The curator of “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938,” opening September 28 at MoMA, explores how three photographs of the Belgian Surrealist provide insights into his wry humor and painting techniques
Sometime in the fall or winter of 1928, René Magritte posed for the camera in front of an unfinished canvas. The oil painting featured a nude woman and a man in a suit. The suited man is depicted as though in the process of painting the woman, of giving her form, of attempting to bring her to life. Magritte later titled this painting La Tentative de l’Impossible (Attempting the Impossible), tacitly acknowledging the futility of the pictured task. Although the photographer remains unidentified, the image is clearly staged, surely with the artist’s complicity. Magritte’s body is positioned carefully in relation to, and partially within, the compositional boundaries of his canvas. Both the in-progress painting and Magritte’s prominently displayed palette function as props, used to create a picture of what the caption identifies as “Le peintre René Magritte” (The painter René Magritte).
The photograph was published in the January 1929 issue of the Belgian Surrealist journal Variétés, where the avant-garde impresario E. L. T. (Edouard Léon Théodore) Mesens was the picture editor. Mesens chose to pair Magritte’s portrait with that of another artist, the Italian Metaphysical painter. Given the similarities between the two photos, it seems likely that both were taken by the same unnamed Variétés staff photographer. De Chirico, like Magritte, is seated in front of an unfinished painting, possibly from his recent “Gladiators” series, and balances a palette on his left arm. He strikes a pose similar to that of the neoclassical male nude that appears in his painting behind him, which frames his head and upper-left shoulder. A funny symbolic connection is established between the godlike figure that rises above and behind de Chirico, and the seated artist, confidently gazing out at the viewer, tools of the trade in hand, and wearing what looks like an artist’s smock.
Whereas the photographic portrait of de Chirico hints, in a tongue-in-cheek way, that beneath the humble artist’s smock lurks a divine creative genius, the Variétés picture of Magritte constructs a different sort of artistic identity. The black-and-white print highlights both the similarities and differences between the image of Magritte himself and that of the painted man. Rather than staring out at the camera, Magritte is positioned in profile, gazing at something cropped from view. A visual rhyme is created with the profile of the clothed male figure in the painting, whose attire mirrors that worn by the artist: dark tie, white shirt, natty suit. Emphasis is placed on doubling and repetition, on degrees of difference and sameness. The photograph mechanically captures and reproduces a portrait of Magritte that identifies the artist with a yet-to-be completed painted image, which reveals it to be, like the female nude, no more than a filmy-thin illusion produced by paint applied to canvas with a brush.
There is another photograph of Magritte posing in a suit, palette in hand, in front of La Tentative de l’Impossible. Unlike the Variétés portrait, this photo went unpublished for many years. (A less tightly cropped version of what appears to be another print of the same image was first reproduced in 1992 in David Sylvester’s magisterial catalogue raisonné but incorrectly identified as having appeared in Variétés.) It is significant that there are two photographs of Magritte posing with La Tentative de l’Impossible, because the painting is captured in two different states. Magritte’s surfaces reveal little of his process, so to have a sequence of images provides precious insight into the development of La Tentative de l’Impossible, from its unfinished appearance as recorded in Variétés to that seen in the second photograph—which appears to have been taken at a slightly later moment—to the painting’s final manifestation.
In the Variétés photo, Magritte seems to have begun to paint an atmospheric background in the upper left, behind the head of the female nude. In the second photograph, this sky extends across the canvas, behind both the woman and the man. Most notably, in the second photograph, the man has been given a summarily executed stagelike platform to stand on, creating a spatial zone distinct from the female figure’s space. In the finished painting, these elements have been eliminated: the two figures remain, but the space they inhabit has been radically changed. In place of cloudy skies, Magritte substituted a bare wall, wood wainscoting like that seen in photos of his Paris apartment, and a plain wood floor. The effect is familiar and yet so austere in character as to be memorably strange.
According to the artist’s wife, Georgette Magritte, sometime after the completion of La Tentative de l’Impossible, another photograph related to the painting was taken. Whereas the two earlier pictures were most likely captured by a professional photographer, the third has the character of snapshot. It is less sharply focused, and the print is diminutive. Here, Georgette and her husband playfully restage the scene from the painting; she poses in a bathing suit, and he wears shirtsleeves and checkered slippers. The image is explicitly performative, in the sense of having been made with eventual viewers in mind. These viewers must have included Magritte himself, Georgette, and friends like Louis Scutenaire, who was the first to publish the small photo in 1970 and to title it Amour (Love), years after it was taken.
The details of everyday reality captured in the snapshot, including a picture on the wall behind Georgette, the specificity of her features, her modest attire, and Magritte’s rumpled hair, all throw the pronounced surreality of La Tentative de l’Impossible into sharp relief. Although the painting has been described as “a portrait” of the artist and his wife, the features and hairstyle of the male subject, along with those of his model, have been generalized—as have those of the interior—to a point of nonspecificity. Suspended between art and life, the two figures on canvas—as opposed to those in the snapshot—function as ciphers, types, or stand-ins. They are mute witnesses to, and representations of, the act of painting as something magical, romantic, and perpetually incomplete.
Anne Umland is the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is cocurator of the exhibition “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926–1938,” on view at MoMA from September 28, 2013 to January 12, 2014; at the Menil Collection, Houston, from February 14 to June 1, 2014; and at the Art Institute of Chicago from June 29 to October 12, 2014. Author’s statement: “I wish to thank my colleagues Josef Helfenstein, director, and Clare Elliott, assistant curator, at the Menil Collection in Houston for bringing the Variétés photograph of Magritte to my attention, and Danielle Johnson, curatorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art, for her essential support. I am especially grateful to Rhys Conlon for her insightful comments and extensive research.”