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Rene Magritte, to infinity & beyond

by Sura Wood

René Magritte, "The Kiss" (1951), oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo: Charly Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
René Magritte, "The Kiss" (1951), oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo: Charly Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  

Wonderful and amazing is the way to describe "Rene Magritte: The Fifth Season," a fab new show at SFMOMA that kicks off the summer art season with panache. The museum is the sole venue for an exhibition of over 70 of the Belgian artist's late career works, 20 never seen before in the U.S. An uneasy blend of ambiguity, menace, allure and irony, they span the last chapter of his life, from 1943 to his death in 1967.

Magritte, an intellectual provocateur who saw himself as a philosopher and poet whose tools happened to be paint, is mostly closely identified with his paintings of anonymous bourgeois men in drab grey overcoats and signature black bowler hats, attire worn by the intrepid detectives of stories he loved. "The Fifth Season," the 1943 canvas that's the exhibition's namesake, borrows Renoir's brushstroke techniques for a picture of two men in bowler hats greeting each other on a bustling street, a scene right out of the Impressionists' playbook. The figures presaged the so-called Bowler Men, who inspired a ballet and a movie, among other things, and transformed his career. In "The Schoolmaster" (1955), we're treated to a silhouetted view from behind, a sliver of a moon directly over this Everyman's head as he gazes out at a starry night. "The Son of Man" (1964), of the eponymous bowler hat fellow with a green apple obscuring most of his face like a mask, easily earns the distinction of the most intriguing and famous self-portrait of the 20th century.

An entire gallery is devoted to their ranks, but Magritte's oeuvre is more varied than many might assume. The show's opening salvo contains examples of his unsettling "sunlit surrealist" paintings that don't comport with the popular perception of his work, while demonstrating a calculated yet devilish unpredictability that does. For instance, "The Harvest" (1943), a nude reclining on a bed by an open window, a pose lifted from a Renoir composition, is made wild and accidentally psychedelic by the addition of bands of acid-trip colors. The works in this first section, one of a succession of discrete groupings that zero in on a major series or visual theme, are fascinating as anomalous artifacts but not nearly as captivating as what was to come.


René Magritte, The Enchanted Domain I (1953), oil on canvas, Würth Collection, Künzelsau, Germany. Photo: Charly Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  

An established Surrealist in the 1920s and 30s, producing and showing work during the end-of-the-world dread and gloom of the German occupation, Magritte emerged from WWII to fully embrace freedom, artistic and otherwise, and strike out in a new direction. Thankfully, though, he never gave up the Surrealists' glee in upending expectations. Take the pair of swooning inverted mermaids nuzzling each other on shore in "The Wonders of Nature," a component of "The Enchanted Domain," a 233-foot mural commissioned in 1953 for a 360-degree panorama at a casino. He painted a former sherry bottle for "The Curvature of the Universe" (1950) with one of his recurring motifs, a robin's egg-blue sky with puffy white clouds. It's a sublime transfiguring of a mundane object into something magical that might take flight before our eyes. He created 25 such glass bottles, mostly as gifts for friends. I only wish I had been one of them.

Magritte revels in dream logic where incongruous objects share secret affinities and defy laws of physics and scale, but nonetheless seem so right, like the gargantuan rock, shadowed by a trusty companion cloud, zipping over the ocean's surface like an airborne cigarette boat. "Personal Values" (1952), the conceptual jumping-off point for the show, ponders a dollhouse bedroom in the land of tiny people outfitted with a comb and a wine goblet fit for a giant. Other canvases offer equally inadequate accommodations for oversized guests, such as: the immense gray boulder trapped in a spartan room too small to contain it or have allowed its entry ("The Anniversary" 1959); a corralled Tropicana rose whose voluptuous, ephemeral beauty is destined for oblivion in "The Tomb of the Wrestlers" (1960); and an El Grando green apple likewise caged and ready to bust out of its cramped cell, if only escape were on the agenda ("The Listening Room," 1958). "A Sense of Reality" (1963), which has anything but, depicts another mammoth boulder impervious to gravity, floating above the earth like an asteroid on cruise control.

A gallery featuring the series "Gravity and Flight" includes "The Domain of Arnheim" (1962), an eerily beautiful, glacier-blue alpine vista of gigantic peaks at twilight; an eagle's head tops the tallest pinnacle, its wingspan as wide as the mountain range. It's a mesmerizing sight that sends a shiver down the spine not least because the eagle was a prominent Nazi symbol that must have been on the artist's radar. But the painting, embedded with disturbing allusions to Berghof, Hitler's high-altitude Bavarian retreat, adopts the title of a different source of inspiration: an Edgar Allan Poe tale that Magritte embellished by endowing its lead character with the superhuman powers to move mountains and adjust the angle of the sun.

Alas, time ran out. Reluctantly exiting the show, I was reminded of the feeling I had visiting art museums as a child with my mother, unable to tear myself away and pleading with her to stay a little longer.

Through Oct. 28. www.sfmoma.org


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