by Mark Van Proyen
Was René Magritte an illustrator pretending to be painter, or was he painter pretending to be an illustrator? You may want to cut to the paradoxical chase and admit that both questions yield affirmative answers, or you could play a little further along and point out that Magritte painted the process of illustration even as he also illustrated the process of painting, oftentimes in the very same works. Accomplishing this kind of sleight-of-hand is no mean feat, and seeing it in operation requires a close look at Magritte’s actual works, because in reproduction, their obvious illustrative aspects overwhelm their painterly subtleties. That close look is made possible in the exhibition of 75 works by Magritte titled Rene Magritte: The Fifth Season at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was organized by Caitlin Haskell, and is on view until October 28.
Scholarly interest in Magritte’s work has been on a steady rise for several decades, owing to the recognition of how it represents a transitional bridge between pre-war Surrealism and post-war Pop Art, not to mention the lion’s share of artistic activities that have followed it Pop’s wake. Artists as diverse as Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Duane Michaels and Neil Jenny can all be said to have used the Belgian master’s work as points of departure, and this roster can, and in fact has, been extended to include dozens of others, shown inThe Treachery of Images, a 2006 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum. Certainly other surrealists did similar things earlier, but with the possible exception of Giorgio de Chirico (whose work initially inspired Magritte in 1922), none have made works that so adroitly juggled the polarities of informational description and embodied representation, and, with the exceptions of de Chirico and Marcel Duchamp, none have executed such juggling with nearly as much philosophical sophistication. And even Duchamp erred on the side of willfully disembodied illustration, as can be seen in the mechanistic schematics of his Large Glass (1923).
In contrast, the best of Magritte’s work captures both sides of the complex illustration/embodiment conundrum, often times playing them off of one another to uncanny effect. He gets to it in fits and starts, and with as many misses as hits, but even when he misses the mark, he still accomplishes more than is achieved by many other surrealist painters by virtue of the large ambition that undergirds his efforts. In his best paintings, Magritte is deceptively simple and covertly complex, and we should not blame him if his works have been appropriated by subsequent picture-makers who have settled for imitating their absurdist theatricality while failing to miss their underlying mood of metaphysical disquiet.
Almost all of the works included inThe Fifth Season were executed after 1943, when Magritte’s was already 45 years old. At that time, Magritte was living in Nazi-occupied Brussels, undergoing an understandable crisis of faith in the surrealist project. Many of the movement’s major figures had already departed the continent for London, New York and Mexico City, and for those that did not leave, the experience of war and martial law must have made their earlier libertine aspirations seem like hollow promises that could never be fulfilled. When the tide of war finally began to turn against the Nazis at Stalingrad, Anzio, Normandy and at nearby Bastogne, Magritte reacted with a new outpouring of artistic enthusiasm, by way of inaugurating two series of works that would eventually find their way into a financially disastrous Paris exhibition of 1948. That exhibition was so poorly received that Magritte decided to return to the manner of working that characterized his pre-war efforts, more or less picking up where he left off in 1940.
Because of their deviations from Magritte’s better-known style, the 1943-1948 paintings have often been dismissed as inconsequential anomalies, and have been relegated to footnote status in earlier retrospectives such as SFMOMA’s 2000 hosting of a of a touring retrospective organized by the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. The first of these two series was called Sunlit Surrealism, while the latter was dubbed the Vache paintings (vache means “cow” in French but with assaultive connotations). The Fifth Season contains an ample selection of both groupings, hung together in the first room. The Sunlit Surrealism paintings bespeak the influence of Impressionism, particularly the work of Pierre Renoir. These works are drenched in saccharine color that registers bright daylight and outdoor settings. Their subject matter still reveals surrealist concerns, and reminds us of Surrealism’s own roots in the earlier Symbolist movement represented by such artists as James Ensor and Odilon Redon. For example, in Lyricism (1947), we see what appear to be two pears hanging low from a tree branch on a hot summer day. But one of these pears morphs into a sinister figure with a bloated face and upraised hands. In Pleasure (1946), we see a centrally placed female figure reclining in front of a window, her limbs and torso rendered in different primary and secondary colors. The Sunlit Surrealism series was closely followed by the Vache works, which come off as strange and sketchy hybrids of James Ensor and Zap comics, to paraphrase a statement attributed to Luc Sante. They certainly anticipate much that would come about two decades later, including the early Neo-Expressionism of Georg Baselitz and Jiri-Georg Doukopil, as well as Philip Guston’s late figurative work. In her contribution to the exhibition’s catalog, Abigail Solomon-Godeau points to how these works also foreshadow the late 1970s emergence of “Bad Painting,” the badness in question pertaining to willful disobedience of rules and conventions, rather than deficiencies of technique.
The earliest work in the exhibition is one of the very best. It is titled The Human Condition (1933) and was painted soon after Magritte returned to Brussels from Paris. He only spent three years amongst the surrealists in the city of light (1927-1930), and departed when he had enough of the internecine theatrics of Andre Breton and Georges Bataille, meaning that he could no longer bare the thought of pledging allegiance to either1. So he returned to Brussels, where, apart from a short return to Paris during the German invasion of Belgium, he would spend almost all of the rest of his life. The Human Condition depicts a painting set atop an easel, positioned in front of a window that looks out upon a meadow. The painting’s landscape-image perfectly registers the picture plane of the window, and in this there is an almost flawless continuum between the two levels of representation, so we are prompted to re-consider the ancient philosophical questions about the relations between experience, evidence and reality. Of course, this is Surrealism 101 (not to mention Philosophy 101), but it also harks to another northern European painting genre, that of the gallery picture as was practiced by the likes of David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), featuring the depiction of interiors full of other paintings—paintings within paintings, so to speak. I bring this example up because of something that lurks below the surface of Magritte’s career is his willingness to engage with the older tradition of Flemish painting reaching back to the 15thcentury, sometimes mimicking its techniques while in other instances repurposing its pictorial devices. It is worth remembering how short the train ride between Brussels and Ghent was and still is, so the famous altarpiece by the brothers Van Eyck was certainly familiar to him, as were the James Ensor works located just a little further away at Ostend.
The Human Condition is placed near several later works that recapitulate its picture-of-a-picture-of-a-window gambit, and this tells us that the exhibition is organized into sections devoted to similar themes and subjects, with chronology relegated to a secondary concern. Compare The Human Condition to Where Euclid Walked (1955) and you see a different easel and an interior rendered in cooler colors. You will also note the addition of an additional visual pun, that being a conical piece of architecture on the depicted painting, placed next an equally proportioned road that recedes into a one-vanishing point perspective that both mirrors and mocks the cone. And in the World of Images (1950) and The Waterfall (1961), we see a few later paintings that reached back to the chromatic strategies of the Sunlit Surrealism series. The latter shows a gold-framed image of a distant forest set atop an easel that is overrun by encroaching foliage, while the first is another view of a window, this one is shattered, without painting or easel, only shards of reflective glass that mirror the punishing sunset that is at the center of the composition.
The Fifth Seasoncontains yet another exhibition-within-an-exhibition. It’s a charming mini-retrospective of Magritte’s intimate gouache works extracted from all phases of his career, totaling about 15 examples, all charmingly small. It’s located at the exhibition’s midpoint. Only a few of these can be taken as preparatory studies for larger paintings; the rest are stand-alone works. The earliest, In Praise of Dialectics (1936), reverses the picture-of-a-window gambit to reveal a small house positioned within the window of a larger house overlooking the ocean, viewed from the outside. It’s a tidy composition that knowingly plays upon the geometric organizations favored by Vermeer and De Hooch. Another work, Blood Will Tell (1947), shows a nocturnal view of a tree trunk sporting two improbable cupboard doors opening onto cavities occupied by another tiny house and an ominous egg. In Golconda (1955), we see a literal downpouring of tiny, bowler-capped gentleman standing at attention, set against a light blue sky and gray-violet buildings.
The next cluster of works revisit and combine two genres that were staples of 17thcentury Dutch and Flemish painting, the still life and the naturalistic interior. Both versions of Magritte’s famous paintings, The Listening Room (1952 and 1958) are featured, notable for their portrayal of gargantuan green apples snugly fit into claustrophobic rooms. Directional light pours in from slender windows at the far left of the pictures, establishing the plump apples as objects requiring carefully saturated light-dark and warm-cool modeling, with shaded areas revealing a subtle richness. Here, we see him fully adapting the layered Flemish technique that allows him to accentuate the green-yellow of the apple against the more subtly tonalized surrounding areas. This technique is in even greater evidence in Personal Values (1952), maybe the best single work in the exhibition. It, too, is a still life and a domestic interior hybrid, showing such oversized as a comb, shaving brush, soap bar, empty wine glass and bright magenta pencil occupying a sleeping chamber. The three visible walls of the room are covered with wispy clouds, and the bed, throw rugs and wardrobe depicted therein are all of a scale that is congruous with the architecture, making the oversized objects located within it seem especially ominous. Personal Values is also saturated with subtleties that invite a lingering
gaze. For example, the painterly attention to detail on the throw rugs is nothing short of breathtaking, as is the rendering of the refracted light passing through the translucent wine glass. The reflection of the room on the mirrored doors of the wardrobe is stunning, as is the bedspread upon which a giant tortoise-shell comb stands leaning against the clouded wall. Nearby another work in this series, The Tomb of the Wrestlers (1960), shows a room with the flower of a huge rose blossom, its fleshy petals opening up to invite the viewer into its vortex of layered radiance.
It is worth noting that the installation of The Fifth Season is delightfully spacious, facilitating uncluttered views of almost all of the works. There is some liberty taken with the colors of the gallery walls, which seem intended to cool the exhibition space to make the paintings seem more radiant in comparison. This is particularly evident in the dark blue room featuring seven of Magritte’s Dominion of Light paintings executed between 1949 and 1962. Anyone who has tried to do a plein air painting knows the dilemma: if you don’t paint quickly, the slow change of light will outstrip your ability to capture the scene. But in the Dominion paintings Magritte gets stunning results by biding his time, in effect, waiting for the surreality of the scene to come to him. All of these works a show a streetlamp in the middle of the compositions, behind which is the front façade of a house, usually flanked by foliage with a few trees behind and clouded sky above. The skies all show late afternoon light, while the lower parts of the paintings jump to twilight and nighttime, with the foliage and buildings coming very close to being backlit silhouettes. Were it not for the light emanating from street lamps and windows of some of the buildings (or from reflection emanating out of pools of water in some of the foregrounds), they would be backlit silhouettes. And here where the painterly interest begins, because once our eyes adjust, we see stunning modulations of different dark/cool colorations hinting at shadowy topographies amid these works’ foregrounds, even as they recede into background status, as the bright skies seem to come forward to greet the viewer’s eyes.
The next room acquaints us with yet another of Magritte’s ongoing series, those portraying rigid male figures wearing bowler hats, the majority of which are pictured from behind. Magritte has admitted to a few of these being self-portraits, for example, the front-facing The Son of Man (1964), in which a green apple floats in front of the figure’s face. In this, the figure appears next to a sea wall overlooking an overcast ocean, and it is the only one of the group that shows the figure’s hands. The Schoolmaster (1954) shows the more familiar back-of-the-head view of the figure, rendered outdoors and at night, a crescent moon hovering directly over the bowler hat. Other examples use the silhouette of the figure as a cut out to open onto a different picture space, often times showing clouds or foliage. These renditions of the haunted presence or absence make one wonder about Magritte’s relationship with his father. The biographical record tells us that he was a tailor and his mother was a hat maker who took her own life by throwing herself in the river Sambre when the artist was 14 years old. After that, Magritte and his two brothers were sent to live with their grandmother, suggesting that their father was not very involved with his children. Magritte was deeply traumatized by the death of his mother, and the event haunted him throughout his live. The unavoidable interpretation of the tall male figure turning his back on the viewer, or disappearing into another dimension clearly has to do an obsessive reflection on the trauma of childhood abandonment. The small work titled Pandora’s Box (1951) also seems eloquent on this point. To the left of the composition we see the back of the ubiquitous bowler-capped man, and next to him an exceedingly large white rose, looking a bit like a bridesmaid. Behind them is an ominous river bridge with a townscape visible on the far bank.
The final group of works we see before existing the exhibition into the obligatory selfie station include those that feature silhouette images of a bird with wings spread, always blue and usually deployed as a cut-out revealing bright skies suffused with cotton-ball clouds or twinkling stars or a crescent moon. A large, late work, The Domain of Arnheim (1962) stands out here. At the bottom foreground of we see two eggs ensconced in a nest, perched atop a gray brick wall. A mountainous landscape occupies the background that fills most of the picture, painted in twilit shades of icy blue. Above the high ridge line of the mountains is an evening sky with a crescent moon at the center. Look closely at the crest of the ridge and you will see that it turns into the silhouette outline of a bird with outstretched wings that seems to want to protect the eggs. In The Great Family (1963), a dove is centrally pictured with wings spread wide. Like some of the male figures in bowler hats, it is a cutout silhouette that opens onto a bright, comforting sky, though it is surrounded by foreboding clouds and flanked, at the bottom, by an angry sea.
Throughout The Fifth Season, one can find several outright terrible paintings, a few of which are worthy of some remark. Never mind the dispute about the Sunlit Surrealist and Vache works, look instead at the simplistic illustration titled Hegel’s Holiday (1958), which places a feebly rendered glass of water atop an open umbrella set against a flat copper background. Or consider the what-the-hell-was-he-thinking image of a large boulder perched on a library’s balcony called The Invisible World (1954). It looks like a drunken collaboration between de Chirico and Max Ernst. Yes, I get the point of contrasting the granulated rendering of the boulder with the cartoonish room, but it’s ham-fisted. And the collection of eight studies for the surrealist mural, The Enchanted Domain,that Magritte painted for the Knokke Casino in 1953 are only of procedural interest, and I would expect, better than the actual murals, although that does not excuse their lapse into self-parody.
Returning to my initial point about the way that Magritte’s work plays peek-a-boo with illustration and painting requires an adaptation of working definitions for the two terms, so here goes. For well over seven centuries in Europe and twelve centuries in Asia, painting was held in very high esteem for upholding embodied representation as something more complex, layered, condensed and “perfect” than mere illustrative designation, the latter providing only descriptive information about a subject without conveying much its affective essence. But just prior to the turn of the 20th century, the relationship between illustration and embodied representation started to become more complicated. We all know the story about photography taking over many of the documentary roles that were once played by painting, leaving the older practice to operate in an ever-diminishing field of rarified and oftentimes self-referential operation. What we are less aware of is how the proliferation of photography was but the tip of a more complex iceberg of mechanical substitutions that would eventually displace “nature” as the implicitly “normal” background of experience, making absurd juxtaposition seem to stand on the same plane of credibility as the comforting coherence of an older realism. Magritte was unique among surrealists in his canny recognition of this kind of “realism of Surrealism,” bred in large part by an understanding how a scientific account of reality can only bring us to the edge of true objectivity, but never past that Heisenbergian point where complex gives way to perplex. The artistic trick to putting this idea across lies in giving tangibility to the absence of objectivity while at the same time making the intangible seem as it were palpably real.
Now that we are closing in on the first centennial of the surrealist Manifesto, we are at long last in a position to see how the majority of surrealist works err on the side of illustrating absurdity while failing to fully embody it as a new and vexing synthesis of logic, sensation and desire, meaning that those works oftentimes retreat into the backdrop of garden variety nonsense that saturates everyday life. Hindsight makes their provocations seem feckless and their displacements seem clichéd, because the sad fact is that reality itself has become far more surreal than their imaginings ever portrayed it to be. Indeed, many of Magritte’s paintings can also be said to suffer from these problems, and for that reason can seem callow or gimmicky. But most of the others transcend those problems by virtue of the poetic subtleties that inform the way that they are made. In Magritte’s work, there are always absences within presences and presences within absences, and stories within stories, making his paintings seem like philosophical echo chambers that simultaneously inviting and resist psychological inhabitation. When he is at his best, he stage-manages the metaphysics of presence and the nostalgia for an infinite beyond into open-ended dialogs that are charming, disquieting and delightfully subtle.
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“René Magritte: The Fifth Season” @ SFMOMA through October 28. 2018.
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.
1. It would seem that, during his stay in Paris, Magritte was more at home with the dissident Bataille group, even as it was only then starting to differentiate itself from Breton’s self-appointed leadership of the surrealists. After Breton published his Second Manifesto of Surrealism in 1927, the anarchic stridency of its “political” rhetoric was off-putting to some of the movement’s affiliates (“Everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste to the idea of family, country, religion…on that point, there is no room for compromise.” [Andre Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism, University of Michigan Press, 1972). 128]. Very soon thereafter, Bataille was writing about imaginary exhibitions of decontextualized ethnographic artifacts in the publication that he edited titled Documents (1928-1930), thereby initiating what James Clifford would later call “Ethnographic Surrealism,” (see James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” in The Predicament of Culture[Harvard University Press, 1988]. Clifford characterizes his idea of ethnographic surrealism as having to do with “the production, rather than the reduction of incongruities.” 147). This practice veered sharply away from Breton’s misconstrual of Freudianism in favor of a then-radical embrace of photographically assisted cultural relativism and iconographic displacement, ideas that may have exerted an influence on Magritte. But let us not make too much of any supposed Bataille-Magritte connection, as Bataille grew ever more anti-rationalist in his later writings, while Magritte became more and more preoccupied with the idea of using a poeticized hyper-rationality to explore the perception-bound limitations of rationality.