Before he began doing seriously surreal paintings, Belgian René Magritte designed wallpaper. He made money as a graphic artist. His first solo exhibition in 1927 met with negative response. Nevertheless, he remained true to his peculiar vision for a lifetime, and today he is recognized as one of the greats. The truly remarkable creators don’t listen to critics. They just continue on.
The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, was where Ruth & I saw “The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938” that contained 80 paintings, collages, early commercial works, etc., by this twisted-dream artist. It began its run in September, 2013, at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, went to Houston until June 1, 2014, and then traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Now it has closed and the only way to see it is to order the show catalog. Amazon had only 15 left in stock as of October, 2014. If you know Magritte, you will see many familiar works in it–the train engine emerging from a fireplace (Time Transfixed), the kissing couple whose heads are covered with cloth (The Lovers), “This Is Not a Pipe”, etc. You will also admire some Magritte’s that you likely won’t see again because they’re from private collections like “The Philosopher’s Lamp”, my favorite. The world-weary man in this 1936 painting, perhaps Magritte himself, had an elongated nose stuffed into a pipe in his mouth.
That Houston’s Menil Collection hosted this show was no mystery. The de Menils, John and Dominique, owned the largest privately assembled collection of Magritte’s work. Magritte became a friend and visited them in Houston. They took him to a rodeo. Daughter of a founder of Schlumberger, the Texas oil services company, Dominique married John in France. They eventually moved to Texas where John became a director of Schlumberger’s worldwide operations. Many of their Magritte acquisitions, like 1927’s “The Meaning of Night”, was in the show.
The Menil Collection is unique in several ways. It isn’t opened on Tuesdays. Its building by Renzo Piano looks like a rather peculiar high school in an ordinary residential neighborhood (Houston has no zoning laws). The gift shop is across the street from the museum.
On the way out of Houston I spotted a shop with the name Bizarre Bazaar. This would be an appropriate nickname for “The Mystery of the Ordinary” except that the works in the show by a driven artist of the absurd/ordinary were not for sale, and they probably won’t be together in such a spectacular way ever again.
ps: The small Magritte above is from MOMA since photography was forbidden while seeing “The Mystery of the Ordinary”.