Review: Chicago’s Magritte Exhibition

This past weekend we went to see “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926 – 1938” exhibition at the Art Institute. I had seen an iteration of this exhibition at the MOMA back in November but I was curious to see it here in Chicago. Also, Rene Magritte is one of my favorite painters. His work is the inspiration for my named Bowler Hat.

I think I liked the Chicago version better than the NY show. It was fascinating to see if and what changed between the shows. Very infrequently do you get to follow an exhibition to multiple cities. The shows had very different feels to them. Also, I’m fairly certain that there were pieces in the Chicago show that weren’t in the NY show. The MOMA show had a very open feel. There were paintings all along the walls. And at the entrance, there was a wall of photos of Magritte.

The Chicago show really emphasized the mystery. The walls were painted a dark blue and it felt much more closed off, almost labyrinthine. You never knew where you were going to turn into the next gallery. The dark color also really emphasized the paintings. In many paintings, there were candles that seemed to pop out. And there is this long hallway with a series of walls running the middle of it. On each wall, there was a single painting. It made it seem mysterious and exalted. You could really focus on each painting individual. It made the paintings even more incredible.

Towards the end of the exhibition, there were these display cases that were made to look like shipping containers. In the boxes, there were photos of Magritte, posing as some of his paintings or posing with them, illustrations, and much more. This was a better presentation of these photos than in NY. You could easily walk past them there. Here, I could spend time looking at each piece. There are amazing photos of Magritte playing with his own paintings. One photo plays with “Clairvoyance” that depicts a man painting a bird while looking at an egg. Brilliant work. Well, the photo shows Magritte sitting in front of the painting in the same pose as the artist, staring at nothing. What a lovely little inside joke!

The final room had three paintings that looked like they were hung as a triptych. These were large magnificent paintings. There was little else in the room, save a bench and a sweet wall explanation about this incredible house of Magritte’s patron. The center painting titled “On the Threshold of Liberty” has eight panels showing different motifs like fire, a woman’s naked torso, a forest, bells, and more. There is a cannon in the foreground aimed at the naked torso. Do the eight compartments refer to the elements needed to create liberty? Or are the eight compartments a different representation of liberty, such as a woman’s torso representing freedom of love or fire embodying freedom from want or cold? Is the canon a force for liberty or against it? I love how his paintings generate so many questions.

The painting on the left is a larger painting of the shoe feet. It looks like bare feet have been made into shoes. In this larger painting, there are a few coins forgotten nearby. It’s a harrowing image. I keep thinking that it should have a title like “The picture of poverty.” Absolutely astonishing.

On the right side of the triptych is a painting that is completely new to me. It shows a grassy field with a lane running through it. On the lane, there are random objects like a lion, a tuba, and more. Ads for the exhibition have the tagline “Rethink Traffic Jam.” But I think that this diminishes the work. Throughout the exhibition, they talk about his play with the relationship between words, objects and art. He liked to question the way we think about objects in themselves and with each other. This piece plays with expectations about place and time. Lions and tubas don’t belong in grassy fields. Why are they there? What about the trail of objects behind them? It also begs the question of the arbitrariness of objects that belong together. Why not a tuba with a lion?

What a wonderful exhibition.

So go out and see this wondrous exhibition before it closes on October 13th.

And regular readers, I’m going to take a little hiatus this week from the blog. Don’t worry, I’ll be back with more adventures but I’ve got some other projects to attend to.

Stay tuned for more mischief!


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