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  • RENÉ MAGRITTE AT SFMOMA

    Reviewed by John Held Jr.

    05.19.18

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    San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: René Magritte - The Fifth Season

    Review and images by John Held, Jr:

    CECI N'EST PAS MAGRITTE

    If one is unfamiliar with the work of the Belgian painter René Magritte, one has certainly heard of the surrealist movement, of which he was a major participant. Those familiar with Magritte are knowledgeable of his bowler hat self-portraits, floating boulders, green apples and possibly one of his better known works, The Treachery of Images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe), which contradicts the image of a pipe with the declaration, "This is not a pipe."

    During my interview with Caitlin Haskell, associate curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA and curator of exhibition, she elaborated on the known and unknown Magritte. "Maybe the name Magritte would be enough to bring people in here, and then if they were to come in, I'm was pretty sure that there would be things to appeal to them. There's also a flip side of that, which is that people who really know art, who are dismissive, declaring "he's a starter artist and I'm more sophisticated," I wanted to do a show that would have new things for those people who felt that they've been there done that. That's why you begin with the Renoir period, seeing those for the first time should be a revelation, I hope. Seeing the Enchanted Domain and Dominion of Light, those are major bodies of work that I hope will appeal to people who think they already know who Magritte is."

    She is correct in believing that even the initiated will be shocked by the exhibit, René Magritte: The Fifth Season, which focuses on the artist's later works from 1943-1967. Forget the well-documented early years of the 20s and 30s when he joined forces with other surrealists under the entrepRenéurial impresario André Breton. Forget the bowler hats, floating boulders in a sky's of blue and green apples floating hither and yon, which populate the early period. Forget the early dismissive comments greeting the artist's latter works. Witness instead how the more than 20 artworks of the 70 on display being shown in America for the first time illuminate the artist's vision in an entirely new context. Leave preconceived notions aside, and you will come away from this exhibition with a clearer appreciation of a much beloved and influential artist.

    While Breton and many of the other European surrealists sat out the war in New York, Magritte stayed put. His first-hand observation of World War II rattled his bourgeois sensibility, conflicting his creativity. He entered into two uncharted periods, sunlit surrealism (1943-1947) and vache (1948), which met with Breton's (and the vast majority of critics) displeasure. Magritte wrote that, "At the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris visitors had to find their way around with electric torches. We had this experience during the occupation and it wasn't funny. The confusion and panic that Surrealism wanted to create in order to bring everything into question were achieved much better by the Nazi idiots than by us..."

    Breton replied that there was no sunlight in Magritte's work or his ideas. "And how can it be," Breton noted, "since you feel the need to look for the sun in Renoir? Let me assure you that none of your latest canvases gives me any impression of the sun (of Renoir, yes)." Moving from sunlit surrealism, Magritte entered into a new "vache" period, which has been viewed as, "a slap in the face of good taste, a condemnation of avant-garde dogmatism, a return to pure Dada provocation."

    Indeed, Magritte's sunlit surrealism owes much to the expressionistic flourishes of Renoir, and provides us a broadened view in viewing the totality of the artist's oeuvre. These new works created right after the war, break with the precisionist rendering of the past with a flurry of color and painterly fury. Works such as, The Fifth Season (1943), Forethought (1943), The Harvest (1943) and Lyricism (1947) are revelations to those unfamiliar with the turn Magritte took in response to the dark days of European conflict.

    Soon, however, Magritte forsook this new stylistic approach, retreating to the tried and true image making which catapulted him to fame. But like many an artist, the new direction incorporated lessons learned in previous works, and this reveals itself in works such as The Glass Key (1959), in which the towering painterly boulder in mountainous landscape, "is rendered here in strokes of icy blue and powdery white."

    This newly encrypted style combining painterly qualities with precise rendering can also be viewed to great effect in the series, The Domain of Light (1949-1965), in which the artist painted a collection of nighttime urban landscapes with contradictory daylight skies. Magritte reworked this concept more than a dozen times. Previously, no more than two of the works have been shown together. The present exhibition brings together six of the paintings, enabling us to experience the various versions in their broad context for the first time.

    Another first for the exhibition is the display of eight rarely seen works comprising his largest painting, the 360-degree panoramic mural, The Enchanted Domain (1953), originally commissioned for the Grand Casino in Knokke, Belgium. At 1/6th the scale of the original, the works on canvas have been brought together for the first time in 40 years.

    René Magritte: The Fifth Season, is mounted following the 50th anniversary of Magritte's death, and was developed by support from the Magritte Museum in Brussels, Belgium. A major organizational task for curator Haskell, was selecting and compiling works from such diverse sources as the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts d Belgique, Centre Georges Pompidou, the National Gallery of Art, The Menil Collection, Yale University Art Gallery, and private collections both here and abroad. On a sad note, the exhibition is the swan song for Haskell, as she bids SFMOMA a fond farewell before shortly departing for a new position at the Chicago Art Institute, as the new Gary C. and Francis Comer Curator of International Modern Art. She will be sorely missed.

    Another behind-the-scenes player in the exhibition departing SFMOMA after more than forty years on the job is exhibition designer Kent Roberts. Rarely do exhibition designers get the credit they deserve, but Roberts has provided us with the perfect setting to serve the collected masterpieces on display. From entrance to exit, the venue moves us effortlessly through the various periods of the artist's late development. This is aided by an audio guide maneuvering us through the exhibition with thought provoking insights by Vija Celmins, Jeff Koons, and the late Suzi Gablik, a personal friend of Magritte.

    The exhibition, on view until October 28, 2018, will not travel. The works on display are so valuable that insuring them becomes problematic. Fortunately, an excellent catalog accompanies the exhibition, which should prove useful in extending the impact of this powerful staging of the artist's late works.

    René Magritte artist art

    René Magritte, La premeditation (Forethought) 1943, oil on canvas.

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    René Magritte, Le lyrisme (Lyricism) 1947, oil on canvas at SFMOMA.

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    René Magritte, La clef de verre (The Glass Key) 1959, oil on canvas.

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    René Magritte, Le stropiat (The Cripple) 1948, oil on canvas mounted on panel.

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    La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images) 1952, ink on paper.

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    René Magritte, La cinquieme saison (The Fifth Season) 1943, oil on canvas.

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    Curator Caitlin Haskell and art historian Peter Plagens at SFMOMA.

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    Exhibition introduction - René Magritte at SFMOMA.

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    Entrance to the René Magritte Exhibition, designed by Kent Roberts.

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    "Dominion of Light" installation - René Magritte, The Fifth Season at SFMOMA.

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    Curator Caitlin Haskell explicating "The Enchanted Domain".

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    His and Hers Magritte PJs for sale at the gift shop.

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    More Magritte swag at the gift shop.

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