This cool, crisp, gray day reminds New Yorkers that the comforts of warm weather will soon be a distant memory. The day itself is not altogether unpleasant, just as the current Magritte exhibit in The Museum of Modern Art—‘The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,’ has just enough going for it to reel in a purveyor of the arts without fully satisfying him (or her).
This large canvas of ‘L’Assassin Menace,’ painted in Brussels in 1927, introduces the viewer to the exhibit and gets it off to a good start. The painting is flat, even though Magritte has chosen to model the figures. One can clearly see shadow and light with the turning edge between them. Normally, this will produce a three-dimensional image, but here, the edges of all the figures are crisp. There are no lost-and-found edges to speak of. And there is little modeling in the light itself, similar to a Manet portrait. The background is gray, but the foreground is primarily gray as well. Were the foreground to have been richer in color, it would have come forward. Instead, the darker grays of the men’s suits, accentuated by the crisp shadows that are two-dimensional forms in their own right, produce a different result. Normally, light forms come forward and darker forms recede, but Magritte creates a tension between the tones as one form recedes, then comes forward, and then recedes again.
Even though all the figures are as still as the newly-deceased woman reclining in the back of the room, the three men in the foreground are not looking at her. The nude female form is being seen in a new, uncomfortable way. Even the three men in the background who appear to be gazing at the woman from outside the window are, upon closer inspection, looking elsewhere to the left. Their eyes are crudely drawn. The little color that is there is muted–the blood coming from the deceased woman’s mouth, the briefcase resting on the light gray floor next to a slightly darker gray chair upon which is a darker gray hat and a much darker gray coat. Death is gray, one supposes, and as blood leaves someone’s body, the grayer and less full of life it becomes.
The figure in the left foreground holds a long, phallic-shaped stick and the record player has a round large opening.
This painting is Magritte at his best, even as other paintings later in the exhibit reveal the artist’s skill in rendering three-dimensional illusions and make interesting observations that have lost much of their force through overexposure and the passage of time. ‘L’Assassin Menace,’ on the other hand, has a timeless quality and many layers of meaning to study and ponder.
‘Portrait of Paul Nouge’ is a double portrait. The head is almost completely grayed out with the color slightly red to contrast just barely with the green-gray background. The patch of black hair and the glasses act as abstract shapes that blend into the rest. The white of the two shirts and the modeled white area full of holes come forward, interrupted by the solid black of the pants–with crisp edges to enhance the abstraction.
‘Le Dormeur temeraire,’ 1928, is more 3d. The painted palette has indentations for a lit candle, an apple, a bird, an egg, and a ribbon. Is the man sleeping comfortably in an open coffin? The viewer is left to wonder about this and other questions.
‘Le Modele Rouge (The Red Model),’ London, is an oil on canvas from 1937. From a distance, one can almost feel the texture of the wood grain, the metallic hardness of the pennies on the dirt ground, and the soft leather quality of the boots as they transform into the lifeless feet that are also resting on the soil. The human feet are the weakest part of the composition. The toes are too parallel, the shapes too unobserved compared to the torn sheet of paper and everything else in this trompe l’oeil composition.
The painting is so large, it is hung almost too high and too low at the same time. The simple tan frame that surrounds the painting is geometric and more chromatic than the colors on the canvas.
The lack of chroma, the simplified color palette that avoids reds and yellows and orange–these are traits that are common to every Magritte painting. Seeing the same colors in room after room, painting after painting, becomes tedious.
Even a painting such as the one described above, in which the artist dazzles with his ability to paint realistically, has a dead quality about it that Magritte is not able to escape.
A closer inspection of the paint quality, seen from inches away, is almost boring. The paint is devoid of movement and excitement. It is without an abstract quality that a Monet landscape, for example, exhibits at close range. This forces the viewer to lose energy as well. The curiosity of what Magritte is trying to say or how witty and well-thought out some of his ideas are is not enough, and after seeing dozens of paintings in room after room, one struggles not to feel blah and disinterested.
The painting to its right has an interestingly-shaped frame, mirroring the shape of the section of the nude woman’s figure that is rendered. This is a painting without a background. ‘La Representation,’ painted in Brussels in 1937, has a brown, stained frame that has a less smooth curve on the left than on the right. But once the novelty of the frame wears off, what is one left with?
When the first Star Wars movie was released 30 years ago, audiences marveled at its special effects. Twenty years later, after so many movies and so many advances in technology, the special effects in Star Wars appear ordinary.
This is why it is difficult to judge the merit of some artists so many years after their time. Those years are gone forever.
In the 1920s and 1930s, surrealism was new. We were between two World Wars. Now in 2013, we are no longer shocked or surprised when we realize that the representation on canvas is not a woman’s torso or an apple or a pipe.
Books and magazines are included in the exhibit. Seeing a dead skull on the body of an attractive, well-endowed woman and a pen and ink sketch of a man smoking a pipe that is smoking a pipe that is smoking a pipe on the cover of ‘The London Gallery Bulletin’ from April 1, 1938 are still fun to look at in short doses. The face and neck of a woman with two breasts for eyes, her navel for a nose, and the lips of her genitalia standing in for facial lips graces the cover of ‘Qu’est -ce que Le Surrealisme?’
This exhibit does not address the question in a provocative way. ‘Le Principe du Plaisir’ doesn’t work, other than the intriguing shape in the right foreground that resembles a blue cupcake. The head is bright and luminous without being chromatic. One way to meditate is by thinking of different parts of the body being filled with light, traveling from the head, down the torso, through both arms, and then the legs and feet. At first, the painting feels as if it has little to offer, but then it draws the viewer in. But close up, there is nothing to see. One suspects the paint strokes are made not once, but over and over, back and forth and back again, until the vitality and spontaneity of each stroke withers away.
‘L’Espion’ (the Spy) has a head suspended in space with a black background. A man turns out to be a woman in full frontal view. The observer spies on her through a small, dark keyhole. The image of one head in the anterior view, floating in isolation on the left side of the canvas, being spied upon by a man on the right side of the canvas, is amusing and ironic because the viewer becomes an active participant; the spy is being spied upon as well. And so is the victim of his gazes through the keyhole. To get a better view, all the spy needs to do is visit MOMA and purchase a ticket. ‘L’Espion’ would then become respectable.
The Magritte exhibit opened on September 28, 2013 and will close on January 12, 2014. The exhibit is worth seeing because of Magritte’s place in art history.