It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an exhibition as great as the one I saw this weekend. On Sunday, I took myself down to the Art Institute of Chicago for the members-only opening of Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938. It blew me away.
Right from the start you could tell the exhibition of Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s work was going to be special based on its installation. The light levels are low, really low, and the walls were painted a really dark grey, almost like a soft black. It takes your eyes a bit to adjust to the darkness. But every single piece of artwork is spotlighted so that it glows. It is the definition of art as sacred object.
The exhibition begins with a replica of Napoleon’s death mask on which Magritte has painted a sky scene with clouds. Then you move into an intimate gallery of his most early surrealist paintings from 1926-1927. These are my favorite pieces because they seem filled with magic and wonder, particularly one called The Secret Player, seen above.
Next are a series of small galleries focused on his works from his prolific Paris years. Word association paintings are a focus here. Magritte’s most famous painting The Treachery of Images, also known colloquially as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or “This is not a pipe” is included.
The following section documents his return to Brussels, and its installation is genius. The long gallery is broken up by a series of parallel walls (there must have been 15-20 of them), each of which has a single glowing painting on it. I loved how it forced you to look at one painting at a time. The repetition of moving between each wall was oddly rhythmic and allowed reflective time between pieces.
Then you come to room of cases documenting Magritte’s commercial work, photographs of him in artistically composed shots, and surrealist publications he worked on. The exhibition ends with works he created in London and Brussels from 1937-1938, many of which were commissioned by British collector Edward James.
Personally I find Magritte to be a great technical artist, and the content of his work is confusing, funny, odd, and/or deep. Definitely go see the exhibition if you can! Just keep an open mind and remember that you don’t have to understand it to enjoy it. Sure, some pieces are deeply symbolic, but others might not have any discernible meaning. And it’s ok to laugh at the absurdity. Magritte’s art is filled with jokes.
Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 is open through October 13, 2014.