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Magritte at MOMA: the Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-1938
by Lucy Komisar

"The Treachery of Images," photo by Lucy Komisar

Everybody knows the famous bowler hat that is the icon of Belgian painter René Magritte. That makes it especially fascinating to see the trajectory of the artist during his prime surrealist period, thirteen years between the world wars. Magritte said himself in a 1938 lecture that those years were the most crucial of his work. This is one of the Museum of Modern Art’s major shows.

As you wander around looking at 80 paintings, collages and other work, you notice bowler hats and cloud- filled skies.

Anne Umland, curator of painting and sculpture, spent part of her growing-up years in Brussels. She organized the exhibit and at a press preview pointed out some of the Magritte ideas.

The famous pipe painting, “The Treachery of Images,” (1929) shows a pipe with the subscript, “This is not a pipe.” It means that this image is not real, it’s just a painting. It underlines the difference between reality and unreality, the pipe vs the words.

“The Menaced Assassin,” photo by Lucy Komisar

The Menaced Assassin” (1927) shows two bowler-hatted men near a woman’s corpse. They are listening to a grammaphone. The parts don’t add up to a narrative.

“The Meaning of Night” shows another bowler-hatted man repeated; Magritte liked using doubles.

“Attempting the Impossible” shows the painter in the process of painting his wife Georgette, literally painting her since the figure is missing the arm that he is creating. Reality and unreality.

"The Human Condition," photo by Lucy Komisar

“The Human Condition” (1933) is a mirror reflection that shows a painting on an easel. You can hardly tell where the painting that takes up most of the bottom of the window stops and the real window scene begins, except that there’s a little brown widget at the top of the painting and a white strip of canvas as the right of the painting where it ends.

“Not to be Reproduced” (1937) shows his patron, Edward James, from the back looking into mirror that shows – his back!

Magritte: the Mystery of the Ordinary 1926-1938. Museum of Modern Art. 6th floor, 11 West 53 St, NYC. Sept 28, 2013 through Jan 12, 2014.

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