Exhibit puts Magritte's work firmly back in art world

Art Institute exhibit reclaims surrealist artist

"Slip your feet into the surrealist movement," beckons the fashion company Opening Ceremony in a promotion for its spring launch of Birkenstocks adorned with Rene Magritte prints as part of a line that also features the Belgian artist's work on clothing and Manolo Blahnik stilettos.

Perry Ellis ran an ad campaign in the fall that traded on Magritte's familiar imagery as it presented a black-and-white photo of a man with a green apple in front of his mouth.

Posters teasing the upcoming Prime & Provisions steakhouse at Wacker Drive and LaSalle Street offer several variations on Magritte's famous "The Son of Man" painting, except the bowler-hatted man's face isn't obscured by an apple but instead a raw steak, a lime, olives, grapes, an onion, bacon and other foodstuffs.

So the Art Institute of Chicago's major new exhibition, "Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938," isn't just a survey of what curator Stephanie D'Alessandro calls "the moment when Magritte becomes Magritte." It's also an opportunity to reclaim Magritte for the art world and to prompt audiences to re-view his works as paintings, not pop-commercial ephemera.

"He's everywhere," D'Alessandro says during an early walk-through of the exhibition as she holds up her iPhone case depicting Magritte's "The Treachery of Images," better known to most people as that one of the pipe that says, in French, "This is not a pipe." "Who hasn't seen (Magritte's work) on a mug? Who hasn't seen it on a poster? These pictures are iconic, and yet in the world of our iPhones, we are so used to seeing visual images and just tapping them and moving forward that we don't really look at images the same way anymore."

The Art Institute show, which opens to members Saturday and to the general public Tuesday, is designed to make you slow down and spend time with Magritte's work. The exhibition is a collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York (where it opened in September) and the Menil Collection in Houston (where it opened in February), but the Chicago presentation will differ from the other two in look as well as a bit of content.

The first thing you notice upon entering the expansive Regenstein Hall space is that the lights are dim, the walls dark and the paintings spaced far apart and illuminated as if on a movie screen — in contrast to MOMA's brighter, more open presentation. As it did for last summer's "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" exhibition, the Art Institute called in Canadian opera director Robert Carsen to work on the design, but unlike his playful, fantastical designs for that show, he takes a more muted, minimalist approach here.

"Robert Carsen and I had long talks about how to give people time with these works and have individual experiences, and having the wealth of space that we have here in the Regenstein galleries really allows us to give each of the sort of ideas of Magritte the space that it needs," D'Alessandro says. "Even if we have lots of people in the galleries, I really think that visitors are going to have a very intimate experience with them, and I think see these works in a way that they haven't before."

The Art Institute last presented a Magritte show in 1993, but that was a career-spanning retrospective covering a half century's work. "Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary" homes in on that decade-plus of the artist's development when he cast aside cubism, futurism and his advertising/graphic-artist career to embrace surrealism and to discover many of the motifs that would he would continue to revisit in subsequent decades.

"If you had a subtitle, it would be called 'The Making of Magritte,'" D'Alessandro says. "It's when he busts out and he says, 'I'm a surrealist,' and you watch him trying to get it all off the ground. It's the most innovative moment, I think, of his career. It's where we see him defining the way that he will make his art for the rest of his career."

It's also a period that produced many of his most famous works, including "The Treachery of Images," "The False Mirror" (an eye with a blue, cloudy sky in the iris, to which the original CBS logo owes a debt), "The Lovers" (a man and woman kissing with sacks over their heads) and "Time Transfixed" (a train coming out of a fireplace). ("The Son of Man," which didn't appear until 1964, is not part of this show.) D'Alessandro is determined for visitors to pay attention to each piece regardless of how familiar it is.

"In my experiences of Magritte's works and exhibitions, if there are too many together, you start to say, 'Oh, yeah, I know that one. Oh, yeah, I know that one,'" she says. "And you really need to take the time to see what you need to see."

The exhibition is divided into visually distinct sections covering three periods: his beginnings in Belgium, including works from his first solo exhibition; his three years in Paris while living in a suburb and bonding with surrealists, including writer Andre Breton; and, after his Paris gallery's closing and his falling out with Breton, his return to Brussels before a commission from British surrealist patron Edward James takes him to London.

From the start Magritte is seen as "constructing images that confound us if we look at them carefully," D'Alessandro says. The first big painting you encounter, "The Menaced Assassin," gives the impression of telling a story as two men — wearing what would become those trademark bowler hats, one fellow holding a club and the other a net — seemingly await a guy listening to a record player while a naked female corpse is laid out behind him and three heads gaze into the room from a mountainous backdrop.

In other words: Huh?

"There's no narrative for this," D'Alessandro says. "The more that you look, what I find happens is the more I become aware of my frustration of trying to make the image tell me something, and that's exactly what he's trying to do: make us aware of our expectations of visual images — and make us aware of our habits."

Magritte is committed to upending expectations throughout. In his paper-cut-out collages, which bring to mind the animations of Monty Python's Terry Gilliam (who has admitted the artist's influence), images appear in odd contexts, like figures crafted out of musical scores.

The first of his word-image pictures, "The Interpretation of Dreams," is here (though it wasn't at MOMA), depicting a briefcase with the French word for "the sky," a pocket knife with "the bird," a leaf with "the table" and a sponge with … yes … "the sponge." By Magritte's logic that last pairing is no more accurate than any of the others because a painting of a sponge is not a sponge.

Which brings us to "The Treachery of Images" and that pipe that is not a pipe (because, as Magritte once noted, you can't put tobacco into it). This is one of Magritte's most celebrated and reproduced images, a precursor to Andy Warhol's and other pop artists' explorations of the relationship between object and almost literal depiction, yet in the context of this exhibition, you may discover new aspects once you reset your mind.

"I'll tell you what happens to me when I stand with this image alone in this space: My eye starts to fall immediately to the pipe itself and how beautifully it's painted, how the highlight on the front and up on that sort of (rim), they're beautiful, very volumetric kind of spaces," D'Alessandro says. "And the pipe just has this kind of levity, doesn't it? Like it's kind of floating.

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