Réne Magritte: Unveiling the Mystery in Chicago




The 20th century Belgian Surrealist, Réne Magritte once said, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” Réne Magritte produced some of the 20th century’s most unexpected and unforgettable images in his time.

Magritte, the familiar image of the man in a black bowler hat looks out to the viewer. He beckons from the other side of the frame, engaging all who gaze, to join “the phantasmagorical world of his art.”

The Art Institute of Chicago presents Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-1938 from June 24 through October 13, 2014. The exhibit surveys the artist’s most exceptionally imaginative and avant-garde years. With over 100 works on show, visitors will view collages, paintings, drawings, and objects. Also on view are periodicals, photographs, and early commercial works that follow the origin of Magritte’s ideas and methodologies that Magritte applied throughout his extensive career – and what make his artwork extraordinary now.

Réne Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium in 1898. From the age of 12, the young Magritte developed a love for Fantômas films, Edgar Allan Poe and painting. After the suicide of his mother, he moved to Brussels to study at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

In 1926, Magritte sought to produce artwork that would, “challenge the real world” and he did. The artist created logic-defying paintings and collages that brought together elements of domestic items, landscapes and figures – men in bowler hats, female nudes – in staged settings. Singularly, each element was clear. However, when Magritte integrated the items and changed the dimensions, it had quixotic proportions, giving viewers pause.

The artist splintered “social norms and perceptual givens” in his pursuit of shifting the world’s perceptions. In 1927, he had a debut solo exhibit in Brussels at the Galerie la Centaurie. The show was a failure, according to the critics who described it as “cavernous” wherein numerous paintings were displaying bizarre scenes, with hints of eroticism. One such painting was The Menaced Assassin that portrayed a questionable possibility – a “vaudeville of violence.” However, it made the right people stand up and take notice.


After the Brussel’s show, Magritte traveled to Paris where he met other Surrealists as Salvador Dali, Joan Miró and André Breton. It was in the City of Lights where he created his first innovative paintings such as The Beneficial Promise or The Meaning of Night. Nevertheless, he was always on the periphery, and never assimilated so he returned to Brussels in 1930 where he continued his exploration of new imagery. Three years later, he began a series of paintings that provoked disturbing and unexpected associations between things that make the ordinary and daily life strange such as Collective Invention and Rape.

The Chicago exhibit concludes with Magritte in 1938 when two monumental events occurred in his artistic career.  British collector and poet, Edward James, commissioned Magritte to create three large paintings for the ballroom in his London residence which included La Reproduction Interdite (Not To Be Reproduced), Le Model Rouge (The Red Model ) and La Durée Poignardée (Time Transfixed). It was a critical turning point for the artist.

Secondly, with Europe on the brink of World War II, Magritte delivered his noted biographical lecture, La Ligne de Vie or Lifeline, a retrospective account wherein he evaluated his own growth and feats on what made him a Surrealist artist.

Continuously concerned about finances, the artist “mass-produced” editions of marketable paintings from his past in the 1940s. Fortunately, his early artwork had already secured him a place in the history books. Réne Magritte lived long enough to realize his significance in the art world when he was defined as a forerunner of Pop Art.

The Chicago exhibition reflects on Magritte’s most prolific years when his bold, almost cheeky experimentation bolstered his standing as a leading Surrealist artist. He applied everything from transformation to metamorphosis, constantly disturbing the balance between the natural world and artifice, fact and fiction, reality and surrealism. He was influential in the shift of surrealism to the Pop Art movement. Réne Magritte pushed the viewer to delve deeper into what they saw before them, to unveil the mystery, and look at what the image truly represented.

By Dawn Levesque

Museum of Modern Art
The New York Times