Braque, Magritte Had Overlapping Concerns, Wildly Different Visions
IMAGE: René Magritte, Le faux miroir (The False Mirror) (detail), 1928. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 31 7/8 in. (54 x 80.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013
One of the perks of living in a regional art capital with global art-city aspirations and the money to chase them is the increasingly frequent opportunity to see New York-worthy exhibitions without waiting in New York lines. Houstonians are especially spoiled this spring. Not only can you see both Georges Braques: A Retrospective (through May 11) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a career-spanning pair of René Magritte shows at the Menil Collection on the same day; you can see them under just about the most ideal circumstances imaginable.
It’s a no-brainer that you’d rather see Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 (through June 1) at the Menil than fight crowds at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, or the Art Institute of Chicago, the show’s other two venues. The Menil’s got the best building, smaller crowds and an unbeatable context thanks to its Surrealism galleries and its companion collection-based show Memories of a Voyage: The Late Work of René Magritte (through July 13).
As for the Braque survey, which MFAH director Gary Tinterow and curator Alison de Lima Greene derived from a supersized version that appeared last fall at the Grand Palais in Paris, it sings on Upper Brown Pavilion’s new free-standing, curved walls that are aligned according to the fan-like structure of Mies van der Rohe’s original design. Tinterow and Greene have edited judiciously from the Paris show’s 250 works down to 70, including a few loans they secured on their own from American museums. Their inclusion of the MFAH’s own Canal Saint-Martin (1906), an early Fauve painting and rare view of Paris, and Fishing Boats (1908-09), a pivotal Cubist work, enhances both the show and the paintings themselves, which get a break from the Beck Collection Galleries’ pinkish-peach walls and look refreshed.
Seen in the progression of Braque’s development, Fishing Boats, the show’s first truly Cubist picture—important predecessors like Grand Nude (1907-08) and L’Estaque Viaduct (1908) are Cubish but not quite Cubist—asserts its landmark status, which may not be as apparent in the Beck Galleries, where its usual proximity to Canal Saint-Martin emphasizes the swiftness, not the process, of Braque’s stylistic shift, which involved grappling with Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse.
“Instead of painting by beginning in the foreground, I concentrated in the center of the picture,” Braque said of Fishing Boats. “Soon I even inverted the perspective, the pyramid of forms, so that it would come toward me, so that it would come toward the spectator.” Art historian Douglas Cooper summarized Braque’s achievement in The Cubist Epoch (1971): “Braque makes the solid reality of things simultaneously visible and tangible, and prevents their receding from the eye (as they do with one-point perspective.)”
Magritte, on the other hand, makes the solid reality of things simultaneously visible and debatable while using traditional representational methods to his advantage: Not to be Reproduced (1937) is a highly reproducible painting of a man looking into a mirror; both the man and his reflection have their backs turned to the viewer. In Attempting the Impossible (1928), a male painter, palette in hand, begins to brush in the left arm of an otherwise life-size nude woman, who appears not on a canvas within the canvas but in the room with him.“Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” Magritte famously writes beneath an illustration of a pipe in The Treachery of Images (1928-29). This is Media Literacy 101 four decades before John Baldessari, whom Magritte foreshadows throughout The Mystery of the Ordinary, and it’s still instructive today: That’s not a person you’re looking at on a dating app or Facebook; it’s a representation of a person.
Braque is concerned with finding new means of representation—that is, representation as a way of seeing; Magritte with new ways to think about representation—that is, representation as a way of reordering reality. At times those concerns overlap, as in Braque’s Still Life with Fruit Dish (1936). It reflects Braque’s continuing dialogue with Matisse, who prompted his Fauve period more than three decades earlier, but may also be Braque’s most Magritte-like picture, given the intrusion of the unraveling double-sided wallpaper (with its life-size, repeating representations of fruit) into the space of the “real” fruit. It’s reminiscent of Magritte’s The Muscles of the Sky (1927)—in which elongated, irregularly shaped pieces of a dark sky similarly unravel onto a floor (which, incongruously, is not part of an interior), blocking the trees that in turn block the intact portions of the sky—and of Magritte’s penchant for collapsing distinctions between reproduction and “reality.” (Braque and Magritte also both brought language into their paintings, another shared concern.)
That’s not to say Braque owes Magritte any debts. To the contrary: Braque invented papier collé decades earlier after seeing some faux wood-grain wallpaper in a store window and incorporating it into the composition of Fruit Dish and Glass (1912)—in the process detaching color from form. Soon he was painting (instead of pasting) the wallpaper directly onto canvases—faking the faux—in paintings such as Fruit Dish and Cards (1913).
Just as Braque and Picasso used collage to launch Synthetic Cubism, in 1926 Magritte, then a graphic artist and little-known post-Cubist painter would use it—sheet music, rather than faux wood grain, was his primary printed paper of choice—to explore ideas he developed in his first Surrealist paintings.
Works from 1927 like An End to Contemplation and The Secret Double aren’t collaged (except for the metal snap fasteners in the former work), but look as if they were—violently so. In The Secret Double, a huge, jagged section of the right-hand figure’s face, neck and torso appears to have been ripped off, as if the figure was made of paper, and glued next to her. The “original” figure’s insides appear to be made of sleigh bells.
Similarly, each of the two identical, apparently three-dimensional figures in The End of Contemplation has been ripped or cut like paper from the rest of his body and “pasted” onto his respective half of the bifurcated canvas. Catalogue editor Anne Umlaud writes that the painting “helps us to recognize the degree of violence that informs Magritte’s later assaults on the representational hierarchies and conventions that support fixed meanings, and on the normative association of what something looks like with what it is.” (Umlaud, a MoMA curator, co-organized the show with the Art Institute of Chicago’s Stephanie D’Alessandro and Menil director Josef Helfenstein.)
The most striking thing about seeing Braque and Magritte in tandem is that Magritte makes you even more aware of what an inventive and sensuous painter Braque was, while Braque reinforces the feeling that Magritte was an ideas man in a hurry, a conceptual artist who happened to paint—often not very well. In fact, part of Magritte’s perverse genius, which drew on his work in advertising, seems to have been to figure out how to paint something just well enough to get the image across and make it stick in your head—and, of course, lend itself to reproduction. No wonder Pop and conceptual artists, who later used graphic painting techniques and photography to similar ends, loved him so. (The late works—mostly genial variations on old themes—are often more refined as paintings while less disturbing than the early works.)
“This is not a Magritte,” read Menil billboards and other ads featuring photos of such paintings as The Treachery of Images or The False Mirror (1929). “See the original at the Menil.” The ads get it half right: You should see the originals at the Menil, but when it comes to the ideas they convey and the impact of their imagery, the ads are Magrittes. The same is emphatically untrue of Braque. Even—or rather especially—his most supposedly “severe” paintings, the Analytic Cubist masterpieces of 1909-1912, with their shimmering tones and a range of textures from near-bare canvas to inky, calligraphic dashes to juicy butter pats, have a sensuousness, a poetry and a heart-stopping beauty no reproduction—and no Magritte, original or otherwise—can touch. They get more captivating and mysterious every time you see them.
Fortunately, you can see them a lot, since the MFAH—rightly sensing that Braque, who still plays second fiddle to Picasso in the United States, wouldn’t attract the crowds last year’s Picasso Black and White did—has made the show free with general admission, which is waived on Thursdays thanks to Shell. (The Menil is always free.) In Paris, where they have the good sense to treat Braque as a national hero, the show was reportedly as packed as it was exhaustive (maybe even exhausting). Sometimes it pays to be not quite world-class.
Georges Braque: A Retrospective
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Through May 11
Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary
The Menil Collection
Through June 1