On the morning of May 19, minutes after SFMOMA’s René Magritte exhibit opened for a member preview, so many people flooded the fourth-floor entrance that a line formed. The newly arriving members stood and waited, surrounded by a sea of reddish, ceiling-high curtains that seemed straight from a Broadway stage.
Magritte loved curtains. He put them in many of his paintings, but they were much more than objects. To him, they were windows into the mysteries of life that he said were everywhere — whether the curtain existed within a painting, a museum, a skyline, or one’s imagination. “The sky is a form of curtain, because it hides something from us,” Magritte once said. “We are surrounded by curtains.”
The idea of “the hidden” was a central preoccupation with Magritte, and that theme runs through “René Magritte: The Fifth Season,” the first exhibition anywhere — whether in Europe or the United States — to examine in full the Belgian painter’s late career, from middle age to until his death in 1967 at 68.
Magritte’s best-known works are on display, including Le fils de l’homme (The Son of Man) from 1964, a self-portrait that has an apple floating and hovering before Magritte’s face; and Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values) from 1952, which depicts a bedroom with unusually sized items — comb, matchstick, et cetera — enveloped by the walls of a cloudy sky. In both paintings, the real merges into the surreal, as if Magritte were a magician who completed a visual trick of sleight and awe. Instead of rabbits from an upside-down top hat, he conjures up scenes that defy logic in their ability to arouse an audience, and gets them to wonder about illusion and allusion.
Like other acclaimed artists who were born in the 19th century and lived through much of the 20th — Renoir, Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Wassily Kandinsky — Magritte is someone whose works have been reproduced so often, including on album and book covers, that even casual art-goers know his work, or think they do. If there’s one art direction they associate with Magritte, it’s Surrealism. But “The Fifth Season” takes a discerning dive into Magritte’s complicated relationship with Surrealism. When Magritte was in his 40s — during World War II, when Nazi Germany occupied Belgium — he disassociated himself from the movement. That’s where the exhibit begins: in a period during which Magritte was questioning Surrealism’s aims and motives, and questioning his own style of painting.
The first work visitors see inside SFMOMA is La premeditation (Forethought), a 1943 painting of flowers that is flat-out beautiful. Daisies, roses, and other blooms burst through the canvas, whose colors, swirls, and brushstrokes suggest not Magritte but Auguste Renoir. But Magritte added his signature in the lower right side, along with something else that tells everyone that La premeditation (Forethought) is a Magritte painting: The flowers are all growing from the same, single stem. Recognizing this discombobulation takes a few moments. Unlike The Son of Man or Personal Values — or even Magritte’s work from the 1920s, like La traversée difficile (The Difficult Crossing) and Les complices du magicien (The Magician’s Accomplices), both of which feature curtains — the 1943 painting doesn’t instantly portray its Magritte-ism.
“The longer you spend with it, it just feels a little bit creepy,” Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, says on the well-produced audio tour that accompanies the exhibit.
The flowered canvas is part of what’s called Magritte’s “sunlit surrealism” period from 1943-47, also represented at SFMOMA by Le Lyrisme (Lyricism), a Renoir-esque depiction of an angry man with a pear head who’s staring at a pear of the same size. The work references caricatures of the French king Louis Philippe I, who was deposed in the 1848 Revolution by socialists who demanded more say in the country’s affairs.
Magritte identified with Socialism, Communism, and Marxism, as did many Surrealists, including its founder, André Breton. In a letter to the Communist Party of Belgium in the mid-1940s, when an angry Magritte wanted to protest because he thought art-goers were undervaluing his work and art dealers were trying to exploit him, he wrote that, “The only way that poets and painters can fight against the bourgeois economy is to give their works precisely that content which challenges the bourgeois ideological values propping up the bourgeois economy.”
Magritte’s ideological leanings are documented in the important 2016 book René Magritte: Selected Writings. The first English translation of the artist’s letters, interviews, and other writings, it details Magritte’s determination to change — in his own way — the way society looked at the world and at his own art. The bowler-hat-clad gents who’ve become such an endemic part of Magritte’s reputation, and who SFMOMA devotes a whole room to on the fourth floor, were essentially stand-ins for everyday, anonymous, middle-class men. Magritte was of the people and for the people, even as he came from a cosmopolitan upbringing that allowed him to get a formal art education. He had fun with his bowler-hatted men, painting them from behind, next to strange flowers, in silhouette with clouds, and even street-walking in tandem with paintings in their arms, as in the 1943 work La cinquième saison (The Fifth Season), which inspired the exhibit’s title.
Between 1926 and 1966, Magritte created more than 50 works with bowler men, according to Caitlin Haskell, associate curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA and the exhibit’s curator, who tells SF Weekly that she arranged the exhibit’s nine thematic galleries in an order that would lead to bigger and bigger rooms — and to greater immersion with works that are larger in scale and more interactive. In many of these works, Magritte deliberately leaves out people. Instead, by getting close to the canvases, art-goers become a central figure in the work itself — as if they’re entering the space Magritte has set up just for them. Personal Values, which SFMOMA owns, is typical.
“All the elements in that painting have a personal relationship, so there’s an invitation to step into the scene — so that you become the inhabitant in that space,” Haskell says. “At the same time, you have walls that are depicted with these cloud-filled skies, and they wrap around your field of vision. In discovering that in the following year, 1953, he actually built a 360-degree artwork — that was fascinating to me. I wanted to give people the experience of moving into that space.”
That space at SFMOMA consists of five large paintings that are connected to and compose part of the work The Enchanted Domain. Still, the most stunning Magritte gallery is the one with seven paintings from the L’empire des lumières (Dominion of Light) series. Each piece marries two disparate scenes into a seamless whole: a nighttime residential street that a street light and window lamps brighten in spots, and a daylight skyline of blueness and white clouds. Magritte painted the series of counterintuitive halves for more than 15 years, between the late 1940s to 1966, and made 27 works with the Dominion of Light title.
Prior to SFMOMA’s exhibit, the series has only been shown with as many as three works together. It had been impossible to unite more than three because so many separate museums and private collectors own part of the series. SFMOMA was able to pull off its artistic feat — not only with the Dominion of Light series but with other Magritte works — through relationships with the Magritte Foundation and with different museums, collectors, curators, and benefactors who recognized that “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” might be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
This exhibit will not travel to another venue, which is why so many people seem to be coming to San Francisco. On the exhibit’s first Friday night — another members-only preview — the line to enter SFMOMA snaked from Third Street around the corner to Minna Street, and then from there around the corner to New Montgomery.
The scramble to see Magritte up close has meant crowds of people in front of many of the works (and security guards working extra to caution art-goers about getting too close to the canvases). But there’s still room to contemplate — especially in the large space that the Dominion of Light series hangs in. The darkened walls accentuate the light, textures, and shadows that emanate from the seven paintings, creating a kind of arresting stillness. Put another way: The gallery is an extended dream state. The repetition of seven similar scenes with slight changes — some of the seven, for example, portray street water that reflects the light differently — accentuates that dream state and magnifies what artist Jeff Koons calls Magritte’s ability to stir up the state between consciousness and unconscious thought, Magritte as a posthumous mystical interlocutor.
Koons should know. He lent two works to the exhibit, including Forethought and a 1955 painting that helps end the exhibit: Les idées claires (Clear Ideas), which, against a fading skyline, shows a boulder suspended in mid-air between waves of water and a single, cottonball cloud. There’s nothing that “clear” about Clear Ideas. The central elements are all incredibly rendered (and Magritte doesn’t get enough credit for his skills as a painter) but it leaves the scene open. “The Fifth Season” ends with a room that has six augmented-reality stations where art-goers can interact in fun and funny ways with window frames, cameras, moons, skylines, and sightlines. This room feeds into a fourth-floor SFMOMA store that sells everything Magritte, including umbrellas, notebooks, tote bags, and the like. It’s a surreal turn of events given Magritte’s early anti-bourgeois beliefs — but René Magritte: Selected Writings is also for sale there. In those pages, Magritte says his main reason for painting was to “evoke mystery,” and that “The idea doesn’t matter to me; only the image counts, the inexplicable and mysterious image, since all is mystery in our life.”
Art-goers will still always try to find definitive answers in Magritte’s work. But Magritte didn’t like to suggest answers for anything in his paintings, including the bowler men. As Haskell tells SF Weekly, “when Magritte is showing you something, he’s always leaving open the possibility that it might be something else.”
“René Magritte: The Fifth Season,” through Oct. 28 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. $27-$33, 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org.