For many Houston art lovers René Magritte is probably something of an old friend, albeit one who seems perfectly normal but constantly makes statements that cause us to question the very nature of reality.
Whenever we feel the need for our sense of order in the universe to be shaken up, we can make a trip to the Menil Collection where our chum awaits us with boulders admiring seascapes, skies within an eye, and reminders that a painting is not a pipe. (The museum holds the largest and most significant collection of works by Magritte outside of his native Belgium.)
Yet for many people, Magritte might be known mostly as the bowler hat guy from postcards or posters. At least, this is the worry of Menil Director Josef Helfenstein. He hopes the new exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, which opened on Valentine's Day, will bring novices an appreciation of Magritte as an artist. Perhaps it will also bring Magritte lovers a better understanding of the artist as a mystery that will never be fully solved, and we kind of like it that way. (Full disclosure: Yes, I was one of those kids who had a The Dominion of Light poster hanging in my college dorm room).
Within the exhibition Magritte aficionados will not only find many of his signature images and motifs but will now see the genesis of these themes.
This exhibition of Magritte’s early work was organized by the Menil Collection, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art. Helfenstein, who is also one of the three curators, boasted during a preview walk-though of the show that this will be one of the most detailed shows of Magritte’s paintings from one of the most productive periods in the artist’s life in the years leading up to World War II.
Within the exhibition Magritte aficionados will not only find many of his signature images and motifs — the musical notes, the metamorphosis of materials, human flesh to wood, sky to wallpaper, the word paintings — but will now see the genesis of these themes. Patrons will also see the very first of the word paintings, The Interpretation of Dreams, the rendition of four everyday objects, all but one labeled incorrectly.
“The surrealist, and Magritte especially, were really interested in liberating the mind. That was their main goal. They felt painting was not interesting per se. It’s only interesting if it forces you to abandon what you already know, if you liberate yourself,” Helfenstein explained.
Only in Houston
The Museum of Modern Art was the first stop of this exhibition but there are several works, including The Interpretation of Dreams that are exclusive to the Menil’s version of the show. Helfenstein also believes that with the installation of the works within the Menil’s galleries, “The paintings start to talk to one another, but they talk in kind of a disturbing way.”
Helfenstein believes that with the installation of the works within the Menil’s galleries, “The paintings start to talk to one another, but they talk in kind of a disturbing way.”
Perhaps one of the best examples of this disturbing conversation is the arrangement on the same wall of Attempting the Impossible, Magritte’s casting of himself and his wife Georgette Berger into the Pygmalion myth, the covered kissing Lovers, and creepy overlapping female and male figures of The Titanic Days. Together they have a rather twisted discussion about love and relationships.
Another Houston-only juxtaposition of works are three toiles decoupees from 1930 that have not been seen next to each other since 1931. According to Helfenstein, the placement of the three cut-up paintings the landscape The Depths of the Earth, cloudscape Celestial Perfections, and nude The Eternally Obvious, emphasis the pieces as objects as much as paintings.
A fascinating reunion of paintings that have been apart for decades is a small room near the end of the exhibition of works Magritte painted for the British collector Edward James, including the immense On the Threshold of Liberty and two faceless portraits of James himself.
Portrait of the Artist
Near the end of the exhibition are two self-portraits, Clairvoyance and The Philospher's Lamp, depicting Magritte, ever in the guise of banality all the while contorting any notion of a solid, static reality.
“He wanted to undercut the romanticized image as the artist as a Bohemian. That was maybe one of the most radical things he did. He dressed like a bourgeois. He dressed like the most normal Belgium nobody and of course that was his way to be quite subversive. I think it was a very effective way. It was also a fascinating way to show how anonymous we have become in modernity. . .It was a way to challenge the conventions,” described Helfenstein.
But wait, that’s definitely not the last we’ll see of our good friend. The companion exhibition, Memories of a Voyage: The Late Work of René Magritte, is presented concurrently with Mystery of the Ordinary and will also be exclusive to the Menil.
Special public programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibitions, and for the first time in its history The Menil Collection will extend its opening hours until 9 p.m. on Fridays through the duration of the exhibition, which runs through June 1. Admission is free.