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The Surreal Life starts today with major Magritte show at the Art Institute

Magritte, The Mystery of the Ordinary


It took Val Kilmer 13 years to research his role in Citizen Twain. Adam Butcher required a similar period to create the video game Tobias and the Dark Scepters. And another 13 years were auspiciously spent by Jeremy Cown according to the title of his book Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah: How It Took 13 Years, Extreme Jewish Brewing, and Circus Sideshow Freaks to Make Shmaltz Brewing an International Success. While these accomplishments provide temporary ways to pass the time it’s unlikely they will pass the same test of time as the artwork of Surrealist René Magritte.

René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). The Eternally Obvious, 1948.
Michael DouBrava
This Is a Piece of Cheese (Ceçi est un morceau de fromage), 1936 or 1937. Oil on canvas board, in gilded wooden frame, with glass dome and pedestal
The Menil Collection, Houston. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

Before the Belgian painter became internationally renowned for his imagery of bowler hats, umbrellas and blue skies, he spent 13 years visually reinterpreting reality. Magritte, The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 focuses on the artist’s work before his bowler hat breakthrough, when the skies weren’t as blue and the color of his palette was as dark as the humor of his subject matter. The exhibition opening today at the Art Institute of Chicago includes more than 100 paintings, collages, objects, and photographs as well as periodicals from Magritte’s stint as an advertising designer in Brussels and his association with the Surrealists in Paris.

Like André Breton, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, Magritte was making the hypnagogic state hip. He questioned the mundane in The Treachery of Images (1929) which depicts a pipe with the inscription “This is not a pipe” and redefined the ordinary in the 1930s with This Is a Piece of Cheese, a two-dimensional representation of a piece of cheese placed inside a real three-dimensional glass dome.

Since Magritte challenged viewers to see things in a new way it was apropos the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and the Art Institute of Chicago each made major discoveries while putting the major exhibition together with the Menil Collection, Houston. Through X-ray analysis MoMa found Magritte’s The Enchanted Pose (1927), a painting previously believed to be lost, resting under its own The Portrait (1935) last year. Similarly the Art Institute recently learned its masterpiece Time Transfixed (1938) was painted on top of another lost Magritte, Spring Eternal (1938), literally adding an extra layer to the extraordinary nature of the work.

The museum’s On the Threshold of Liberty (1937) is the focal point of the show’s grand finale of three grand-scale paintings. Commissioned in London before the war but separated soon after, the exhibition marks the first time the pieces have been reunited since 1940. This curatorial feat and other Surreal treats await the attention of generations seeking something a little more enduring than video games and craft beer.

Magritte, The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 is on view through October 13, 2014 at the Art Institute of Chicago on 111 S. Michigan Avenue. For details, visit

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