The Temptations of the Ordinary

John Haber
in New York City

René Magritte and Surrealism

"The care you take to particularize the event." Paul Rougé was writing René Magritte, to say how much he admired his friend's paintings. He could be speaking for museum visitors ever since, about what has made Magritte one of the most popular modern artists.

He is also so obviously wrong that you might wonder how he could ever have believed it. But he did, and you will, too. If Magritte has become an excuse for t-shirts and posters, he anticipates Pop Art by more than a generation. If he has also lured people into doubting and questioning, he anticipates Postmodernism by half a century. Put it down to a middle-class Belgian finding his way in the sophistication of Paris. Or put it down to what the Museum of Modern Art calls "The Mystery of the Ordinary." Rene Magritte's On the Threshold of Liberty (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1929)

The care you take

Magritte was no ordinary painter, but he was a painter of the ordinary. One must take his word for that, but that, too, is part of the mystery. One must believe that the ordinary bourgeois still wears suits along with black ties, stiff collars, dress coats, and bowler hats. One must believe that he likes nothing so much as cricket, a pipe, decent wallpaper, naked women, and the view through a peephole. One must believe that he sees out his window something very much like what Magritte paints again and again—green grass, cumulus clouds, and neither sun nor shadow. The same view continues unbroken on an imagined canvas, its easel against the window. The artist called it The Human Condition, and who is to say whether that title refers to the landscape, art and illusion, or a state of belief?

And people do want to believe, for good reason. Magritte makes things ever so familiar, while abstraction, to take the word at face value, abstracts away. He also captures the moment, right down to the clock on the mantel of Time Transfixed, while Cubism's fragmentation loses the event in particulars. Only Salvador Dalí seems so straightforward and, not coincidentally, so popular, but his clock melted long ago. No doubt Magritte deals with the impossible, too, because the familiar disguises all sorts of fears and fantasies. One can see why someone as sophisticated as Rougé wanted to believe. A Surrealist poet and biochemist, he dealt with the unseen particulars that constitute everyday reality.

Unfortunately for Rougé, MoMA quotes him in reference to The Hunters at the Edge of Night, where Magritte goes out of his way to avoid particulars. The artist shows two hunters from the rear, buried in their heavy coats, warm stockings, and shadows. They have lowered their faces in stumbling blindly against blank corner walls. The view to the right might promise a way forward or a way out. Yet it consists of little more an unbroken plane reaching toward the horizon beneath an empty sky, where the interior could not possibly belong. Magritte paints the scene all too quickly as well, to the point that one can hardly make out the men's shoes.

Just to describe Magritte's appeal comes at the expense of particulars. Of course, he accompanied his pipe with the words Ceci n'est pas une pipe ("This is not a pipe"). He called it The Treachery of Images, but he could just as well have called it the treachery of a common language or of things. The mysteries quickly accumulate, just as the ordinary fades away. One should know better anyway. Surely one is long past believing that a painting is a pipe—and surely, too, one is long past priding oneself on knowing that it is not.

Critics, it seems, mostly are. Even the most favorable (like Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker) start with how obvious the artist is, before acknowledging a sense of wonder. Another (Holland Cotter in The Times) complains, of all things, that Magritte could not handle schlock realism as well as Dalí. Yet another (Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books) describes her disillusionment in returning to an old favorite from the 1950s. How foolish she was to have sought profundity in the glow of a city night against a daylight sky, in The Empire of Light. How foolish to have found magic in what had become an old routine, for the scene exists in more than one version at that.

By coincidence (and magic no doubt requires coincidence), a new biography of J. D. Salinger has led to similar disclaimers. How could I have identified with the adolescent rebellion of The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield was at once a total jerk and so unbelievably sweet? By coincidence, too, part of the answer involves imagery and language. When Holden wonders where the ducks go in the winter—or when his breakdown involves a sensation of falling after his favorite teacher warned him he was "riding for a fall"—he is treating metaphors as particulars, much like Magritte. When Holden was a jerk surrounded by jerks, one should have been questioning one's identification from the start. And when he was so sweet, one should have recognized the temptations of the ordinary.

The earliest temptations

MoMA tells of Magritte's earliest temptations. A large show sticks to work from 1926 through 1938, when he turned forty, to make the case for his engagement with Surrealism. They include the Belgian's years in Paris, starting in the fall of 1927 and ending with collapsing markets in 1930. They include his cover illustrations for André Breton's What Is Surrealism? in 1934 and the movement's journal the year after. They include the crusty textures of his first pipe (labeled, more simply, une pipe), no doubt influenced by Surrealist frottage, or rubbing. If Salinger is the ultimate neurotic outsider, Magritte was, at least briefly, at the center of the action.

Like Surrealism, too, his first dreams were the darkest. A girl devours a bird with her bare hands, and blood covers seeming mountains of feathers in The Murderous Sky. The man and woman in The Lovers have their heads shrouded as for a kidnapping. The cannon of On the Threshold of Liberty could have played a part in World War I, and it aims ambiguously at the open sky, his own art, or a female torso. Magritte's late years may present a more comfortable magic, of the floating Castle of the Pyrenees or of The Empire of Light. One had better look again, though, to see how the day still belongs to night.

The exhibition shows his introducing repeated motifs, among them doubling and dismemberment. By the time of a man facing the reflection of his own back, in the infinite regress of a hall of mirrors, not even doubling is to be trusted. True to Surrealism, he found his way to those motifs in collage from 1926, including printed paper and sheet music. The motifs in fact include decorative patterns in cut paper. True to Surrealism as well, table legs can resemble the chess set that Marcel Duchamp so relished. In all these ways, Magritte's art already includes the illusion of art, and the illusion of art can be a dangerous game.

The exhibition also describes a continuing refinement. The earliest compositions are often the most cluttered and the least polished. Magritte is not so much perfecting his skills as clearing the way. He is closer to advertising than the academies, and indeed he started as a commercial illustrator. Short of cash after Paris, he returned to that work as well. And his smooth surfaces begin with a dressmaker's forms.

Rene Magritte's The Seducer (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1950)Those years also introduce the treachery of what Michel Foucault called "words and things." Magritte conducts his first vocabulary lesson without text, with objects carved into wood beneath a sleeping man. Then comes montagne ("mountain") across the bridge of a woman's nose. Words may float like clouds, settle into speech balloons, or displace images entirely from depicted canvas—in one instance, canvas shaped ever so much like coffins. They also muddle detachment and desire. When éclatant de rire ("bursting with laughter") shares a painting with cris d'oiseaux ("cries of birds"), one can hear nature itself laughing or crying aloud at the temptations of the ordinary.

The show gets to present one greatest hit after another. They include the eye open to the sky, the eye on a slice of ham set out for dinner, the smoke from a train roaring out of a fireplace, or the "rape" of a woman's face, with her private parts as its features. Elsewhere I start from The Seducer, a late work. Magritte, I argue there, demands at least three interpretations. As with the multiple targets of On the Threshold of Liberty, he could be painting the free play of desire, the breakdown of meaning, or its return as nightmare. This time, let me ask with MoMA how the temptations come to be.

Desire and doubling

The curator, Anne Umland (with Danielle Johnson), makes the case for Magritte's place in Surrealism—a claim that neither Magritte nor the Surrealists wholly accepted. Yet they also see a context in popular culture. The Menaced Assassin could be a scene in crime fiction or a staged melodrama, one in which the killers pause to listen to the gramophone. The shrouded lovers come together in a cinematic kiss. Another coincidence or not, but Andy Warhol and Pop Art, too, came out of commercial art. The Key of Dreams belongs to Jasper Johns, for whom the literal is always paradoxical.

One can trace Magritte's coupling of desire and doubling to Sigmund Freud, and he does call one painting The Pleasure Principle. Yet one can also see it deriving from magazines and mass consumption. Identical objects roll off the assembly line, and identical images plaster the billboards. The Treachery of Images might also mean the seduction of advertising. And like it or not, long before the 1950s, his style insists on repetition. After my previous article, I almost labeled this "René Magritte: Part II," but then I felt trapped in my own doubling and desires.

As a skeptic, Magritte is targeting popular belief, but also art. The fragmented bodies hint at the ever-present male gaze, but also the study of anatomy as a prerequisite for painting—and that puts in question whether one can separate the two. Again he is ahead of his time, in a movement, like much of modern art, seriously short of women. He does not throw around the word rape lightly. At the same time, he is holding out art as the possibility of something more. With every image broken across multiple real or depicted paintings, he puts the burden on the painter and viewer together to constitute reality.

Then, too, Modernism always eluded its fine-art reputation. With his repeated motif of human feet in place of shoes, Magritte sees the treachery of emotions in the boots painted by Vincent van Gogh, already a tribute to a world too earthy for Paris. The Met called a survey of Surrealism "Desire Unbound," and MoMA has coupled Dalí and film. And Rosalind E. Krauss insisted some time ago on weighing the "originality of the avant-garde" against a history of copying and reduplication. Abstraction as abstracting away was a myth anyway. One can contemplate and believe in abstraction because of the particulars of painterly materials and perception.

Magritte never quite believes or disbelieves in his own madness. He allows his desires to enter at least once, with his wife as a model and the act of painting clearly his own. In Attempting the Impossible, she poses in the nude while an artist, dressed as usual in suit and tie, paints not her image on canvas but her, standing right in front of him. She is almost but never complete, with his brush just past her breast on the way to beginning her left arm. Which, then, is the impossible? Is it replication, representation, completion, the fulfillment of desire, a coming to life, or escaping art's basis in the particulars of ordinary life?

If Magritte's paintings seem too much like one-joke affairs, try asking why he was willing to repeat the joke. If they seem made to order for the museum gift shop, try asking who is ordering. If they seem to belong to a phase in one's own adolescent past, trying asking with Freud about the roots of present-day desires. And if they seem so very obvious, try asking how they can be at once so obviously right and so obviously wrong. Can one still believe in the obvious, and can one still make of point of not believing? Merely to survive, I think, one's answer to both may be yes.

BACK to John's arts home page

"René Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 12, 2014. A related article looks at the artist through a single work, "The Seducer."


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME