In his dismissal of Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 — the recently opened retrospective of René Magritte (1898-1967) at the Museum of Modern Art — the New York Times’ Holland Cotter cites the ubiquity of the Belgian surrealist’s images and the relative paucity of insight to be gleaned from seeing them in person.
Why, he asked, instead of mounting this crowd-pleaser, isn’t MoMA offering a survey of a less well-known, more interesting artist? Why indeed. Nevertheless, I happened to be at MoMA and went to the sixth floor to have a look.
The actual paint on canvas, as Cotter suggests, is flat and unadventurous, not all that different from tempera on board, which would have been Magritte’s stock-in-trade in his livelihood as an illustrator and designer.
But as I circled around the first couple of rooms, I began to notice a qualitative difference among the images, which prompted me to take note of when and where they were painted.
After an uninteresting start, represented by a selection of paintings and collages shunted off to the right side of the first gallery, Magritte suddenly catches fire and then almost immediately burns out. The most intriguing works in the exhibition were made in Brussels in 1927, with one or two from Paris in the same year.
These paintings have a quasi-outsider feel, as if Magritte were molding his images out of inchoate interior sensations. This is especially true of the archly sinister, faintly necrophiliac “L’Assassin menacé (The Menaced Assassin),” with its black-suited characters borrowed from Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas series of silent films, and the self-descriptive, proto-Henry Darger-esque “Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau (Le Plaisir) (Girl Eating a Bird [Pleasure])” — along with another painting featuring the bloody corpses of birds, “Le Ciel meurtrier (The Murderous Sky).”
The quiet strangeness of these works, and of others that are less sensationalistic but equally odd, distinguishes them from the paintings he did just a year later, after he spent time in Paris as part of André Breton’s surrealist cabal. The 1928 pictures begin to turn away from plumbing uncomfortable recesses in favor of Duchampian coyness and linguistic flippancy, as if Magritte had been listening to too much clever wordplay among his new circle of avant-Parisian swells.
Compare “Le Prince des objets (The Prince of Objects),” painted in 1927 after Magritte arrived in Paris, with one he did there in 1928, “Le Paysage fantôme (The Phantom Landscape).” The former depicts a black, biomorphic frame sitting on a pink surface and casting a shadow on a mottled green wall; in the upper left corner of the frame, which presumably holds a pane of glass, a segment of yellow and black wood grain fades into view.
Or is it that the frame holds a wood grain panel that’s disappearing before our eyes? The image makes no sense in a willful, almost aggressive way. There is no point of reference other than Magritte’s other images prominently featuring wood grain, such as the partially transformed nude in “Découverte (Discovery),” done in Paris in 1927, which do little to elucidate this one.
“Le Paysage fantôme” is a portrait of a woman who appears to be in her mid-30s, with a somewhat dour, slightly anxious expression on her face. Diagonally across her nose and cheeks is the word montagne (mountain). The interplay of word, image and title may have raised a smile in 1928, but today it falls flat, coming off as a retread of Marcel Duchamp’s earlier “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919), the Mona Lisa with the moustache, but without its anarchic wit.
But the artist was now set on a new, facile course, and only rarely does he revisit the fantastical wilderness of the 1927 works. Clearly, Magritte, whose mother drowned herself in the River Sambre when he was 13, was carrying a lot of baggage. (The story goes that she was found with her dress wrapped around her face, an image that reappears Magritte’s paintings, most notably the iconic “Les Amants [The Lovers]” from 1928.) It could be that returning to the well of inexplicable imaginings became just too difficult. He is quoted as saying, “I despise my own past and that of others.”
Decamping for Paris might have been a way of leaving all that behind, especially after the failure of his first solo show in Brussels. But the automatism and exquisite corpses of the Paris surrealist group were of a different psychological order than the young girl in “Jeune fille mangeant un oiseau” digging her teeth into a bloody bird. Leaving his home turf, where James Ensor (1860-1949) was still in the midst of conjuring up his own set of nightmares, changed his work — which could be arresting or awful — into something more accomplished but less emotionally fraught.
One big exception to the wordplay paintings (and the one piece in the show that offers a compelling answer to the question posed by Holland Cotter in his Times review, “Does seeing [Magritte’s works] at MoMA add something to them that we don’t already know?”) is a painting curiously titled in English and in brackets — “[Biomorphs with Words]” — which was made in Paris in 1928. A relatively small work (10 5/8 x 16 1/8 inches), it departs from everything else in the exhibition as much for its scruffy physical condition as for its foray into near-abstraction.
Over a roughly brushed-on black ground, Magritte has laid an amoebic-looking shape and a silhouette of a pipe, both in thick, raw umber impasto, on the left and right sides of the canvas. For a show featuring uniformly smooth textures, this comes as a shock. The shapes look less painted on than coughed up.
Under the silhouette are the words “la pipe,” also in raw umber. Not “this is not a pipe,” so beloved of Michel Foucault, but simply “la pipe.” It’s a label, but a non-ironic one, and the juxtaposition of its bald accessibility against the unidentified and unidentifiable object on the left is both mysterious and funny.
The unexpected material density and unpretentious pairing of word and image in “[Biomorphs with Words]” point to a path that Magritte chose not to take. Which is too bad, because of all the paintings in the show, this one is the most convincing as a work of pigment on canvas, and the most indelibly surreal.
Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 12, 2014.