Paul Nash first discovered Wittenham Clumps, two ‘dome-like hills’ in Oxfordshire with a ‘curiously symmetrical sculptural form’ in 1911. Between 1912 and 1946 he would paint them repeatedly as he sought to encapsulate there and in other places (such as the South Downs and the stone circles of Aylesbury) the idea of a ‘spirit of place’. Yet his engagement with the mystery and magic he found in certain landscapes was only one strand in the rich legacy of work left by Paul Nash. In his time he was official war artist in two world wars, and a pioneering figure at the heart of a group of artists who brought surrealism into British art, a painter who utilised photography, collage and assemblage in pursuit of his vision.
All of these aspects of Paul Nash’s work are explored in depth in Tate Britain’s vast and definitive exhibition which we saw while in London. It is a huge show of more than 160 works which convincingly presents Nash as not only a war artist of great importance, and a pioneering figure of the British avant-garde in the 1930s, but also as a romantic in the tradition of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, who, like them, created visionary landscapes drenched in symbolism and painted as if in a dream. Continue reading “Paul Nash at Tate Britain: searching for a different angle of vision”→
In our student days it was de rigueur to have a Magritte reproduction on your wall – maybe the locomotive emerging from the fireplace, or the pipe that wasn’t a pipe. As a legacy of those time we still have an Athena block-mounted print of Dominion of Light hanging in the house (the one that was adapted for the LP cover of Jackson Browne’s Late For the Sky). As I made my way to Tate Liverpool to see the exhibition, Rene Magritte: The Pleasure Principle, I wondered whether, now that I’m older and grumpier, his paintings would amount to much more than a series of arresting images.
The first thing to be said about this exhibition is that a great many of those arresting images are present and correct. It’s still raining men in Golconda, the easel remains standing before the landscape it appears to absorb in The Human Condition, and the lovers, shrouded and separate, continue to kiss in The Lovers. Despite their familiarity, these images retain the power to grab your attention. But at the same time, much of what is on display is tiresome and repetitive, and in some cases so bad that it’s downright embarrassing.
The first painting you see when you enter the exhibition is One-night Museum 1927, which introduces some of the characteristic elements of Magritte’s practice – the representation of objects in disconcertingly contrasting sizes, the metamorphosis of inert materials to living matter, the suggestion of a staged performance behind a curtain, and the deadpan presentation of ordinary, everyday activities in extraordinary circumstances.
Other paintings on display in this first section – such as Let Out of School 1927, The Beneficial Promise 1928 and The Secret Player 1927 – illustrate the same concerns. The following section probes the ‘surreal encounter’ in Magritte – a key concern in Magritte’s early Surrealist painting, expressed in works in which the figure meets itself or is replicated. Magritte often used a split panel composition to create a fantastical and uncanny scenario, as in Man Reading a Newspaper 1928. According to the Tate guide, such ‘doublings’ were important to the Surrealists, who regarded repetition as an expression of repressed traumatic experience or sexual urges. Hmmm…
Equally important for Magritte was the appropriation of imagery from popular culture, including film posters and the murder mystery genre. Like other Surrealists, Magritte was a fan of Fantômas, a fictional crime character popular from film and serialised pulp novels. The impenetrable black figure seen in The Torturing of the Vestal Virgin 1927 alludes to the Fantômas character whilst The Lovers 1928 – a genuinely great and disturbing painting – appropriates an image from a Nick Carter detective comic.
Magritte’s work largely consisted of a philosophical inquiry that questioned the nature of representation, and painting in particular. He argued that an abstract shape or a word could legitimately replace the image of an object:
An object is never so closely attached to its name that another cannot be found that suits it better.
It was for this reason that Magritte wrote ‘This is not a pipe’ below the image of what incontrovertibly is the epitome of a pipe in The Treachery of Images in 1935. Magritte once said of this painting:
I’ve been criticised enough for it! Yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation. So if I had written ‘This is a pipe’ below the picture, I would have been lying.
Similar questions seem to pervade The Delights of Landscape 1928, which also seems to me to contain a pretty good joke about how some may take their pleasure in the landscape rather differently to others.
In other works Magritte took this philosophy further, presenting an object that conceals what lies behind it to portray his idea of the ‘hidden visible’, that there are things we know to exist but cannot see. In The Human Condition 1933, Magritte
conceals part of the image, the scene outside a window, yet simultaneously reveals the hidden picture element, creating for the viewer a condition of ‘false recognition’. The graphic painting style imbues the work with a sense of deadpan plausibility, heightening its visual duplicity.
There are many paintings like this, pursuing the same questions about the truthfulness of images. Magritte sought to cast doubt on the principle of reality and on status of painting itself, challenging the Renaissance concept of the painting as a ‘window on reality’. Always he is confronting us with the idea that, far from representing nature, painting is about artifice and illusion. In The Human Condition, there seems to be no difference between ‘depicted’ and ‘real space. The situation is complicated further by the fact that the image as a whole is fabricated.
Provocatively hung nearby is Key to the Fields 1936 that takes a similar fabricated illusion and shatters it before our eyes. The window appears broken, the shards lying in front. But can this be a window, when the landscape beyond remains imprinted on the shards? In this painting, Magritte shatters an illusion whilst at the same time creating another.
The next gallery is devoted to ‘The Monumental Image’. Here, Magritte’s belief in the power of poetic thought to transform everyday reality is explored in a series of paintings he made from the 1950s on that contained monumental imagery. These paintings often feature solitary boulders – objects chosen for their lack of symbolic significance. Speakng of The Glass Key 1959, Magritte described the boulder that sits improbably on a mountain top as ‘absent of thought – the absolute’.
Next, there’s a room devoted to ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ – Magritte’s self-portraits and the late bowler hat paintings that reintroduce the figure of the man in a bowler hat, dark coat and with blank demeanour seen in earlier paintings such as The Menaced Assassin 1927. Magritte wished to present an ‘anonymous’ image of himself to the world, and for him the ordinary suit and bowler hat represented the anonymous everyman and were a comment on the absurdity of everyday life.
Later we encounter the painting that provides the overall title of the exhibition – The Pleasure Principle 1937. It’s a portrait of the patron Edward James (the man who also commissioned Time Transfixed, the painting that depicts a locomotive emerging from a fireplace in his London home). The portrait is based on a photo by Man Ray, and the title refers to the Freudian premise that humans by their actions will always seek pleasure and avoid pain. Amusingly, the Tate caption states that by obscuring the subject matter, Magritte literally keeps the viewer in the dark.
The exhibition ends with a room entitled The Dominion of Light that explores how Magritte’s images often explore the reconciliation of opposites as a means to induce the ‘shock to the system’ that enables the perception of what he regarded as a mysterious and poetic reality.The centrepiece of this section is a display of several versions of The Dominion of Light. From 1949 onwards, Magritte produced seventeen versions in oil and ten gouaches of The Dominion of Light. Whilst there are differences between the versions, the subject is always the same: a nocturnal street scene set against a blue afternoon sky. It remains one of Magritte’s most enigmatic and celebrated images. Discussing it in 1956 Magritte said:
This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power ‘poetry’. The reason why I believe the evocation to have this poetic power is, amongst other things, because I have always felt the greatest interest in night and day, without however having any preference for one or the other.’
There is much to enjoy and ideas to ponder in this exhibition. But there is also a great deal in Magritte’s work that is wearisome and repetitive. The ‘vache’ paintings – his angry response to being cold-shouldered by the Parisian surrealists after the Second World War – should just have been destroyed after he got over the tantrum. The exhibition also devotes space to examples of his work as a commercial artist and rarely seen photographs and home movies sot by Magritte. There is nothing of great interest in these displays. As for his 1946 drawings for Madame Edwarda, an erotic novel by the French Surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille, they struck me as little more than the puerile daubings of an immature schoolboy.
There is indeed something pathetic about Magritte’s later work and career: from the 1930s an increasing part of his production was making copies of his most popular works, as well as forgeries of artists such as Picasso and Ernst, and portraits. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940, he decided that people needed cheering up and so, until 1947, he painted lurid soft-porn pastiches of late Renoir. In 1948, he tried his hand at a comic-strip fauvism – his “vache” (cow) paintings – before returning to making variations on his standard themes. He became famous for the first time in the late 1950s, when his classic work chimed with pop art, and later, with conceptual art. It was then that he marketed himself to the wider world as the “ordinary man in the bowler hat, suit and tie” who just happened to paint extraordinary pictures.