Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
With its "u" upside down and its "n" mirror inverted, "unthink" is a fittingly enigmatic tagline for the Art Institute's exhibition Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, which opens today at the museum's Regenstein Hall.
Curated by Stephanie D'Alessandro and co-organized by New York's MOMA and Houston's Menil Collection, the exhibition encourages visitors to unthink both the familiarity of René Magritte's iconography and, as D'Alessandro says, the "deceit of a painted picture." It explores the Magritte-iest of Magritte's surrealist period through more than 100 paintings, drawings, collages, and objects. These 12 years saw Magritte's first solo exhibition at Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels, his three years in Paris, a surrealist mecca at the time, and his subsequent return to Belgium in 1930.
Asking visitors to unthink Magritte is a challenge in and of itself. The exhibition focuses on images that saturate every corner of pop culture. Plus there's the possibility that the convenience of digital manipulation has numbed us to the impossible realities Magritte constructed.
The exhibition doesn't deny Magritte’s hip recognizability. Everything from its promotional video to its engagement marketing milks the symbols that have cemented his coolness. There’s the bowler hat, worn by Magritte himself in street-pole banner ads. Then there are blue skies, black suits, and irises a la The False Mirror mixed into the marketing campaign. Inside the Art Institute pillowy cumulus clouds, courtesy of HMR Designs, hover over visitors' heads in the Griffin Court entryway, and an assortment of ties and pipes are on sale at the museum gift shop.
Lure visitors in with the familiar, sculpt the space into a shadowy labyrinth, and hope that the atmospheric viewing experience rubs off on the artwork itself—that seems to be the Art Institute's modus operandi for presenting Magritte anew. It would be a valiant effort if only viewer enlightenment could be reached simply by contextualizing vulvas, green apples, and floating bells.
But the power of Magritte's surrealism extends beyond his iconography alone. Just as an image of a pipe is not the pipe itself, his symbols are not the entirety of his legacy. We see references to his art in ads and album covers, but if you dig a little deeper, there's also lots of replication of his technique—his uncanny juxtapositions and ability to mix the hauntingly perverse with the peacefully ordinary.
In her essay "Surrealism: Language of the Unthought," arts scholar Edith Kern writes of Magritte's "ability to make us see other forms latent in . . . everyday objects by altering—almost to the point of totally destroying conventional views—their relationships of size, position, lighting, consistency, and mutual tolerance." What she deems his surrealist calling card, and what the exhibition also plays up, is that "subject and object are brought into a disturbingly new relationship" in his art. This is true of the iconic works on display, which are arranged in roughly chronological order throughout the space: The Menaced Assassin, a 1927 oil on canvas that features a bizarre assortment of bowler-hatted thugs, triplets, and a melancholic man next to a naked female corpse; The Interpretation of Dreams, an exercise in trompe l'oeil that puts images of a valise, a bottle opener, and a leaf next to the French words for sky, bird, and table; Time Transfixed, the Art Institute's own Magritte holding that depicts a 4-6-0 locomotive barreling through an empty marble fireplace.
The joining together of these disparate images highlights the mystery of the ordinary. Unfortunately, modern day viewers might not be left awestruck thanks to an immunity to the bizarre, built up by years of exposure to the magic of Photoshop. But perhaps Magritte paved the way for all the modern-day neosurrealists who upload GIF-sized doses of weirdness to 9GAG and the /r/pics sub-Reddit with nothing more than a few clicks of a mouse.
"Living in an age of mobile phones, in which we are so used to acquiring all sorts of information with great speed . . . has resulted in a loss of the ability to let a picture really take us into its own world," says D’Alessandro. "We surf the web and tap images on handheld devices."
These very same devices, however, are what allow Magrittian images to be created and disseminated on the daily.
In tracing Magritte's rise as one of surrealism's leading painters, The Mystery of the Ordinary gives visitors much to think, unthink, and mull over. In making "everyday objects shriek out loud," as Magritte himself hoped his art would do, the exhibition delivers more of a whisper. Dimly lit and with the smoky ambiance of an exclusive nightclub, Regenstein Hall offers ample room for visitors to view Magritte's curious juxtapositions afresh, even though the works may not feel as curious or fresh to visitors as the museum suggests.