An observation to be made while viewing Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, shown at the MOMA, is the close affinity of Redemption to its nemesis menace.

René Magritte (1898-1967) grew up and lived in Brussels most of his life.  He lost his mother when he was fourteen years old to suicide. She drowned herself in a river. She was found with her nightgown wrapped around her face. Several of Magritte’s paintings selected for The Mystery of the Ordinary were of people with faces enshrouded, reconfigured or disappeared, but Magritte denied their focus was his mother’s death.

For fans aware Magritte survived such a traumatic event at an early age, it may be challenging to detach from the devastating effect the loss of his mother by suicide had on him while viewing his work. Nevertheless, as intelligent and hard working an artist as Magritte was, the observer has the duty to embrace liberation from events beyond individual control, whether positive or negative, as a shared objective.

As for the significance of the timeline of the show, in 1927 Magritte moved to Paris and befriended surrealist luminaries such as André Breton and Edward James. He returned to Brussels in 1930.

In  L’ESPION (THE SPY), 1926 – a harmonious relationship between man and woman is mired by mutual distrust. A man in a suit, looks like Magritte, peeps through a keyhole of a door at a woman. Her face appears to be floating in darkness. While the man is doing the peeping, due to the stark contrast in light, the woman seems the intruder. Yet the woman stares straight ahead, not at the man. This gives the impression more of a haunt than a surveillance. Ghosts are not data gatherers and don’t look at the living. A good thing because direct eye contact might make the living die of fright. Another possibility is the woman is real, wearing a black turtleneck in the dark, so you can’t see it, kind of even more creepy.

LES AMANTES (THE LOVERS), 1928 – a man and woman embrace, grey cloth wrapped around their heads in a spiral concealing their faces.  A first glance invites alarming questions. Were they kidnapped, being tortured? A more careful scrutiny, based on the subtle ease of their mutual desire, one senses collusion and intimacy overrides the perceived dilemma—one could go so far to envision these two people as friends of Magritte modeling for the portrait, play acting. That they are kissing through cloth could add to the comedy or to the forbidden, frustrated dimension. The meaning is fluid and goes back and forth, at times tense, at times relaxed, but due to the cloth, it will never feel settled.

In LA THERAPEUTE (THE HEALER), 1937 a man who has the physical attributes of a Toltec shaman is sitting on a sandbank. the ocean behind him, cane in his right hand, a bird cage for a face. The bird cage is open. There are two doves in the cage. One is perched on a swing inside the cage, the other on its tiny door flung open flat. Other than the birds’ presence the cage appears to be empty. Either can leave at any time and yet they seem content.  The healer has his back to the ocean presumably an accommodation to the artist Magritte and the anticipated viewers of his portrait–ocean and sky a fitting backdrop for a medicine man with a selfless heart. Yet his stance is narcissistic.

A man in a dark suit appears in numerous Magritte paintings. While the surrealist poet James is the subject of two very famous ones, to the uninitiated viewer the men in dark suits could be construed as, simultaneously, self-portraits and the Everyman. In the self-portrait LA CLAIRVOYENCE (CLAIRVOYANCE), 1936, Magritte sits in a chair beside a wooden table working on an almost finished canvas in front of him. He is painting a bird while looking at an egg on the table to his left. The Spanish Civil War had begun in 1936. From this did Magritte anticipate World War II…the replication of Everyman indicative of a dramatic increase in the numbers of soldiers and level of destruction each time a new country enters the war? A grey bird with outstretched wings suggests hope there will be a favorable if dim outcome.

Then there is LA REPRODUCTION INTERDITE (NOT TO BE REPRODUCED), 1937. Edward James is looking in a mirror. Instead of the mirror providing him a reflection of his face and torso, we see his backside, exactly what Magritte the painter saw, not how James saw himself. Narcissism is abated, the wide view worked out. Other common reoccurring images in Magritte works of the period are birds, trees, naked and/or disfigured women, sky and clouds. The appearance of sky and clouds often seemed part of a device to levitate the images. Yet these are not cheap reproductions. He is painting the images over and over in variation with deep imagination and extraordinary skill.

Perhaps his ultimate no branding piece is LE VIOL (RAPE), 1934. A woman’s torso and genital frame is resituated to her eyes, nose and mouth. When you factor in his preoccupation with the naked disfigured woman during this period, in RAPE menace and redemption are One, i,e, psychosis is complete, menace is victorious. Or is it, the artist and the viewer walk away from the canvas untouched?

Magritte did not earn a living painting original works for most of his life. His work did not get wide attention until the 1960s. Ways he made a living included running an advertising agency. During the Nazi occupation of Brussels in World War II, he faked the works of then famous painters such as Picasso and Renoir. It is worth noting that the careers he was involved in required skill in art reproduction, but such practice did not diminish the quality of his original works.

Saying GOODBYE to Magritte:

“That Day It Was Twice Monday: The Double and Its Double in the Work of René Magritte”
Filmmaker Johan Grimonprez joined art historian and writer Marcia E. Vetrocq in discussion of René Magritte’s influence on film and writing on 1/11/13.

DOUBLE TAKE by Johan Grimonprez (lecturer above). The aesthetics of Hitchcock and Magritte are juxtaposed with footage of the Cold War in the fictionalized story of Hitchcock encountering his own double. Reoccurring parody of the movie: “If you meet your double, you must kill him.”

Playing an Erhu

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938
edited by Anne Umland, CURATOR of the show.

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 at the MOMA closed today.

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Secondary References:
The MOMA exhibit:
General bio:
Magritte as forger: