This is an intelligent exhibit, not just conceptually but in that it requires the viewer to actively make connections while absorbing the art.
By Adrienne LaFrance
March 17th, 2006
We know them well; droves of bowler-hatted business men, a steam engine emerging inexplicably from a fireplace, the pipe that isn’t a pipe after all. The eerie images that once belonged to Rene Magritte’s wild imagination are now seared into the collective consciousness of the generations who have been awed and inspired by his work.
Karl Baden, photographer and faculty member at Boston College, conceptualizes this widespread influence in an innovative and highly intriguing exhibit at the college’s Bapst Library: “La Culture des idees: Book cover design and the spirit of Magritte”(through March 19).
Baden’s exhibit features a series of prints of Magritte’s work along with a collection of books, the covers of which are clearly derivative of the Belgian surrealists’ work. Some pieces intentionally pay homage, while others echo Magritte less blatantly.
The exhibit embodies the same uncanny vibe that is intrinsic to Magritte’s work. It displays just a small sampling of Baden’s growing collection of books that resonate with Magritte’s art.
“I think it just happened as I was looking for books at used bookstores,” Baden said of his idea for the show. “I started picking up books with Magritte images on the cover maybe about a year ago. I probably have about 150 books that relate to his art… Iconic works usually get end up somewhere on book covers, record covers, they’re everywhere.”
What Baden doesn’t mention is that he has gone to the effort of finding specific editions of books that play into his project, which can be difficult since a book’s cover design can change numerous times over years of reprints.
This is an intelligent exhibit, not just conceptually but in that it requires the viewer to actively make connections while absorbing the art. Even the lay-out of the exhibit would be tiresome for the lazy. Two shelved display cases of books are separate from poster boards featuring the related Magritte images, so that instead of seeing one book paired with a correlating Magritte image, viewers are forced to draw their own conclusions.
Sure, many of the links are tough to miss, but Baden acknowledges his decision to separate the books from the prints. “The goal of this exhibition is not to simply match one cover to one painting,” Baden wrote in the show’s catalog. “Its intent… is to get the viewer to consider the degree that Magritte’s imagery has been absorbed into the visual vernacular of popular culture.”
While this aspect of the display adds value to the exhibit, one aesthetic blunder was placing books on the lowest tier of the two four-shelf display cases. They are difficult to appreciate at that level, even when stooping to get a better look.
Still, that’s the only strikingly negative feature of the exhibit. Even the show’s relatively small size (four display cases in one small library foyer) and the grinding noises of library renovations are eclipsed by the richness of the exhibit’s content. A stack of thick books about Magritte for viewers to peruse could keep the art enthusiast parked in the Bapst Library for hours.
But it would take days to delve beneath a surface understanding of the many implications of Magritte’s influence on art culture, as shown in this exhibit.
The prevailing visual theme of the exhibit revolves around the self and the absence of individual identity that Magritte so famously portrayed.
One of countless examples is the cover for “World’s End,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, which features a hollow pair of feet, roped to a dock, like someone had escaped captivity by slipping out of his or her own body. The image is much like Magritte’s “Le Modele Rouges II.”
One particularly interesting connection is between Magritte’s “L’homme au Journal” (1927), and Ellen Currie’s book, “Moses Supposes.” Repetition governs the perspective of both, which feature four almost-identical images of a table by a window, arranged in a square. The title of Magritte’s work refers to the man with a newspaper sitting at the table that appears only in the top left image. None of the four images on Currie’s cover features a person, but the cover design is unquestionably inspired by Magritte. Even Currie’s title demonstrates a repetition of letters that enforces the theme.
Repetition was a device Magritte often used to negate individuality. Viewers see this again in his “Golconde,” in which identical men donning overcoats and bowler hats rain from the sky into a square that looks a lot like a Brussels backdrop. We see this image mirrored in Katherine Le Mee’s “Chant,” and Nicolas Freeling’s “Flanders Sky.” (One edition of Freeling’s 1994 crime novel, “You Who Know,” not featured in this exhibit, is also a direct send up of Magritte’s “Les memoires d’un saint” )
Magritte’s surrealism is truly uncanny in the Freudian sense. In “La Reproduction Interdite,” something familiar is presented (a man in front of a mirror) in an unfamiliar way (the reflection is of his back even though he is facing the mirror). Two things meet but fail to connect as we expect them to. Phillipe Vasset’s “Script Generator” and Ellen Akins’ “Home Movies,” emulate this image.
A lack of logical connection also occurs in “L’Empire des Lumieres,” one of Magritte’s greatest triumphs. A house bathed in darkness barely illuminated by the glow of a streetlamp rests below a bright, blue, day-time sky. This piece is ultimately surreal. It is an accurately painted scene of a house by night coupled with an accurately painted daytime sky. One notices the quality of painting before the surreal context, making it both beautiful and sinister. David Czuchlewski’s novel, “Empire of Light,” is a clear and intentional derivation from Magritte. Anne Tyler’s “Saint Maybe” echoes Magritte more subtly.
References to Magritte’s bowler hats abound. What’s amazing to consider is that the very ideas Magritte conveyed in his art reverberate in the way he has affected art culture.
Maybe most interestingly is the way this exhibit continues to inspire. The on-display copy of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” may spark viewers’ memory of a different edition– same hat, different cover—and the implications of the design change.
Seeing Magritte’s “Les Memoires d’un Saint,” near George Garrett’s “Whistling in the Dark,” might conjure the cover design of David Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” The possibilities are endless.
And it’s different for everyone. This is an exhibit you can take with you because the core intrigue of Baden’s creation is the idea behind it. And, in an uncanny way, this is another echo of Magritte’s own philosophy on art; his emphasis on visual language as an entity of the mind, with the help of a paintbrush.