Evoking the mystery of the world

René Magritte’s mustache,
torso attached
plunders a wet hat.

“Negative Scenery” (1992) by Shozo Torii

Magritte’s playful and rich imagination caught the imagination of a number of Japanese poets, and their writings were my first introduction to the artist’s work. A new exhibition at Shibuya’s Bunkamura, showing some 90 paintings and gouache works by Magritte on loan from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, gave me the chance to get closer to the canvases themselves.

To try to rationally explicate Magritte’s artwork, though, would be contrary to his outlook on art. Instead, why not let the artist shine through his own writings and the artistic responses of others?

Rene Francois-Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967) enrolled as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1914. In 1923 he was greatly influenced by “Song of Love,” a canvas by the metaphysical painter and proto-Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. In the years that followed, he befriended Andre Breton and Hans Arp and stayed at Salvador Dali’s house in Spain. His work quickly gained recognition as he developed a characteristic style, and he co-founded Belgium’s Surrealist movement.

Though he did associate with Surrealists, Magritte didn’t respect their fascination with Freud and dreams; his visions are unique, irreverent, independent from any movement. “Earth evokes the mystery of the world,” Magritte wrote, “In order for this to happen . . . I must entirely stop identifying myself with ideas, sentiments, sensations. . . . No sensible person believes that psychoanalysis could shed light on the mystery of the world.”

His works are “surreal” simply in that they make the viewer shed his common sense, taking him into territory unfettered by rationality.

Often it was not Magritte who named his artworks — the titles were penned by friends such as Paul Elaurd and Paul Nouge, whose portrait is displayed here. Nouge explained how “the title is born of an illumination analogous to the ones that has determined what it names . . . the others, those that come to us from a purely logical and conscious search are distinguished . . . by some air of vanity.”

On occasion, the titles seem to inhibit a broad reading of a work. For example, to interpret “The Return” (1940) as a bird’s flight in the skies of time to the moment of its hatching — to its egg form — is simplistic; the logic is fed by the title, not by the more complicated mystery found in these familiar natural forms.

Sometimes, though, the name game works superlatively well. The title “The Great War” (1964) perfectly illuminates this canvas, in which the face of an elegant, white-clad woman posing with a parasol is blotted out by a bouquet of purple flowers. The bouquet is made startling by its superimposition over the woman’s face, which one imagines as being more beautiful than the flowers, and the overall effect is very unpleasant. It is up to the viewer to reconcile this humdinger — and yet resisting interpretation lets mystery live, because as the artist wrote, “Nothing is confused, except the mind.”

Another, more enigmatic, remark of Magritte’s was: “There is moonlight and the locomotives are returning from the sea.” Now imagine a starry and moonlit country scene (complete with a house, its lights on and surrounded by dense, dark trees) that fills the silhouette of a bowler-hatted man, his figure standing before a brick wall on which sits a a split metallic sphere. . . . The strange world of “The Happy Donor” (1966) opens our eyes to alternate realities.

The Japanese poet quoted above also penned the following lines:

the man standing on the overpass . . .
shining from the headlight,
Rene Magritte.
there’s a boundless desert through
the guy’s backside.

In this 1992 poem, Torii adopts Magritte’s method of placing common images in unexpected places and ways.

Indeed, the world of Magritte’s art is inherently poetic and he admired the same quality in the work of others. In a letter to the scholar-collector James Soby, Magritte described de Chirico as “the first to have tried painting the impossible and to have always granted precedence to poetry over painting.”

The remark seems connected to the title of one of Magritte’s most famous works, a slightly dizzying painting titled “Attempting the Impossible,” (1928) which shows an artist, brush in hand, painting a nude into existence. We do a double-take because the otherwise lifelike figure hasn’t quite been completed, her left arm only half brushed in.

“The real value of art is a function of its power of liberative revelation,” wrote Magritte. Looking at “The Finery of the Storm” (1927), I imagined vague supernatural forces blowing through the group of standing stencil patterns (the vaguely humanoid outlines of which suggest sentience), creating waves on the stark gray sea behind. The dark ship in the waters seems to rock, the shape of its tattered rigging an echo of the shadows cast by the stencils, creating multiple possible scenarios.

Indeed, the visitor leaves this exhibit, unable to look at waves, clouds, apples, horses and the sky in the same way.

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