Magritte Exhibition Chicago Explores the Man Under the Bowler Hat

Magritte Exhibition Chicago Explores the Man Under the Bowler Hat
Photographer unknown. René Magritte and Le Barbare (The Barbarian), 1938. Gelatin silver print; 18.8 × 25 cm (7 3/8 × 9 7/8 in.).

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, making its final stop in Chicago, after opening last September at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City before heading to the Menil Collection in Houston in February, opens today at the Art Institute of Chicago (through October 13, 2014).

The major exhibition focuses on the years 1926 through 1938 when Magritte was most prolific and innovative--the time when Magritte became Magritte.

Magritte went through a period of bold experimentation during these important years first working in Brussels (1926-1927).  Then he continued his work in Paris (1927-1930) where he joined Surrealist artists Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro, before returning to Brussels in late 1930.

His use of innovative tactics during this time, including displacement, transformation, the "misnaming" objects, metamorphosis and the representation of visions seen in half-walking states, cemented his reputation as one of the world's most prominent Surrealist painters.

In a 1938 lecture, “Lifeline” Magritte explained his journey to Surrealism saying “The pictorial experience confirms my faith in the unknown possibilities of life.”

The Art Institute's Regenstein Hall is the perfect showcase for this exhibition that features approximately 108 paintings, collages, drawings, and objects, along with a selection of photographs, periodicals, and early commercial work, that built the foundation for his artistic journey.

Canadian opera director Robert Carsen, who designed last summer's "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" at the AIC has created the perfect home for this collection.  The walls are painted a deep charcoal gray. The paintings are widely spaced--some even placed alone on a single wall.  The lights are dim while the paintings are illuminated making them pop from the dark background.

Here's a preview of four of Magritte's representative works from that period.

Time Transfixed

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). Time Transfixed (La Durée poignardée), 1938. Oil on canvas; 147 × 99 cm (57 7/8 × 39 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1970.426. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). Time Transfixed (La Durée poignardée), 1938. Oil on canvas; 147 × 99 cm (57 7/8 × 39 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1970.426. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

Perhaps, Magritte's most recognizable work, Time Transfixed, is also one of his greatest paintings on metamorphosis. Here, he takes the familiar and transforms it into a hallucinatory state creating surprise and alarm.  An interesting discovery was made while the painting was being prepared for the Chicago exhibition. When the painting was x-rayed, another painting, Spring Eternal, was found under Time Transfixed.

False Mirror

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). The False Mirror (Le Faux Miroir), 1928. Oil on canvas; 54 × 80.9 cm (21 1/4 × 31 7/8 in.). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). The False Mirror (Le Faux Miroir), 1928. Oil on canvas; 54 × 80.9 cm (21 1/4 × 31 7/8 in.). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

False Mirror looks at how we see reality--what's real what's not.  The blue sky and the white clouds--a theme in many of Magritte's works--asks us to ponder and question the reflection.

Not to be Reproduced

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). Not to be Reproduced (La Reproduction interdite), 1937. Oil on canvas; 81 × 65 cm (31 7/8 × 25 9/16 in.). Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). Not to be Reproduced (La Reproduction interdite), 1937. Oil on canvas; 81 × 65 cm (31 7/8 × 25 9/16 in.). Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

This example of doubling shows a perfectly clad subject standing in front of a mirror, yet he does not see his image. In other words, it is "Not to be Reproduced."

The Menaced Assassin

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). The Menaced Assassin (L'Assassin menacé), 1927. Oil on canvas; 150.4 × 195.2 cm (59 1/4 × 76 7/8 in.). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). The Menaced Assassin (L'Assassin menacé), 1927. Oil on canvas; 150.4 × 195.2 cm (59 1/4 × 76 7/8 in.). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

Early in his career, Magritte showed The Menaced Assassin, painted at age 29, in his first solo show in Brussels. The painting marks the first appearance of the impassive bowler-hatted men who were to become stock persona in his future works. The painting also recalls a crime scene from a popular silent movie of the era, adapted from the crime novel series, Fantomas.

Outside the Art Institute, Magritte is already making his mark in Chicago.

The quirky artist who's  known for making everyday objects "shriek out loud" is not surprisingly being heard loud and clear around town in many creative guises including: Macy's Street Store windows, promotional posters at Prime & Provisions Steakhouse, on the side of buses, in subways and more.

Methinks Magritte would like that.

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