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A New SFMOMA Exhibition Shows Magritte at His Most Bizarrely Cheerful

It’s a side of the surrealist few would recognize.


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The Happy Donor, 1966

Photo: © Charly Herscovici, Brussels/ARS, New York, Courtesy of SFMOMA

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Forethought, 1943

Photo: © Charly Herscovici, Brussels/ARS, New York, Courtesy of SFMOMA

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Everyone’s favorite bowler-hatted, apple-headed, not-pipe-painting surrealist is coming to town—though even devoted fans might do a double take when they see some of these pieces.

René Magritte: The Fifth Season, opening at SFMOMA this month, comprises 75 works, mostly from the second half of the artist’s career. That includes a dozen from what’s known as his “sunlit” surrealist period—a phase during and just after the Second World War (in which his native Belgium was occupied by Germany) that produced works that would look more at home among a collection of floral Renoirs or Matisses. We’re talking bright bouquets and rosy skies—a far cry from the twisted dreamscapes he’s famous for. But look a little closer, says Caitlin Haskell, the museum’s associate curator of painting and culture. The queasy tension found in Magritte’s best-known work is there, just below the surface. “It’s so sugary sweet,” Haskell says. “It’s almost too sweet. You start to feel that something just isn’t right.”

The “sunlit” period didn’t last long, and Magritte soon returned to his weird-out fare. But Haskell warns not to dismiss the artist’s wartime output as an outlier. Instead, it showcases Magritte’s adaptability.

That shape-shifting is shown in six works from The Dominion of Light (1949–65)—a series of streetscapes that juxtapose day and night—that are included in the exhibition; no more than two have ever been shown together before. None are quite the same, though they’re all typically strange, in an alternate-universe kind of way. That part is classic Magritte. “There is actually more reality available to you,” Haskell says, “if you’re willing to look for it.” May 19–Oct. 28


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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