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October 8, 2013 5:23 pm
The art of René Magritte has curiously undone itself. He meant to shake up our perceptions of ordinary things like eggs, apples, pitchers and pipes – to make “everyday objects shriek aloud”. Yet his ubiquitous images have launched a million products, turning his shrieks back into everyday objects. Riffs on “The Treachery of Images”, the painting of a pipe that is not a pipe, appear on T-shirts (“This is a shirt”), coffee mugs (“This is a mug”), and Apple paraphernalia (“Ceci n’est pas une pomme”). Magritte’s most radical paintings long ago grew so famous we can hardly see them any more. Shock is the casualty of its own success.
The Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective, subtitled “The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938”, tries hard but in vain to pump some of the old jolt into these familiar works. Anxious to redeem Magritte from his popularity, curator Anne Umland harps on his technical innovations, his deadpan idiosyncrasy and his ambivalent relationship to the Surrealist coterie. There is justification for this. At a party in 1929, the writer André Breton demanded that Magritte’s wife Georgette take off the cross around her neck, presumably since a Christian symbol was unspeakably bourgeois. An argument followed, the couple stormed out, and a schism was born. The story reinforces the myth of the artist-as-apostate, of Magritte the methodical loner with the gloomy wit. And yet the more MoMA insists on his uniqueness, the more his work resists the worship. In the neutral analytic glare of the museum’s galleries, the paintings don’t come off as fierce so much as facile, like an acceptable form of revolution.
It’s worth trying to approach this show in a state of dogged innocence. Ignore the audio guide, avert your gaze from the wall labels, and try to forget you’ve ever seen that damned un-pipe before. It’s difficult to summon the cultural amnesia that can restore an icon back to its original state of oddness. If we could hear Beethoven’s Fifth with virgin ears or be borne ceaselessly into the past for the first time again – if only we could regain the ecstasy of astonishment, then Magritte’s paintings, too, might provoke a queasy awe.
Consider, for instance, the failed embrace of “The Lovers”, whose faces can’t touch because each of their heads is swathed in cheesecloth. Magritte encouraged his viewers to savour the primal quiver of unease – the creepiness of faceless heads rubbing against one another – and not scavenge for hidden codes. “They evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘what does it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”
It turns out, though, that Magritte’s mother drowned herself when he was 14, and he saw her body pulled out of the water, a wet nightgown masking her face. He later denied all psychological or autobiographical references in his work, but the longer you study those swaddled faces, the clearer and more morbid their silent message becomes: intimacy is a chimera; we may convince ourselves that we connect with others, but we are alone.
Despite his disavowal of meaning, Magritte understood that the simplest image can telegraph the profoundest truths. He worked as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory, a poster-maker and advertising designer, and he keenly appreciated the value of the succinct and poetic one-liner. “This is not a pipe”, that compact quip-cum-painting, deftly reveals a fact we often forget: neither an image of a thing, nor our word for it, is actually what it describes. The correlation between language, image and reality is random and therefore surreal. The environment is made up of objects that we endow with names and forms and functions, just because it suits us. But look aslant, as he did, and a shawl becomes a shroud or a mask or a cloud, depth becomes surface, and space folds back in on itself.
Magritte conveys this efficiently in “The Human Condition”, a painting of a painting of a country landscape framed in a window. With supreme economy, Magritte points out that we always stand at a remove, perceiving our surroundings through layer upon layer of representation. If that notion seems abstract, consider the way we so often view our passage through the world these days – on a digital camera’s display. Landscape, architecture, art, other people – all get demoted to source material for a snapshot, and all appear hazy and unresolved until they snap into focus in a luminous rectangle floating before our eyes. We see, but we are not fully there, and we document our absence assiduously. What makes Magritte so unsettling is that he forces us to confront that perpetual deluded haze.
Given his lack of interest in the palpable or the pure, it should not be surprising that he spent many years copying his old ideas, over and over, as if in the throes of artistic dementia. He happily gave his blessing to posters and prints of his work, and engaged in numerous acts of self-plagiarism. The MoMA show cuts off before this period of auto-recycling, which cheapened the artist in the eyes of scholars. Authenticity clearly matters more to them than to their subject: the catalogue delves deeply, though not especially interestingly, into the trajectory of an image from inception to maturity. (Investigations involve a process called infrared reflectography.)
This insistence on origins, timeline and relics would have bored the artist, who valued the intellectual idea but treated the act of painting it as a process of ploughing through “technical problems”. The most genuinely Magrittian thing you could do is to skip the show and buy a poster in the gift shop – then hang it across from a bathroom mirror and glance at its reflection every time you contemplate your own.
Until January 12, www.moma.org
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