, or a painting on wood grain of a woman, or a woman changing into a piece of wood?

As words came to play a larger role in his art (he often chose words and titles in collaboration with other Belgian Surrealists), the conundrums multiplied. But by the mid-1940's, Magritte seems to have temporarily exhausted his inventiveness. The vache period was a jolt to his system, because during the 1950's and 60's, some new twists appear. The final galleries of the exhibition are filled with paintings that are larger, more whimsical, more theatrical and, like "Son of Man" and "Intimate Friend," unexpectedly spiritual.

Only in the last years of his life did Magritte win genuine fame, earned partly through the enthusiasm of some of the Pop artists and their supporters, for whom he, in turn, had little regard. His attention to everyday objects and the billboardlike, just-the-facts way of painting that he studiously cultivated had put him out of step with the modernist mainstream, which in the 1950's was epitomized by the Abstract Expressionists. He did not share with other Surrealists and their New York School followers an interest in so-called automatic drawing, in chance and the occult, and in non-European cultures.

But precisely his flat painting style and his extraordinary depictions of the most ordinary things appealed to the Pop artists of the 1960's. Since then, Magritte's stature has become firmly established.

And now he may be more fashionable than ever. For in several ways he was what might be called a proto-post-modernist. Like many contemporary artists, Magritte was a painter of narrative who appropriated images from both art history and popular culture, juxtaposing them in disorienting ways. He frequently denied interest in the formal qualities of painting. He rejected the idea of the art object as something precious. And, like numerous Conceptualists today, he was concerned above all with language, which he incorporated into his works in ways that emphasized its tenuousness and unreliability. An ironist with a perverse sense of humor, Magritte was forever pointing up art's artificiality and contrivance, revealing the gaps between words and images, between image and reality.

No wonder he liked to speak of himself more as a philosopher than as a painter. "I hope I touch something essential to man, to what man is -- to ethics rather than esthetics," he once said. As this retrospective underscores, Magritte was neither a profound philosopher nor a profound painter. But he left behind some of the 20th-century's catchiest and most unforgettable images.

"Magritte" opens tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 82d Street and Fifth Avenue, on the Upper East Side, and remains there through Nov. 22. It is partly financed by the Murray and Isabella Rayburn Foundation. The show travels to the Menil Collection in Houston (Dec. 15 to Feb. 21 ) and the Art Institute of Chicago (March 16 to May 30, 1993).

Photos: Detail of Rene Margritte's "Intimate Friend," 1958, at the Metropolitan. (Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert E. Kaplan) (pg. C1); Detail of Rene Magritte's "Treachery of Images," a 1929 oil on canvas, with the text "This is not a pipe," part of a survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (pg. C26)


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