Friday, September 20, 2013


MOMA is opening the fall season next week with a BANG:   Rene Magritte's oeuvre comes to Manhattan.

This banal looking Belgian bourgeois has left us with many questions and few answers.  Even in his writings he remains a brilliant enigma.  Likewise his paintings are very uneven if one wants to compare his iconic works with his Periode Vache which represents a waste of time.  His almost Churchillian "Ceci n'est pas une pipe'' could be applied to him:  ''Ceci n'est pas un peintre.''  His painting is flat, like the work of some house painter. There is no brush, no life, no human input almost.  Nevertheless, we continue to be mesmerized and destabilized by works which defy gravity and logic. He confronts us with fear and alienation by sheer luck, almost disposing of inhibtions, recreating situations which collide without external damage.  The fear he conveys is one of silent movie reels, mass rallies, nightmares.  Robert Hughes spoke about this "dark" aspect with an authority few can equal.

Magritte's work is hypnotic and needs to be read as much as to be seen. One shouldn't look for the sophisticated recreation of the great masters. On the contrary, this work rejects the magnifying lens and rejects proximity.  The paintings are stories which feel more at home in voyeurism than in observation. This small, predictable artist was closer to Chaplin than to Eisenstein.  His force is subversive. So was his persona, which was able to make the banal the ultimate camouflage for Freudian nightmares. The kiss between the couple, mutually inaccessible because of the cloth which separates them, is one of the most disturbing works created. Magritte could not have painted the raw horror of "Guernica" or the bacchanalia of  "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."  His small suburban house was too tiny to let the sound of war or orgasm roam through the banal neighborhood which cushioned and protected him. No, his world was closer to the novels of this other genial Belgian, George Simenon, who was diabolically able to make the soup served taste like devil's brew.

The comparison has been made between Magritte and his fellow countryman Marcel Broodthaers.
Both used the canon as a totem. The difference being that Magritte's has no ammunition while Broodthaers' was ready to fire. While I was in China I tried to have a Broodthaers installation in Tienanmen.  The Chinese refused. This proves that the subtitles of conceptual art are better understood than what many imagine.  Magritte's work is ominously silent, slow in arrested movement, shy of the ultimate deadly bite or corrosion. Those body parts, mountains, birds, looming destruction are always taken hostage before they fall apart or dissolve. He tiptoes around catastrophe and decay and leave us alone with the fury which is in waiting. We are free to look at the snapshot or to project the imminent soul quake which is a fraction of a second away. This collective work is cruel behind the banal surface and leaves no room for compassion. The floating umbrella men are no Mary Poppins, they are Armageddon. The absence of reference to the waging war remains an enigma.

Undoubtedly the images of this perverse Weltanschaung will benefit the sale of paper bags and wall paper for the innocents who in their vast majority ignore the meaning of this highly toxic wrapping. Magritte always has the last laugh.

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