The Mystery of the Ordinary: Magritte at the MoMA

The mystery of the ordinary is that things aren’t really ordinary at all. Inspected closely, even the most habituated objects of daily routine can take on fascinating or strange meanings and associations. René Magritte attached himself to the idea that once something is seen in a new light, it can’t very well be unseen. The 20th century Belgian painter was a master of this understanding, the possibilities of which underlie the very way in which we see and interact with the things and people making up everyday life. The MoMA’s exhibition, highlighting work done from 1926-1938, encapsulates the pre-war decade in which Magritte executes his mastery of displacement, transformation, metamorphosis, and the conscious misnaming of objects. These techniques maturate into the equipped Surrealist army which works to challenge our everyday notions of routine and assurance (assurance of the meanings of people and things, assurance of their significations and structures).[1]

This exhibition begins with paintings and collages Magritte created in Brussels in 1926 and 1927, in anticipation of and immediately following his solo exhibition at the Galerie Le Centaure- the exhibition that launched his career as Belgium’s leading, indeed only, Surrealist painter- and then follows him to Paris, where he lived from 1927 to 1930, to be closer to the movement’s center. It concludes in 1938, the year he delivered ‘La Ligne de Vie’ (‘Lifeline’), an autobiographical lecture that provided an account of his career as a Surrealist.[2]

By taking an ordinary object or scene and reconfiguring it, the skilled Surrealist pushes his viewer into a new dimension of sight, so that the viewer can return to everyday life and grapple with integrating this new vision with previous perceptions of reality. Perhaps even more successfully than some of his contemporaries whose paintings traipse the line between surreal and altogether unreal, Magritte transports us to a space that is just different enough from our own so as not to conflate the two and fall into realism; and yet the new reality’s marginal dissimilarity deeply challenges withstanding notions of perception and assurance.

The word ‘ordinary’ in the exhibition’s title doesn’t solely function in reference to quotidian objects, but extends to concepts. Magritte’s “Le Viol” or “The Rape” (1934) transforms woman’s face into body, rendering the horrors of objectification explicit by enabling it to take place in his painting, where one can’t help but objectify the face, since eyes have transformed to breasts and nose to navel. Not unlike rape itself, the subjection to objectification is forced; the viewer can’t not see or participate in the horror that is objectifying another. The process is twofold: to push the viewer into a new dimension of sight in order to imbue the return back to the quotidian with new and manifold meaning. Thus, the idea is not to keep objectifying, but to see the face of another in light of its potential for objectification. This work in part characterizes others he created during this time, work that is “at times violent, frequently disturbing, and filled with discontinuities.”[3]

Paintings like “La Fin Des Contemplations” (“The End of Contemplation,” 1927) and “Portrait of Paul Nougé” (1927) exemplify Magritte’s use of doubling, a technique of duplication where identical or slightly incongruous images are painted side by side as a reminder that “pictures of things are not the same as the things themselves.”[4] Magritte’s infamous “La Trahison des Images” (“The Treason of Images,” 1928-29) seeks to accomplish this through another sort of doubling between image and text, where the proclamation “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) evokes a similar tension between representation and experience. Word paintings like “La Clef des Songes” (“The Interpretation of Dreams,” 1936) unhinge objects from the reality constituted to them by their words and the associations these words carry, allowing for the radical freedom to reconstruct meaning in the quotidian.

“Painting,” Magritte said, “excites your admiration through the likeness of things the originals of which you do not admire.”[5] The invocation of the sur-real, that which is on or over the real, forces a rethinking of the real. As the two worlds are equivocated on the same plane, what we take for granted in the ordinary is elevated to a place bordering on the unbelievable while an otherworldly surreal reality is somehow normalized and made usual. The commonplace ascends to sanctification and the otherworldly demystifies; the intangible stretches of our imagination are made tangible. The exhibition not only reveals the mystery of the ordinary, but what is ordinary in the mysterious.

“Magritte: the Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” is on view at the MoMA at 11 West 53rd Street through January 12, 2014.

 – Amie Zimmer

All images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)





[5] Adieu à Marie, 1927



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