The Comedian & the Straight Man/Mystery Maker (Time articles)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009 9:42:12 AM

The Comedian & the Straight Man
Friday, Dec. 31, 1965

Back in the 1930s, surrealism was hot news, with its limp watches, ovarian vegetables and chance encounters between sewing machines and umbrellas on dissecting tables. Last week, in what amounted to an unexpected revival, two practitioners of that sleight of art were back on the boards in Manhat tan, looking for all the world like the ghost of Christmas Past.

Behind the Curtain. At Huntington Hartford's Gallery of Modern Art, the show was all Salvador Dali. To please his favorite contemporary artist, Hartford has filled his museum from top to bottom with 375 items of Dali's hitand-miss genius. But it was Dali himself who won best-of-show at a gala black-tie lecture attended by critics, socialites and an ocelot on a leash. Sporting his silver-handled cane, Dali held the audience in breathless amusement as he dashed off a sketch of a horseman to the tempo of world-renowned Guitarist Manitas de Plata and his flamen co-booted partner—while a museum aide scampered back and forth across the stage to keep Dali in drawing pens.

Not that Dali had skimped on art for the occasion. On view were his latest works, featuring a spatterdash Homage to Meissonier, which most certainly would not please Meissonier, a 19th century French academic who painted romances of gladiators and Napoleonic battles. Also from 1965's crop: Salvador Dali in the Act of Painting Gala in the Apotheosis of the Dollar in Which You Can See on the Left Marcel Duchamp Masquerading as Louis XIV Behind a Vermeerian Cur tain Which Actually Is the Invisible Face but Monumental of Hermes by Praxiteles. It covers quite a bit of art history in a style that describes Dali himself—a pastiche.

Illogical Logic. At the Museum of Modern Art, it was Old Line Surrealist René Magritte's turn, and the exhibition of 82 paintings proved that the Belgian-born artist has lost none of his wizardry. Loaves of bread fly in formation beyond a stone embrasure in The Golden Legend; an immense rock floats weightless in The Glass Key; in Blank Signature, a fine lady upon a chestnut horse rides mysteriously through an enchanted forest, passing before and beyond a landscape painted magically as if on a vertical Venetian blind.

Magritte, 67, who made his first visit to New York for the opening along with his wife Georgette and his dog Lou-Lou, succeeded as the perfect straight man of surrealism. "The thought expressed in my work is absolute," he said. "It can't be interpreted. In my painting, a bird is a bird. And a bottle is a bottle, not a symbol of a womb." All of which inspired critics to find his work an antecedent of pop art. The painting is so meticulous, the objects themselves so ordinary yet so extraordinarily juxtaposed that Magritte obviously means to convey an apparently clear vision in which the illogical becomes magically super-logical.

Magritte fails, not because it is difficult to follow his dream logic—it is quite conceivable that sometime it might start raining men in derby hats. Magritte's divorce from reality is sensuous enough to appeal to sensibility, but his carefully rendered iconography is so personal that it suggests only a visible world in which no one ever lived. These images are deliberately insoluble puzzles, meticulously worked-out scenarios of subtle shock calculated to spur the unconscious. But contemporary man finds enough anxiety in the very air that he breathes and more challenging puzzles in the streets that he walks —in the direct apprehension of reality.

Died. Rene Magritte, 68, the most appealing and least pretentious of surrealist painters; of cancer; in Brussels. A short, stocky Belgian, Magritte called himself a "secret agent," alluding to the disparity between appearance and reality in both his life and art. He painted as he dressed, mostly in banker's black and grey, composing his scenes with photographic accuracy. But what impish fantasies: cigar boxes puffing smoke, a leaden sky raining tiny, bowler-hatted figures, the leaning tower of Pisa buttressed by a feather, Botticelli's Primavera superimposed on the back of a businessman's overcoat. "People are always looking for symbolism in my work," he once said. "There is none. Mystery is the supreme thing."

Mystery Maker
Friday, Nov. 03, 1961

Object by object and figure by figure, the paintings and drawings now on show in Manhattan's Albert Landry Galleries are sharp and clear and natural, but taken as a whole they make sights that no one ever saw. One painting shows a huge rose filling an entire room. In another, loaves of French bread float by the window. In still another, a huge boulder, crowned by a castle, hovers over the sea: This sort of thing could be mere gimmickry, but in the hands of Belgium's Rene Magritte it rarely fails. "For me," he says, "art is the means of evoking mystery." His quiet mysteries are among the most durable and haunting in modern art.

A Magritte painting begins simply enough. The artist thinks of an object—a stone, for example, or a piano. Magritte then asks himself: "How can I paint a stone in such a way as to make it worth being shown?" He may make 100 to 200 sketches of the stone, but from the very first he may have the feeling that the stone should be attached to or become something else. In the case of the piano, he may instantly think of hands; the hands in turn suggest a ring and the ring a marriage. In the end the painting turns out to be a huge ring with a piano floating through it—and the whole thing is called The Happy Hand.

In the Landry show, the big rose is called The Tomb of the Fighters, but Magritte's titles always come after the picture is done. "When there is a rose, and one is sensitive to it, one makes it as big as I did so that the rose appears to fill the room," he explains. The title, which Magritte took from a book, slowly comes to seem appropriate: like the rose, the fighters are something "grandiose," filling the tomb with their struggles.

At 63 ("I'm getting older; I get toothaches and headaches, and there's nothing I can do about it"), Magritte lives in a comfortable unbohemian house near Brussels, quietly damning a good deal of what other artists are doing. He has little use for the "brutalists" like Jean Dubuffet. "I find many things beautiful, such as old walls with spots on them," he says. "But if you tell me a wall with its spots is a painting, I say you're wrong." Nor does he think much of action painting: "It's action, not painting." His own work is part fairy tale, part ghost story. It can provoke a smile, but its real achievement is that it can also be so disturbing—like a high-frequency sound one can feel but cannot hear. At one moment, the viewer feels he is in a familiar room surrounded by familiar things. The next moment he realizes that he does not recognize anything at all. "The mystery is the supreme thing," Magritte explains. "It's reassuring to know there's a mystery—to know there is more than what one knows."



Copyright 2006


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