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Reality is not obvious in Magritte exhibit at Art Institute of Chicago

The playful “Time Transfixed,” a painting of a train puffing out from a fireplace, is arguably the Art Institute of Chicago’s best known piece by Belgian Surrealist René Magritte. But when visitors go to “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” on exhibit at the Art Institute now through Oct. 13, 2014, they will also see images that disturb and question reality.

Modern Wing entrance
Modern Wing entrance
Jodie Jacobs
In Surrealist Magritte's world objects are not what they seem
In Surrealist Magritte's world objects are not what they seem
Jodie Jacobs

There is a head whose face is really a woman’s body. “The Treachery of Images” popularly known as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This isn’t a pipe) questions reality and what people think they see.

Indeed, the title of the exhibition which opened at The Museum of Modern Art, New York last fall, then moved to the Menil Cillection, Houston before coming to the Art Institute June 24, exemplifies Surrealism's oxymoron and questioning views.

In his “La Clef Des Songes” (The Interpretation of Dreams) series, Magritte deliberately mislabels items such as an image of a valise called “le ciel” (sky) a leaf image called “la table” (table).

Among the exhibition's disturbing images is “L’Assasin Menacé” (The Menaced Assassin) where a man apparently listens to music without concern for the dead body lying behind him. Two other men stand menacingly on either side of the picture.

A more famous painting that disturbs is “Le Faux Miroir” (False Mirror) image of a large eye that reflects clouds in a sky but has a black dot in the center that could be a pupil or signify lack of sight. The painting begs the surrealist’s questions of what the eye sees, how something is interpreted or what is reality and what is a dream.

When walking by “The Human Condition”) which shows the outdoors from a window, take a second look to realize that part of the landscape is actually a painting inside the room. The painting melds perfectly with the outside view but the question that should be raised is does it accurately show what is outside the window or is that portion hidden from view behind the painting different?

Also in the what-we-see-hides-something-else vein, is “La Clairvoyance.” Magritte is painting a bird on his canvas while he looks at an egg. In addition, in “La Reproduction Interdite” (Not to be Reproduced), his subject, Surrealism patron Edward James is looking in a mirror but instead of seeing James’ face reflected, the painting shows two back views of the head.

At the Art Institute's recent show opening, Modern Art Curator Stephanie D’Alessandro explained the artist’s viewpoints. “Objects are clear and precise but setting and juxtaposition make everyday objects shriek out loud,” said D’Alessandro.

Tips: Enter from the Modern Wing to see clouds hanging down reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe and René Magritte. With more than 118 paintings and objects delineating Magritte’s prolific and experimental period that is covered in the exhibit, the best way to appreciate the artist’s messages is to take the headphones for the Acoustiguide. On the recorded tour, D’Alessandro, MoMa Curator Anne Umland, Menil Director Josef Helfenstein and conservators Allison Langley, Michael Duffy and Scott Gerson from the three participating museums: Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Modern Art and Menil Collection, Houston, interpret Magritte’s works.

Details: “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” is at the Art Institute of Chicago, 11 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, now through Oct. 13, 2014. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thursday is from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $23 adults, $17 seniors and students. Chicago and Illinois resident fees are discounted. For more information visit Art Institute of Chicago or call 312-443-3600.