The René Magritte exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art has stayed with me since I saw it last month, on the day after Thanksgiving. I suppose that, among the Surrealists, I have always thought first of Dalí due to the iconic status of his melting clocks and cinematic collaborations with Buñuel; and then of Chirico, because I connect with the muted train whistles of his melancholia. Magritte brings to mind bowler hats, the doily silhouettes of trees at twilight, the semiotic playfulness of “This is not a pipe.” Essential images, to be sure, but before this exhibit I have never fully entered his dream world, or dreamed, as it were, his dream.
The show is called MAGRITTE: THE MYSTERY OF THE ORDINARY, 1926-1938, and therein is a clue to what makes Magritte’s surreal both distinctive and beautiful. For while Dalí’s dreams are Freudian and transgressive, contemptuous of social mores and institutions, and Chirico’s brood like sleeping philosophers, Magritte’s are daydreams of the quotidien, the remarkable fancies of unremarkable men, who dress like Hercule Poirot and think for a moment that they can figure out if not whodunnit then at least what might be done. Toss a bowler into the air. What if it just stayed there? There is smoke from the fireplace. Maybe it is coming from a locomotive. That pipe I am smoking: it is designed to inhale fumes into my body. Why not just attach it to my nose and recycle the smoke? There are so many of us in our suits and bowlers. Let us rain from the sky! What will I see in the mirror today, or from the window of my office, or when I open that door?
Such thoughts are perfectly ordinary, and even when they are disturbing, or in some way perverse, they retain a certain propriety and simplicity of thought; in Magritte there is no room for the Catalonian scatology of a Dalí or the contemplative sorrow of a Chirico. They are thoughts that might be had any day of our lives and shrugged away, sometimes with a smile and now and then with a certain perplexity of spirit. The surfaces of Magritte’s canvases are smooth, hard, almost, like enamel, yet visually soft; we can do with the planes he lays out what we will, make them recede in perspective or exist in a sort of flatland, see the workaday world as we always do, or daydream upon it something wonderful, and a little disquieting. He does not solve the mystery of the ordinary, but deepens it, as a normal person might, with a thousand daydreams, a waking surreal of fancy and puzzlement.
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