This Brain-Teasing MoMa Exhibit Will Challenge Your Reality

Bold, flat colors in large planes, as in posters and advertisements, have typically suggested ease of accessibility. Herein lies the irony apparent throughout Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 which opened at the Museum of Modern Art last Saturday. The exhibit is a fine slice of René Magritte’s early Surrealist work—a selection of paintings from a single decade early in his career that welcome the viewer with fetching simplicity and, having captivated him or her, ooze of the peculiar, bizarre, and grotesque.

This ability to beguile and unsettle in a quick turn was one Magritte mastered as both a painter and a graphic designer. His work in advertising is not touched upon by curator Anne Umland—unsurprising given that the pleasure here lies in puzzling over hidden meanings, not in any mastery of the medium. Nor is the exhibit particularly illuminating on the circumstances of the Surrealist movement as a whole. The artist's more famous works were demystified long ago, and for this reason the exhibit will be most pleasurable for those looking to contextualize a basic understanding of Magritte within his own early history, and not those looking to understand his place within the Surrealist movement or art history more generally.

Magritte’s signature paintings, such as the Treachery of Images (above) and The Human Condition (below), are emblematic of his challenging of painting's ability to reflect reality. In the former, an image of a pipe is accompanied by text declaring “This is not a pipe.” As Magritte later wrote, “Who could smoke the pipe from one of my paintings? Nobody. Hence it is not a pipe.” The Human Condition illustrates a canvas in the foreground depicting a country scene that blends seamlessly into the surrounding background, demonstrating the duplicity of images—how they can obscure what they intend to reflect.

For those somewhat familiar with Magritte, these more famous pieces will not be any more revealing in person; rather, the exhibit satisfyingly contextualizes the artist within his own oeuvre. The exhibit also works to exemplify Magritte’s fascination with the relationship between mechanical reproduction, inherent in photography, and painting.  The former is easily produced in the same form an endless number of times while the latter requires meticulous attention to detail and can never be precisely recreated. Josef Helfenstein of The Menil Collection in Houston, one of the co-organizers of the exhibit, explains how “the role of photography, the role of mechanical reproduction, and the threat to painting is part of what Magritte was interested in.”

What is astonishing about the exhibit is that the decade of work on display is not contextualized within the Surrealist movement. Helfenstein explains that Magritte’s aim, in line with the Surrealists, was to “liberate the mind, to undo the prison that language and image have been put in.” But the exhibit does not elaborate upon how the Surrealist efforts to reject meaning, to aspire to the quality of dreams and irrationality, was dripping with historical significance. The entire movement grew from a rejection of common truths as a direct result of the horrific meaninglessness of World War I. And it is this history that makes Magritte’s effort, in his own words, to “make everyday objects shriek aloud” truly disturbing.

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary opened on Saturday, September 28 and runs through January 12, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art.