Photo Daily: Magritte Holds Court

Magritte Holds Court, Chicago Art Institute ©2014

Magritte Holds Court, Chicago Art Institute ©2014

Anything new or different can be shocking to the senses. In life and in the art world. It’s hard to imagine what the first viewers of René Magritte’s work between 1926 and 1938 must have felt discovering this inventive and experimental period of his work. Picasso and other surrealist artists of the era had already laid the groundwork of what was to come in Paris and Italy. Magritte, from Brussels, then in Paris and London continued what would be one of the most transformative periods of the art world.

My friend Jason and I had spent the summer looking to find a few hours to take in the exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary,  presented through October 13th, 2014 at Chicago’s Art Institute. It had been a while since we had managed to make one of our Inspiration Day trips to one of Chicago’s museums. We were overdue.

The internet is a wonderful resource for seeing the history of art over the centuries, but there’s nothing quite like being able to see the originals with your own eyes. There is a huge difference seeing a work of art with light reflecting off of it, instead of being illuminated from behind on a screen. The way the light hits the brushstrokes and colors, or the texture of the paper a photograph is printed on, changes when you take a step closer or to the left or to the right. It’s that not so subtle difference that is extraordinary to see in person.

I was certainly familiar with Magritte before we saw the exhibition, and many paintings I was already aware of were on display in a strikingly designed series of galleries. But there were dozens of Magritte paintings I had never experienced before that helped me to more clearly understand his expression.

All presented in galleries of dark walls and sparse lighting that truly highlighted the work in a wonderfully original setting. No white gallery walls here. It really removed any distractions and focused on the work. It did take you out of the current world and put you into Magritte’s vision.

It was fascinating to take in this small sliver of Magritte’s work during this period of just over a decade. Like so many other artists of the day, he wasn’t simply a fine art painter, and the exhibit also included a variety of his early commercial advertising work (he and his brother Paul established an ad agency in Brussels in the early 1930s), as well as drawings and periodicals that he contributed to. Wonderful to see it all.

The exhibition ends in 1938 with one of his most famous pieces, Time Transfixed, the painting with the steam locomotive exiting the fireplace. It would be nearly another 30 years before he would complete what is probably his most famous painting, Le fils de l’homme or The Son of Man, his self-portrait painting of a man in the bowler hat with the green apple in place of his face.

I should also mention that as usually happens when Jason and I have one of our Inspiration Days, we usually stumble across art that we wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of. I had never heard of the Czech-born French photographer called Josef Koudelka, before we walked into his exhibition on our way to Magritte. Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful is a breathtaking collection of his photographic prints (some massive in size), as well as books, periodicals and other unpublished works.

Koudelka gained fame as a photographer during his daring photo reportage of the Soviet Invasion of Prague in 1968. He had to flee the country in exile as the result of those photographs being published. But as important as those photographs were, his prior portraits of Gypsies and massive landscape photographs of the environmental impact of industry, also filled me with awe on completely different levels.

The Josef Koudelka exhibition ends in a few weeks on September 21st, 2014, and I would advise anyone with an interest in photography to visit it before it closes. Josef Koudelka, with one gallery exhibition viewing, has landed a top space on my list of favorite photographers.

Magritte and Koudelka. Two extremely inspiring reasons to make time to visit the Art Institute this month.

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