They’re everywhere those bowler-hatted men, have you noticed? In jeweller’s windows down Liverpool ONE, on billboards and lampposts, in the press; it’s like the city (and beyond) has become subject to a kind of Rene Magritte-inspired hegemony. And, I think, therein lies the answer to the Belgian surrealist’s peaks and troughs of being en vogue, or very definitely not; but we’ll come to that later.
Just in-case you’ve been away, the explanation for Golconda; one of Magritte’s most enduring and widely recognised pieces, being generously sprinkled across the city is to promote Tate’s recently opened retrospective. The most comprehensive exhibition of his work ever shown in the UK features over 100 paintings from all periods of his career, alongside which, a selection of photographs and home-movies, as well as his little-known commercial output – we can’t accuse Tate of lacking ambition.
The work is arranged thematically rather than strictly chronologically, allowing the viewer to see how Magritte returned time and again to the same over-arching ideas throughout his career. And in this, curators Christoph Grunenberg and Darren Pih have done a great job, because had they arranged it any other way, it could easily have led to visitors becoming overwhelmed and alienated by the sheer amount on display.
As it is, one can navigate from section to section and grasp without too much difficulty the themes that most fascinated Magritte; so for example, in The Key to The Fields (1936) and The Human Condition (1933), we see Magritte playing with ideas of representation, each piece asking us to decide which aspect of the image is the ‘truthful’ one, in the section Tate have called ‘The Pictured Picture’. And then, ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ series, including the aforementioned Golconda (1953) depicting a ‘rain’ of bureaucrats, nurturing the everyman; the subversive working from the inside – very much the way he saw himself.
It is in the ubiquity of these bureaucrats across town that we can perhaps understand why Magritte seems condemned to forever fall in and out of fashion – his best-known images are reproduced in such quantity, and are recognisable to so many, they cannot help but lapse in our consciousness into mere pastiche. What the Tate exhibition does so successfully is to invite us to look once again at Rene Magritte and see that he was more than a ‘one idea’ man; he was and remains a man whose art carries the power to make us think twice about what exactly it is we are looking at, and in an era so reliant on and full of imagery, that can only be a good thing.
Rene Magritte: The Pleasure Principle,
Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock
now until 16 October
Images: The Human Condition and The Key to the Fields, courtesy Tate