Magritte mini-show leaves viewer hungry for more
Like the "Mona Lisa" or Grant Wood's "American Gothic," Rene Magritte's paintings have been absorbed so fully into the popular consciousness that confronting the originals is a bit surreal. Magritte's austere images of an enormous Granny Smith apple in a living room ("The Listening Room," 1952) or a man in bowler cap gazing out to sea ("The Sirens' Song," 1952) are inseparable from the derivations — the album and book covers, the poster art, the advertisements — floating around the cultural atmosphere.In person, it is clear why Magritte's paintings, five of which are on display at the High Museum, have exerted such a hold on the popular imagination. The works are startlingly crisp and hypnotic with a great sense of visual humor and whipsmart insights into the trust we have in what our eyes see. Works like "The Sirens' Song" play with our desire to see a reflection of the world rendered in paintings as an obvious illusion, where the same breeze that animates the sea's waves fails to cause a flicker in a candle or flutter in a leaf.
Magritte, like the Dadaists before him and the Situationists after him, belonged to a great tradition of art world wiseacres. While the French Surrealists hailed Freud and the disturbing landscape of dreams referenced in Dal''s melting dreamscapes, Belgian Surrealists like Magritte were interested instead in how we accept the visible world and the medium of painting's approximation of it at face value, refusing to look beneath the surface of things. The High has topped each painting with an enigmatic quote from Mr. Magritte ("Each thing we see hides something else we want to see.") to further enhance the conceptual mind-fuck of the artist's delightfully quixotic, prankish canvases.
The epiphanies generated by The Mystique of Rene Magritte's small survey of work are not insignificant, but they're definitely not on a par with the profound insights that can be gleaned in real surveys of an artist's career or in treatments of an art movement or style. Here, locals are only offered an abbreviated version of a movement and one of its primary architects.
The High has attempted to flesh out its smattering of Magrittes with some works by actual Surrealist artists like Joan Miró and a rather uninspiring selection of mostly photographic works from its permanent collection that use surreal techniques or imagery, as in Joel-Peter Witkin's still lifes with corpses or Duane Michal's image of two hands cradling the cosmos.
These five Magrittes, spanning 1926-1964, have been loaned from Houston's Menil Collection, an institution that assumed special significance for locals when its siren song attracted former High Museum director Ned Rifkin to join its ranks in 2000. (Rifkin has since moved on to D.C.'s Hirshorn Museum.)
Atlantans are apparently supposed to count themselves fortunate to have scored five honest-to-goodness Magrittes. But like recent irritatingly slim offerings at the High, such as Van Gogh's Starry Night: Three Masterpieces from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the whole Magritte enterprise feels decidedly paltry. Carrie Pryzbilla, curator of modern and contemporary art at the High, says smaller "focus" shows like this one are a pragmatic alternative to the enormous cost of insuring large retrospectives of famous works and the difficulty of negotiating for paintings in a competitive market. But such shows also cater to a superficial taste for famous names and famous paintings over innovative programming.
Whatever the behind-the-scenes rationale for shows like Mystique, sliver shows such as these convey a very commerce-oriented notion of art's value. These superstar-oriented micro-retrospectives treat artworks as expensive objects meant to elicit the awe created by seeing a celebrity in person rather than inspiring intellectual or aesthetic epiphanies. We are meant to feel reverent and impressed standing in the presence of these very famous, great — and expensive — one-of-a-kind works, but our artistic consciousness remains un-broadened.
The Mystique of Rene Magritte makes one feel diminished and gypped, wondering when the High will rate something beyond the scraps of greatness it continually gathers from other museums' profligate feasts.