Tate Liverpool’s latest Magritte retrospective, The Pleasure Principle

Rene Magritte
Golconda 1953
The Menil Collection, Houston © Charly HERSCOVICI, Brussels – 2011

Art It’s 1992 and I’m at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank during a school visit to London in which a class of us teenagers were dragged around the great art galleries of the capital by a very patient art teacher attempting awaken our appreciation of paint and canvas. I’m standing in front of Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images and as my brain explodes he’s clearly succeeded.

This is a painting of a pipe with writing underneath in French suggesting it isn’t a pipe. Well of course it isn’t a pipe. It’s a painting of a pipe. Yet it is still a picture of a pipe and if asked for an identification someone would be more likely to say “It’s a pipe” rather than “It’s a painting of a pipe” in much the same way that if asked we’d sat Mona Lisa was a woman rather than a painting of same.

For perhaps the first time, I think I properly understood the way that art hovers somewhere between truth, literal truth and lies and that one of the decisions most artists have to make is how to utilise these forces and the kind of connection they want to make with the viewer. Do they simply want to please them aesthetically or make them think or is it possible to do both?

A version of The Treachery of Images appears in Tate Liverpool’s latest Magritte retrospective, The Pleasure Principle, in the English translation accompanied by the connected works This is not an Apple and This is a Piece of Cheese which is all the more confusing because it’s still a painting of some Camembert on a small piece of canvas housed underneath a glass cheese dome.

Each time we think we understand Magritte's approach, his message, he does something contradicting any meaning the viewer might be trying to draw, confounding our expectations over and over again. But unlike Dali and other surrealists the images are so tantalisingly realistic, that we’re still constantly chasing that meaning like a transparent dangling carrot. Or in his case apple.

The Night Owl in the first room, a typical example. A coated figure, an embryonic version of his later suited man, stands in a restaurant like room with an empty table in the corner and in the middle, entirely unrelated to anything else is a lit steet lamp post. Immediately we begin to interpret, ask questions. Who is the man, why is the lamp there, why is the table empty?

A brain like mine filled with film narratives wonders if what we’re seeing is a man on his way home, separately shot footage of his memory superimposed on the scene as he remembers the restaurant. Was he stood up? Is that what the bare table symbolises or what that literally the scene? Or is he day dreaming about a restaurant he could soon be visiting. For that matter he could be a restaurant critic who’s endured a horrible meal?

Magritte has no answers and sometimes in paintings with titles like Clear Ideas and The Explanation, neither containing anything of the sort, he’s clearly teasing us. To an extent it’s his more surreal images denying any possible similar interpretation are “easier” to appreciate because we can simply enjoy the shapes and colours without attempting to apply conventional standards to the work.

Tate have displayed the work thematically rather than chronologically. The artist returned to the same graphics throughout his career and only in seeing all of these bowler hat men together can we really gauge how his attitude to the work changed across his life even if, much of the time, those are almost imperceptible and mostly to do with the quality of his painting.

The effect is repetitive. Apple after apple, egg after egg, sky after sky, the many bowler-hatted gentlemen. The bedposts with eyes skewered into the top. Alone, they’re very effective.  Together the experience is quite overwhelming. That’s a by-product of the academic need for comprehensiveness probably. I have much the same problem with Monet displays with their endless lily-pads.

It’s those canvases not containing these familiar elements that stick in my addled mind. The Delights of Landscape with its empty canvas labelled “paysage” (French for landscape) next to a shotgun. The Eye, a circular painting of an human’s ocular feature resembling a close-up of a peephole in a silent film. The Uncertainly Principle, a nude woman whose shadow is a bird of prey.

Which could suggest he didn’t have much time for women but famously as we're reminded by the Paul Simon song,  he had a long marriage with his wife Georgette and if the biography in the accompanying exhibition leaflet is anything to go by the artist was loved and his was not the life of a tortured soul and a man who was never out of work, as the film posters and other ephemera included here demonstrate.

The other surprise is the collection of photographs, a mix of candids of the Magrittes and friends in his studios and some attempts to replicate the ideas of his paintings. Watch out for The Feast of Stones (a perfect Doctor Who episode title) were he and his brother Paul and their friend Marcel pose in what looks like a building site pretending to chew on bricks.  Perhaps if he'd not been the painter he could have been a film comedian.

There are a couple of disappointments. Perhaps his most iconic image, Le Fils De L’Homme, the man with the apple for a face only appears on postcards and merchandise in the gift shop (the wikipedia says it’s privately owned) and I’ve always looked forward to the Tate’s audio guides.  For presumably good reasons that’s absent this time.  But that's more than made up for by the carpeted floor making the exhibition far cosier than usual.

For me the highlight of the show is, The Dominion of Light series, with its a cloudy blue sky over an atmospheric moonlit street scene which remind me of Rachel Louise Brown’s photographs at the Wolstenholme Creative Space during the Biennial this time last year.  She said she was attempting to “absorb, abstract and portray the psychology of artificiality”.

That's also perfectly describe Magritte work in general and these paintings in particular.  As anyone who’s tottered home at dusk in the moments when night turns to day and looked towards the sky and notice the stars have been replaced by clouds, it is, for want of a better phrase, a surreal experience. Which is propably why I like these. Out of all of the paintings in the exhibition, it’s one of the few occasions when Magritte's world and our own finally touch.

Until 16th October 2011.  Visitor details available here.  Press ticket supplied.

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