Transfixing Experience With Magritte by Norbert Marszalek


I was never a huge fan of Surrealism. It seemed too tedious and fantastical. Sure, there were some pieces that kept my attention over the years but on a whole Surrealism gave me the blahs.

With that said, I was actually excited to learn of the Magritte exhibition at the Art Institute. It would give me a chance to reevaluate my thoughts on this particular movement and also on one of its premier headliners. Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 focuses on the artist’s most productive years starting in Brussels then Paris and back to Brussels.

Well, the first part of this exhibition which includes Magritte’s short stint in Brussels and the bulk of his time in Paris reinforced my original feelings. I didn’t like the work. The paintings seemed force; there was no excitement plus the space was cramped, dark and somber. It felt never-ending … I was reaching a saturation point; I wanted to leave but thought better and told myself to just experience the remainder of the show.

Something then shifted. I took notice of The Treachery of Images, The False Mirror and finally The Annunciation which is the culmination of Magritte’s work up until that point—all the objects he had been using (bells, paper cut-outs and balusters) come together to form a truly magical, surreal landscape. Yes, I was familiar with these paintings but now I was actually seeing them.

The next phase of the exhibition, Brussels 1930-1938, blew me away. Each painting had its own wall and the walls were parallel to each other and ran the entire length of the narrow space. The room had a surreal feel to it. I felt like I was walking into a Magritte painting. The space was laid out so simply yet it was so powerful. And contained on each of these single walls were not just ordinary paintings but Magritte’s master works including The Rape, Black Magic, The Portrait, The Philosopher’s Lamp, The Healer, and Clairvoyance. Experiencing these paintings in their own unique space was truly moving. I couldn’t believe it took me this long to finally look at this work!

The physical space of the exhibition began to open up. The next room was large and contained Magritte’s commercial work and some photographs. These items were housed in display cases in the form of shipping crates. It was revealing to see how his commercial work influenced his fine art.

Moving along, the next large room contained only 3 paintings: The Red Model, Youth Illustrated, and On the Threshold of Liberty. These paintings were a commission between Magritte and Edward James. The triptych project was a turning point for Magritte; it was the first major commission he had ever received. On the Threshold of Liberty has been in the Art Institute’s permanent collection for many years but it was a pleasure to see these paintings hanging together again.

The exhibition ends with the masterpiece Time Transfixed. It could not have ended on a more provocative note. Again, I have seen this painting many times but seeing it here in the context of this exhibition has really opened my eyes … to Magritte and Surrealism.

For me, this exhibition was about time and space … mental and physical. I definitely had a transfixing experience.

The exhibition runs through October 13, 2014.
More on the show here.