René Magritte’s genius was to subvert our assumptions and even undermine art itself, while bringing joy and delight.
With his bowler-hatted men, green apples, and ubiquitous cloud-dotted blue skies, René Magritte is an almost comforting figure in the modern-art pantheon, a familiar, if slightly bizarre friend whom it is always good to see again. He would probably be gratified by that, for notwithstanding his revolutionary ideas, Magritte considered the providing of pleasure and delight to be one of his—and art’s—most important goals. On the other hand, since he also believed discomfort to be a hallmark of the experience of true art, he didn’t hold back from providing that, as well—and never more so than when he radically changed his style at the beginning of World War II, after a decade of producing Surrealist work.
In Nazi-occupied Brussels, Magritte launched what he termed “sunlit Surrealism,” followed by his “vache” paintings, bodies of work that were both greeted with immediate and utter incomprehension and derision. Critics labeled them wrong turns at best, if not signs of waning powers or simply “bad painting.” Even today, the works from this period, which lasted until the late ’40s, have a hard time finding appreciation. However, an exhibition opening this month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) aims to make sense of them in the context of Magritte’s thought and to show how they led to the final, and arguably greatest, phase, in which he flew free of Surrealist dogma to achieve a completely original and personal art. “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” (May 19–October 28) brings together some 70 works to present a portrait of the artist in transition.
The exhibition takes its name from a 1943 painting, The Fifth Season, which exemplifies Magritte’s “sunlit” style, basically a deliberately debased imitation of Impressionism, especially that of Renoir. Here Magritte combines heavy pseudo-Renoir brushwork with two of the characteristic tropes of his earlier work—frames within the frame and men in hats. The paintings within the painting, carried under the arms of two men, are executed with the same kind of brushstrokes as the primary scene; one is a dense forest landscape, while the other is just a blue sky with clouds in it. Both motifs are typical of Magritte’s 1930s paintings, but painted as if someone else had done them. The anonymous-looking bowler-hatted bourgeois gentlemen about to pass each other are like Magritte’s omnipresent alter-egos, yet different.
What the artist seems to have been doing here is to deconstruct himself, to try and make himself disappear, as a painter. And yet he is not exactly disappearing into Renoir’s identity; the paint handling in The Fifth Season is an absolutely inept parody of Renoir rather than an homage. As SFMOMA curator and show organizer Caitlin Haskell writes in a catalogue essay, “…the capriciousness and mindless patterning of the brushstrokes suggest that they convey almost no reliable information. There is no trace of their maker’s temperament, feeling, or disposition.” By using a transparently fake style, Magritte was removing the last traces of the artist’s “hand,” or personal imprint, from the work, similar to what Marcel Duchamp was after with his “an-art,” or non-art, or even Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “artless art.” Haskell argues that with sunlit Surrealism, Magritte “broke the brushstroke as an expressive tool, bypassing the transmission from an eye and hand of a sensing subject to the eye and mind of a sensing viewer.”
Magritte was always interested in showing how vision is not to be trusted, and his subversion of the art of painting itself was a natural extension of this project. “Everything we see hides another thing,” he told an interviewer in 1965, two years before his death. “We always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible.” Exploring the problem of picturing, paintings such as The Human Condition (1933) and Where Euclid Walked (1955) depict a canvas on an easel that seems to blend with the “real” scene in the background, and our eyes make the assumption that what lies behind the canvas matches what is painted on it. But that need not be the case. Magritte’s method is almost the reverse of trompe l’oeil; instead of trying to convince us that something unreal is real, he makes us question our vision and suspect the “real” of being unreal.
Such tactics tend to make viewers uncomfortable, as Magritte well knew. He wrote, “A picture which is really alive should make the spectator feel ill, and if the spectators aren’t ill, it is because 1) they are too insensitive, 2) they have got used to this uneasy feeling, which they take to be pleasure…. Contact with reality (not the symbolic reality which allows social exchanges and social violence) always produces this feeling.” But paradoxically, Magritte also believed that giving pleasure was one of art’s highest goals: “I feel it lies within us, who have some notion of how feelings are invented, to make joy and pleasure, which are so ordinary and beyond our reach, accessible to us all. It is not a question of abandoning knowledge of objects and feelings that Surrealism has given birth to, but to use it for purposes different from the previous ones, otherwise people will be bored stiff in surrealist museums just as much as in any others.”
In his “vache” paintings, Magritte did for (or to) Expressionism what he had done for Impressionism in sunlit Surrealism. The almost crazed exuberance of the vache works, which definitely come across as kitschy or even grotesque, was intended to inject a dose of joy back into Surrealist art, which Magritte felt had become ossified or “crystallized.” But even here, the ambiguities remain—is it really pleasure, and if so, of what kind? One of the “sunlit” works in the SFMOMA show is titled Seasickness (1948), and its rough-around-the-edges technique and wild color palette might well induce in the viewer some of that queasy feeling that Magritte had spoken of. Certainly the effect on the collector market was not salutary, and by 1949 Magritte had suspended these experiments and resumed the line of development that he had started before the war, again painting with his characteristic precision and eye for the uncanny and the paradoxical.
In his late work, from the 1950s and ’60s, Magritte comes into his own as a post-Surrealist artist, working completely from within, intent on solving, or at least posing solutions, to the problems he cared about. Gone are the obvious shock tactics, like the boots turning into feet or vice versa (The Red Model, 1935), and the language games (The Treachery of Images [This Is Not a Pipe], 1929). The art that emerged, as if reborn, from the crucible of the “bad painting” years is beautiful, lyrical, yet still undeniably weird and downright aggressive in its attempt to make us question the relationship between our senses, our minds, and the world we find ourselves placed in.
In his one notable series from the ’50s, Magritte depicted ordinary objects blown up to enormous size, literally filling the rooms they occupy. In Personal Values (1952), a giant shaving brush, bar of soap, and drinking glass are placed in a domestic interior that would be claustrophobic if not for the fact that its walls are painted like a sky with clouds, which seems to open up the space and even make it unclear where interior ends and exterior begins. Other works in the series do a similar thing with natural objects like a rock (The Anniversary, 1959) and an apple (The Listening Room, 1952). Perhaps these paintings are Communist-inspired spoofs of the bourgeoisie; after all, when consumer goods are swollen beyond normal proportions, they cease to be useful or even usable. On the other hand, Magritte’s playing around with scale and with the interior/exterior dichotomy could be seen as yet another way to expose the arbitrariness of our perceptual habits and the illusory nature of their results. Interestingly it was Personal Values, rather than a grotesque vache piece, that made Magritte’s dealer, Alexander Iolas, feel physically ill, prompting the response from the artist quoted above. Iolas’ sick feeling was more metaphysical than aesthetic in origin.
In his series “L’Empire des Lumières” (The Dominion of Light), Magritte again deployed the cloud-studded skies he had been developing for years, but this time in a weirdly depopulated urban setting. The paradox here is the coexistence of natural and artificial light. While the skies are daylight skies, the streets and trees below are shrouded in a thick darkness that is broken only by a solitary street lamp. Again, the accuracy and reliability of human vision is called into question—when we see or think we see, by what light are we seeing? And who made that light?
In the late Magritte, the bowler-hatted figures that cropped up in his earlier paintings come to center stage, and it becomes increasingly clear that they are stand-ins for the artist, or even abstracted self-portraits. Just as he made his own painting style disappear in the pseudo-Impressionist works, now he makes himself disappear—into faceless anonymity (as the bowler-hatted man is seen from the rear or with his facial features obscured, say by an apple floating in front of it) or even, during the mid-1960s, into absolute transparency, when the figure becomes an outlined aperture through which the archetypal sky can be seen. This auto-vanishing act is the culmination of the magician’s decades-long, ever-varying stage act.
Magritte’s work, though visually expressed, can seem more like a practice of philosophy than of art. He was using art to penetrate behind visual experience into the mind and then beyond the mind, to what he called the “amental.” In a 1946 manifesto titled Surrealism in the Sunshine, he wrote, “The notion that the amental exists is the only notion we can have concerning the amental.” However, he felt that we need to press on anyway: “We must go in search of enchantment, revealing the unknown quality in each object presented with unambiguous delight.”
By John Dorfman