It is easy to regard René Magritte as a much better image-maker and inventor of visual and verbal conundrums than he was a painter. Certainly, many of his works look better in reproduction than they do in the flesh, if flesh it is. (It is an almost Magrittean fact that painters can call paint flesh, coloured mud a face, a few brushstrokes a tree.)
A plodding and sometimes self-regarding technical dreariness blights several of the surrealists: Dalí, Ernst and the awful, slithery Yves Tanguy. Actual encounters with their paintings are often a letdown. The startling image is the thing. In surrealism, radical and upsetting images go hand-in-hand with pictorial conservatism.
Magritte's paint does its job, no more, no less. It records and describes, whether it is a windowsill, a view, a room and the people and things in it, a steam train emerging from a fireplace and the clock on the mantelpiece stuck at twenty to one. It must be lunchtime, unless it's gone midnight. Sometimes in Magritte it is hard to tell. The lamps are lit in the darkened suburbs, but there is broad daylight in the sky above.
With Magritte, even the bland Belgian sky becomes something other: a sky dreaming of itself in the plainest blue, in his favourite greys and white. One painting of an inoffensive sky is called The Curse. Magritte is asking us not what is in the sky, but what unseen thing is impending. He coaxes it in to the viewer's mind.
His decision to paint in an utterly conventional, inexpressive, even illustrational manner was as conscious and deliberate as his dress and habits: the bowler hat, the overcoat, his affectation of the suburban lifestyle of the French-speaking Belgian petit bourgeois. In fact he was always a political rebel, an anti-fascist (and there were plenty of fascists about in Belgium, even before the war). After the second world war he joined the Belgian communist party. Magritte's best disguise was being himself.
Sometimes something unexpected – even for a surrealist – slipped out, particularly during and just after the war. It was then he embarked on a kind of sickly pseudo-impressionism, with depictions of women licking and fondling themselves (these images may have owed something to Francis Picabia), followed by his repulsive and wonderfully coarse "Vache" (cow) paintings. These were a joke about the Fauve painters, who thought of themselves as "wild beasts". They were a retort to the snooty Parisian art world and to surrealism itself, from whose ranks Magritte felt he had been excommunicated.
The Vache paintings erupt from Magritte's oeuvre, as they do from Tate Liverpool's exhibition, like a fart in church. Daft, cartoonish and lumpen, they have a particular Belgian humour. They also allow Magritte to laugh at himself. In Ellipsis, a green-headed man wearing a Magritte bowler (with an eye in its crown) has a rifle for a nose, ping-pong eyeballs and one hand that seems to be disembodied. Somehow, this is not surrealism. The Vache paintings, long out of fashion, as well as beyond the pale, have been admired by younger artists for years. Meanwhile, while the Magritte everyone knows remains untouchable, an influence only on advertisers, philosophers such as Michel Foucault, and essay-writing psychoanalysts keen to unravel his mysteries.
Myth and his mother's suicide
There is a lot of unpleasantness and goings-on of one sort or another in Magritte's art. It's not all giant apples filling the attic, wine bottles turning into carrots, or pictures of a pipe that is not a pipe. There is more to him than skies raining bowler-hatted gents over Brussels streets. There is, for instance, the bloodied, murdered woman in The Menaced Assassin; and the corseted woman wearing the peculiar surgical mask and standing in the cupboard, in the corner of The Secret Player, with its men playing baseball and a decapitated turtle swimming through the garden. There is the philosopher whose phallic nose delves into the pipe he's smoking; and the lovers with swaddled heads, kissing through the silk (a memory, perhaps, of the artist's mother, who drowned herself when Magritte was 14, her body bought ashore with her nightdress tangled around her head, her corpse exposed).
Whether Magritte ever saw her body, or heard secondhand how she had been found, or just invented the scene (I know from experience what can go on in the mind of an adolescent who has suddenly lost his mother), the shocking image of his mother's suicide – she had tried before – became an enduring myth in his art. It is also the sort of thing critics use to explain the inexplicable in an artist's work.
Magritte had real imagination, turbo-charged in flight from childhood trauma. But Magritte can be boring, too, the surreal and uncanny becoming no more than a stock-in-trade. He painted continually – more than 200 paintings in a few years during the late 1920s – and inevitably some of them are duds: a recycling of motifs rather than repetitions born of obsession. Other repetitions – of faces, types, the shuffling of things and the names we give them – seem products of genuine anxiety.
Surrealism's shock value has now almost gone, diluted by advertising and the movies, by literature and poems and pop, let alone the nightly assaults of our dreams. The everyday of modern living is itself absurd. Magritte, like Dalí, has become one of surrealism's poster boys. With a few notable exceptions – Méret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington and the wonderful Claude Cahun – the surrealists were almost all boys, kinky boys though they sometimes were. Magritte himself shied away from the shrink, but used Freudian terminology – The Pleasure Principle, The Interpretation of Dreams – in his titles.
He loved a trashy thriller
Tate Liverpool's show is not nearly so complete as the 1998 Brussels exhibition that marked the centenary of the artist's birth; but smaller, tighter exhibitions are often better. Magritte generally needs a good cull. He was sometimes slight, occasionally toe-curling. Over-exposure kills certain images. Who needs to see the poor Mona Lisa, or that man with the apple in front of his face?
Then there are the real surprises. In The Eye, a woman peers through a circular aperture surrounded by blackness. Is it a through-the-keyhole view? Is she catching us at it? It could be a movie still from a thriller (Magritte loved a good trashy thriller, and designed posters for several). I also think of the jailer's eye looking through the prison spy-hole in Jean Genet's 1950 Un Chant d'Amour, one of the greatest surrealist films. At any event, Magritte's voyeur is unfazed by whatever she sees.
Another surprise is Magritte's commercial work, his 1950s film posters and cigarette adverts, as well as the home movies he shot. His wife eats a banana backwards, until the banana is whole again, and feeds it to her husband. It's a gag as old as the silent comedies but, like all Magritte's films, touching in its domestic playfulness and affection. How strange Magritte was, even when we think we know him.
• This article was amended on 22 June 2011. A sentence in the original said, "'In fact he was always a political rebel, an anti-fascist (and there were plenty of them about in Belgium, even before the war)". The wording has been clarified.
The Temptations of the OrdinaryJohn Haber
in New York City
René Magritte and Surrealism
"The care you take to particularize the event." Paul Rougé was writing René Magritte, to say how much he admired his friend's paintings. He could be speaking for museum visitors ever since, about what has made Magritte one of the most popular modern artists.
He is also so obviously wrong that you might wonder how he could ever have believed it. But he did, and you will, too. If Magritte has become an excuse for t-shirts and posters, he anticipates Pop Art by more than a generation. If he has also lured people into doubting and questioning, he anticipates Postmodernism by half a century. Put it down to a middle-class Belgian finding his way in the sophistication of Paris. Or put it down to what the Museum of Modern Art calls "The Mystery of the Ordinary."
The care you take
Magritte was no ordinary painter, but he was a painter of the ordinary. One must take his word for that, but that, too, is part of the mystery. One must believe that the ordinary bourgeois still wears suits along with black ties, stiff collars, dress coats, and bowler hats. One must believe that he likes nothing so much as cricket, a pipe, decent wallpaper, naked women, and the view through a peephole. One must believe that he sees out his window something very much like what Magritte paints again and again—green grass, cumulus clouds, and neither sun nor shadow. The same view continues unbroken on an imagined canvas, its easel against the window. The artist called it The Human Condition, and who is to say whether that title refers to the landscape, art and illusion, or a state of belief?
And people do want to believe, for good reason. Magritte makes things ever so familiar, while abstraction, to take the word at face value, abstracts away. He also captures the moment, right down to the clock on the mantel of Time Transfixed, while Cubism's fragmentation loses the event in particulars. Only Salvador Dalí seems so straightforward and, not coincidentally, so popular, but his clock melted long ago. No doubt Magritte deals with the impossible, too, because the familiar disguises all sorts of fears and fantasies. One can see why someone as sophisticated as Rougé wanted to believe. A Surrealist poet and biochemist, he dealt with the unseen particulars that constitute everyday reality.
Unfortunately for Rougé, MoMA quotes him in reference to The Hunters at the Edge of Night, where Magritte goes out of his way to avoid particulars. The artist shows two hunters from the rear, buried in their heavy coats, warm stockings, and shadows. They have lowered their faces in stumbling blindly against blank corner walls. The view to the right might promise a way forward or a way out. Yet it consists of little more an unbroken plane reaching toward the horizon beneath an empty sky, where the interior could not possibly belong. Magritte paints the scene all too quickly as well, to the point that one can hardly make out the men's shoes.
Just to describe Magritte's appeal comes at the expense of particulars. Of course, he accompanied his pipe with the words Ceci n'est pas une pipe ("This is not a pipe"). He called it The Treachery of Images, but he could just as well have called it the treachery of a common language or of things. The mysteries quickly accumulate, just as the ordinary fades away. One should know better anyway. Surely one is long past believing that a painting is a pipe—and surely, too, one is long past priding oneself on knowing that it is not.
Critics, it seems, mostly are. Even the most favorable (like Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker) start with how obvious the artist is, before acknowledging a sense of wonder. Another (Holland Cotter in The Times) complains, of all things, that Magritte could not handle schlock realism as well as Dalí. Yet another (Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books) describes her disillusionment in returning to an old favorite from the 1950s. How foolish she was to have sought profundity in the glow of a city night against a daylight sky, in The Empire of Light. How foolish to have found magic in what had become an old routine, for the scene exists in more than one version at that.
By coincidence (and magic no doubt requires coincidence), a new biography of J. D. Salinger has led to similar disclaimers. How could I have identified with the adolescent rebellion of The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield was at once a total jerk and so unbelievably sweet? By coincidence, too, part of the answer involves imagery and language. When Holden wonders where the ducks go in the winter—or when his breakdown involves a sensation of falling after his favorite teacher warned him he was "riding for a fall"—he is treating metaphors as particulars, much like Magritte. When Holden was a jerk surrounded by jerks, one should have been questioning one's identification from the start. And when he was so sweet, one should have recognized the temptations of the ordinary.
The earliest temptations
MoMA tells of Magritte's earliest temptations. A large show sticks to work from 1926 through 1938, when he turned forty, to make the case for his engagement with Surrealism. They include the Belgian's years in Paris, starting in the fall of 1927 and ending with collapsing markets in 1930. They include his cover illustrations for André Breton's What Is Surrealism? in 1934 and the movement's journal the year after. They include the crusty textures of his first pipe (labeled, more simply, une pipe), no doubt influenced by Surrealist frottage, or rubbing. If Salinger is the ultimate neurotic outsider, Magritte was, at least briefly, at the center of the action.
Like Surrealism, too, his first dreams were the darkest. A girl devours a bird with her bare hands, and blood covers seeming mountains of feathers in The Murderous Sky. The man and woman in The Lovers have their heads shrouded as for a kidnapping. The cannon of On the Threshold of Liberty could have played a part in World War I, and it aims ambiguously at the open sky, his own art, or a female torso. Magritte's late years may present a more comfortable magic, of the floating Castle of the Pyrenees or of The Empire of Light. One had better look again, though, to see how the day still belongs to night.
The exhibition shows his introducing repeated motifs, among them doubling and dismemberment. By the time of a man facing the reflection of his own back, in the infinite regress of a hall of mirrors, not even doubling is to be trusted. True to Surrealism, he found his way to those motifs in collage from 1926, including printed paper and sheet music. The motifs in fact include decorative patterns in cut paper. True to Surrealism as well, table legs can resemble the chess set that Marcel Duchamp so relished. In all these ways, Magritte's art already includes the illusion of art, and the illusion of art can be a dangerous game.
The exhibition also describes a continuing refinement. The earliest compositions are often the most cluttered and the least polished. Magritte is not so much perfecting his skills as clearing the way. He is closer to advertising than the academies, and indeed he started as a commercial illustrator. Short of cash after Paris, he returned to that work as well. And his smooth surfaces begin with a dressmaker's forms.
Those years also introduce the treachery of what Michel Foucault called "words and things." Magritte conducts his first vocabulary lesson without text, with objects carved into wood beneath a sleeping man. Then comes montagne ("mountain") across the bridge of a woman's nose. Words may float like clouds, settle into speech balloons, or displace images entirely from depicted canvas—in one instance, canvas shaped ever so much like coffins. They also muddle detachment and desire. When éclatant de rire ("bursting with laughter") shares a painting with cris d'oiseaux ("cries of birds"), one can hear nature itself laughing or crying aloud at the temptations of the ordinary.
The show gets to present one greatest hit after another. They include the eye open to the sky, the eye on a slice of ham set out for dinner, the smoke from a train roaring out of a fireplace, or the "rape" of a woman's face, with her private parts as its features. Elsewhere I start from The Seducer, a late work. Magritte, I argue there, demands at least three interpretations. As with the multiple targets of On the Threshold of Liberty, he could be painting the free play of desire, the breakdown of meaning, or its return as nightmare. This time, let me ask with MoMA how the temptations come to be.
Desire and doubling
The curator, Anne Umland (with Danielle Johnson), makes the case for Magritte's place in Surrealism—a claim that neither Magritte nor the Surrealists wholly accepted. Yet they also see a context in popular culture. The Menaced Assassin could be a scene in crime fiction or a staged melodrama, one in which the killers pause to listen to the gramophone. The shrouded lovers come together in a cinematic kiss. Another coincidence or not, but Andy Warhol and Pop Art, too, came out of commercial art. The Key of Dreams belongs to Jasper Johns, for whom the literal is always paradoxical.
One can trace Magritte's coupling of desire and doubling to Sigmund Freud, and he does call one painting The Pleasure Principle. Yet one can also see it deriving from magazines and mass consumption. Identical objects roll off the assembly line, and identical images plaster the billboards. The Treachery of Images might also mean the seduction of advertising. And like it or not, long before the 1950s, his style insists on repetition. After my previous article, I almost labeled this "René Magritte: Part II," but then I felt trapped in my own doubling and desires.
As a skeptic, Magritte is targeting popular belief, but also art. The fragmented bodies hint at the ever-present male gaze, but also the study of anatomy as a prerequisite for painting—and that puts in question whether one can separate the two. Again he is ahead of his time, in a movement, like much of modern art, seriously short of women. He does not throw around the word rape lightly. At the same time, he is holding out art as the possibility of something more. With every image broken across multiple real or depicted paintings, he puts the burden on the painter and viewer together to constitute reality.
Then, too, Modernism always eluded its fine-art reputation. With his repeated motif of human feet in place of shoes, Magritte sees the treachery of emotions in the boots painted by Vincent van Gogh, already a tribute to a world too earthy for Paris. The Met called a survey of Surrealism "Desire Unbound," and MoMA has coupled Dalí and film. And Rosalind E. Krauss insisted some time ago on weighing the "originality of the avant-garde" against a history of copying and reduplication. Abstraction as abstracting away was a myth anyway. One can contemplate and believe in abstraction because of the particulars of painterly materials and perception.
Magritte never quite believes or disbelieves in his own madness. He allows his desires to enter at least once, with his wife as a model and the act of painting clearly his own. In Attempting the Impossible, she poses in the nude while an artist, dressed as usual in suit and tie, paints not her image on canvas but her, standing right in front of him. She is almost but never complete, with his brush just past her breast on the way to beginning her left arm. Which, then, is the impossible? Is it replication, representation, completion, the fulfillment of desire, a coming to life, or escaping art's basis in the particulars of ordinary life?
If Magritte's paintings seem too much like one-joke affairs, try asking why he was willing to repeat the joke. If they seem made to order for the museum gift shop, try asking who is ordering. If they seem to belong to a phase in one's own adolescent past, trying asking with Freud about the roots of present-day desires. And if they seem so very obvious, try asking how they can be at once so obviously right and so obviously wrong. Can one still believe in the obvious, and can one still make of point of not believing? Merely to survive, I think, one's answer to both may be yes.
"René Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 12, 2014. A related article looks at the artist through a single work, "The Seducer."