Enter the Stolid Enchanter (Time magazine article 1979)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009 3:12:27 AM

Enter the Stolid Enchanter (Time magazine article 1979)
ROBERT HUGHES Monday, Mar. 05, 1979
At Paris' Pompidou Center, a Renè Magritte retrospective

The show of more than 200 works by Renè Magritte—paintings, drawings and miscellaneous objets surrealistes —which opened last month at the Pompidou Center in Paris has been jammed with visitors ever since. It deserves its popularity. Magritte's strange paintings are still the best way into the territory of the free mind that surrealism called its own and named le merveilleux.

Magritte died in 1967, aged 68, but his work continues to serve its modern audience rather as the sultans of Victorian academic painting, the Friths and Poynters and Alma-Tademas, served theirs a century ago—as storytellers. Modern art was supplied with mythmakers, from Picasso to Barnett Newman. But it had few masters of the narrative impulse, and Magritte, a stocky, taciturn Belgian, was its chief fabulist. His images were stories first, paintings second, but the stories were not narratives in the Victorian manner, or slices of life or tableaux of history. They were snapshots of the impossible, rendered in the dullest and most literal way: vignettes of language and reality locked in mutual cancellation. As a master of puzzle painting, Magritte had no equal and, although his influence on the formation of images (and on how people decode them) has been wide, he has had no real successors.

The proper homage to his life and presence as well as his art was the double take. In the midst of a movement, surrealism, which specialized in attention-getting stunts, political embroilments, sexual scandals and fervid half-religious crises, Magritte—next to Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, the best surrealist painter —seemed to be all phlegm and stolidity. He lived in respectable Brussels; he stayed married to the same woman, Georgette Berger, for the rest of his life; by the standards of the Paris art world in the '30s, he might as well have been a grocer. Yet Magritte possessed one of the most remarkable imaginations of his century.

The curious thing was that he had so little natural talent as an artist; no fluency, little relish. Magritte's paintings from the early '20s are painfully bad, academic cubism—as awkward, in their way, as the cubist paintings of another great ideas man of our time, Marcel Duchamp. Magritte had a poor sense of color, and his drawing was mere tracing; the paint surface is as dead as an old fingernail.

The low point of his career was in the 1940s. He decided, in a mood of perversity, to paint "modern art" —pictures full of impressionist fuzz and expressionist slather. The Gorgon, 1943, a wretched parody of Monet applied to a surrealist syntax, may be the least inept of these. If anything, they showed how far Magritte's real gifts lay from the orthodox processes of modernism. Nor did his first essays in the surrealist manner, done in 1925-26, indicate much about the artist to come; they are, for the most part, grab bags of motifs from other painters, chiefly Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico.

A painting like The Magician's Accomplices, 1926, with its weak drawing and fumbled tones, is not the work of a "natural" talent. An idea is there, but the hand does not yet know what to do with it.

Magritte's turning point was 1927, when he went to live in Paris. There, immersed in the surrealist movement, he was no longer a provincial spectator. And he quickly realized where his contribution to it might lie: not in the exploitation of chance and random effects, like Masson or Ernst, still less in exoticism and neurosis, like Dali, but in hallucinatory ordinariness. One of the obsessions of surrealism was the way inexplicable events intruded into everyday life. With his dry, matter-of-fact technique, Magritte painted things so ordinary that they might have come from a phrase book: an apple, a comb, a derby hat, a cloud, a birdcage, a street of prim suburban houses, a businessman in a dark topcoat, a stolid nude. There was not much in this list that an average Belgian clerk, around 1935, might not have seen in the course of an average day. But Magritte's combinations were another thing. Magritte's poetry was inconceivable without the banality on, and through, which it worked.

The glass in The Heartstring is an ordinary glass, the cloud an ordinary cloud; it is their encounter, in that blue, patiently rendered limpidity, that is so arresting. Magritte's best images have more in common with reporting than with fantasy. Would The Human Condition I, one of his half-dozen most famous images—the painting shows an open window with an easel in front of it; the canvas on the easel bears a picture of the view through the window; and this picture exactly overlaps the view, so that the play between image and reality asserts that the real world is merely a construction of mind—be any more jarring if its locale were exotic? Of course not; such paradoxes depend on the context of real life.

At its first level, Magritte's art produced some of the most disturbing images of alienation and fear in the lexicon of modern art. There is no more chilling icon of the failures of sexual communication than The Lovers, 1928, with two anonymous (but inescapably similar) heads kissing through their gray cloth integuments. Nor are there many paintings that sum up the pathos of fetishism—the substitution of a symbolic part for the desired whole—more acutely than In Memoriam Mack Sennett, 1936, in which a woman's negligee, hanging on its own in a closet, has developed a forlornly luminous pair of breasts. And for sheer panic, one need go no further than Magritte's Hunters at the Night's Edge, 1928, with its two stocky, armed and booted he-men writhing in apprehension at the sight of an empty horizon. We see their fear but not what they are afraid of.

But if Magritte's art had been confined to the administration of shock, it would have been as short lived as any other surrealist ephemera. His concerns lay deeper. They were with language itself, the way that meanings are conveyed or frustrated by symbols. The manifesto of this was Magritte's painting of a pipe, inscribed Ceci n 'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). Precisely: it is a painting, a work of art, a sign that denotes an object and triggers memory. No painter had ever put this fundamental fact about art and its operations so clearly before. When Magritte, in The Use of the Word, 1928, labeled two virtually identical and amorphous blobs of paint "Mirror" and "Woman's Body," he was not making a joke about narcissism; he was showing the extreme tenuousness with which language may cling to what it describes. This sense of slippage between word and thing is, of course, one of the sources of modernist disquiet. In finding image after image for it, Magritte became one of the artists whose work is central to an understanding of modernist culture; and his visual booby traps go off, over and over again, precisely because their trigger is thought itself. — Robert Hughes

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