The Menil Offers the Mysteries of Magritte

The Setup: John and Dominique de Menil were friends with many of the prominent art figures of their day, including the modern painter René Magritte. As a result of their patronage, the Menil Collection holds the most elaborate repository of Magritte's paintings outside of his native Belgium. In many ways, the images of Magritte are just as much a part of pop culture as they are art history. Even if one has never stepped foot inside a museum, chances are they've seen the raining men of Golconde (1953) or the word/image play of The Empty Mask (1952).

In an effort to bring audiences into a more intimate knowledge of Magritte's fascinating Surrealist landscapes and critiques of tangible reality, The Menil Collection has joined the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art to create Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, an exploration that examines the early work of his career and identifies the Surrealist experiments that would mark the masterpieces of his later career.

The Execution: This comprehensive exhibition is a grand endeavor on an intimate scale. I don't normally associate Magritte's paintings with warmth of any kind, but the 80 artworks on display have been arranged so that they hint at the human impulses behind the iconic genius. The years before World War II marked Magritte's development as an artist, and it's on these walls that the Menil's patrons can see the first of his important forays into Surrealism, such 1927's Entr'acte, in which an assortment of limbs climb of a darkened landscape, or Discovery, in which the skin of a female nude appears to be made of wood.

Much of Magritte's work is famous via mass production, and while it is wonderful to be able to engage with his seminal works such as The Treachery of Images and The Six Elements, the exhibition's careful arrangement gives plenty of opportunity to examine less familiar works. I was previously unfamiliar with Attempting the Impossible, but found myself fascinated by Magritte's representation of the creation process. In the painting, Magritte configures a self-portrait of sorts, which sees his stand-in rendering a naked woman. It's a comical bit, a suggestion that art is not a reflection of reality, but perhaps the artist is the ultimate prime mover of what is real and what isn't.

Much of the appeal of this exhibition is its sheer ambition. One of the highlights has to the gathering on one wall of The Eternally Obvious, The Depths of the Earth, and Celestial Perfections. These are three paintings, but not three canvasses. Each work is a cluster of canvasses that reveal a fragmented image. One is a female nude, another is a landscape, and the third is a sky full of clouds. Each canvass is a shard of a larger image, but in turn each canvass is a window into its own world. The Menil exhibition is the first time the three works have been displayed together since their creation in 1930. Together they are a powerful assessment of the modern world and a human condition that is no longer solid whole, but a splintered existence.

The Verdict: Magritte's Surrealist visions are anything but whimsical; rather, they possess an underlying tone of anxiety of the modern world that at times approaches the violent and the terrifying. With so many of these paintings that turn reality on its head in such close proximity to one another, the exhibition allows for an endless stream of contemplation of what in our everyday life is real and what is simply imagined. The Mystery of the Ordinary is a must-see exhibition for its close and caring attention to detail of Magritte's progression as an artist, and it's insight into a shifting world of the past.

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