‘Every Time I Look at It I Feel Ill’

René Magritte: The Fifth Season

an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 19–October 28, 2018
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Caitlin Haskell
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/DAP/Distributed Art Publishers, 151 pp., $29.95
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/© Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
René Magritte: Personal Values, 1952

In October 1952, René Magritte’s New York dealer, Alexander Iolas, a champion of the Surrealists in the United States and elsewhere, wrote him in protest. He had recently unpacked Personal Values (1952), the first of what are sometimes called Magritte’s hypertrophic images, in which oversized objects appear to crowd their settings. In this case, a lusciously painted tortoiseshell comb, a vivid blue-green glass, a gargantuan bar of soap, and other personal items dwarf a modest bedroom. The colors made him sick, Iolas reported. Had the work been hastily painted? He begged Magritte for an explanation:

I am so depressed that I cannot yet get used to it. It may be a masterpiece, but every time I look at it I feel ill…. It leaves me helpless, it puzzles me, it makes me feel confused and I don’t know if I like it.

One has to admire this freshness of perception in a man who also represented Max Ernst and was no stranger to disturbing imagery.1 Perhaps Iolas’s honesty disarmed Magritte. “Well, this is proof of the effectiveness of the picture,” he replied. “A picture which is really alive should make the spectator feel ill.”

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art bought Personal Values in 1998, after the death of its most recent owner, Harry Torczyner, Magritte’s lawyer and friend. As the curator Caitlin Haskell explains in the excellent catalog for “René Magritte: The Fifth Season,” in 2013 the painting was loaned to the Musée Magritte in Brussels during SFMoMA’s two-year closure for expansion, but remained on her mind. She and her fellow curator Gary Garrels began to conceive a show “that would focus on the artist’s late work, from the period of our painting forward, and correct the misconception that it was, for better or for worse, a return to his Surrealism of the 1920s and 1930s.”2

But this would mean revisiting—even attempting to rehabilitate—Magritte’s unpopular art from the 1940s: his bright, quirky “sunlit surrealism” and the brutal, Fauve-inspired daubs he submitted in 1948 for his first solo exhibition in Paris. If these two bodies of work were an aberration, they were a sustained one, conducted over five years. Magritte completed over a hundred examples of sunlit Surrealism (a term derived from a postwar Belgian Surrealist manifesto, “Surrealism in Full Sunlight,” which was a rejection, in part, of the Paris Surrealists’ increasing interest in mysticism and the esoteric), and almost forty of what he called his vache paintings for his Paris show.

If Modernist painting broke through to the public with “wild beasts” (the Fauves) at the beginning of the twentieth century, his new works, Magritte implied, were the movement’s domesticated apotheosis: the cow. It was a fighting word. The goopy, droopy clown in…

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