Tuesday, 26 July 2011

On seeing Magritte again

I went down to Tate Liverpool for the Magritte exhibition at the weekend. Arriving some minutes earlier than our booked time, we popped into a nearby cafe for a swift espresso. Paying attention to the proprietor, the coffee and my best beloved, I simply took it that there was a mirror on the wall on the far side of the cafe, reflecting, on the wall opposite it, what might have been pictures or possibly a menu, albeit in a font too small to make out words from that distance. Some minutes later, a head crossed the mirror and I realised that there was no one standing in the cafe to be so reflected. The ‘mirror’ was a serving hatch into a second adjacent room. I had erroneously ‘seen’ it ‘as’ a mirror. But having realised my error, no amount of thought or conscious attempts to re-arrange the visual elements could get me back to the experiential state I’d been in. It remained resolutely thereafter a gap through to another room, not a reflecting surface.

I thought of that as I went round the exhibition shortly afterwards. The Tate has done an excellent job in gathering together a substantial collection. Many of the Magritte’s I remembered from posters hanging in student rooms were there in the flesh. In the flesh, the workmanship was all the more impressive. But, at the same time, I found it difficult to see the pictures either anew or to see them again as I had at first, years ago. My temptation was simply to tick off familiar images. Huge apple filling room? Tick. Train coming out of fireplace? Tick. Picture of outside view occluding the same view? Tick.

What was it like to see these images (if not, previously, the actual pictures) before? I recall two key aspects. First, it came as a surprise to see (modern) art so carefully realistic (even if not in the same league as say Richter or Bechtler). The elements were captured with enormous skill and realistically even if that was put under pressure by the second element: the punchline conceptual dislocation. When I first saw them, each image niggled in some way and called to be looked at more. (It is worth saying that some pictures do not call for that. Jack Vettriano, I suggest.)

But at some point between then and now, they have become, for me, representations in another sense. They simply stand for the general type: a Magritte, even if that genus subdivides into the one with shrouded lovers, the rain of bowler hatted men, the bird shape cut in the sky or whatever. It is hard to look at them again and to see them either differently (to find something new in them) or as I first saw them, with that mixture of surprise and fascination.

I can’t help thinking that one can only see Magritte once.