Magritte at MOMA: Ceci est incongru (This is incongruous)

Magritte likes to play with the viewer: he plays with representation, contrasting text and image; and plays with the titles of his works, giving titles that are often unrelated to his paintings. Magritte doesn’t provide any narrative, but represents a mood instead, according to the exhibition audioguide.

The MOMA show includes the famous Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images), showing a pipe, below which Magritte has written, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”, French for “This is not a pipe.” He contrasted representation vs. reality: Magritte said “who could smoke a pipe from one of my paintings?”; “(…) hence it is not a pipe”. Magritte is still playful while raising the notion that what you see is not necessarily real. The ultimate example is in La Clairvoyance depicting the artist looking at an egg but painting an eagle!

Magritte plays with representation, replacing images with words. The artist makes us imagine what is depicted by words: human beings, objects, noises (“cris d’oiseaux” i.e. calls of birds), sensation and feeling (“personnage perdant la mémoire” = character suffering memory loss, “femme triste” = sad woman). He makes us doubt about the meaning of words nevertheless. In ‘Les Mots et les images’, he argued we can find another word which would correspond better to the object!

Magritte also gave mysterious titles to his works, which often bear no direction relation to the visuals. Some of his titles were “figurative” but in most of them, Magritte wanted to create a mystery, in addition to the mystery of the representation. As the MOMA Learning website explains, Magritte’s titles often defy explanation, challenging the viewer to form his or her own interpretations. Magritte once wrote to explain his preference for cryptic titles: “We must be careful to avoid—as far as possible—titles that lend themselves too easily to stupid interpretations.”

He experimented with papiers collés in his 1926 paintings. He may have been inspired by cubist Braque who invented the papiers collés (paper cut outs) in 1912. Picasso and Braque pasted pieces of newspapers, wallpapers, and faux wood-grain on their still-lifes, revolutionising cubist paintings (see my post on Georges Braque at the Grand Palais, in French). Magritte added music sheets to his paintings, from the vocal score for The Girls of Gottenberg, a 1907 English musical comedy. Nocturne is a beautiful example. Words on Magritte paintings may also be inspired by Picasso and Braque’s block letters on their canvases.

I think Magritte was not particularly gifted at the depiction of human figures but like Chagall, Magritte had his signature motifs, which he mastered. For instance, many of his paintings feature “grelots” (sleigh bells) and “bilboquets”, which resemble table legs and represent trees or human characters, depending on the painting. Repetition is a characteristic of some Magritte paintings, which I think inspired contemporary Chinese artist Yue Minjun.

The MOMA exhibition displays well how Magritte works were incongruous, irrational and fun. Magritte holds a special place in my heart, the Jeu de Paume exhibition in Paris in 2003 was the first exhibition I saw after my visit to the Uffizi, which sparked my passion in art. Many works shown at the current exhibition come from the Menil Collection in Houston, which I learnt is the largest privately assembled collection of Magritte works in the world. ‘Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-1938’ is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until January 13, 2014; February 14 – June 1, 2014 at the Menil Collection; and at the Art Institute of Chicago from June 24–October 13, 2014.


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