Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary @ArtInstituteChi

The exhibit Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary at the Art Institute of Chicago ends October 13.

I’m going to miss the Unthink posters that have been up around the city all summer. Like his paintings, the posters take you out of the everyday by presenting ordinary objects in strange situations or with unexpected text, causing you to pause and think—to unthink.

The exhibit takes you through dozens of his works. It’s put on in the dark—even the walls are painted black—with only the works themselves lit. You wonder around the halls seeing people made of clouds, birds made of stone, and countless other oddities. A train rushes out of a fireplace in Time Transfixed as a clock sits on the mantle ticking away, anything but transfixed, in fact. There is an effective use of framing—2-object and 4-object configurations with repeating motifs—not totally unlike Warhol’s work some decades down the road. And while the works seem flat when seen digitally, they are impressive up close—he’s a much better painter than you think.

Magritte, who was born in Belgium but worked in Paris, is a well-known icon of Surrealism, a movement started by Andre Brenton that grew out of literature and spread to painting and photography. In addition to Magritte, the movement includes painters like Miro and Dali, and its influence can be traced through Situationalism and to street art like the work done by Banksy today. One tenet of Surrealism to perceive or create a spectacle of the everyday so that you stop and think—again, or unthink.

One of my favorite paintings is his The Treachery of Images. It seems simple and silly at first—just a pipe with the words “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“this is not a pipe”) transcribed below. You think, well, of course it’s a pipe. It’s right there—a pipe. Ah, but it is not a pipe. It’s a representation of a pipe made of paint on canvas. It’s not a pipe at all, therefore. For that matter, “pipe” is a word, a sound, a description of the object, not the object itself. The only thing that is really a pipe is a pipe. In the work, the pipe (or its image) is arbitrary; the point is that things aren’t what they seem, that we attribute meaning to and make assumptions about even everyday, ordinary objects.

If you haven’t been already, it’s worth checking out, and while the show ends on Monday…ce n’est pas la fin (or is it?).