Conjure in your mind’s eye that oddly mannequin-like urban everyman in a black morning coat and bowler hat. And that train that bursts full steam ahead through the “tunnel” of a fireplace. And that face covered in a skin of blue sky and clouds.
Recall that pipe you are distinctly told is “not a pipe.” Or that primer-like cabinet of curiously mislabeled curiosities. Or that female nude stacked in segmented frames. Or that bare, wintry tree hung with giant leaves in the form of banister poles emblazoned with music paper.
These are, of course, among the now universally recognized images created by the Belgian surrealist, Rene Magritte (1898-1967), an artist who continually sought to challenge our too often preconditioned perceptions of reality, and who, in the process, supplied us with his own strange visions of the world that have become a permanent part of our imagination. For Magritte, habit — including the habitual ways of looking at things — was the great deadener. And he would have none of it.
A grand-scale exploration of this phenomenon lies at the heart of the Art Institute of Chicago’s new special exhibition, “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938.” The show, organized in collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Houston’s Menil Collection, runs through Oct. 13.
“Magritte was an amazing artist who has much to offer us today,” said Stephanie D’Alessandro, the Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator of Modern Art at the Art Institute, who was instrumental in assembling this exhibition of nearly 80 paintings, plus collages, objects, photographs, periodicals and examples of the artist’s work in advertising.
“I think that living in an age of mobile phones, in which we are so used to acquiring all sorts of information with great speed — and assuming it is ‘correct’ — has resulted in a loss of the ability to let a picture really take us into its own world, with all its unique habits and customs. So working with installation designer, Robert Carson, I’ve tried to create a series of small, initially quite dark spaces that should help make the experience of each art work more intense and intimate, and will let your imagination tell you where you want to go.”
The Magritte show, awash in images at once grotesque and erotic, mundane and mysterious, unspools in more or less chronological order. It begins with the crucial body of work, both paintings and paper collages, that he created in 1926 and exhibited the following year in his first one-man show at the elegant Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels — a show greeted by mostly negative reviews. It moves on to his subsequent time in Paris, where he lived for three years, becoming part of the Surrealist circle led by the French poet and theorist, Andre Breton, and such artists as Salvador Dali and Joan Miro.
Magritte, who was always struggling to make a living, returned to Brussels in 1930, and continued working in the advertising business. But in the 13 years of prolific activity covered by this exhibition he also made some of his most emblematic work (work he hoped would “make the real world shriek out loud”), culminating in 1938, when he delivered a lecture, “La Ligne de Vie,” that traced the genesis of his particular style of Surrealism, and then watched as Europe engaged in its own surreal nightmare with the outbreak of World War II.
It also was at the end of this period that Edward James, the British art patron and collector of Surrealist works, invited Magritte to stay in his London home, and commissioned him to create three large paintings that would be installed in a grand ballroom in a most dramatic way. They were hung behind two-way mirrors so that they would only become visible when lights behind those mirrors were switched on. And the Chicago edition of this exhibition marks the first time since they were hung in James’ Wimpole Street house that these three radically different works (“On the Threshold of Liberty,” which is in the Art Institute’s collection, plus “The Red Model” and “Youth Illustrated”), have been brought together. (“Time Transfixed,” the iconic painting of a train rushing out of a fireplace — also painted for James during this time — is part of the Art Institute’s impressive collection of Magritte’s work, and will be on display as well.)
The show’s opening image, “The Future of Statues,” sets the tone. It is an oil on plaster “death mask” with eyes closed (in the “dream state” or “half-waking” state so crucial to the Surrealists), and with “skin” in the classic blue sky and puffy white cloud pattern that has become a Magritte trademark.
“I chose this piece for its magical suggestiveness,” said D’Alessandro. “It has an almost telekinetic enticement.”
That strange suggestiveness, intensified by Magritte’s meticulous draftsmanship, is everywhere. It is conjured in theatrical scenes in which painted curtains are drawn apart to reveal scenes full of disturbing, unexpected, sometimes sinister juxtapositions (the bloodied nude woman in a room full of men in “The Menaced Assassin”). It can be found in the double-take-inducing displacement of faces and body parts; the weird metamorphoses of both surfaces (skin with a wood grain), and objects (boots in the form of human feet, a pipe that is the extension of a nose). It is part of the enigmatic physical and psychological disconnections captured in “The Lovers” (in which a couple with fully cloth-wrapped heads, kiss), or “The Healer” (in which a man’s torso is replaced by a birdcage).
The real and the surreal coalesce throughout Magritte’s work, raising questions about the whole nature of appearances. The influence of Freud can be felt, too. But according to D’Alessandro, an even more crucial influence was Fantômas, the immensely popular character created in the crime fiction of two French writers, and then put on film.
For the large gallery that contains archival photos and much other material, exhibition designer Carson suggested his own trompe l’oeil surprise. It cannot be divulged here. But like everything else in this Magritte show, nothing is quite what it might initially appear to be.