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Unpack and Unthink: A Walk Through Magritte's Work At The Art Institute of Chicago

By Marielle Shaw in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 26, 2014 8:00PM

Photo credit: Marielle Shaw for Chicagoist

Usually, we don’t need climbing shoes when we visit the Art Institute of Chicago. After all, we're not in dusty corridors, or climbing ladders towards the blinding white of the sun. So when our visit landed us on the bright white roof in the midst of a hot July afternoon…you could say we got a different perspective.

There, on the roof, we got a view of the city we’d never seen, and we got a look at a 90x50 foot Magritte graphic. On the roof. Imploring the skyscraper citizens and plane passengers who could see it to “Unthink Voyeurism.”

But you don’t need to climb on a roof to get a fresh perspective, or to “unthink.” In fact, the campaign is for the Institute’s recent exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-38.

This is an exhibit that came to Chicago in late June and runs through mid-October focusing in on the artist’s works during his formative years.

The exhibition is a collaboration between MoMA, The Menil Collection, and the Art Institute, and has been shown at both at MoMA and the Menil Collection before arriving here at the Art Institute. But the Art Institute's installation and careful curation make it a fresh perspective, and the collection includes pieces meant to be displayed together which had not been reunited until the Chicago stop.

We weren’t sure what to expect when walking into the exhibit, immediately noting the hushed, reverent tone. We wondered if this was the right choice for the works of a surrealist who constantly challenges what has been established. It was dark, and you couldn’t see around the corner to what was in store. What you could see, though, was light spilling onto Magritte’s Future of Statues, shadows playing across the death mask of Napoleon Magritte emblazoned with a cerulean sky and blinding white clouds.

It was visually arresting. In speaking with Stephanie D'Alessandro, the Gary C. & Frances Comer Curator of Modern Art at the Art Institute, though, we found out exactly why those choices were made. As we walked the exhibit with her, we were able to see just how perfectly this worked.

Magritte is widely known, and so are many of his works. They’re a part of the art lexicon, something that even those with only a passing interest in art may have seen and already “digested” to some extent.

But this wasn't what surrealism or Magritte were about.

They were about a challenge, about taking something we've all seen before and making it like nothing we've seen before. To turn the familiar on its ear and to change perceptions.

D'Alessandro explained that Magritte himself loved film, and the darkened corridors, black walls and single light focuses were meant to imply a movie theater-type experience. She explained further that while you can be in a crowd at the movies, at some point, if the material speaks to you, you’ll forget the crowd and focus in on what’s ahead of you. Magritte’s work is meant to be a challenge, and meant to go beyond paintings to “painted intellectual considerations.”

This approach was immensely successful. One of our favorite aspects was the slideshow feel which revealed Magritte’s “problem” paintings. These are familiar pieces that can often be overlooked in the haste of familiarity, but they were singled out, arranged on square posts one after the other in a darkened room, so that you had to walk forward and “change the slide” to reveal the next idea. We found this to be a brilliant way to see and “re-see” some of these images.

Moving forward in the exhibition, we got to see some of Magritte’s ad and print work. This was displayed in packing crates, arranged haphazardly in a large, more well-lit open room. This was to allow for a feeling of unpacking and discovering the pieces rather than just viewing them together in a display case. We thought it provided a nice change from the rest of the exhibit as well as providing an interesting interaction with the pieces.

Magritte’s work is big, bold, strange, provocative and of course, surreal. This showing of it served to make it stand out even more. It made each piece its own individual show, and each room a journey as we saw Magritte develop his famous motifs— the bilboquet, the bright blue skies, the man in the bowler hat. It chronicles his journey as an artist from first solo show and periods of incredible prolificity to times he was doing more ad work and trying to make ends meet.

It also speaks of his relationship with British benefactor Edward James, who bought many of Magritte’s pieces, including a trio of large format works that were a feature in his ballroom just prior to World War II. The exhibition closes with the Art Institute’s own Time Transfixed, under which, D'Alessandro explained, lies another painting, a sort of jab/nod to James. It just goes to show that you never know what’s just under the surface, and we thought that was a fitting explanation of the entire exhibit. We encourage you to “unthink” yourself, and check this show out before it moves on.