The otherworldly, madcap scenes that the Belgian surrealist René Magritte painted have baffled and amazed art historians for nearly a century. Magritte’s works often strike an uncanny balance of eeriness and tranquility, horror and whimsy, with apples, bowler hats, obscured or disjointed faces, and tufty clouds among his most frequent subjects. To shed light on the many mysteries of the artist’s work, ARTnews asked five curators to explicate a work by Magritte. Their responses follow below.
Assistant curator of modern art, the Menil Collection, Houston
Magritte’s paintings feel right for this precarious moment. These days, I am finding deeper meaning in his green apples and cottony clouds, his word-paintings and impossible pictures. A favorite is The Glass Key, which Magritte himself regarded as an exceptional work. In a letter to a friend in February 1959, he included a quick sketch of the composition and wrote, “I have thought of and painted a ‘sublime’ picture!” Rendered in the sharp, highly detailed style that had become his signature, the crystalline boulder at the painting’s center seems to defy gravity. Nevertheless, Magritte was clear on how it should be read: “It is not a case of a levitation or of a sort of ‘motionless’ avalanche,” he later wrote another friend. “My intention was to paint the image of a stone, and inspiration showed me it should be set atop a mountain.” It is an image of literal precarity, or perhaps improbable equipoise. In this painting as in many others, Magritte makes the familiar abruptly unknowable. His work teeters between reality and illusion, unearthing something deeply inscrutable in the everyday.
Senior curator of painting and sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Personal Values is a singular and iconic painting within Magritte’s body of work, never to be confused with any of his other paintings. It depicts a bedroom interior, the place of dreams, seductive but irresolvably disorienting. Apart from its instant graphic appeal, what is impossible to see from a reproduction is that it is among the most exquisitely painted works of Magritte, with astonishingly detailed brushwork. It is among his most beautiful paintings. Contemporary artists from Vija Celmins to Robert Gober have been influenced by [Personal Values’s] images, which lodge in one’s mind without even being fully aware of their presence. It is a painting for our present moment, when our world has been turned inside out, where we look out from our interiors with little sense of what a new reality may be.
Curator of international modern art, Art Institute of Chicago
The painting that stops me nearly every time I walk through the Art Institute’s Surrealism galleries is Time Transfixed. Magritte made the picture in 1938, the year he wrote his lecture “Life Line,” in which he describes the “poetic secret” of juxtaposing two pictorial elements that will together suggest a third un-pictured thing. In this case you have two objects—the train and the fireplace—that are unlike in almost every way: they are discordant in scale: one is domestic, the other industrial; one suggests motion, the other stasis; but they share an affinity with smoke. And somehow Magritte intuits that we, his viewers, will connect the billowing exhaust from the locomotive with the plumes of smoke that travel up a chimney. The presence of the mirror above the mantle is also key because it starts us thinking about where we are in relation to this scene. Is it taking place in a room we could walk into, or is it more like the space of a dream? I find myself looking in from outside and starting to regard these familiar objects, which are rendered so perfectly and clearly, in a way that begins to erode certainty and questions one’s sense of control.
Curator of exhibitions and displays, Tate Liverpool
The Annunciation (1930) is one of the major Magritte paintings in the Tate collection. It was made in the wake of his stay in Paris from 1927 to 1930 when he was closely associated with the French surrealists. It was included in the 1936 “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London, which caused a sensation in its impact upon a rather moribund English art scene. Like many Surrealists, in the mid-1920s Magritte made paper collages which provided a way of combining disparate imagery to reveal fantastic new realities. He realized that his painted compositions could also be pieced together from disparate visual elements. In fact, Max Ernst once described Magritte as a painter “whose pictures are collages entirely painted by hand.” The Annunciation presents an unlikely combination of objects. Elements include two large “bilboquets,” which are Magritte’s name for the imagined objects resembling wooden balustrades or chess-pieces alongside a shaped decorative cut-out pattern and the grey metal curtain hung with sleigh bells. I love its graphic incongruity and how these imagined objects appear to sit comfortably within a supposedly natural rock-strewn landscape.
Senior curator of painting and sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Magritte likely painted this oversized, sky-filled eye in anticipation of his first one-person exhibition in Paris, scheduled for early March 1930. Although that exhibition was ultimately cancelled, the painting—allusively titled Le Faux Miroir (The False Mirror) by Magritte’s friend and collaborator, the Belgian Surrealist poet and writer Paul Nougé—remains among his most indelible images, rendered in his characteristically deadpan style. Here Magritte’s uncanny ability to defamiliarize the familiar is on full display. A single, enormous, unblinking eye fills the canvas, framing a series of puffy white clouds that drift across an atmospheric expanse of powder blue sky. It is punctuated at the center by a flat, black circle—the eye’s pupil—which registers nary a highlight or other illusioned trace of convexity. The illogical juxtaposition of simple, recognizable things—sky, clouds, eye—is key to the efficacy of Magritte’s image-making strategy. At once legible and inexplicable, his painting profoundly alters our perception of the poetic potential of the ordinary; it insists that what we are confronted with is no mere picture of reality, but a false mirror that reflects a world at once instantly recognizable and unforgettably strange.