Paintings by one of history’s most iconic surrealist artists are coming to Sydney this summer

The Art Gallery of NSW will host a blockbuster René Magritte exhibition, alongside influential contemporary artist Cao Fei

Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross
Arts and Culture Editor, Time Out Sydney
René Magritte at AGNSW
Photograph: AGNSW/Paul Hester | René Magritte ‘Golconda (Golconde)’ 1953

It seems that the Art Gallery of New South Wales is not even toying with the idea of easing up on blockbuster exhibitions for Sydney, and we are so here for it. Two of art’s most important and influential figures – groundbreaking Belgian surrealist René Magritte and pioneering Chinese contemporary artist Cao Fei – will be the focus of two Sydney-exclusive blockbuster exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales this summer. These exciting art experiences are heading Down Under as part of the 2024–25 Sydney International Art Series, which will also see the MCA Australia host the first major survey of acclaimed artist Julie Mehretu in the Southern Hemisphere.

This major announcement comes just a couple of weeks out from the opening of the Art Gallery’s highly anticipated winter blockbuster – a sparkling and historic retrospective of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha – and the same week as the opening of the 2023 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prize Exhibitions, following the unveiling of this year’s Packing Room Prize winner.

René Magritte @ AGNSW
Photograph: Supplied/MoMA New York | René Magritte, 'The false mirror (Le faux miroir)' 1929

René Magritte (1898–1967) created some of the most iconic paintings of the 20th century’s surrealist movement, and his work continues to exert a profound influence on contemporary visual culture. There’s no way you are not familiar with ‘The Fifth Season’ (1964) – the iconic image of a man in a suit and bowler hat with a green apple obscuring his face. Meanwhile, My Chemical Romance fans will recognise ‘The Lovers’ (1928) as the inspiration for the album art of Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge

Opening on October 26 and featuring more than 100 works, Magritte will be the first retrospective ever dedicated to the artist in Australia. The exhibition features major works loaned from collections in Australia, Belgium, Japan and the United States, the vast majority of which have never been seen in this country. The Gallery will take visitors on a journey from some of the artist’s earliest works, through to his landmark contributions to surrealism, and the renowned paintings of his final years before his death in 1967. In addition to more than 80 paintings, the exhibition includes rarely seen photography, film and archival materials that shine a light on lesser-known aspects of his practice, revealing his subversive humour and artistic independence. 

Cao Fei @ AGNSW
Photograph: Vitamin Creative/Sprüth Magers | Cao Fei 'Nova' 2019

Meanwhile, Cao Fei: My City is Yours will introduce Australian audiences to the cyber futurism of the exciting Guangzhou-born, Beijing-based artist from November 30. Voted as one of the art world’s ten most influential people (ArtReview magazine, 2023), Cao Fei has documented China’s rapid urbanisation, globalisation and digital revolution for more than two decades – interpreting the energy of the contemporary metropolis into mesmerising films, photography and large-scale interactive and immersive installations. Marking Fei’s first retrospective in Australia, My City is Yours is designed by the artist and Beau Architects (Hong Kong) and will bring the energy of a buzzing megacity right into the heart of the Art Gallery, spanning an interactive 1300-square-metre space in Naala Badu, the Art Gallery’s north building. 

Over in Circular Quay, from November 29, the MCA’s Julie Mehretu retrospective will display more than 80 powerful abstract paintings and works on paper dating from 1995 to the present – including new works created especially for the exhibition. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and now based in NYC, Mehretu is widely regarded as one of the most significant painters of her generation, and her paintings have been lauded for their capacity to convey the interconnectedness, energy and urgencies of our globalised world. The artist was named one of the “100 most influential people in 2020” by Time magazine; and in 2024, The New York Times described her as “one of today's most original and thought-provoking painters.” 

Julie Mehretu @ MCA
Photograph: White Cube/Ollie Hammick | Julie Mehretu, 'Femenine in nine, part 5', 2023

A state government initiative through Destination NSW, the Sydney International Art Series is also responsible for the two popular major exhibitions that just closed at the Art Gallery of NSW – Kandinsky, and that spidery Louise Bourgeois retrospective, which were also both part of the Sydney International Art Series in 2023. If the stunning scale of those exhibitions is anything to go by, we are in for another thrilling summer of art. 

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