The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has injected some new energy into the study of late Magritte and though these outliers in the oeuvre are not nearly as pleasing or inventive as those more familiar to us, some, especially those which refine or riff on earlier motifs (bowler hats, fire, mountains and stones) are lively and witty.
The late gouaches are especially nice-small and elegant and returning to the odd juxtapositions which made him not only a master of paint but also the bon mot. Magritte was in touch with the writers and poets of his time and infused his work with the allegories and allusions which preoccupied the Surrealists throughout his life. He believed "‘secret affinities’ existed between unlikely pairs of objects", reminds a wall label. “We know the bird in the cage,” he wrote, but “it is more interesting to replace the bird with a fish or a shoe.”
(The recent biography of the de Menils sheds some more light on this ‘late’ Magritte who appears to have been someone with a real sense of humor.)
The curators say he had largely left surrealism by this juncture. But he himself waffled when asked the question point blank. I appreciated their wall texts which split the difference. “When it comes to matters of the heart”, the curators write referring to image of a rose and sword, “Which is mightier?” They point out the multiplicity of layers in Magritte, his enclosing things in compartments to reveal the mysteries inside. This is the essence of surrealism.
Less successful are the works that hark back to the late Impressionists, or Fauvists and bad Renoir, and bring color and reality to subjects far from those we commonly associate him with—what is commonly called ‘sunlit surrealism’. It felt bumpy as if he himself had sought, during the Nazi regime, to hide his more daring, darker impulses. I suppose it was very contemporary of him to riff on the earlier artists, after all, it is one of the defining artistic motifs of our contemporary period, but for me they fell flat.
Magritte remains nevertheless close to my heart as you can see by my website cover image of his fish — a late gouache — wrapped in pearls. Another fish — Merman? Mermaid? — is part of the exhibition. He is a master at conjuring imagery of disparate things and bringing new dimension and meaning to each.
The exhibition is up until October 26 and will not travel. A good excuse to visit SF where it is much cooler during the summer than the most of the rest of the US.