Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition of René Magritte’s paintings and photographs is titled The Pleasure Principle after one of his paintings, but the idea of pleasure is one that permeates every work in this stunning exhibition. For it would take a particularly stony-faced gallery visitor not to break out into a smile at some point in the eight rooms, whether in response to the frequent word play or the sheer daring of the imagination, or just the chance to see great art without the London crowds.
Magritte, like Dalí and Picasso, developed motifs that make work instantly recognisable as his even before you glimpse the trademark bank clerk’s signature in the bottom corner: the pipe that isn’t a pipe, the bowler-hatted figures, the lovers with their faces obscured by shrouds, the doves whose outlines hold blue sky and cotton wool clouds, the night-time streets with a background of brilliant daylight. Examples of all of these are included in the exhibition, but there are many more besides, which show not only Magritte’s astonishing stylistic range, but also his ongoing obsession with questions of representation. Where other surrealists relied on dreamscapes to unsettle the viewer, Magritte embraces the mundane, giving it a slight twist that at first appears a joke, then, once the laughter fades, leaves the viewer wondering how much of what we take as normal can actually be relied on. In ‘The Night Owl’, for example, we see a figure standing half in shade beneath a streetlamp, and smile at the realisation that the streetlamp and figure are both indoors, not outdoors; but however long we look at the painting, the figure is still waiting, and his features refuse to emerge from the shade, a sinister enigma at the centre of the painting.
‘The Night Owl’ is in the second room of the exhibition, named ‘The Surreal Encounter’, and this is definitely one of the strongest rooms, including among other works ‘The Portrait of Paul Nougé’ and a version of ‘The Lovers’. It also contains ‘The Menaced Assassin’, one of Magritte’s most famous works, though studied close-up, it is a painting that throws a doubt into the mind: could Magritte paint? The figures here are all clumsily rendered, their dainty feet out of proportion, and their faces too close to wax to pass off as human flesh. This is a doubt that recurs several times throughout the exhibition, only to be quashed by the virtual photo-realism of other works, which makes me wonder whether he deliberately produced clumsy perspectives as just one more way of challenging the language of representation, in the same way as labelling a blob ‘a forest’ unsettles both our linguistic and pictorial response mechanisms. How poorly painted does a foot have to be before we fail to recognise it?
The one lowpoint of the exhibition for me was the array of photos of Magritte and the other surrealists larking about. Like stories about people getting high, they were probably fun at the time, but mean nothing to people who weren’t there. In the context of the exhibition, they needlessly take up space that could have been devoted to more paintings or even some of Magritte’s underrated commercial art (on show here is his stunning poster for a film festival, in which a woman’s forehead is replaced by a blank cinema screen).
However, this is a minor complaint, and is soon forgotten when you pass into the next rooms, devoted to Magritte’s trompe l’oeil works and his treatment of the nude. The former mostly consist of paintings that contain paintings of the same scene and jolt the reader with their seamless transition between the two – a horizon carries on unbroken on the canvas that stands before it. Yet even here Magritte is playing with his own formula: ‘The Key to the Fields’ shows a view of trees and a field through a broken window, but when we look down from the window, we see the same view still held in the shards of glass scattered on the floor. His nudes vary wildly, ranging from ones where the body has been elongated beyond all recognition, reduced to human clay, to others that are surprisingly intimate and tender. The female body here is a dream site of possibility: the nude in ‘The Uncertainty Principle’ stands staring at her shadow as it takes the form of a bird in flight, while ‘The Dream’, a portrait of Magritte’s wife Georgette, has the shadow of the nude taking on the details of her form, aspiring towards a state of doubleness. But Magritte can also be deeply playful with the human body: six surreal sketches for Georges Batailles’ Madame Edwards, each in the form of a sketched pubis and shown here in a peep show behind a black curtain, include a woman with a penis sprouting from her mouth, and a king clutching a massive dildo in place of a sceptre.
As the exhibition draws to a close, the viewer discovers how Magritte worked with the great English patron of the surrealists, Edward James, to produce not only the famous painting of a train emerging from a fireplace, but also the portrait of James that gives the exhibition its name, both of which are on display here. And then the lights go out, with numerous versions of those night-time/daytime streets shown under gloomy lighting that accentuates their uncanny nature.
Overall, this is an exhibition that’s well worth the time and the expense to see. Like all good major retrospectives of an artist’s work, it both deepens and conforms the viewer’s admiration, encouraging us to think of Magritte as more than a producer of pictorial one-liners, and instead as a painter central to any appreciation of surrealism and twentieth century art.