My first stop, prior to the main attraction, were the galleries showcasing works on paper. The pieces in these galleries are rotated on a regular basis due to the fragile nature of the art. Most of the works are part of the Art Institutes's vast collection. Sometimes the exhibits can illuminate the work of familiar artists. For instance a quick sketch in pencil or charcoal of a landscape or figure, the artist may have used these as studies for later, more well known works. Sometimes they appear as exercises with the artist exploring and fine tuning line or shading, ground work of the craft of art, much like the scales performed by musicians and singers.
On display were a collection of Mexican prints. Tranquil scenes of village life were mixed with pieces containing political themes, some with violent overtones. They brought to mind my visit to the Diego Rivera murals in the city hall of Mexico City. Like those they represented the mixture of the history and anger of the Mexican people turning to pride in the act of freeing themselves from colonialism and establishing their socialist republic.
I moved on to the Magritte exhibit. He was an artist whom I was aware of, having seen several examples of his work over the years, yet not terribly familiar with. The exhibit focused on his work between the years of 1926 to 1938. Magritte's aim was to depict, through his art, the world of dreams. The galleries were dimly lit which accentuated the dreamlike images presented.
I soon came across a piece, "The Morning of Light", I have previously seen at the Menil Collection in Houston. It is an example of how a perception of a piece can be altered by it's setting. Standing alone I saw it as merely an example of surrealism; surrounded by other works by this unique artist it's dreamlike quality became apparent. The dream imagery continued as I moved through the exhibit. Legs replace heads, trees grow upside down, disembodied limbs grasped one another almost as if they were dancing. In one painting, an artist, a self portrait of Magritte, appears to be painting his nude life model, creating her arm with his brush and pallet. The life model is a portrait of his wife. In one slightly disturbing painting, not helped at all by it's title, "Rape", a woman's nude torso forms a face.
Characters with cartoon bubbles coming out of their mouths reminded me of the later work of Lichtenstein and the superimposed words in the silent German expressionistic film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". In one work cartoon bubbles come out of a shotgun barrel containing the French words for sword (sabre) and horse (cheval). One piece features a seated portrait of a man, his head and torso depicted as a birdcage. In a group of collages figures are cut from pieces of sheet music. A nude portrait of a woman portrays the subject as part flesh, part wood.
There is wit exhibited in some works. A realistic depiction of a pipe has the words "This is not a pipe" painted, in French, underneath it. Magritte explained, "You cannot smoke it, therefore it is not a pipe." in "Clairvoyance" Magritte, in another self portrait, appears to be drawing a bird from life yet the model on the table is an egg.
The expert vision of the curators is shown not only in the dimly lit galleries but also in the area devoted to prints and illustrations. There the works are displayed, inexplicably, in cases that resemble packing crates. They allude to the misplaced, mangled realism realized by the artist.
Two works in particular reveal a tender nature to Magritte's creative mind. In one sleigh bells float in a cloudy sky. In another a nude bust, trombone and chair, all painted a gauzy white, float above a landscape. Both are meant to evoke memories of the childhood pastime of lying on one's back creating in our imaginations scenes and familiar forms from the clouds that pass by overhead.
The exhibition closes with a well know work from the Art Institutes's collection titled "Time Transfixed" in which a steam engine appears to be emerging from a fireplace. As in many artworks x-rays revealed that the canvas for this painting was reused by Magritte. A different, earlier work lies underneath it.
As I mentioned I was aware of, but not familiar with, the work of Magritte. This, truly once in a lifetime opportunity to experience this much of his work at one time gave me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for, this unique and unconventional artist.