Review by Kenn Taylor
The imagery of Belgian surrealist René Magritte has long become a part of popular culture. More importantly than that though, he can be said to be one of the artists who has had the most profound effect on how we perceive the world, his pioneering vision in painting expanding our capacity for what could be visually possible. This large retrospective at Tate Liverpool, the biggest in the UK since the 1980s, takes a thematic approach, split into sections that look at Magritte’s key preoccupations and the compositional and conceptual devices he used throughout his work.
Despite its thematic nature, the show starts chronologically with his early works such as The Menaced Assassin (1927), which depicts a scene of the aftermath of a murder, influenced by Magritte’s love of pulp fiction. It’s referential, uncanny nature and pale palette being features that would be seen throughout Magritte’s career. For all of his surrealism, there’s a definite humanity to Magritte’s work. The Flavour of Tears (1948) shown in duplicate, believed to have been made twice so a cash-poor Magritte could supply two interested collectors, shows a bird which is also a leaf being eaten by a caterpillar. It’s a striking piece of surrealism, but seems to touch on wider notions of life, death and the cycles of nature. Magritte also clearly had a sense of humour, and there is an element of mockery in some of his works, specifically from his Période Vache. In La Famine (1948) the Eiffel Tower is reduced to garish daubs and a French Policeman to a comic figure, apparently an attack on his alienation from the Paris surrealists.
It’s often been said that Magritte’s work wasn’t technically brilliant. Indeed there are finer hands to be seen, and admittedly only a few pieces look particularly more impressive in their original form than reproductions. But it is clear to see here that perhaps it is his easily reproduced graphic style that has aided his work in permeating visual culture so much.
The section Idiotic Works shows the rarely seen commercial work that over many decades helped keep Magritte afloat financially. Obviously by its nature this work is compromised from his vision, he apparently deeply resented having to do it, but hints of his surreal vision can be seen, such as in the advert for Distillerie Luxor Bruxelles Elixir Sus Advocaat (1935) where his sun and moon with faces dominate the space much more than the drink itself. There is also an adjacent selection of his photography and film. Some of this reflects many of his ideas in a different medium, showing a similar interest in perception and mystery, but the majority of it is quite forgettable.
At the heart of Magritte’s work was a challenge to conventional perception. This varied from visual tricks and puns, like the giraffe sitting in a wine glass in The Cut-Glass Bath (1949) to the more fundamental questioning of language and human communication, the flexibility of perception and reality and, ultimately the ‘freedom of mind’, a title of one his works.
Particularly resonant pieces include Panorama for the Populace (1926), its layers, a key concern for Magritte, revealing buildings beneath trees which themselves are beneath a beach. In The Key to the Fields (1936) meanwhile, perception is literally shattered, as a landscape painted on a window is seen broken into fragments, identical of course to the scene outside in ‘reality’.
A section called Fractured Nude examines Magritte’s work with the female form. It’s clear that, to him, the human body was just another object to be played with and manipulated, not to mention de-personalised. This is highlighted by Representation (1937) where the midriff of a woman, minus head and limbs is shown, the work’s frame tracing the outline of the body. The shape and line and our perception of it is everything for Magritte, even at the cost of the person.
The Dominion of Light (1952) featured in one of the final sections is powerful and simple as night and day are show co-existing and merging. Quiet, considered, crisp, surreal, funny, uncanny, making us examine what we perceive to be real; it seems to sum up Magritte. It’s more subtle than his well-known ‘Bowler Hat’ images, but perhaps more powerful and a good ending to the show.
Rather than appreciating the fine quality of viewing original works, it is rather seeing so much of his output gathered together that draws you deeper into the man and his work and the overriding impression you get is of his constant drive to question the bounds of perception and convention. We take such things for granted now, they’re common even in advertising, but Magritte was a pioneer in challenging was we perceive to be real.
This extensive and thoughtful show is well worth seeing for anyone who wants to look deeper into works that have perhaps been taken for granted, and into the life and work of a man who helped change what was possible in how we see the world.
René Magritte The Pleasure Principle runs until 16 October.
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The Menil Collection, Houston © HERSCOVICI, Brussels – 2011