No Laughing Matter: Magritte's 'Fifth Season' is Beautiful, Serious Stuff

René Magritte, 'The Enchanted Domain I,' 1953. (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Step right up, step right up! For just an extra $8 on top of your $25 museum ticket, you too can secure timed entry to the René Magritte exhibition The Fifth Season! Wind your way in line through a maze of cables! Gaze up at floor-to-ceiling velvety curtains in hues of luscious red! See the wonders of Magritte, Magritte, and more Magritte!

If this spiel sounds familiar, that's because it's summer blockbuster season. Even though that usually means something extravagant like last year's de Young show, The Summer of Love Experience, SFMOMA's exhibition of over 70 works from Magritte's late career is earnestly sober. But name-brand recognition is a definite draw, and The Fifth Season, curated by SFMOMA's Caitlin Haskell, is guaranteed to be crowded no matter when you visit.

This can be either good or bad, depending on how you like to view your art. If you’re into the vicarious kick of watching other people see things in real life they’ve only known as two-dimensional images shrunk to the size of a computer screen or an art history tome, you’ll enjoy the shuffle of The Fifth Season.

René Magritte, 'Personal Values,' 1952.
René Magritte, 'Personal Values,' 1952. (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

If you, like me, prefer your views of seminal surrealist works unobstructed, just be patient. Everyone’s here to have fun.

Though "fun-filled" is not the first phrase I’d use to describe the mood in The Fifth Season, which elegantly occupies the Botta side of the museum’s fourth-floor galleries in thematic rather than chronological groupings.

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Unlike the 2006 retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which included, alongside Magritte, artists influenced by his ideas and imagery (and a floor covered in clouds), The Fifth Season is not playful. (Though those curtains will surely spawn short-lived games of hide-and-seek among the younger set before the guards have their say.)

René Magritte, 'Seasickness,' 1948.
René Magritte, 'Seasickness,' 1948. (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

"Somber" is a better operative word. Next to work from his vache period, a year of purposefully “bad” painting that looks excitingly loose and good-but-weird today, wall text points viewers to the realities of Belgium during and after World War II: Nazi occupation, starvation, maimed soldiers and the struggle to survive.

But even in paintings like Le stropiat (The Cripple), clearly addressing the trauma of the war, Magritte employs a gallows humor, multiplying his iconic pipe-that-is-not-a-pipe in the mouth, eye, forehead and beard of a man with blue lips and a red, polka-dotted nose. There’s a liberated bombasticness in the vache paintings that opens the exhibition with a thrilling pizzaz. But things only get less silly and more stately from there.

René Magritte, 'Where Euclid Walked,' 1955.
René Magritte, 'Where Euclid Walked,' 1955. (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Case in point: When I stood my turn in front of La condition humaine (The Human Condition), it took me a few seconds to register the image as not just a landscape viewed through a window, but a painting of said landscape propped on an easel in front of a window. (Magritte is nothing if not a master of framing paintings within paintings, all of which feels like a grand joke on painting’s high opinion of itself.) The illusion made me want to chuckle heartily—“You got me, René!”—but the quiet concentration of those around me suppressed that response into a "heh."

Perhaps that’s because there’s a resistance throughout The Fifth Season to embrace the humor in Magritte’s work. How could anyone look at La réponse imprévue (The Unexpected Answer), a large-scale gouache painting of a door with a blob-like hole in it, and think of anything but a cartoon character’s impact silhouette? (Not to keep harping on it, but at LACMA, the John Baldessari-designed exhibition included a real-life cutout door at the entrance to the show. It was fantastically fun.)

René Magritte, 'The Anniversary,' 1959.
René Magritte, 'The Anniversary,' 1959. (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Instead of being disappointed by the exhibition's earnest framing of—to me—a hilarious piece, I think about what it means to contextualize Magritte’s work in 2018, five decades after the artist's death. His paintings (excepting the rougher war years) are so well rendered, so filled with everyday objects and therefore somehow illustrative, that they've entered pop culture completely. They're comfortably familiar, maybe even taken for granted.

Perhaps The Fifth Season is an attempt to rehabilitate his image as a serious artist. He wasn’t just an armchair philosopher musing on whether or not pipes are pipes, the show seems to state, but someone who thought long and hard about the space between seeing and knowing, carefully fine-turning his compositions of repeated imagery (bird, clouds, gas lamp, apple, window, mountain) to elicit a sense of the uncanny. Which is all fine and good and true, but at least give people permission to see, alongside the uncanny, a sense of the absurd.

Then it would be less of a shock when you emerge into the exhibition’s spot-on interpretive gallery full of surrealist selfie machines and are allowed, finally, to play.

'René Magritte: The Fifth Season' is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Oct. 28, 2018. Timed tickets are required for entry. Details here.

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