My relationship with art (or pictorial art, more acurately) is a weird one. There are certain artists and whose work I know reasonably well, appreciate their historical importance, and relate to what they tried to accomplish, be it on a technical, symbolic or narrative level. But I can still remain an external, passive observer of such art. I stand for a few moments in front of a painting, read the useful summaries attached next to said paintings, and perhaps hear the audio guide. And then I may move on to the next painting, 20 feet to your left, with no lasting, emotional connection to what I just saw. I may buy the exhibit’s catalog with the inner hope learning more about the artist, and yet, a few weeks later, I have only added another object to my coffee table.
But there are some instances where art grabs you, and communicates with you on a guttural level that you didn’t know was possible. You feel that certain works of art were made just for you (because, yes, art has a way of unleashing your inner hubris, too). A song. A painting. A film. You get the symbolic meanings. You appreciate the technique. You understand why art is art.
This is a long way of introducing my visiting the excellent Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 at MoMA last month. While the Belgian painter always struck a curious chord within my brain, I never thought much about him, and decided to visit the exhibit without any expectation, on a sunny Monday off work.
In those six or seven rooms sprawling across MoMA’s sixth floor, however, I was awe-struck by the vigor and emotional charge of the exhibit. History, politics, psychology and art all came together like the rond-points that are everywhere in the old continent, and yet so absent in the new world.
It’s commonplace for social scientists — and I would guess for art critics as well – to look at individual actions as a product of the context in which those actions come to life. This is clear throughout this exhibit. Magritte’s work is at the very intersection of the interwar malaise in Europe, the rupture of the pre-war European class system (which Renoir captured so brilliantly in Grand Illusion), the early decades of psychoanalysis (and its unbound promises), and the rise of Dadaism and Surrealism against that context.
He is a product of this environment, but he’s not the only possible product of such an environment. Magritte shows that individual agency does not disappear even under powerful social constraints. How else would one explain the bizarrely unique (or uniquely bizarre) set of motifs that appear throughout his oeuvre (the pipe, the bowler hat, the green apple…), his unmistakable individual style, and yet his ability to communicate on a personal level with his audience? Is this his visionary contribution to the structuralist-individualist debate that divided Europe and North America just as much as the Atlantic Ocean?
The psychoanalytical influences over Magritte are everywhere in this exhibit. In fact, I like to think of some of his paintings as attempts to depict his own dreams. Magritte himself said that “Surrealism claims for our waking life a freedom similar to that which we have in our dreams“, but his work goes further than that; it tries to put his dreams, or more generally his subconscious, on the canvas. His motifs can also be interpreted along these lines: those inexplicable patterns, images or characters that recur from dream to dream, disparate as they may be. Like the cowboy in Mulholland Drive. The mystery of the ordinary can be nothing more than these common objects becoming extraordinary by their placement outside of their usual contexts. When art achieves this, it “excites your admiration through the likeness of things the originals of which you do not admire“, to quote Magritte again.
His portrait of The Therapist is perhaps the most obvious acknowledgement of the role of psychoanalysis is his work. This old, faceless sage that conceals below his poncho an open cage, where two birds refuse to fly away. Are the birds the neuroses, memories and repressed desires that therapy brings to the open, but that never truly go away? There is no way to know. But iin analyzing this painting, aren’t we analyzing ourselves (our neuroses, memories and repressed desires?). And isn’t this exactly what psychoanalysis is all about?
For an artist whose work is seen by many as eerie and eccentric, Magritte is a remarkably scholarly painter too, in my view. In showing some of his famous word/image experiments — like The Treachery of Images (aka Ceci n’est pas une pipe) — this exhibit also sheds light on what one could call Magritte’s ontological work, his methodical exploration of symbols, words, and meaning. His questioning of what is real — of the veracity of depictions of simple objects — has deep philosophical underpinnings, streams of which can be found across academic and artistic undercurrents, from existentialism to pop-art (Foucault’s book This is not a pipe is just one example).
The Magritte that comes out of this exhibit is a truly complete artist, whose tentacles are able to pull together different streams of thought into one coherent, meaningful and unique self. Maybe you already saw him in this manner. I certainly did not. But seeing him in a new perspective has certainly been my artistic epiphany of the year
“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938” Museum of Modern Art. New York, NY. September 28, 2013–January 12, 2014.