Surrealism was identified by its proponents as a way of reuniting the conscious and unconscious realms of experience so that the world of dream and fantasy could be joined to the everyday rational world — or what one critic called “an absolute reality, a surreality.” René Magritte accomplished this by merging dreamlike imagery and naturalistic detail, as in his iconic canvas Time Transfixed (1938). He also worked carefully on his titles, and he was ultimately unhappy with the English translation of the title of this painting. The original French, La Durée Poignardée, literally means “ongoing time stabbed by a dagger.” Magritte hoped that when his patron Edward James purchased this painting, he would install it at the bottom of his staircase so that the train would “stab” guests on their way to James‘ ballroom. In an ironic twist, he hung it over his fireplace, to Magritte’s great dissatisfaction.
One of Surrealism’s most important patrons, Edward James, was a willing collaborator whose sense of play initiated commissions for his homes from such artists as Salvador Dali and Leonora Carrington. James was impressed with the work of Rene Magritte, which was displayed in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, so he invited the artist to paint three decorative canvases for the ballroom of his London home. Magritte painted On The Threshold of Liberty during his stay there in 1937, as the centerpiece of the three works. Originally set behind two-way mirrors, the works would become visible when James changed the lighting, provoking what he called “a profound sensation.”
Influenced by Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte sought to strip objects of their usual functions and meanings in order to convey an irrationally compelling image. In Voice of Space (of which three other oil versions exist), the bells float in the air; elsewhere they occupy human bodies or replace blossoms on bushes. By distorting the scale, weight, and use of an ordinary object and inserting it into a variety of unaccustomed contexts, Magritte confers on that object a fetishistic intensity. He has written of the jingle bell, a motif that recurs often in his work: “I caused the iron bells hanging from the necks of our admirable horses to sprout like dangerous plants at the edge of an abyss.”
The disturbing impact of the bells presented in an unfamiliar setting is intensified by the cool academic precision with which they and their environment are painted. The dainty slice of landscape could be the backdrop of an early Renaissance painting, while the bells themselves, in their rotund and glowing monumentality, impart a mysterious resonance.
Le Faux Miroir (1928) presents an enormous lash-less eye with a luminous cloud-swept blue sky filling the iris, and an opaque, dead-black disc for a pupil. The allusive title, provided by Belgian surrealist writer Paul Nougé, seems to insinuate limits to the authority of optical vision: a mirror provides a mechanical reflection, but the eye is selective and subjective. Magritte’s single eye functions on multiple enigmatic levels: the viewer both looks through it, as through a window, and is looked at by it, thus seeing and being seen simultaneously. The Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who owned the work from 1933 to 1936, recognized this compelling duality when he memorably described Le Faux Miroir as a painting that “sees as much as it itself is seen.”
The Palace of Curtains, III (1928) is one in a series of paintings by René Magritte that explores the resonances between words and images. Two polygons with nearly identical profiles lean against a wood-paneled wall. Each shape frames a depiction of sky, one with a painted representation, the other with language (the French word ciel, meaning sky).
Magritte was fond of unexpected pairings between interior and exterior scenes, as with the patch of blue sky against the finite backdrop of the wall. Placing words in absurd or unexpected contexts, Magritte challenged the conventional use of language. Though the use of text in his word-picture pairings may seem incongruous, the artist viewed all language as arbitrary: “An image is not so wedded to its name,” he said , “that one cannot find another which suits it better.”
Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Magritte has always been one of my favorite artists. The Empire of Light, II (1950) is a painting that, upon a cursory glance, might just look like a typical residential street scape of its era. But give it a minute and you’ll notice that the scene depicts both daytime, with the sun and cloud-dotted bright blue sky above, and the evening shadows and street lamp light below. Absolutely amazing.
The Empire of Light, II is part of MOMA’s permanent collection, so you can see it on almost any visit unless it’s temporarily on loan to another museum.
The Museum of Modern Art is Located at 11 West 53rd St, Between 5th and 6th Avenues, in NYC.
I discovered the fun and thought provoking art of surrealist painter Robert Deyber just a few days ago, while I was at the Mark Kostabi exhibit at Martin Lawrence Galleries. Martin Lawrence also represents Deyber, and their basement gallery was filled with his clever images, which are literal visual representations of familiar, popular or mundane phrases or things such as “The Buck Stops Here,” “Bad Hair Day” or “Train of Thought.” I actually had to guess at the title of the painting above — which could be “Half a Heart or “Halfhearted” — because it wasn’t listed in the gallery and I could not find it online, so feel free to correct me if you are a Deyber fan who is familiar with this awesome painting.
Watch a cool short film on Deyber and his art at This Link.