Magritte, About the Exhibition at the Museum

By Elyse Topalian, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

The surrealist artist René Magritte (1898-1967) once said that he painted to evoke the mysteries of the world. His work, on view in a major retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 22, are filled with familiar images in contexts that confound and perplex – businessmen raining down from a gray morning sky, a giant apple that inhabits an entire room, an idyllic landscape with a boulder in place of a cloud, a black locomotive bursting forth from the interior of a fireplace. These “painted dreams” are often disquieting, always witty, summoning up through their bizarre conjunctions ambiguous or alternative realities. Conjurer though he was, Magritte also reminds us of the limitations of canvas and paint, as in his image of a pipe, which he labeled with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe.”

Despite the themes in his art, Magritte lived a life that was almost startlingly proper and uneventful. With the exception of a few years in Paris in the late 1920’s – when he came under the influence of such artists as Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, and Joan Miro, and then joined up with the surrealists – Magritte lived most of his life in his native Belgium. Often bowler-hatted like many of the men in his paintings, he made a habit of painting in his dining room and then clearing his paints away in the evenings before dinner. Magritte supported himself, his art, and his wife through the 1940’s by working as a commercial graphic artist, and in the late 1950’s finally achieved international recognition and financial success as an artist.

During the past three decades, Magritte’s images and ideas have been borrowed and appropriated to such a degree in art and popular culture that many of his admirers do not even know him by name. We see Magritte whenever we look at the CBS television logo (an adaption of the eye in The False Mirror) or at the apple on the Beatles album; and we see his influence in the work of countless artists, from Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg to Saul Steinberg and emerging artists like Robert Gober. The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum takes viewers back to the source of these inspirations, to the unadulterated, fantastic vision of an artist who created some of the most memorable and important art icons of our century.