Les Valeurs Personnelles (Personal Values) 1952
La Chambre d’�coute (The Listening Room) 1952
The paintings of Rene Magritte (1898-1967), often mysterious and full of fascinating ambiguities, are, nonetheless, highly accessible. His imagery has captured the imagination of a broad public and, as much as any other twentieth century artist, his work is recognized: people know a Magritte when they see one.
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark in cooperation with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has mounted a retrospective of Magritte’s paintings. At the SFMOMA installation, 63 paintings from more than thirty different collections have been assembled, displayed in roughly chronological order, with a variety of themes suggested by the curators to emphasize Magritte’s influence on pop and conceptual art.
No one can deny Magritte’s painterly skills. He was a fine draftsman with a powerful sense of composition. If he kept his palette (and his textures) somewhat subdued, that seems a deliberate ploy to focus on his imagery and its thematic content. What he could do with color when he veered into a byway from his usual path is evident in a work like The Natural Graces, which uses a vibrant green in foreground images of birds/leaves, a middlegound of smaller, almost wallpaper-ish leaves in a deeper blue-green, with a pale pinkish background showing through the leaves.
The foregound images of doves morphing out of green leaves is parallel in technique to other images in the show – in The Wonders of Nature fish metamorphize into human figures (or is it the other way around?); The Red Model turns feet into boots. Magritte had a collection of such techniques which he used in different variations to create his surreal effects, effects meant, of course, to refocus the viewer’s attention on the nature and relationships of the images displayed. The result is a shifting in perspectives on reality, and, as well, a confident sort of self-consciousness on the part of the artist, an acknowledgement that his images are constructs. The famous painting of a pipe underscored by the line "This is not a pipe" explicitly raises the issue, but it is there in virtually all of Magritte’s work, and that, surely, is a significant link to the later work of conceptual artists.
Other techniques in Magritte’s tool box are fragmentation (often of body parts), framing (sometimes actually using the picture frame, or multiple-paned frames as part of the design of the picture), the use of words in his canvases (ironically commenting on the other elements of the work), and distortion of the proportions of objects in the painting. A fine example of the latter is Les Valeurs Personnelles, SFMOMA’s proud new acquisition of a key Magritte work.
A fine painter, then, gifted with a deep well of inventiveness, one who has had great influence on succeeding generations of both commercial and fine artists, and who engages the public eye with his deliciously mysterious imagery. What then, is missing here?
Magritte’s paintings are calculated; they sublimate emotional content almost to the point of total absence. What feelings are generated start from the intellect and trickle down; there’s no emotion working from the heart back up to the intellect. Spontaniety is surely absent: this is deliberate, measured, carefully plotted work.
But that alone would not render the work lacking. For this viewer, Magritte raises a rather narrow range of questions without offering much in the way of profound answers. He creates a sense of mystery and, for example, makes you ask why the nighttime streetscape in The Empire of Light is crowned with a sky of broad daylight? It’s a powerful visual image, it stimulates the imagination and raises the question, but after some thought, the question doen’t seem to offer much in the way of fresh insight or direction to new understandings. It’s the quality of attention-grabbing that is useful to the advertising designer.
This is not to suggest that pleasure cannot be had from these paintings, but, seen together as a body of work, the total seems less than the sum of the parts. It feels like working a New York Times crossword puzzle – the best of the genre – as contrasted with the weightier pleasures of reading through a great novel. Light, engaging, thoughtful in a way, and surely skillful, but ultimately, rather unsatisfying, like a tasty Chinese meal that leaves you hungry an hour later.