Although he trafficked in the uncanny, or maybe because he did, the great Belgian Surrealist René Magritte was, in his personal deportment, as plain and innocuous as an aspirin. He was married all his life to the same woman and dressed most days like a bank clerk. Think of Alfred Hitchcock making Psycho and The Birds while appearing on TV as that droll gent in a suit. Though Magritte spent three crucial years in Paris, the fevered cockpit of Surrealism, he returned permanently to placid Brussels in 1930. To the French, it might as well have been Wichita. Toto, I think we're back in Kansas.
All the same, this prosaic man refused to cooperate with reality, serenely uncoupling familiar images from the things we count on them to represent. His first adventures in that profound and weirdly pleasurable idiom provide the story arc for "Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926--1938," a new show at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, which runs from Sept. 28 through Jan. 12, then moves to Houston and Chicago. Though it covers just 12 years of Magritte's life--he was 68 when he died in 1967--that was the period when he made many of his best-known images, the years when he discovered himself, to say nothing of whatever it is in us that he consistently enchants. The show is a beauty, but it's also a reminder that however much Magritte was a Surrealist, in some ways he was much more.
He began as a would-be Cubist but in 1922 discovered the work of Giorgio de Chirico, with its enigmatic, tilted piazzas and puzzling air of anxiety. What de Chirico showed Magritte was that representational painting still had very interesting possibilities. As Salvador Dalí would later do, Magritte soon adopted the most realistic form of representation he could manage, so much the better to pull the rug out from under the whole idea of representation. So in The Muscles of the Sky, from 1927, he defamiliarizes that most basic feature of our world, the sky, by bringing stretches of it down to earth in cut paper shapes that land across a plank floor like actors on a stage.
Magritte's paint handling and figuration, though they improved enormously over the years, were fairly drab early on. The men in The Menaced Assassin, from 1927, are so awkward, the paint surface so deadpan, you would think Buster Keaton had picked up a brush. But the very stiffness of the scene adds to its clenched mystery. As with the stolid figures in Edward Hopper, early Magritte actually benefits from its lack of academic fluency.
Though he dealt in complex paradoxes, Magritte was terse. His famous 1929 painting as mission statement, The Treachery of Images, simply shows a pipe floating above the words Ceci n'est pas une pipe. Got it: This is not a pipe, it's a picture of a pipe. Something like that, only better, is the point of The Human Condition, in which a painting on an easel is set before a window in such a way as to exactly duplicate the part of the view that it's blocking. Once Magritte's intentions snap into place, you recognize that, of course, the "real" view out the window is also a painting, part of the one you're looking at. Ceci n'est pas une landscape.
More Than a Surrealist