Yesterday, The Girlfriend and I went to the special exhibit on Magritte at the Art Institute. During our trip to Brussels, we had visited the Magritte Museum there, which unfortunately seemed to be a holding place for second-tier pieces and first drafts that other museums didn’t want. The quality of the exhibit in Chicago was much higher, but what it really brought home to me was the inherent limits to what Magritte is trying to do.
First of all, Magritte is technically proficient but indifferent as a painter. However interesting his pieces are as images, they are rarely interesting as paintings — it’s as though he chose painting as a medium simply for convenience. Once you get what he’s trying to do, which is often to make the very simplistic point that words and images are not the things themselves, there’s very little to hold one’s attention. I’m also not sure that the sheer existence of repeated motifs (such as the bowler cap) automatically makes them interesting or productive.
In the end, the only pieces that wound up really compelling me were the ones that were elaborate meta-commentaries on the act of painting itself. The Human Condition and Attempting the Impossible were two of my favorites, but for me the best was La Clairvoyance (also pictured above). I was already very familiar with this piece, as a former roommate had a print of it, but beyond the initial visual gag, I noticed a detail I had previously overlooked — the colors on the palette don’t match the black-and-white painting of the bird, but the colors of the surrounding painting itself.
The exhibition space itself was often awkward and unwieldy. Sometimes it seemed purposeful, above all in the room filled with displays of Magritte’s advertising and print work or the seemingly endless sequence of paintings hung on isolated partial walls, but often it just made it difficult to navigate and get a good look at the paintings. And to me, some of the literature surrounding it was patronizing and embarrassing — filled with quotes about how awesome it is that there’s “no right answer” when it comes to interpreting a Magritte painting.
If only it were so! But sadly, for a good 80% of the paintings on display, the “right answer” was immediately evident, and if you didn’t get it, it was pedantically repeated in five other canvases in the same room. I know that Magritte is a crowd-pleaser, but he’s also one of the roots of the contemporary “concept-heavy” art that middle-class audiences, bored with needing to read the description cards before responding, instinctively regard with such scorn.