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Magritte: Horror and Humor at MOMA

RenÈ Magritte, The False Mirror, 1928. wallyg / Flickr

Rene Magritte made so ridiculously many paintings that creating a manageable exhibit on his work requires some kind of exclusionary mechanism. The Museum of Modern Art has chosen to carve him up chronologically, giving a time-slice of his work from 1926 to 1938. This period includes Magritte’s most evocative and haunting works–but also a raft of punny schlock.

Of course, the popular Magritte is often the punny Magritte (yes, you can see the famous not-a-pipe at the MOMA show); and the horror-laced, otherworldly Magritte was often the result of finding just the right, resonant punchline for an existential joke.

Magritte is a horror artist in part because he has such an up-front sense of humor: Both the horror and the humor are about incongruities and displacement. The one with the giant egg in a cage is almost the same joke as the one with the tattered boots turning into feet, and it may be only a matter of personal taste that I find the cage-egg shticky and formulaic whereas the grimy, fleshy boot-feet are troubling and sad. The opening wall caption notes his self-proclaimed ambition to make “everyday objects shriek aloud,” which reminds me of the Jack Handey line about the screaming trees. Lots of Magritte’s work has this funny-creepy edge: the eye in the pancake; the cute doughy-faced moppet in lace collar and cuffs, eating a bird.

Some of my own favorites are in this show. 1927’s “The secret double,” a woman with a strip ripped or broken off of her face, revealing mysterious gray sleigh bells on ropy stalks, is an extraordinary image of the unknowable consciousness hidden behind an ordinary face. Magritte at his best often creates a hushed atmosphere, like a velvet curtain coming down over the mind–curtains appear at the edges of many of his dreamscape works. “Entr’acte,” with its bizarrely connected limbs stretching and holding one another, and “The muscles of the sky,” in which sharply defined blue-gray coils of sky spill out onto a wooden platform, never become less striking for me. Looking at them, and at “The Finery of the Storm” with its person-sized snowflakey paper cutouts ranged in front of a turbulent sea, I feel like I’m standing at the edge of an abyss: quiet, held in suspense, full of surprises.

Magritte has a lot of recurring tricks, and I love most of them: all that sky-blue, and the occasional judicious use of creepy salmon pink; the touchable textures, furry or grainy or polished; the vaguely human “bilboquets” and Martian-ship sleigh bells. He can evoke fairy tales, as in “The Healer,” and his illustrations of the fraught interactions of men and women are phenomenal: “The titanic days” and “The rape” for violence against women, but also “The lovers” for a mysterious, teasing sexiness. (The sheets covering their heads don’t only hide them from one another, but also suggest smooth, sensual textures and, of course, bed.)

His word trick I don’t love. This is the thing where he paints some melty, curvy object, and then sticks an unrelated word into it; or he paints e.g. a fire and labels it “l’oiseau.” One of these is interesting. Two or three: Okay, he needs to get something out of his system. Ten? Ten is too many. Some of them have enough sensuality in the shapes and textures to get me past the one-trick pony of it all, but most of them seem like paintings you “get” rather than paintings you’re absorbed by. And the MOMA show includes a lot of them.

In all other respects the show is thoughtful. Not too many captions (some of which have a dry humor: “Le Chant de l’orage is the second of three paintings Magritte produced in response to what he saw as the problem of rain”), a nice winding path in which every work gets enough space to capture the viewer, and some fun photographs of Magritte and his paintings, including one where he mimics the crime-fiction villain Fantomas. The show runs through January 12, 2014.

about the author

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. She is working on a book on vocation for gay Catholics. Her email is eve_tushnet@yahoo.com and she can be found on Twitter at @evetushnet.

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