The Magritte Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago


Magritte Clairvoyance

There’s plenty of time to attend the Magritte exhibition (Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938) at the Art Institute of Chicago; it runs through October 13th. Cost should be no obstacle. On the museum’s website you are invited to get free admission by bringing an object that reminds you of the ordinary. If “unthinking” our perception of the world is Magritte’s goal, then the Art Institute apparently wants to “unthink” its approach to museum fees.

The wall text and the audio-guide for the exhibit are quite good, so I’m not going to cover what they do well. Instead, here are a few thoughts about the exhibit and the Belgian Rene Magritte’s influence. I hope that they will encourage you to attend the exhibit and to engage this fascinating early 20th century master.

For an artist who endeavored to “de-familiarize” the ordinary and to challenge conventional ways of thinking and seeing, a number of Magritte’s images have become overly-familiar, often to the point of parody, which, you might say, de-familiarizes the de-familiarized image. A recent trip to legendary and soon-to-close hotdog emporium Hot Doug’s made me think about this interplay. In the washroom hung two playful send-ups of Magritte. Underneath a picture of a foot-long, fully-dressed wiener were the words “Ceci n’est pas un hot dog” (“this is not a hot dog”…see below) and in another image a hot dog, rather than Magritte’s polished green apple, obscures the face of a bowler-hatted, top-coated ordinary man. Even a recent ad in the Tribune that I’ve seen for 435 Digital, a web-optimization company, steals a common Magritte trope: where the face should be between the fedora and suited torso there’s nothing but air, suggesting to the imagined entrepeneur the horror of online non-existence.

Magritte Ciel

Although Magritte is a competent draftsman, we are seldom aware that we are looking at a painting, given the frequent and diverse ways that we are asked to interpret the symbolic imagery of the painting. This is especially true in those canvases that make the point about the arbitrariness of words (or, if you want to be more daring, the disconnect between language and object and the disconnect between the painted representation and the “real” object in the world.) Underneath a well-drawn pipe (not a hot dog) are the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Well yes, this is not a “real” pipe, only a painting of one. But on a deeper level, the word that by consensus we have used to describe a curved smoking instrument, is itself unstable. Another painting underscores the insufficiency of both drawn image and word choice. Within a frame are two similar and irregular frames. One frame is filled with blue, a blue sky presumably. The other frame contains the word “ciel” (sky). Separated from one another on the large canvas, they are both removed from the “real” sky which exists outside the boundaries of Magritte’s painting and the museum in which it is hung. Adding to the complexity is Magritte’s placement of the two frames on the floor of a museum-like room.

These word-play paintings are special cases of Magritte’s dominant ambition to unsettle and even to disturb us. He’s animated by the Surrealist creed that insisted that the images and narratives of our dream life, of our non-rational, subconscious side, be the painter’s subject matter. Looking at Magritte today, we may not have our middle-class sensibilities shocked in the same way as Magritte’s contemporaries were.  In an age of readily available pornographic images (or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue for that matter), Magritte’s nudes will hardly turn a head, except for those moments when he playfully rearranges the anatomical parts. Furthermore, sophisticated image manipulation in contemporary photography and film – Photoshop is available to everyone – may make us some to Magritte’s revolutionary experiments with wild juxtapositions, distortions and erasures. Yet, I do find myself lingering over some of his images, even though his dreams are not my own.

Magritte The Lovers


The Lovers is a favorite. Magritte has taken a familiar, maybe even banal, shoulders-up image of male and female in a conventional embrace. But he – or they?  – has wrapped their heads in gray coverings, thus depriving us of the satisfaction of looking at their features and discerning something about the relationship. Are the subjects as unknown to one another as they are to us? Does the painting comment on the high barriers to intimacy? Is the covering a shroud that prefigures death? Are the coverings worn voluntarily to increase the eroticism of the moment? Magritte seems to take a special delight in creating these enigmas.

A special collection of surrealist magazines that are part of the exhibition let us know that Magritte was a willing performer who frequently posed in such a way to mimic a familiar canvas of his. We also have a few canvases in which the artist represents himself in the act of painting and reveals his artistic credo. In Attempting the Impossible a fully-recognizable Magritte shares a canvas with a nude model; both are in full-torso. The artist is painting the nude who seems to have stepped in from another canvas and has completed everything but the left-arm. There’s some doubt that he will be able to complete the figure, signifying his or any artist’s inability to capture in oils an object of desire. The Pygmalion myth – in which the artist falls in love with his sculpture that comes to life – is wishful thinking.

The best way to comment on Clairvoyance, the painting at the top of the blog, is with a poem that I wrote, part of a series of poems about artists who have depicted themselves in their studios.

Bowlered men fall from the sky like bombs

Or rise, heaven bound, repudiating gravity.

 One earth bound figure, looking very much like Magritte,

Places his domed hat on the clothes tree,

And settles in at his easel,

No green apple or white dove impedes his vision.


The easel and the almost completed bird are solid

Not like his other easels that

Are transparent windows to a world beyond,

The artists’ submission to the inferiority of art to nature.


No, here we see a real canvas and

A real artist, his outstretched brush

Texturing the wings of the grey bird,

A bird rising off an invisible perch.


He is a handsome and elegant man

A perfect part in his auburn hair

And wearing a black suit cleaned and pressed 

For an afternoon tea with his bourgeois wife.


His head swiveled to the left

He gazes at a white and perfect ovoid

That remains fixed despite

The upward tilt of the table on which it sit.


Clairvoyant enough to look at the latent egg and

To paint a bird on the canvas, then

Surely clairvoyant enough to imagine the bird

Lifting off the canvas, leaving a perfect cutout of its shape,

Revealing a grey wall or a clouded sky beyond.





About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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