12/21/2014 08:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chicago Showdown: Facing Up to Magritte


I confess: growing up with art-loving parents, I never thought much of Magritte. I adored the Impressionists, Picasso, Rembrandt and a handful of other painters who were--let's face it--easy to love. At least they were in my family.

Magritte gave me the creeps. I couldn't enter his works at all. I looked at them and looked away. What was he doing? What was he saying? Was he saying anything at all? His paintings seemed almost shallow and jokey.

So when I heard that the Art Institute of Chicago was the next stop of the Magritte exhibition that the New York Times had said was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I decided it was time for a showdown. Was there something wrong with me that I couldn't appreciate his work or was he simply not worth my time?


I got there early that Sunday morning with friends from Milwaukee and we were among the first people to enter the exhibition. The galleries were evocatively lit and the walls were black. The paintings seemed to tempt you forward like sirens. Their stories were all dreams, sometimes dark, sometimes shocking, sometimes twisted, sometimes funny. They juggled his iconic images like those bowler hats people know so well and made them ominous in wonderful ways.

Yes, wonderful. I was almost immediately entranced, fascinated, seduced. I drifted from one gallery to the next, going deeper into his artistic consciousness, it seemed, as the images piled up around me, repeating in different patterns. I went back through several times to see my favorite works, which took more and more effort as the galleries filled up.

I know Magritte is old hat to lots of people (pun intended) but not for me. I'd never seen so many of his works before, never bothered to think about him, never bothered to open myself up to the commercial artist-turned-surrealist's skewed visions. I'm still reflecting about the show, still enjoying that morning, and still wondering why I wasn't ready all those years ago to appreciate the range and depth of his work.

Though Magritte would come to say that the titles of his works didn't reflect the paintings and vice versa, Le Viol couldn't be more accurate. It's breathtaking and horrific because a woman's toroso is her face, screaming of the shame of rape, of feeling that one's violation can be read there, that one has become the violation. His mysterious "Red Model" shows a pair of boots in the shape of actual feet and my first association was the rough feet of all those saints in Caravaggio's paintings and how they shocked his audience. Would I dare to try a pair of those boots on? Would they fit? Were they magical?

I cracked up when I came to the canvas called "Clairvoyance," a self portrait, and had to move on from because I was laughing so hard and probably bothered more serious art patrons.


But the painting I kept returning to was small, not very striking at first and perhaps the quietest one of all among the dozens there. It was off in a corner where few people seemed to notice it: "The Song of the Storm."


The image surprisingly held me under its spell more than any other work in the exhibition. This, I thought, was surely what Magritte wanted: to surprise and capture his viewers with sublime paradox. The most insubstantial object, a cloud, maintained its shape--and looked remarkably dense--despite being brought down to earth by a storm. Up was down. Light was heavy. How marvelous and weird. I stood there for a long time and eventually I heard the song. Well, I heard some song, and I never knew that a storm could sing.

Lev Raphael's 25th book, Assault With a Deadly Lie, is a novel of suspense. You can check out his other books at Amazon.