An opportunity to gain greater understanding of this giant of the 1900s, an artist that investigated the mysterious relationship between reality and how it was represented.
There are about 70 pieces on display, including works, photos, documents and memorabilia that retrace the stages of his artistic career from the early futurist period, in which we find for the first time a disruption of the traditional, static image, to the artist’s maturity of the ’20s and ’30s – for which he is universally known – in which Surrealism clearly steps forward.
We then reach the period called “vache” (cow), at the end of the 1940s, defined by rather grotesque contents, strident colours and a rapid brushstroke that was influenced by the contamination of popular culture. On show there are also the films he made during his cinematic experiments of the 1950s.
The title of the exhibition is that of a conference held in Antwerp in 1938. This was one of the few occasions in which the Belgian artist talked about his art and the artists who had inspired him, first of whom was De Chirico. In fact, the first time he saw The Song of Love, an emblematic work by the Italian painter, he was so impressed to say, “my eyes had seen thought for the first time”. This occurred around 1923, and all his subsequent artistic activity will be dedicated not to aesthetic research but to the representation of ideas. In this way the relationship between reality, image and thought was investigated, showing the impossibility of a true representation of reality.
Furthermore, the relationship between reality and image had already reached a breaking point at the end of the 19th century. Painters like Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne had begun to represent reality by filtering it through their personal visions, and then Picasso had decomposed the object to show us all 4 sides of the image. In a certain sense, Magritte is even more radical. He undermines the very idea of representation of reality, investigating the difference between what our eyes see, what images reproduce and what language says. More importantly, he shows reality while also insinuating doubt.
An emblematic piece is The Treachery of images (c. 1929), on a neutral background a pipe is depicted. Underneath, in French it reads “this is not a pipe”. Centuries of our habits towards the realistic image tell us that this is a pipe, but then our reasoning forces us to admit that it is an image and not the real object, highlighting the communicative paradox of the image. Therefore, the complicity between artist and observer is broken, the artistic fiction is revealed for what is self-deception and we discover what we have always known: the image is not reality. This fracture creates a sense of disorientation in the observer and forces him to look at reality with new eyes.
In The Human Condition, we see a picture placed in front of the window that perfectly overlaps the external landscape. It is a painting in the painting, only the edge of the canvas and the edge of the curtain show us that a part of the image is not a landscape but a reproduction of it. At first glance, the image deceives us.
Magritte alters reality to disturb the observer’s logical thinking while also disorienting their visual perceptions. The artist creates a real universe albeit full of enigmas (Beautiful Captive), or shows common objects placed outside their context or in a different matter from what we expect, as in The Natural Graces where green birds look like leaves – or are they leaves that look like birds?
Despite this mysterious content, there is a clear contrast with his flat and essential style that reveals his training as a graphic artist. The images are simplified, often trivial and anonymous. The stroke is clear and the contours are clean and precise with uniform colour. The simplicity of the image highlights the contents. The contrast between the clear image and its illogicality highlights the estrangement of the individual crushed by modern society. Lastly, Magritte’s work represents art of extraordinary actuality. In a society that bombards us with images, Magritte reveals the absurdity of it all, warning us to look further – because the images seem to show us the truth, but when we look harder, they are not reality. They deceive us.