A girl devours a bird; feet morph into shoes; a nude female torso reads as a face. “René Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” the Art Institute of Chicago’s summer blockbuster, showcases the most important period of the Surrealist who precisely painted a new and disturbing reality. The exhibition is a collaboration between Houston’s Menil Collection, MoMA and the AIC.
It has a narrow focus—just a dozen years—when Magritte painted his “breakthrough” images. (The floating bowler-hatted men with umbrellas were later.) But many of his most famous pictures are here: ones that defined Surrealism and modern art, such as “The Treachery of Images” (“Ceci n’est-pas une pipe”) and “The Lovers” (a kissing couple with shrouded heads). Even though Magritte’s paintings operate as illustrations—he was a professional illustrator, after all—this show restores their status as paintings rather than as posters or jpegs. The works’ scale may surprise, as will the immaculate strokes and the saturated colors.
The maze-like galleries are exceptionally dark, suggesting a dream world. The artworks are divided up into the cities—Brussels and Paris—where Magritte spent this period. A long row of freestanding walls on which hang single paintings recalls the Surrealist exhibition layouts by Duchamp and Dalí. Here are several striking works from private collections, many not often seen, such as “Black Magic,” from 1934, and “Clairvoyance,” from 1936. Another gallery is playfully scattered with packing crates that display ephemera, photographs and books illustrated by Magritte.
Magritte’s large-scale paintings for the mansion of the colorful English poet and patron Edward James are hung together for the first time since they were separated. The show concludes with Chicago’s own “Time Transfixed,” a small train emerging from a fireplace. Like many of the paintings in the show, it hangs alone, brilliantly lit and surrounded by darkness. For all its absurdity, Surrealist art tends to evoke reverence.
The exhibition complements the Art Institute’s exceptionally rich collection of Surrealist-era art. (Now would be a good time to revisit it in the Modern Wing.) Escape the banal sun of a Chicago summer and discover the “reality” of Magritte’s art hauntingly presented. (Mark Pohlad)
Through October 13 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.