Geneva Anderson digs into art

Summer Magic! An in-depth first examination of Magritte’s last 25 years: “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” at SFMOMA

René Magritte’s “Forethought” (1943) is one of 70 of the famous surrealist’s late artworks on view at SFMOMA through October 28, 2018. From his little known “sunlit period,” the painting depicts a quivering plant sporting a dozen or more different species of flowers all branching from a single, thick stem. The work’s debt to Impressionism is clear and deliberate but this seemingly joyful depiction quivers with unease.  Lender: Koons Collection. Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Think you know Magritte?  “Rene Magritte: The Fifth Season,” at SFMOMA is the summer exhibit to see.  The Belgium surrealist, who died in 1967, at age 68, always offers an intriguing puzzle.  His enduring popularity has pushed his once shocking imagery (pipes that aren’t pipes, bowler hats, floating boulders and green apples) into the realm of cliché.  SFMOMA has remedied that with an important exhibit that, for the first time, explores Magritte’s surprising late-career experimentation from the 1940s to the 1960s. The only venue is SFMOMA and more than 70 artworks are on display, many gathered together from foreign collectors and institutions for the first and likely only time, ever.  Twenty of these artworks have never been seen in the U.S. before.

Curated by Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA associate curator of painting and sculpture, the show fills the museum’s fourth floor galleries and is grouped thematically into six areas— Sunlit Surrealism and the Vache Period, The Human Condition, Hypertrophy, Bowler-Hatted Men, Enchanted Domain and the Dominion of Light, and Gravity and Flight.  Haskel does a magnificent job of presenting important ruptures in Magritte’s familiar style and his transition to arguably his greatest phase ever which was wildly imaginative, personal, and challenged his audience with perplexing and profound questions.

“This is a remarkable period of transformation and revitalization in Magritte’s work and the most complete presentation of his late work ever,” said Neil Benezra, SFMOMA director. “2018 also marks the 20th anniversary of our acquisition of our great Magritte painting, “Personal Values” (1952), made possible by Phyllis Wattis.  This is one of the cornerstones of our permanent collection and, in many ways; it served as the inspiration and genesis for this show.”

Sunlit Surrealism and Vache: together for the first time

René Magritte’s “The Fifth Season” (1943), painted to provoke an unsettled response. Lender: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique;  Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The exhibition begins in the 1943, right in the middle of WWII in Nazi-occupied Brussels with Magritte’s “sunlit surrealism” or Renoir period which lasted until roughly 1947.  Magritte was 44 and he had established himself as a Surrealist in the 1920-30’s, but amidst the war’s atmosphere of anxiety and fear, the movement’s radical aims suddenly felt incommensurate with the times.  Magritte began a period of questioning, both politically and philosophically, and experimenting.  Inspired by the late paintings of Renoir, Magritte worked in a pastiche of Impressionism, but with broken brushstrokes and warmer, more luminous colors with swirling scenes that almost have a sense of fantasy in the way they are constructed—a deliberate parody of Impressionism.  His 1943 painting, “The Fifth Season,” from which the exhibit takes its name, is a prime example.  This is the first time the work has been shown in the US and several of the exhibit’s themes coalesce in this single painting.

Magritte pairs heavy, crude Renoir-like brushstrokes with two standbys from his earlier work in the 1930’s—frames within the frame and men in bowler hats. The paintings within the painting, carried under the two men’s arms, are painted in the same style as the primary scene; one is a dense forest landscape and the other is a blue sky with clouds in it.  The bowler-hatted bourgeois gentlemen in dark suits about to cross paths each evoke alter-egos of Magritte but they are different, odd.

“We’ve been using the Instagram analogy,” writes SFMOMA’s Lily Pearsall, curatorial project manager of painting and sculpture. “It’s almost like he’s applying a filter, saying, ‘Here’s my composition, and now I’m going to apply Renoir.’  And by adding these filters, either the sunlit or the vache, Magritte is provoking the viewer and interrogating their response to both the style and content of these images.”

In his 1943 painting, “The Harvest,” a reclining female nude in front of a window, a familiar Renoir composition, is wildly emboldened with bright bands of flowing colors so that she is psychedelic.

René Magritte’s “The Harvest” (1943).  Lender: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique; Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Brussels

What was Magritte up to?  That’s a question that is still being debated.  The show’s catalog has two essays looking at the sunlit and the vache periods together, and one of the authors leans more on the side of them being sincere, and the other reads them more as pastiche or parody.

René Magritte’s “Seasickness” (1948).  Private lender; Photo:©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Magritte’s vache paintings (1947-8) marked a second, shorter-lived period of provocative experimentation.  Magritte churned out garish paintings with bright colors and unruly crude brushwork that parodied Fauvism and Expressionism.  He made a series of scornful statements against Surrealism  and condemned the Nazi party’s highly successful proliferation across Europe, which had upstaged the surrealists as the ultimate absurdity.  In French, “vache” is literally “cow” but this is from the French “vacherie” or “nastiness” and refers to Magritte’s treading a line between vulgarity and coarseness.  His “Seasickness” from 1948 is enough to make one seasick.

“He was actually posing questions about taste and what is good and bad and asking viewers to contend with these pictures,” says Haskell. “They are not easy in any way. They are very deeply theorized, beautiful in the way post-modern pictures are.”

René Magritte’s “Lyricism” (1947). Photo: Geneva Anderson


Hypertrophy works: “Personal Values” as centerpiece

René Magritte’s “Personal Values” (1952).  SFMOMA, Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Just as abruptly as Magritte’s departure into bad taste began, it ended.  The 1950s found him returning to his signature style of painting but stepping out further conceptually, creating provocative works that prompted the viewer to question relationships within the material world.  Magritte’s work in this decade is characterized by “hypertrophy,” a jarring alteration of scale among familiar objects to create an unnerving effect.

An entire gallery has been devoted to “Personal Values” (1952), the conceptual centerpiece of the show, and to four additional exemplary paintings making this the most complete presentation of his hypertrophy works to date.  Highlights are two versions of “The Listening Room” (1952 and 1958), “The Anniversary” (1959), and “The Tomb of the Wrestlers” (1960).  In each of these paintings, an everyday object—a granny smith apple, a boulder, a red rose—has been enlarged to a grotesque size, filling an entire room from floor to ceiling.  Or???  Is it the room that has been miniaturized and the apples, boulder and rose are actually normal?  Always presenting a puzzle, Magritte’s message is unclear.  He’s gone well beyond a critique of the age-old painting convention of filling a room with furniture, or ornament.  We can deduce that space is sacred, it is Magritte’s final frontier—is it never empty or abstract and it is not what it seems.  In “Personal Values,” in particular, it is fascinating to ponder the placement, alignment and space between or overlap of each of the oversized objects as well as their individual textures.


Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA associate curator and Charly Herscovici, President of the Brussels-based Magritte Foundation, with Magritte’s “The Tomb of Wrestlers” (1960).  It took Haskell three trips to Belgium and numerous letters to the private lender to get it to SFMOMA where she had a special niche constructed in the gallery wall to further protect the beloved artwork. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Is this rose not a rose because Magritte named this 1960 painting “The Tomb of the Wrestlers”?  A perplexing title for a painting of a red rose trapped inside a room.  He borrowed the title from Léon Cladel’s 1879 novel, Ompdrailles, le-tombeau-des-lutteurs. (1960).  Magritte always asserted that his titles, despite appearances, fit his pictures perfectly.  He chose his titles carefully, sometimes with the help of friends, listing alternate ones until the most suitable title presented itself.  He was not concerned with representation or pictorial fidelity to the original image.  Private lender. Photo© Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York.

This gallery also features examples of Magritte’s delightful painted wine bottles.  “The Curvature of the Universe” (1950) features one of his most alluring recurring motifs, a blue sky with billowy white clouds.

Dominion of Light and The Enchanted Domain

Knowing that Magritte was very interested in creating immersive spaces inspired the SFMOMA team to create a gallery experience that allows you to literally enter Magritte’s world.  Charly Herscovici, President of the Brussels-based Magritte Foundation swooned is “this is magnificent” and “the best” he’s seen in his 38 year career.

An installation view of René Magritte’s “The Dominion of Light” at SFMOMA. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The haunting “Dominion of Light” is the most iconic composition of Magritte’s late work.  This is a theme Magritte explored again and again from 1949-1965, creating 27 landscapes in oil and gouache, all titled “Dominion of Light” and all focused on versions of a mysterious street view.  The lower portions of all these paintings feel like night and depict the front of a house and trees ensconced in a darkness that is barely penetrated by a gas lamp.  The upper portions all feel like day with a glowing blue clouded sky.  Previously, no more than two of these paintings have been exhibited together.  SFMOMA brings together a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of six of these paintings, enabling the viewer to experience different versions in their broad context for the first time ever.  This is something that even Magritte was not able to experience in his own lifetime.

René Magritte’s “The Dominion of Light II,” (1950) from his “Dominion of Light” series. Digital Image: (c) MoMA/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource

The way compositions were painted allowed the curatorial team to put horizontal and vertical paintings side by side but hang them at various heights so that the street lamps are all on one level.  As you walk into the space, you experience stunning modulations of light and dark and the foreground will recede while the sky comes forward and you will begin to see gates, doors, boulders and all sorts of interesting elements.  The ultramarine walls and curved gallery space enhance this magical experience.  Conceptually, all sorts of questions are raised by the simultaneity of daylight and darkness.  Can light co-exist with darkness, good with evil?  What about the co-existence of natural and artificial light?  When we think we see clearly, by what light are we seeing, who controls the light?

Enchanted Domain:

Installation view “The Enchanted Domain,” at SFMOMA.

“The  Enchanted Domain” offers another very bizarre Magritte world to inhabit.  It reunites eight paintings that have not been seen together for 20 years.  Originally commissioned for a circular room in the Grand Casino in Knokke, Belgium, Magritte’s circular panoramic mural from 1953 is by far his largest work at 236 feet in circumference.   Sprung right from Magritte’s psyche, this is an imaginary “enchanted domain,” that incorporates his most popular motifs—lofty sky, desert, apples and abstract geometric patterns.  He created eight oil paintings (at a scale of 1:6 ⅓) that set out the narrative for this masterpiece and four are on display at SFMOMA, hung on a curved surface, giving an approximate sense of a wrap-around continuous mural.

René Magritte’s “The Enchanted Domain I” (1953).  Würth Collection, Künzelsau, Germany; photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

SFMOMA’s installation exemplifies one of the major themes of the exhibit—Magritte perfected a set of Surrealist symbols and used them over and over throughout his career.  An example:  In “Personal Values” (1952), the sky seems to wrap around the painting creating a sense that the room dissolves into a fantasy world.  In “The Enchanted Domain mural, the circular blue cloudy sky on the casino ceiling serves a similar purpose.

Bowler-Hatted Men

René Magritte’s “Son of Man” (1964).  Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Bowler hatted men were a recurring motif that Magritte painted in various forms more than 50 times between 1926 and 1966.   In the 1950’s and beyond, they became so closely associated with the artist that they were understood as Magritte himself, his alter-ego. “Son of Man” (1964) may be the most beguiling portrait of the twentieth century or ever,” said Haskell. “What I love about this work is that it sets your mind questioning.  You think you know who this very bourgeois man in bowler is and yet because of the placement of the apple, you are constantly wondering what is behind it.  We see in this self-portrait from 1964 that Magritte is positioning himself in a way that’s very different from our understanding of the existential self-expressive artists of this period.”

Play time!  SFMOMA’s Magritte Interpretive gallery

Don’t skip the fun…selfies in Magritte Interpretive Gallery, at the conclusion of the show.  SFMOMA is hands down the Bay Area leader in engaging tech for wonderful and creative audience experiences. frog, a leading SF global design and strategy firm, has created six interactive immersive Magritte experiences that allow you playfully explore themes of the show and walk away with some great pics.

Allow plenty of time for this show; it’s crowded and set-up to make you think.  You’ll want to study and enjoy these masterpieces and take time to try and decipher the stories within stories and walk back and forth between galleries to track certain motifs.

Details: “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” ends October 28, 2018 at SFMOMA on the 4th floor. Tickets: $33 ($25 general admission and $8 special exhibition surcharge).  Advance purchase of timed tickets is recommended.  A limited number of special exhibition tickets are available for on-the-spot purchase daily but there is no guarantee of availability.  The exhibit is crowded plan accordingly.  For $100, you can join SFMOMA and all exhibits all year are free.  For hours, directions, parking tips, click here.

August 21, 2018 - Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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