This is the catalogue of the exhibition organized by The Museum of Modern Art in New York and mounted there from September 2013 to January 2014. It will subsequently travel to Houston's Menil Collection (February to June 2014) and The Art Institute of Chicago (June to October 2014), both of which institutions collaborated with the MoMA in producing the exhibition and catalogue. All those museums have extensive holdings of Magritte's works (the Menil alone is surpassed only by the collection in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, which includes the Magritte Museum itself), and their contributions make up the majority of the works exhibited, augmented by significant loans from Brussels and from some fifty further collections and private lenders worldwide. Many of the expected and iconic paintings are here, alongside many far less well known images, collages, objects, commercial catalogue and periodical pages, and photographs of and by the artist and his circle of "accomplices," as they called themselves. This is, in other words, a major and comprehensive exhibition; it is likely to remain the definitive show of Magritte's Surrealism for some time to come.
The catalogue, edited by Anne Umland, MoMA's senior curator of painting and sculpture, does full justice to the exhibition. There are 132 plates of exhibited works, mostly printed full-page or, in the case of photographs and periodical illustrations, two to a page, and there are several two-page detail enlargements of the paintings. The essays are also accompanied by numerous companion illustrations. Four scholarly essays follow on a general introduction by the show's curators; these trace Magritte's path during this period of his life, from his initial involvement with Surrealism in Brussels (1926-27), his decision to live in Paris in order to be closer to the center of the movement and the failure to become satisfactorily established there (1927-30), his return to Brussels (1930-36), and his brief work in London, creating panels for the decoration of Edward James's town house (1936). This is a concentrated period of time; it takes Magritte from his twenty-eighth year to his fortieth, the years most fruitful for the development of his Surrealist style and which set the foundation for the remaining thirty years of his life. Throughout, the writers are keen to relate their discussions to Magritte's project of illuminating the "mystery of the ordinary" through his various "alienating" or "defamiliarizing" devices like the "misnamed" objects in the early word paintings, the morphing of figures into one another, the effects of optical illusion and trompe l'oeil, etc. The essays and their notes have frequent quotations from the artist's writings to elucidate the semiological motivations behind the paintings, the quest to reinvest meaning into things that have lost their meaning through everyday familiarity and routine inattention. Magritte's interaction with his friends and fellow artists (most of them writers) is also highlighted enough to give the sense of Surrealism being a cooperative and collaborative effort, a real group movement. I found these essays to be very informative and helpful, even though they average only about fifteen pages each--which of course means that the majority of the volume is given over to reproducing the art. There is also a detailed and annotated chronology of Magritte's life during these years, which provides information and material beyond that given in the essays. The volume concludes with a checklist of the exhibition giving full curatorial information including the Sylvester/Whitfield catalogue raisonne numbers, a selected bibliography and an index of photographs and figures. This is about as comprehensive and informative a book on the artist's founding Surrealist years as we are likely to see for some time, very solid and professionally produced and highly recommended.