The Absolut Magritte

To most people, surrealism--the style that splashed the contents of the subconscious on the canvas--is inherently exotic and complicated. They think of Salvador Dali's rubbery, distorted dream pictures, in which tigers leap from the mouths of fish and pocket watches melt on tree branches. But the Belgian painter Rene Magritte (1898-1967) knew that all the weirdness anyone could want is available in everyday life. All that's needed to depict it is a few simple juxtapositions of ordinary things, reversals of transparent/opaque and maybe a switch in scale. A new retrospective exhibition proves not only that Magritte was as inventive as Dali or Max Ernst but also that his deadpan succinctness makes him the best surrealist of them all. (The show runs through Aug. 2 at London's Hayward Gallery, then travels to New York, Houston and Chicago.)

Like a hard-boiled esthetic detective, Magritte doffed his bowler and unholstered his brushes to solve such mysteries as how we see. In his painting "The Human Condition" (1933), for example, he addressed "the problem of the window." As he later explained, "I placed in front of a window, seen from inside a room, a painting representing exactly that part of the landscape which was hidden from view by painting ... Which is how we see the world: we see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves ... Time and space thus lose their crude meaning, which is the only one they have in everyday experience."

In "The Unexpected Answer" (1933), Magritte confronts "the problem of the door" by painting a person-shaped hole in a door, as if Wile E. Coyote had just bolted through it, fleeing a lighted fuse. In "The Rape" (1934), a woman's facial features are replaced by breasts, a navel and a triangle of pubic hair. Magritte thus said he had solved "the problem of woman."

But was there more to it than that? In 1912, when Magritte was only 13, his mother committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Chatelet, into a dreary stretch of the river Sambre. When her body was pulled from the water a couple of weeks later, Madame Magritte was nude because the currents had pulled up her nightdress and knotted it around her face. Magritte, who probably didn't see the corpse, always downplayed the effect of her death, and so does this exhibition. But British critic Waldemar Janusczak believes the event is clearly alluded to in such paintings as "The Lovers" (1928), in which two shrouded heads attempt a lipless kiss.

On the outside, Magritte led an orderly, practical life. He once worked as a wallpaper designer, and illustrated advertisements from time to time. He was married for 45 years and had no children. From 1930 to 1954, he and his wife, Georgette, lived at the same address, from which Magritte would take his small dog for a daily walk. Georgette and her sister worked at the same art-supply store where Magritte bought his materials. He painted in a corner of the living room where he was always being bumped by the door, roasted by the stove or blinded by the sun's glare. And Magritte was always after his dealers to sign contracts to guarantee him an income. He wanted, it seems, surrealism to be an official branch of the civil service.

But an odd bureaucracy it would have been. A tightknit group of surrealists met weekly at Magritte's house to, among other things, make up the titles for his paintings. They were given to making such pronouncements as "The subversive act must be discreet." In 1945 Magritte joined the Communist Party, and later in life, when he almost stopped painting in favor of just thinking, he carried on an intellectual correspondence with a philosophy professor at the University of Louvain.

All along in Magritte's paintings, the real tension was not so much between normal reality and something deeper but between the philosophical and Freudian forces behind his brand of surrealism. A still life turned to stone, set against a background of "real" rocks, is obviously about death. But it's also a meditation on the slippery difference between the cultural and the natural. And when he floats objects as if they were words between speaker and listener, or paints enigmatic words on a picture, Magritte may be saying that the only two human acts that count at all are seeing and naming.

Magritte's crisp rendering and his apparent belief in the of objects make him one of the most accessible modern artists. Take "The Intimate Friend" (1958), in which a wineglass is as important as a baguette, which is as important as a man. And accessibility makes him one of the most pirated artists ever. Without Magritte, there'd be no CBS eyeball logo (lifted directly from "The False Mirror," 1929), no Absolut vodka campaign and perhaps not a single time-warp Obsession perfume ad. Today, his artistic progeny include Haim Steinbach and his common objects set on shelves, and Allan McCollum and his functionless enameled jars. From "The Treason of Images" (1929)--the painting of a smoker's pipe that carries the infamous inscription THIS IS NOT A PIPE--comes the linguistic work of conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. Magritte might not have been flattered. He dismissed pop art (which owed him everything) as "sugarcoated dadaism." Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers called Magritte "a father who ate his children." But his disdain for recycled ideas didn't stop him from allowing some of his memorable images to be turned into bronze sculptures, like "Megalomania" (1967).

One day, according to an anecdote in Sarah Whitfield's nicely written catalog, Magritte went into a grocery store and asked for some Dutch cheese. When the shopkeeper grabbed the round in the window, he protested and said he wanted his piece cut from another of the same kind. She asked why, since the cheese was identical. "No, madame," Magritte replied, "the one in the window has been looked at all day by people passing by." Magritte was right: seeing does change things. Given the crowds streaming through his retrospective, getting looked at all day must make his paintings, unlike the cheese, even better.