This exhibition, the first to look exclusively at Magritte’s late career, examines his most important bodies of work from the 1940s through the 1960s, and shows how they marked a fundamental shift in painting from Modernism to our own time.
Featuring more than 70 artworks in nine immersive, thematic galleries, René Magritte: The Fifth Season explores how Magritte balanced irony and conviction, philosophy and fantasy, to illuminate the gaps between what we see and what we know. Together, the works reveal Magritte as an artist acutely attuned to the paradoxes at work within reality, and an enduring champion of the role of mystery in life and art.
The Human Condition
Conspicuously paintings about painting, the five artworks in this gallery exemplify Magritte’s approach to art-making as the solution to a “problem” posed by a given object or idea. Taking on the problem of “the window,” Magritte devised compositions that demonstrated, in his words, “How we see the world” by painting pictures of landscape paintings on easels that seem to merge with the vista through a window behind them. While Magritte developed this painting style in the 1930s with Human Condition (1933), his return to the construction and embellishment of it in the 1950s — seen in such paintings as Where Euclid Walked (1955) — created astonishing illusions that encourage understandings of objects as both inside and outside, real and represented, natural and artificial, original and copy.
The 1950s found Magritte continuing to contend with the role of painting in postwar society, but doing so through a return to his exacting signature style. Magritte’s work during this decade is characterized by “hypertrophy,” a jarring alteration of scale among familiar objects that creates an unnerving effect. Among the best known expressions of this idea, Personal Values (1952) depicts a bedroom framed by cloud-filled walls, with an oversized comb and shaving brush dwarfing the furniture on which they rest. This wonderful and perplexing painting, acquired by SFMOMA through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis, is one of the cornerstones of the museum’s collection, and 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of its acquisition.
Personal Values is joined in the exhibition by four remarkable paintings from this series, making it the most complete presentation of the hypertrophy works to date. Among the highlights are two versions of The Listening Room (1952 and 1958); The Anniversary (1959); and The Tomb of the Wrestlers (1960). In each work, a small, everyday object has been enlarged to a grotesque size, filling an entire room from floor to ceiling.
Among Magritte’s best known paintings are men dressed in bowler hats, a recurring motif he painted in various forms more than 50 times between 1926 and 1966. Particularly in the 1950s, the motif became so closely associated with the artist to be understood as an alter ego. Ultimately, Magritte used the easily recognizable man as a compositional element and a framing device that allowed him to play with the relationship between humans and their surroundings.
The exhibition includes numerous examples of the well-known figure — the notable The Son of Man (1964) as well as The Happy Donor (1966), in which the silhouette of a bowler-hatted man is filled with a twilit landscape and starry sky. The figure may be perceived as a window into an idealized version of the natural world, or, conversely, one may see it as nature obscuring the man.
Enchanted Domain and the Dominion of Light
Another highlight of the SFMOMA exhibition is four of the eight rarely-seen canvases from The Enchanted Domain (1953), Magritte’s monumental 360-degree panorama and his largest work. The mural, 236 feet in circumference, was commissioned for a circular room in the Grand Casino in Knokke, Belgium. Magritte created the eight oil paintings that established the design of the frieze on a 1:6 scale. SFMOMA’s presentation marks the first time in 40 years that this many of The Enchanted Domain works have been seen together in a museum exhibition.
Adjacent to The Enchanted Domain is Magritte’s exploration of contradictory qualities in paintings of paradoxes. The Dominion of Light is a series of nighttime landscapes with broad daylight skyscapes, showing day and night co-existing seamlessly in a single street scene. Magritte painted this subject more than a dozen times from 1949 to 1965. Since the artist’s death, however, no more than two have been exhibited together. This exhibition presents six of these works in an immersive gallery, marking the first time that this pivotal group of works can be experienced as a series.
Gravity and Flight
The exhibition concludes with a final gallery exploring gravity and lightness, in paintings of gigantic floating boulders and flying birds that frame the sky. The juxtapositions in these mysterious and meditative works invite a reexamination of our basic assumptions of existence, space and time.