Wolfgang Tillmans 2017

“What attracts you if anything about this exhibition!? Any work that strikes one?” asks OCA tutor Jayne Taylor as a group of over a dozen students meet. I have been reading the catalogue beforehand and find myself intrigued by Tillman’s approach yet wonder about what he is saying. It seems he is making observations of the world around him and using the medium of photography to do it; a stream of consciousness technique. Being allowed to photograph this exhibition made it more approachable! A previous visit to a Tillmans exhibition in 2013 is HERE

This exhibition is curated by the artist Tillmans rather than by a professional curator; there is no linear progression to the work being shown which presents a wholistic vision of the world. Open ended, not making a statement rather revealing something.

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The initial photo on entry is reminiscent of a TV screen suffering interference. Colour here is interesting as it seems to change according to the angle of view. It is called “End of Broadcast 2” 2014. I find that it resonates on a personal level. It is repeated at the end of the exhibition which is where this image is from.

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There are travel images yet also close to home images such as those of computers and printers. His setup looks not unlike mine!

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I like the single blocks of colour such as the beige “Lighter, unprocessed ultra 1” 2010; the photograph of this contains an outline selfie!

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17 years supply, 2014 (refers to medical supplies) is a very well lit photograph that looks stunningly real from a distance; I needed to go close up to make sure it was not a sculpture. A reminder that Tilmanns did actually train as a photographer and is technically proficient. In fact, although from Germany which is where he now lives, he did study at art school in Bournemouth and lived awhile in London.

A lot of the work is pleasant to look at remaining free of easily definable meaning.

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Auto crusto a, 2017 has a touch of Martin Parr about it but the presence of the fly is different. The photograph above is of the poster used to advertise the exhibition.

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Ethiopian market is a huge photo without a trace of grain. Tillmans makes use of Photoshop to present his photography.

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I have limited interest in politics but a blow up of text about Saddam Hussein having no WMD that Western politicians refused to accept brings back memories of a time when the West got it wrong and went to war on a whim!

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The solid blocks of colour are also presented with marks on. These are hung around the walls while political print outs are on tables within the room. In fact, the large colour blow ups do not feel out of place here; they are allowed to merge with the other more grounded exhibits.

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Metallica is another theme that emerges. Car headlights also close ups of metallic objects.

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The images are varied; a lot of different subjects covered. From solid colour blocks to  intricate detail sometimes in the same image.

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The exhibition space is a labyrinth through which one is free to wander. One room contains large grey panels and blue walls; a sound system plays both music and sound bytes. One can sit here and relax, take a break from the main part of the exhibition! It is called “Playback Room” and is an ongoing project from 2014. The music is background rhythmic; I would happily get up and dance. The sound bytes are of human voices drawn from different sources. I could stay here for much longer but am in a group due to meet again soon! Reluctantly I leave this space!

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A lot of Tillmans published work is also displayed (under glass) including books and posters for exhibitions etc

There is also a video room that feels uncomfortable to me. A man runs on the spot facing a wall while in another image only a jogging shadow is seen. The music is discordant! Am not sorry to leave!

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A mosaic of portrait sized photos on one wall; one of these looks strange! Unlike the others it is not a straight image. The head looks as though it has mould on it!

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Simple yet amazing photographic reproductions!

Tillmans seems to be inviting us into a stream of consciousness … he says, “The beginning of the Iraq War was 14 years ago now!”

The photographs are unframed!! ” … encouraging the viewer to interact with the photograph as an object, rather than a conduit for an image.”

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We, a group of Open College of the Arts students, find some LUNCH and then CHAT in one of the rooms that the Tate Modern makes available! Some points are made …

_ Need to look at videos from exhibition. Is the artist successfully in saying what they want!? What about the way they are expressing it?

_ Display tables important in supplying necessary context. Keep a file of relevant information encountered!

_ Way images were hung with clips and tape etc

_ Show itself a giant collage !

_ Unconventional approach to exhibiting. Lack of logical order to exhibits.

_ Captions not next to images allows them to breathe; they are not entirely necessary.

_ Travel photography beside domestic views

_ Life is now deluged by a plethora of images as this exhibition demonstrates. Placing of images appropriate as well as varied.

_ Exhibition like an album, each room a different track! Not being told how to see the work.

_ Tender portraits made without judgement.

_ The lobster photograph which also has a fly; other artists like Damian Hirst have objectified animals in close up and made them large.

_ Tillmans has a lot of self confidence? Secret of his success? I think he has the ability to see!!

_ The Turner Prize has given Tillmans carter Blanche to do what he wants and forge a way for photographers generally!

_ Was the exhibition too much about Tillmans?? He is working with others!

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The Radical Eye: Modernist photography from the collection of Sir Elton John

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What is this exhibition about? The private collection of a very famous musician who is also well known for being gay, a fine collection of Modernist photography … yet this body of work from a variety of photographers has been curated and a monograph reproduced. I have not as yet read any reviews!

Adrian Earle writes an interesting piece in The Guardian; he sees the tonal depth inherent in the prints, a quality that most reviewers do not tend to notice. There is also mention of the frames which have been criticised as being too flamboyant; Sir John defends his choice of frames by saying the invaluable prints deserve it.


Another Guardian article is a meeting between Sir John and Sean O’Hagan


As one might expect, there is a homeo-erotic side to this exhibition but it is not overwhelming. After all, homosexuality did not have the legal status then that it has nowadays. Examples of this include the contact print of Kertesz’s Underwater Swimmer from 1917 to  Csik’s Diver in 1936 and maybe even Weston’s Gourd from 1927. There are however a selection of female nudes including Man Ray’s Juliet and Nieman from 1945 and Koppitz’s Movement Study from 1925.

What makes this exhibition worthwhile is the way it moves beyond personal choice to reflect the Modernist era of photography here seen as corresponding from about 1920 to 1950. The exhibition itself has been divided into sections such as portraiture and documentary as well as less obvious distinctions such as perspective and abstraction.

Something else that I like about this exhibition is that it is not too big. A little over 175 images is digestible assuming one has the time to view it all without rushing. One can enjoy the body of work without thinking one is missing too much although there is always going to be work that might be explored more deeply.

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I found the audio guide helpful particularly in the way it combined the curator’s view with Sir Elton John’s obvious love of photography. Reading the essays in the catalogue also helped; this is an exhibition worth studying as well as seeing.

My second visit to this exhibition is with students from The Open College of the Arts.

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Before visiting, I read through the text on the Tate website  relating to this exhibition that the college send us a link to and I can’t help notice the way that this exhibition is being hyped up. No doubt Sir Elton John’s name will encourage people to see this exhibition yet the mention that “An incredible group of Man Ray portraits are exhibited together for the first time, having been brought together by Sir Elton John over the past twenty-five years, including portraits of MatissePicasso, and Breton.” is misleading as many such portraits were exhibited by The National Portrait Gallery in 2013. When a gallery resorts to advertising the art it shows rather than providing an accurate context, the viewer can be discouraged or simply reminded that it is their own interaction with the work that matters rather than one mediated by commentators with vested interests.

The Tate website also suggests that “this is a chance to take a peek inside Elton John’s home” which does not really feature in the exhibition where the arrangement of photographs is not the same as in Sir John’s home although linked.  Clearly celebrity is being used to sell this exhibition rather than the fact that it is a stunning collection of major artworks from the Modernist period of photography.

The catalogue takes a more balanced approach.

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Simon Baker in his introduction quotes Moholy Nagy as saying “that we see the world with entirely different eyes” as a result of photography and that this has brought about an entirely “new vision “. What the Modernist period in photography generally considered as taking place between 1920 and 1950 saw was an attempt to establish photography as a medium in its own right rather than relying on a painterly approach.

An interesting quote on the photograph comes from Salvador Dali who describes it as “unprecedented reality“.

At the back of the catalogue, there is an essay by Shoair Mavlian, the curator, called  Between Precision and Abstraction which sounds like an accurate description of this era in photography that came later than the Modernism that affected other arts such as painting and literature of the latter part of the nineteenth century. One might of course argue that photography helped give birth to Modernism but that is not an argument to consider here. One might though ask whether Modernism is the best term to describe this era in photography! It actually corresponds with the Surrealist period.

Moholy Nagy commented “a knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet. The illiterates of the future will be ignorant of the use of  camera and pen alike.”  There are a lot of comments by Moholy-Nagy both in and around this exhibition; he had a great insight into the medium.

While photography benefited from advances in modern technology, this also allowed for further experimentation not possible previously.

OCA tutor Russell Squires explains that genres tend to blend into each other. To refer to this exhibition as Modernist is a loose term. Certainly it is a period when photography was establishing itself as an independent medium and put aside attempts to ape painting.

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Entrance to the exhibition: a member of staff objected to me photographing here!

A photo of Elton John inside the entrance is by Irving Penn and was made in 1997; more Surrealist than Modernist but then it is not really part of the exhibition though other earlier work by Penn is. Penn lived to 2009.

View from Berlin Radio Tower looking downwards by Moholy Nagy is a very experimental approach that manages to be both document and artistic composition in one.

Modernist  photographers were using black and white although some colour processes were available;

Many photographs in this exhibition are “vintage”‘ which means they were made not long after the time of shooting if not by the photographer then someone working under his direction.

Man Ray’s famous image “Noire et Blanche” from 1926 hangs above his bed both in print and negative form. Man Ray’s Pablo Picasso shows the artist with a belly even at a relatively young age. Other Man Ray portraits include those of the musician and composer Erik Satie, the surrealist Andre Breton and the artist Matisse.

Penn’s Salvador Dali is a portrait that differs from his others since the background has three sides not two as in the other Penn portraits. Of the photograph, Dali compared his painting as “hand-done colour photography”.

So many portraits of interesting people from the Modernist era are included here.

A Forgotten Model by George Platt is poignant; relevant to today’s treatment of women in the model business.

Gloria Swanson does not look very happy yet her eyes are piercing and gaze directly through the black lace that covers her face while being photographed by Edward Steichen.

Photographs emphasising the form of the body!

Herbert Bayer Lonely Metropolitan  What draws me to this image? I know it yet it also is mysterious. The fact I can’t pin down a single reason that makes me drawn to it is perhaps why.

Emmanuel Sougez Carnival is Dead another’s image featuring masks. This photographer has also made some interesting detailed studies as in those of wheat and tulips as well as cabbage.

FSA documentary approach resulted in some superb portraits such as Allie Mae Burroughs by Walker Evans and Migrant Mother by Dorothy Lange the latter being prominently placed so that it can be seen from other rooms

Just one Ansel Adams, a photograph of a lone church; this absence of his work is perhaps significant or it maybe that Adams is not really considered to be a Modernist.  Ostrich Egg by Man Ray is an excellent example of tonal rendition in a photographic print during the early days of the medium. Adams was very influential in improving the basic quality of black and white prints..

A couple of noisy children are in the gallery being pushed around in a double push chair. Their mother tries hard to keep them quiet but without success.

While surrealism is inherent in the medium of photography, many of the photographs in this exhibition reveal a Cubist influence.

Kertesz works reveal his brilliance. Not Polish as Elton John says during the video installation but Hungarian like Moholy Nagy.

Edward Weston writes in 1924 that “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself…

The Modernist era, (one might question the applying of that label to this exhibition), is always encouraging as it saw photography creating new guidelines that are largely unique to the medium.

The OCA discussion follows for an hour afterwards. This tends to be rather opinionated with familiar voices airing their grievances while our tutor for the day, Russell Squires, is hardly listened to yet graciously concluded afterwards that there was at least a discussion.  Much of it seemed to centre around Elton John who was not what the exhibition was about; the obsession with celebrity though played a part in this exhibition! Some of the criticism from students seems based on ignorance; they have not done their research or looked very far into the information about this exhibition. Most students however are reasonably quiet and listen; some provide valid viewpoints based on observation rather than prejudgement.

I enjoy seeing other OCA students I know and meeting ones I do not. In spite of lively exchanges on Facebook and in the forums, it is good to see a human face to face.

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A visit to the Rene Magritte Museum



from a photograph by Duan Michals

As with everything, I live in the mystery.” Magritte to Carl Wai, Bruxelles April 1967.

Before travelling to Bruxelles to see this museum exhibition for the second time, the first was a few years ago soon after this larger museum opened (there is also another one based around a house he occupied for many years) I decided to do some research into the artist to try and get to the bottom of his message. In this I have not been successful since I do not think there is a bottom line to Magritte or is it that there is no top to his work!? Continuing the interview with Carl Wai, given not long before his death in august 1967, Magritte says, “There has to come a moment when suddenly mystery is no longer an object that can be talked about … ” and about his painting he says that it “evokes mystery, but it is conceived in order to evoke it.”


a variation on the pipe theme !

There is one famous work of his, a painting of a pipe while underneath is written the words “this is not a pipe” ( Ceci n’est pas une pipe). The “treachery of images” is an understanding that is not unique to Magritte but has roots in semiology and particularly the work of De Saussure. Magritte was a thinker who painted.

While I do not find it easy to explore the written work of Magritte, he was after all a painter who worked visually, the following lines full of mystery do make some more obvious sense … “It’s a complete break with the mental habits of those artists who are prisoners of their talent, their virtuosity. The point is a new vision, where the viewer rediscovers his isolation and hears the silence of the world … Neither modest nor proud, I’ve done what I thought I had to do.” (From L’Express, Paris, 16’th January 1967).


from a photograph by Duan Michals

This year marks 50 years since Magritte’s death though I have not as yet heard anything about this anniversary. The details of his life do not seem so important yet he did not adopt a Bohemian kind of life style in the sense that he was married to one woman and appeared to live an ordinary life. He referred to himself as a double agent.


work by Gavin Turk

I walk to the museum from my hotel. It takes me about half an hour as I wander along an indirect route. In the museum entrance, there is a security guard. After buying tickets in the foyer along with use of an audio-guide, I go down to level 2 to put my coat and bag in a locker. There is a Magritte exhibition here before entry that includes two art pieces by Gavin Turk, a U.K. artist, who made models of Magritte’s works (cripple and oscar) in the year of Magritte’s death, 1967.


Words and Images (Les Mots et les Images)

There are also three large black and white photos of Magritte by Duan Michals on the walls, a blow up of his diagrammatic Words and Images, (Les Mots et les Images), and a series of 8 Magritte painting reproductions in a circle above and around the entrance hall.

One then enters the museum proper by means of a lift which now takes one up to the third floor. Magritte’s work used to be scattered around the place mostly in different Belgian museums and departments until it was decided to bring it into one place so the public could focus on the work of this one man. Although regarded as one of the great Surrealists, Magritte was only really a member of the group lead by Andre Breton for a relatively short time while living in Paris for three years with his wife.


More larger than life black and white photographs are on the third floor.

Magritte’s early life was marked by the suicide of his mother when aged only 14, first meeting his wife to be at around 15 and studying fine art, learning the necessary tools of the trade which he regarded as important if not essential. He came into contact with Dadaism and was involved with Surrealism. Some of his early work reveals a Cubist influence.


painting made by Magritte using his wife as a model

Following meeting his wife to be when she was only 12 at a fairground in Charlesroi, Magritte (the I in his name is short so that the second part sounds a bit like grit) met her again some years later in a park by accident and after that they never seperated. Georgette Magritte donated much of the work on show in the museum.

Initially, Magritte came into contact with Futurism and Impressionism which made a great impact on him. His earlier work in this style did not however sell and he was forced to undertake what he called “idiot work” that included designing wallpaper and covers for musical scores (his brother was a music publisher).

Colluding with artists inspired his early work and also resulted in a newspaper called 7  Arts which stated “Art is an active expression of civilisation” and “Art is an organised invention”; one has to create an art based in the present without any references to the past. This paper was challenged by the Surrealists with whom Magritte was already drawn to; he therefore left the constructivist Bauhaus based artists under accusation that he was being Bourgeois.

The Shooting Gallery (La Salle d’Armes) from 1926 is an example of the early Surrealist influence.


It is interesting to see how photography plays an important part in this museum to recreate the era Magritte lived in yet also as a counterpoint to his work; his art has a photogenic quality. One feels that were he alive today, he would be using computer software like Photoshop. The museum walls are black as if the viewer is inside a vast photographic album! Magritte was not however interested in developing photography as an art form although he did use it to document goings on, ideas for paintings perhaps and to create little cameos with friends.


Paintings like The Man from the Sea (L’homme du Large) from 1927, mark the beginnings of Magritte’s unique approach.

Magritte was more profoundly influenced by painters such as De Chirico. Chirico was creating something genuinely new unlike the Futurists who were more concerned with discovering just a new way of painting. Paintings like The Man from the Sea (L’homme du Large) from 1927, mark the beginnings of Magritte’s unique approach.


Paul Nouget, painted by Magritte in 1927

Paul Nouget, painted by Magritte in 1927, was a Belgian critic who regarded the 7 Arts as too formalistic and espoused Surrealism. Magritte was drawn  to him as were others and so the Belgian Surrealist group was born; they maintained independence from the French Surrealists.

Georgette emphasised an important function of Magritte’s work. He thought of something, he painted that something, the viewer saw what he painted … there was nothing more to it than than that and to look for symbolic meanings is fruitless.

In 1927, Magritte went to Paris with Georgette, hoping to find a more appreciative public and drawn by the Surrealists, went to Paris for three years. He did not become close with the Surrealists and eventually argued with Andre Breton who ordered Georgette to remove the cross hanging around her neck that was a gift from her grandmother. Magritte had absorbed the Surrealist message in his own way.


In 1929, Magritte sketched his famous Words and Images that was published in The Surrealist Revolution, December 1929, Paris. This is easy to read and consider yet the meaning is profound hence requiring contemplation.

The first gallery ends with a reproduction of the pipe image, the treachery of images, as the original is in Los Angeles, California. The text hear reads “this continues not to be a pipe.” Simply put, one can not put any tobacco into the pipe Magritte has painted; it is the representation of a pipe not an actual pipe, a simple truth that needs stating even more today than ever in our image saturated world.

Magritte using painting to say what the mind wants to but is not yet known. This is second hand translation and seems to miss the point. In fact, Magritte in translation seems compromised often with words assuming different meanings. An example is the painting called L’homme du Large in French but The Man from the Sea in English. The French word directly implies size which the English translation misses.

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Louis Scutenaire is seen smoking and wearing a helmet

On level 2, there are some cameos playing. These little dramas are spiced with Surrealistic humour and feature Little Red Hood; Magritte liked Lewis Carrol. One of his friends, Louis Scutenaire, is seen smoking and wearing a helmet; there is much footage of his wife, Georgette.

Although basically chronological, this exhibition jumps around a little as different influences in his life are explored.

Magritte returned from Paris in 1930. He had to return to advertising work to make a living but after some years his work started to sell.

He painted a statue of the Venus de Milo, giving her a flesh coloured coat. Paul Nuget commented on this as did Andre Breton. Magritte started to be exhibited.

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God is no Saint

Titles play an ambiguous role in Magritte’s work and were conceived later in the process of making a painting. For instance, a bird possibly a Jackdaw, perched on the side of a shoe is called “God is no Saint.” Birds feature frequently in Magritte’s work but have no stated symbolic meaning. Life is a mystery!

Using painting to create another dimension, another space … as in a door with a shape cut in it. Depth! A partially hidden layer.

Symbols that Magritte used were the sky, the sea, small spherical bells and, as with other Surrealists, mirrors.  Play of day and night. Metamorphosis. Stone, cloud. Crescent moon. Trees, eggs, dusk … his visual vocabulary. Bowler hatted, figure in coat, houses,

During the war, Magritte started using bright colours in a more impressionistic style. Trees which bore one large leaf instead of many (The Blaze, 1943), a group of owls growing from the ground like leaves (the companions of fear, 1942) and also in 1942, Treasure Island, with doves growing out as plants. Andre Breton was not enthused.

Magritte embraced Communism for awhile after the war and attempted to get them to see that art could be practiced in its’ own right rather than in the service of the state. He failed like others who tried, to get the communists to see this and so discarded them. He was accused of lacking political conviction and called a capitalist; by now his work was selling and being exhibited in America.

In 1947, Magritte was banished from the Surrealist group. He entered a period called “Vache” in which he made a group of paintings that were intended for a show in Paris. This included copying the style of painting found in comics. Gavin Turk is a British artist who has made sculptures from this period.

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portrait of Adrienne Crowet (1942)

Magritte sometimes undertook Portrait commissions; these were not straight pictures and showed his unique style as in the portrait of Adrienne Crowet (1942).

Magritte initially did not appeal to the Americans with his Renoirlike style and was told to continue with his former style much to his mortification. He eventually died on Assumption Day 1967.

Magritte did achieve success towards the end of his life but too late for him to really enjoy it. He did not care if a painting sold for a million because such success was based on a misunderstanding. Magritte remained true to himself.

He did have an influence on the modern world as with his Apple , adopted by the Beatles and perhaps giving way to the huge company of that name! Magritte regarded Pop Art as a watered down form of Dadaism; often it did not require much original thinking as perhaps in the multiple photos of soup cans.

In some ways, the last room is of most interest as it shows Magritte’s later work with which I am most familiar. Here, he does seem to have produced some of his best work.

Magritte was a cerebral painter, searching for something in his work. He sometimes left the titles of works to others and certainly did not agree with psycho-analytical interpretations of his work.

The Masked Ball is a strikingly mysterious image showing the sun rising or setting over the sea with a monolithic stone in the foreground. (The Masked Ball, 1958). A haunting beauty or is it just another sunrise/sunset image.

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His last painting which features a full moon in front of rather than behind the leaves of a tree and reveals a night sky with houses on the horizon, lights lit, is called The Blank Page.

Salvador Dali described him as an exemplary painter who should be used in every school in the world to illustrate what poetry is. Magritte did not know the real reason for his painting.

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A Magritte altered to fit into a local cafe

The mass reproduction of his images is really the realisation of his concept that the image is really only the vehicle for an idea.

After the shop, the cinema where a film about Magritte is playing. Painting a tool for him. The movie seems to add its’ own narrative which rather distorts what the exhibition has shown yet it is obvious he could not have done what he did without his wife, Georgette. Magritte did not play the role of artist yet he was undoubtedly one. He discovered what he had to paint. De Chirico a major influence; from the classical world while Magritte was part of the modern one.

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The museum shop is considered to be part of the exhibition

One item I purchase (along with cards, fridge magnets, books, a mug, a badge) is the catalogue of the recent Magritte retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This gives an updated contemporary view of Magritte as a philosophic individual who painted. He managed to continue his own path and not be drawn too far into the Surrealist school which did not really accommodate him. The catalogue is yet another narrative about Magritte and one senses that the Musee Magritte gives a more authentic one. After all, the Surrealists were largely poets and saw words over images unlike Magritte who saw that images could take precedence over words.

The recent retrospective exhibition in Paris was called The Treachery of Images after Magritte’s famous “This is not a pipe” image which makes a statement about semiotics rather than merely being a witty Surrealist gesture. There is also an image of an apple that is followed by text, “this is not an apple”. The admiration of an object because it is a painted representation rather than the real object might be ultimately misleading! The Parisian exhibition seems to have done a good job of revealing Magritte’s attempt to reveal that paintings are false, they do not actually show what they claim to represent.

“Making thought visible!” was essential to Magritte’s work.

An interesting aspect to Magritte’s work is the fact that he came into contact with many different schools of art … constructivist, Bauhaus, Dada, expressionist, futurist and of course, Surrealist … he seemed to have absorbed and rejected such influences to find his own way.