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New York's MoMA exhibition explores Rene Magritte's surrealist work

Patricia Reaney
17 September 2013

By Patricia Reaney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Belgian painter Rene Magritte's work, featuring men in bowler hats, mysterious landscapes and bright blue skies, may be familiar to many art lovers, but a new exhibition focuses attention on the artist's surrealist pieces.

"Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938," which opens on September 28 at the Museum of Modern Art and runs through January 12, covers 13 years in his life - an intense period when he worked in Brussels and Paris refining his technique.

It is the first major show of Magritte's works in New York for more than a generation.

"Over the course of these 13 years, this is when Magritte becomes Magritte," Anne Umland, the show's curator, said in an interview.

"During these years, he is such a player in surrealist art in terms of rethinking the way that images can make the world strange to us."

The exhibition, three years in the making, includes collages, periodicals, photographs and 80 paintings from MoMA's collection, private and institutional lenders.

It begins in Brussels from 1926-1927 with Magritte's early collages and somber, dark works, such as "L'assassin menace" (The Menaced Assassin), which shows the bloodied corpse of a woman in a room, framed by two men wearing bowler hats and another listening to a gramophone, who seems to be oblivious to his surroundings.

"For me, that is the beginning of the way Magritte has this ability to create pictures in which you can identify every part, and yet, they don't have any coherent, logical narrative," Umland said.

'SOMETHING ALIEN, SOMETHING STRANGE'

Another painting from the same period, "Le Sens de la nuit" (The Meaning of Night), is an example of his use of doubling, or repetition, with two suited men with their backs to each other.

Doubling, misnaming objects, mirroring and concealment are recurrent themes in Magritte's flat style of painting. At times, his work can be unsettling - one piece shows a girl with a bloodied mouth eating a bird.

After moving to Paris in 1927, Magritte produced some of his best known works as well as his words and object paintings, such as "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe), a painting of a pipe with the words of the title underneath the object.

In his 1928 painting "Tentative de l'impossible" (Attempting the Impossible), Magritte is shown painting the figure of his wife out of thin air.

"It is both deadpan and magical at the same time," Umland said.

The final section of the show covers 1930-1938, his years in Brussels before the outbreak of World War Two. The paintings are brighter, with blue skies and lighter colors than in his earlier years in the Belgian capital.

"La condition humaine" (The Human Condition) incorporates the use of an object to hide what lies behind it, showing a painting on an easel in front of an open window blending seamlessly into the landscape behind it.

"Magritte's art has a real clarity. It has an instant point of entry, and then it gets you, usually, often, always," Umland said. "Familiarity is the first step ... and then there is something alien, something strange, something that keeps you looking and makes the ordinary out of the strange and mysterious."

The exhibit will travel to Houston and Chicago after its New York run. (Editing by Eric Kelsey and Stacey Joyce)

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