‘René Magritte: The Fifth Season’
“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,” writes Regina Marler. “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.”
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 Pictorial Content (1947) brandishes a knife in one hand and a gun in the other, and supports a head made of ducks, which appear to be vomiting thick gushes of paint. Brown torrents burst through the arm and seat of the clown’s suit, like a cholera outbreak at a circus.
[…] In all his work, Magritte aimed to surprise and to defamiliarize. When one looked at his paintings, he remarked, one asked the question “What does it mean?” Viewers of the vache and sunlit works seem more likely to ask, “Is this a joke?” Together, the sunlit and vache paintings present one of the most enduring mysteries—and the greatest curatorial challenge—of a career devoted to intellectual puzzles, visual gags, and what Magritte described as his “systematic search for disturbing poetic effects.”
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