Yesterday I went with my friend A to LACMA
, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. to see exhibit: "Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images."
I am not very familiar with Magritte's work, aside from "Le Modele Rouge (The Red Model)", which shows a pair of boots turning into feet, and then that famous painting of a man in a bowler hat with a green apple floating in front of his face. Oh yes, and of course the famous "This Is Not A Pipe" painting of a pipe. So I had no particular expectations... just lots of curiosity.
The first thing I noticed as I passed through the gallery rooms housing the exhibit was how crowded they were. The museum was packed, which I hate. I absolutely cannot stand bumping into people and being bumped as I try to muse and ponder in front of an artistic work. Or, for that matter, if I'm walking around in a mall. Either way, lots of people get on my nerves. But that's LA for you, I guess.
Yet another reason I doubt I'll live here forever. But that's a whole 'nother topic...
Anyway, in spite of the crowds, there were moments of levity. A and I paused in front of one painting called "The Pebble", which shows a half-naked woman apparently on a beach, licking her own right shoulder as her left hand plays with one of her breasts.
("What does that have to do with a pebble?" you are probably wondering. Good! That's just the reaction Magritte probably wanted.)
A and I had a little discussion about the fact that there was no sky in the background, only a green-and-white grid pattern making squares out of empty white space. I didn't like the grid; I thought it was ugly, but A said it saved the painting from being just another sensuous-woman-on-a-beach scene. Slightly more intellectual than my own response, I admit. I said she might be right.
As we left the room, a young boy came in and looked at the picture. "That's disgusting!" he said. "In a few years you won't think that," said an older boy, perhaps his brother. This made A laugh; I had not actually heard the dialogue, but when she told me about it, I laughed too.
I liked that the gallery rooms had been carpeted in blue, with a puffy cloud pattern, while the ceilings were covered with a repeating photo of a freeway tangle in a birds-eye view, so really it was like we were walking in a world turned upside down. Clever, since Magritte's work manages to convey a similar effect. He said the world defies common sense. I think he might have been right.
I stood on the threshold of the last room, looking in. The room was full of people, of course. Still no escape... From where I stood, I could see "Les Jours Gigantesques (The Titanic Days)", which shows a woman fighting off a clothed man's form, but his form is entirely contained in the outlines of her own naked body.
A disturbing picture, I thought to myself.
Then I stepped away from the wall and saw the picture I had been standing right next to: "Attempting the Impossible." Here, a clothed man is busily painting a naked woman into existence; she stares blankly into space while he begins to add her left arm.
A man told A and I that Magritte always painted his wife. I don't actually know if that's true, but the man seemed to know a lot about Magritte, so I'm willing to believe it. The man started the conversation this way: "Men don't know how to communicate to women." Since A and I had just been staring at and commenting on the two versions of "Le Viol (The Rape)" hanging on the wall, I laughed and said, "Well, what makes you say that?" I don't remember his answer, only his earnest brown eyes, graying beard, and sparse hair. He looked like a professor. Perhaps he was. He was wearing a tie with the man in the bowler hat all over it, in different sizes, on a blue background.
He knew where most of the paintings were normally housed. "That one lives in Houston," he said. "And that one is from Tokyo." After he finished talking, he apologized for interrupting us, but A and I hadn't minded at all. I wanted to ask his name, but didn't. I also wanted to ask more questions, but I had that odd taste in my mouth that warned me I might need a mint or piece of gum, so I just smiled and nodded a lot. Eventually he moved on to another painting, and we went our way.
One of my favorite paintings in the room was "The Human Condition." This title belonged to several different works, but the one I liked best showed an easel set up against the entrance to a cave (naturally that's the one version I can't find a picture of online). Inside the cave, a fire burned. Outside the cave, the side of a large mountain could be seen. Outside was very light. the easel had part of the mountain painted on it, and was set in such a way that that particular section of the mountain could only be seen in the painting. It was hard to tell what was real and what was contained within the easel's frame.
It is interesting to me that Magritte often painted more than one version of a subject; in the case of "The Human Condition" it's especially apropos. This is the human condition, I thought as I looked at the painting. We try over and over again to get a handle on our world, to contain it in a framework, to use art as a means of understanding it... but in spite of our efforts the world keeps existing beyond the boundaries of the largest possible canvas or page we can find. We paint in the dark, aided only by the flickering flame of our limited knowledge, while outside the world simply is
. In the same way that Magritte saw a disconnect between words and images, there is the inevitable disconnect between images and reality. A painting of a mountain can never be the mountain, after all. But neither can a mountain be a painting of a mountain. The thing will always transcend the idea of itself.
Or something like that.