This Is Not an Article About René Magritte

An interview with Curator Gisela Fischer, discussing ‘The Pleasure Principle’: René Magritte takes the Albertina in November

L’Esprit de géométrie (The Spirit of Geometry, 1937), on display at the Albertina | Photo: Albertina

“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”
René Magritte

What happens when we are faced with a painting of an object that denies itself? A pipe that says it’s not a pipe or a man whose face is not a face? What happens when we encounter an instance of something so contrary to intuition that it invokes both the fantastic and the grotesque? A heavy rock floating in mid-air, a giraffe peering out from inside a wine glass, and an apple hovering over a headless man?

When we look at a painting like this, we can discover places in our minds that latch onto the mystery and wonder of what we see; and that encounter can leave our sense of what we know profoundly, undeniably changed.

René Magritte is one such artist, defiant proofs of what it means to stretch the limits of human imagination. This November, the Albertina will present 300 paintings, drawings, films and photographs, many little known and rarely exhibited, organized in collaboration with the Tate Liverpool.

Curator Gisela Fischer sees the exhibition’s strength as the focus on the variety of methods used by Magritte, and the Albertina will distribute his works through thirteen chapters, each focusing on a method and a theme.

The Albertina itself owns only one Magritte painting, but since Surrealism and its ideas are strongly connected to the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Fischer thinks that focusing in Vienna makes historical sense. Surrealism linked the psychoanalytic idea of the fantastic with the grotesque, for instance, attempting to pry habits of thought loose from the shackles of rationality and traditional norms and customs.

Magritte, however, always denied any Freudian interpretations of his work.  Fischer provides an explanation for this as she talks about common misperceptions.

“People tend to regard the objects in his paintings as symbols for other ideas and thoughts. This is misguided. Magritte wanted to separate the normal meaning of everyday objects. The objects are not symbols; They just are.”

A founder of the Surrealist movement in Belgium, Magritte  acquired a distrust of tradition and sought to retrieve the magic in art that he had encountered in his childhood. In some sense, the entire role he played in Surrealism was to rediscover what art could mean.

Magritte was also disdainful of artists that paid too much attention to technique.

“This is not to say, of course that he didn’t possess the skills. He just felt that too much focus on techniques made artists lose the heart of their ideas.”

The Albertina’s inclusion of his drawings provides evidence of the superiority of his technical skills. Magritte consciously tried to experiment in ways that were different from everything else that he knew.

Fischer also explains that Magritte was preoccupied with trying to understand, through depiction, the essential mystery of the world and the objects within it.

“He was searching for some way to express the mysteriousness that he experienced in his everyday life. It stems from a sense of awe and magic. He never really found it though; he never really found an answer or an explaining principle.”

Magritte himself is reported to have said that art was not an end in itself but a means of evoking mystery. One of his signature moves was the juxtaposition of every day objects in counter-intuitive ways.  Elements usually appearing in his paintings present a sudden contrast to each other, or a sense of abrupt displacement.

One of the paintings shown at the exhibition is Magritte’s Dominion of Light. Though it appears to be a real-life nocturnal landscape and a sky during daytime, Magritte wanted the landscape to help the viewer experience both night and day. In his opinion, it was the simultaneity of day and night that possessed the power to hypnotize its audience; “… I call this power, poetry,” he said.

Two other iconic paintings that will be on display are The Glass Key, a painting of a gigantic rock hanging motionless in mid-air over a mountainous landscape; and Le Château des Pyrenées, showing a similar rock hanging in mid-air over the sea. This defiance of the laws of nature, the experience of the fantastic and the deeply mysterious form the core of Magritte’s paintings.

Regarding his famous painting The Treachery of Images in his “Ceci n’est pas …” series, also on display at the Albertina, Magritte famously said:

“The famous pipe …? I’ve been reproached enough about it! And yet … can you fill it? No, it’s only a depiction, isn’t it. If I had written ‘This is a pipe’ under my picture, I would have been lying!”

In contrast, the Albertina is also showing a lesser-known painting titled Ceci est un morceau de fromage which depicts a painting of a piece of cheese trapped beneath a glass cover on a cheese board. What one sees is not the cheese itself, but a painting that depicts a painting of a piece of cheese. This connection between words and images, and between the viewed object and the viewer remained the central focus for Magritte until his death in 1967.

Fischer’s favourite painting in the exhibition is The Secret Player, a 1927 painting that shows two men playing an apparently serious game resembling baseball. A strange birdlike object hovers above them and the painting of a woman wearing a mask rests subtly in the background.

“I like this painting because it shows the complexity of Magritte: It appears to be a game, and yet there is something deeply sinister about it. It makes one think, ask questions. He was a painter of ideas.”

The Albertina is also exhibiting what are sometimes called Magritte’s “dirty pictures” from the Madame Edwarda series; as presented in the Tate’s exhibition titled “The Pleasure Principle.” These are racy, erotic illustrations done in 1946 for Georges Bataille’s short story Madame Edward and are seldom displayed.

In addition, his dabblings in photography, illustrations that Magritte did for fashion houses and magazine, posters for movies and advertisements and designs for postage stamps will all be on display – an experience of the truly fantastic and a chance to experience a sudden inversion of what one knows.

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