It is sometimes said that Surrealist paintings are disappointing up close; perhaps we see them so often in reproduction that by the time we see the real ones in a museum they’ve lost some of their strangeness. René Magritte’s paintings could fall into that trap. His bowler hats, apples, puffy clouds and pipes have popped up on coffee mugs, tote bags and dorm-room posters for decades. Not to mention album covers: Jeff Beck used Magritte’s “The Listening Room” on the cover of his 1969 LP “Beck-Ola”. Is Magritte too ubiquitous to be uncanny? No, is the takeaway from “The Fifth Season”, an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Displaying lesser-known work alongside some of his best-loved paintings, it shows that Magritte still has the power to surprise.
In 1943 Magritte was living in Nazi-occupied Belgium. He was relatively well-known in artistic circles, though he was far from a household name. He had spent three years in Paris, where he was close with a group of painters which included André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement. He had developed his signature style: elegant canvases that challenged our ways of seeing. But the second world war had thrown him into a deep existential crisis. As he wrote to Breton: “The confusion and panic that Surrealism wanted to create in order to bring everything into question were achieved much better by the Nazi idiots than by us.” When everyday life had become horrifically surreal, why bother exploring the anxieties of the ordinary?
Magritte entered a strange phase in his painting, which lasted for several years. First came what became known as Magritte’s “Renoir” period, featuring hazy, thick oil paintings that referenced Impressionism. He wrote a manifesto explaining his change of tack: “We have neither the time nor the taste to play at Surrealist art, we have a huge task ahead of us, we must imagine charming objects which will awaken what is left within us of the instinct to pleasure.” In 1948 he embarked on what he would christen his vache period. Some of the images are familiar – pipes and bowler hats – but the rustic style, characterised by garish colours and the loose brushstrokes of Expressionism, is not. They’re unsettling if we think we know Magritte. Vache being the French word for cow, it’s been suggested that Magritte had his tongue firmly in his cheek.
By the 1950s, Magritte had returned to his pre-war style. It made him rich and famous. After he died, in 1967, his crisis period became relegated to the dustbin of art history, an aberration in a long and prolific career. “The Fifth Season” draws parallels between his wartime art and his later work to show how his struggle with Surrealism resulted in paintings whose elegance was matched by their profundity. Its nine galleries are filled with more than 70 of his oil paintings and gouaches. The otherworldliness, multiplied, is sublime.
“The Fifth Season” (1943)
The painting from which the show draws its title features two men passing each other in the street, each carrying a canvas. Its brushtrokes are characteristic of his Renoir period. While the bowler-hatted men from late Magritte are in sharp relief, these ones bleed into the shadowy backdrop of the street.
There’s a darkness to “Cinquième Saison”, both in its colour scheme and its portrayal of urban alienation. But the canvases are a playful addition – they show a forest and clouds, hallmarks of his typical style.
This painting, from Magritte’s vache period feels almost cartoonish: the colour scheme is kind of dreadful, and the proportions look squished. It has the feeling of a holiday gone wrong. Yet there are flashes of the more familiar Magritte. Take the interplay between absence and presence – there’s a suit and hat, but where is the man?
The vache paintings caused outrage among the Parisian Surrealists, who – rightly – thought Magritte was winding them up. By sending himself up as a Belgian bumpkin, painting in a rustic style, he was showing them up for being earnest and arrogant. He soon announced that he was abandoning his vache style, claiming his wife didn’t like it. “Georgette prefers the well-made paintings of ‘yesteryear’, so particularly to please Georgette in future I’m going to show the paintings of yesteryear. I’ll find a way to slip in a great big incongruity from time to time.”
“The World of Images” (1950)
Magritte was interested in boundaries. He painted windows, mirrors, canvases – all dividing lines between one reality and another. He liked to play with these borders, testing our assumptions and expectations.
The broken window, a motif he returned to repeatedly, does just this. There’s a “real” sunset in the distance, but there’s an equally real-looking sunset in pieces on the floor. Both are painted, in any case, and the canvas serves as a kind of second window that makes viewers think about what it means for something to be real.
“Personal Values” (1952)
This is a deliberately perplexing painting. The bed in this small room is dwarfed by a comb, a matchstick and a glass. Lined with wallpaper that might also be the sky, this room belongs to its oversized objects.
In his later work, Magritte messed with scale and perspective, using a technique called hypertrophy. Apples and roses and boulders filled rooms, unnervingly. Here, the expansion and contraction of everyday objects makes for a quietly nightmarish domestic scene.
“The Dominion of Light” (1954)
“People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image,” Magritte wrote. “Dominion of Light,” of which he painted 27 versions throughout his career, resists interpretation. The pieces are variations on a quiet, domestic street. It is half-twilight, half-daytime. A streetlamp is lit outside a house, shrouded in shadow, but the sky above is brilliant turquoise. Light and time are manipulated, but gently.
The centerpiece of SFMOMA’s show is a semi-circle of seven versions of “Dominion of Light”. Six in oil, one in gouache, they vary in size, height and detail. The viewer sits among them, immersed by the weirdness.
“Pandora’s Box” (1951)
This is a small canvas, easy to miss perhaps, but almost excruciatingly beautiful. The sky is lipstick-red above stacked chimneys, and a figure wearing a bowler hat looks across a bridge. Next to him floats a white rose. Is it a companion, a warning or neither? Of this painting, Magritte wrote: “The presence of the rose next to the stroller signifies that wherever man’s destiny leads him, he is always protected by an element of beauty.”
René Magritte: The Fifth Season SFMOMA until October 28th