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René Magritte's Remarkable Transformation. Fifth Season at SFMoMA

  • Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952
  • In the space of the San Franciso Museum various events will happen during the exhibition
May 14, 2018
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

A lot of studies have been written about the development of the avant-garde movements, and exhibitions released in various institutions around the globe depending on the collection and accessibility of the artworks. Regardless of the characteristics of artistic production in the first several decades of the 20th century, such as experimentation, innovation, and the use of new media (photography and film), certain aspects of individual artistic practices are constantly being rediscovered and reinterpreted.

In the majority of cases of the established artists over the years, practically every possible thing was interpreted; yet aside from that the initiative to represent a particular segment of one’s oeuvre lays an astounding ability to reevaluate the historical context and read the artworks from a new and fresh perspective.

For instance, the vast and complex art of René Magritte has been represented on various occasions internationally, but the latter half of his career, from approximately 1943 to 1967, has not been showcased thoroughly.

The upcoming exhibition The Fifth Season at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art tends to change that in order to reveal exciting points of the artists’ later career. This is going to be the most comprehensive overview of his late work since his death and it will gather a large number of loans from different continents which are going to be presented for the first time on the American soil.

Left René Magritte - La préméditation (Forethought), 1943 Right René Magritte - Le monde invisible (The Invisible World), 1954
Left: René Magritte – La préméditation (Forethought), 1943. Koons Collection; © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York / Right: René Magritte – Le monde invisible (The Invisible World), 1954. The Menil Collection, Houston © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston

The Short Story on The Challenges of René Magritte

To say that René Magritte is one of the pioneers of modern art is most certainly true, and such a statement is based on the outstanding legacy which has largely influenced a number of later artists, especially the proponents of Pop Art and  Conceptual Art. By creating a particular painterly style, authentic iconography, and by inserting various references from art history, modern film, advertising, to the philosophical inclinations, Magritte made an impressive body of work which has enabled an establishment of a truly different approach to the arts.

The bold, graphic and uncompromising aesthetic of René Magritte is an effect of various circumstances – from poor family background to the professional difficulties. At the beginning of his career, he was influenced by the Impressionism, while after the studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels the artist started painting differently and in accordance with then dominating styles, such as Cubism and Futurism.

The year 1926 is being taken as the breakthrough of his affiliation to Surrealism. For some time, the artist worked as an illustrator which reflected on his practice, especially the later works. In 1932 he joined the Communist party, and at approximately the same time was supported by the British patron Edward James.

René Magritte spent the war years in Belgium and never stopped producing works despite all the difficulties and suppression. After the end of the war for some period, he and several other Surrealists even made fake Picassos, Braques, and others in order to support themselves. Nevertheless, Magritte had soon returned to his surrealist style, which then developed into more socially charged practice until his death in the late 1960s.

Left René Magritte - L’empire des lumières (The Dominion of Light), 1954 Right René Magritte - La courbure de l’universe
Left: René Magritte – L’empire des lumières (The Dominion of Light), 1954. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York / Right: René Magritte – La courbure de l’univers (The Curvature of the Universe), 1950. The Menil Collection, Houston © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Paul Hester

The Thematic Segments

The SFMoMA exhibition installment consists of seventy oil paintings and gouaches which are meticulously grouped chronologically. In order to fully understand later motifs and occupations, the curator Caitlin Haskell has decided to display Magritte’s works form the 1940s in a first segment, which he made during the Nazi occupation of Belgium in World War II. This phase, described as the sunlit period, reveals his discontent and the dominant feeling of alienation and is characterized by the use of dim colors.

On the other hand, in 1947 René Magritte plunges into the second short phase during which he created vache paintings fulfilled with bright colors and cartoonish figures.

The second segment deals with the works from the 1950s which show Magritte’s occupation with the human condition. By producing imaginary landscapes which symbolically represent the mirror of the soul, the artist wanted to articulate his intimate observation on a different perspective which can be at the same time purely emotional an political.

For the third segment, the term hypertrophy is used to describe his work from this decade as well due to the increasing presence of familiar objects in unfamiliar constellations on canvases.

The fourth segment is devoted to the recurrent motif of bowler-hatted man which is represented over 50 times in between 1926 and 1966. Especially in the later works, the presence of this figure intensifies and even poses a thesis that it is an alter ego of René Magritte.

The following segment is an actual representation of his largest work, the rarely seen canvases from The Enchanted Domain (1953), as well as a series of nighttime landscapes with broad daylight skyscapes titled The Dominion of Light, which the artist painted in a period from 1949 to 1965.

The exhibition ends with a segment devoted to the explorations on light and gravity. With the works depicting huge floating rocks and flying birds which frame the sky, Magritte has a question the notions of space, time and existence.

Left René Magritte - Le fils de l’homme (The Son of Man), 1964 Right René Magritte - Les promenades d’Euclide (Where Euclid Walked), 1955
Left: René Magritte – Le fils de l’homme (The Son of Man), 1964. Private collection © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Banque d’Images, ADAGP / Art Resource, NY / Right: René Magritte – Les promenades d’Euclide (Where Euclid Walked), 1955. Minneapolis Institute of Art, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund; © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Minneapolis Institute of Art

Rene Magritte at SFMoMa

The very subtitle The Fifth Season is an actual title of one his paintings from 1943. The work itself represents the recurrent motif present in Magritte’s work and that is a bowler hat. The displayed situation and the title suggest the interplay of meanings, so this work evokes the artist’s witty dystopian visions which resemble or stand in parallel with the reality.

As a matter of fact, this outstanding survey on the late works of Magritte follows the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death and could not be possible without the support and lasting collaboration with the Magritte Museum in Brussels and the Magritte Foundation. It is accompanied by an extensive catalog with a hundred illustrations and texts written by esteemed academics, which is edited by the curator Caitlin Haskell and published by the museum in association with Distribute Art Publishers from New York.

The exhibition will be additionally emphasized through the following programs – guided tours, lectures and presentations, and the audience will be able to experience it from 19 May until 28 October 2018 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Editors’ Tip: René Magritte: The Fifth Season

When René Magritte reached his 40s, something unexpected happened. The painter, who had honed an iconic Surrealist style between 1926 and 1938, suddenly started making paintings that looked almost nothing like his earlier work. First he adopted an Impressionist aesthetic, borrowing the sweet, hazy palette of Pierre-Auguste Renoir―which he described as “sunlit Surrealism.” Then his style shifted again, incorporating popular imagery, the brash colors of Fauvism and the gestural brushwork of Expressionism. And then Magritte returned to his classic style as if nothing had happened. René Magritte: The Fifth Season looks at the art Magritte made during and after the stylistic crises of the 1940s, revealing his shifting attitudes toward painting.

Featured images: René Magritte – Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952. Collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York; René Magritte – Le tombeau des lutteurs (The Tomb of the Wrestlers), 1960. Private collection; © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York. All images courtesy SFMoMA.