‘Magritte'--This Is Not the Whole Picture


Thinking about “Rene Magritte: The Poetry of Silence,” which opened Tuesday at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art, I have to admit: I don’t much care about the Belgian Surrealist’s paintings. For me their greatest strength is the same as their principal weakness.

Magritte is pop culture with its pinkie raised. The carefully orchestrated mental pratfalls he painted between the 1920s and his death at 68 in 1967 are unthinkable without the era’s newly exploding world of mass culture. But his pictures are mostly just grandiloquent examples of it, which leaves you with renewed respect for the less pompous, often refreshing vulgarity of the real McCoy.

Organized by Hammer senior curator Elizabeth Shepherd, the small exhibition is largely drawn from the well-known Menil Collection in Houston. Thirty-three of the 47 paintings, sculptures and works on paper are from the Menil.

Paintings have also been borrowed from a variety of sources. One is from the nearby L.A. County Museum of Art (the famous “The Treachery of Images” of 1929, in which a slick picture of a pipe, painted as if a tobacconist’s sign, is paired with the contradictory statement “This is not a pipe,” written in French script). Another is from the collection of the important American artist Jasper Johns, whose own paintings since the 1950s show an interest in the visual and verbal conundrums of Magritte.

Johns has lent “The Interpretation of Dreams,” a small 1935 canvas divided into four quadrants, reminiscent of a child’s schoolroom tablet. Each quadrant holds a word paired with a picture: “the door” with a horse; “the wind” with a clock; “the bird” with a pitcher; and “the valise” with--well, a valise. The stark collisions between discordant visual and verbal languages create a mental train wreck. And when word and picture both appear to represent the same object--as in the case of the valise or the pipe--it can be quite disturbing to realize just how fragile our common assumptions about worldly understanding can be.


Literary Surrealist painting, including Magritte’s, was important because it helped reverse an artistic doctrine in place at least since the Renaissance. Images lie on the way to telling truths, his paintings said, contradicting the demand for unquestioning faith that had characterized so much art before the Modern era. If that’s a lesson also told by much of popular culture--and it’s worth pointing out here that Magritte made his principle living as a commercial artist--it further explains why the Belgian’s paintings have led a fruitful double life as mass-produced posters, greeting cards and such, as well as being the inspiration for countless advertisements and commercial logos.

Among the Menil works in the show are four large-scale bronze sculptures that derive from images represented in earlier Magritte paintings. I wish the object labels in the galleries were more forthcoming in identifying these sculptures, which the artist never laid eyes on. (There is no exhibition catalog, but an accompanying brochure mentions in passing that they were cast posthumously.) Although the artist was pretty far along in their conception at the time of his death, it’s too much to consider them as his finished sculptures.

The show wasn’t designed to be a scholarly undertaking, of course, nor meant to break new ground in understanding the Belgian artist’s difficult relationship to modern culture, in general, or to Parisian Surrealism, in particular. Instead, it’s a Populist entertainment.

Because of that, however, it ought to at least reflect a state-of-the-art survey. The show’s main disappointment is its conventional, out-of-date view of Magritte’s art.

A big, telling gap comes smack in the middle. The show begins with some of Magritte’s earliest paintings from the first half of the 1920s, with their youthful curiosity about Cubism, Futurist abstraction and other avant-garde art from the preceding generation. It concludes with some of his last paintings from 1966 (not to mention those problematic bronzes from the following year). But nothing in the show dates from between 1938 and 1948--a period of profound and growing crisis for Magritte.

Europe, of course, fell apart during those years. So did the seamless continuity of Magritte’s art.

He didn’t stop painting, although his production did dwindle and the path was hard. As Nazism ran rampant and the catastrophe of war expanded, Magritte moved away from the austerity of his paintings’ visual conundrums and slick realist style and toward what he called “sunlit Surrealism.” These included brushy, harlequin-colored variations on Renoir’s voluptuous, Impressionist nudes; fairy-tale-like visions of animals with human characteristics; and darkly comic images of extravagant inventiveness (in one, a peg-legged hobo trailed by a chicken marches through town, while a riotous sky of red and orange plaid looms above).

These strange and eccentric pictures were pretty much expunged from the established canon of Surrealist art, but they resurfaced in a big way in 1992. A sprawling retrospective of Magritte’s work traveled to London, New York, Chicago and Houston--an unexpected box-office hit that may have inspired the Hammer show--and a group of the rarely seen paintings from the 1940s were the talk of the exhibition.

Magritte’s critical fortunes have risen far in recent years, in part because his work represented the literary side of Surrealism. (At the Hammer, six American writers have been commissioned to create new poems inspired by Magritte’s paintings, in recognition of this literary kinship.) Surrealism’s abstract side, typified by the dazzling Modernist abstractions of Joan Miro, had long held the pinnacle; but the decline in favor of abstract painting since the 1970s, coupled with the powerful return of literary attitudes toward art, gave Magritte’s reputation a boost.

His bizarre, long-suppressed 1940s pictures suddenly shone as likely ancestors to Postmodern art. Their absence from the Hammer show diminishes its entertainment value--not because the missing period is necessarily great, but because it represents an inescapable development that can no longer be ignored.

* “Rene Magritte: The Poetry of Silence,” UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., (310) 443-7020, through Jan. 5. Closed Mondays.