René Magritte: The Fifth Season

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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When most of us think about the brilliant and influential Belgian artist, René Magritte, we imagine his two most iconic surreal paintings — “La trahison des images” (The Treachery of Images) the 1929 painting of a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe.) and “Le fils de l’homme” (The Son of Man) the 1964 portrait of the artist wearing a bowler hat with a large green apple that obscures most of the artist’s face. And although both works are absolutely remarkable, there is far more of Magritte’s genius to discover in the exceptional new show, “René Magritte: The Fifth Season,” exclusively presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

The exhibit of 70 oil paintings and gouaches focuses on the artist’s late works, from 1943 to 1967. The era begins during World War II and the Nazi’s invasion of Magritte’s home country of Belgium, and ends at Magritte’s death in 1967 at the age of 69. This extremely productive and fascinating period encompasses several distinct and less known Magritte artistic styles, such as his endeavors into Impressionism and Expressionism, although it includes some of his best-known Surrealist images as well. One important benefit of viewing this exhibit is to increase appreciation of Magritte’s raw painterly talent, rather than simply focusing on the intellectual, ironic and occasionally whimsical messages in his works.

For example, during World War II, perhaps in reaction to the Nazi’s censorship of acceptable artistic subjects and styles, Magritte experimented with different formats, rather than continue to create “degenerate” art. His 1943 “La premeditation” (Forethought), a Renoir-like oil of a bouquet of flowers, is done with typical Impressionist brush strokes. Technically, it’s extremely well done, although, Magritte may have intended an ironic message.

“The Fifth Season,” the subtitle of the exhibition, is from one of Magritte’s paintings,” La cinquième saison” created in 1943. It presents two bowler-hatted artists crossing paths, or is it the same artist coming and going at the same time?

In the post- World War II era, rather than return immediately to Surrealism, Magritte tested various creative approaches, including his playful “hypertrophy” series, in which the artist experiments with changes in scale. “Les valeurs personnelles” (Personal Values) from 1952 depicts a bedroom with an immense comb and shaving brush dwarfing the furniture.

Perhaps the highlight of the show is the intriguing series of paintings and gouaches done between 1949 and 1964, “L’empire des lumières (The Dominion of Light). They’re each of a dark night street scene, combined with a broad daylight sky and clouds, so it’s as if both day and night co-exist in the same space. These are Magritte’s most iconic works in his late period and are displayed together in the same gallery so as to create an immersive experience. It’s worth the time to examine each picture to note the similarities and differences among them, and simply, to admire Magritte’s artistry and imagination.

At the end of the show, there is a playful interpretive gallery created by SFMOMA and frog, a noted design company. By standing in the suggested space on the floor, you too can appear in six different Magritte-like scenes, through a series of altered and augmented windows using advanced depth-sensing cameras and motion-tracking technology. It’s lots of fun. Don’t miss it.

With loans from North and South America, Europe and Asia, and more than 20 works in the United States for the first time, “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” is the most complete presentation of the painter’s late work since his death. It presents a wonderful opportunity to learn more about, and to enjoy, a remarkably influential and creative talent.

By Emily S. Mendel


©Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved.

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