The name René Magritte (1898–1967) is widely recognized by art lovers and agnostics alike, and for good reason: He utterly transformed our expectations of what is real and what is not. When someone describes something as “surreal,” or recalls a dream, chances are good that the images in his or her head have been informed, consciously or not, by a Magritte, seen either in reproduction or in person.
Since the latter is always preferred, MoMA’s magisterial survey of the Belgian artist is especially welcome. Focusing on the crucial period during which his aesthetic jelled, the exhibition rounds up works both iconic and unfamiliar.
Early in his career, Magritte painted Cubist-inspired abstractions, but later switched gears, embracing the tenets of Surrealism and helping to establish a Brussels branch of the movement that originated in Paris with the 1924 publication of André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto. From the get-go, Magritte’s intent was to undermine our perceptions of reality by using the conventions of realism: first through odd juxtapositions of figures and items within traditional illusionistic space; next, by seamlessly morphing together textures and objects; and finally, by deploying language itself to decouple imagery from its representational function—most famously in his painting of a pipe above the legend this is not a pipe.
Through it all, Magritte charged his works with a sense of erotic menace or obsession, as if to say that our love for order is delusional and not to be trusted. A genius of paradox, Magritte expressed such radical propositions in the most conservative of terms, finding anarchy in the tidiness of bourgeoise life.—Howard Halle