The Art of Understanding Art: “Magritte and The Fifth Season”

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” – Magritte

Have you ever felt the frustration of being dragged around an art gallery with your parents and having no clue just how you are supposed to respond to the overwhelming number of paintings and sculptures and prints?

Sometimes I get more enjoyment out of watching the people watching ‘the art’. I imagine them thinking: “Did I remember to buy fruit?” or “Eww fish, bet that stinks.” Because I don’t think they have a clue about the meaning either. It’s as though we are supposed to be born knowing who these artists are, why they have painted all this stuff, the exact meaning behind it all and therefore why they are so famous. 

Well, I didn’t know, and it made me feel like not going anymore. Which was frustrating because if I love to draw, paint, design, and print, why am I unable to interpret what’s in a gallery? If it’s supposed to be important enough to merit an exhibition, why doesn’t it come with an explanation?

So here is a plan to help – when there is no other help.

I decided to do a little research, talk to some ‘experts,’ and I came up with a plan and put it into action at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The MOMA is currently holding an exhibition of Magritte’s Fifth Season, including 70 mix media paintings that encompass the artist’s final quarter-century from 1943 to 1967.  Yes, seventy paintings in just one room!

(*For the purpose of this investigation I will only be looking at paintings.)

Step 1. Ignore the Noise

Ignore the total number of paintings in the exhibition. Walk in, scan the room, and make your way to the ONE that has grabbed your attention.  It might be the ugliest or it might be the most beautiful, it doesn’t matter why – but it has reached out and grabbed your eyeballs and so that is where you start.

Step 2. Look for Clues

In English we are taught how to analyse a piece of text.  We even have a toolkit – PEEL.

I think this approach works just as well when examining the titles found next to the art.

  1. What is the name of the artist? Have you heard of them? If so, search your brain to remember why.  
  2. Has the artwork been named – does that explain the work – or at least give a starting point?
  3. When and where was the artist born? What do I know about that period in history?
  4. When and where was the artwork created?  What do I know ab0ut that period of history?

These questions might help to build an idea of context and perhaps to understand why the artwork may have been considered radical, new, exciting.  99.99% of the time the artist’s environment is what influences their work, whether it is a political comment, or they are a purist looking to advance the field of art.

However, you may not be given any clues other that the name of the artist and therefore step 2 is of no use at all.  So that takes us to:

Step 3. Ask Questions

Examine the painting to establish what is in front of you:

  • Media – what is it: watercolour, oil, collage? This will give you some information about the age of the painting.  If it’s oil it’s more likely to be old and if it’s a print or collage it’s more likely to be 20th century onwards.
  • How has the artist worked – with skill and precision or bold, abstract marks? That may give some clue to the artist’s intention – to convey a scene with as much realism as possible or to project an emotion.
  • Composition – is there something aesthetically pleasing about the arrangement of shapes and colours or conversely, has the artist set your teeth on edge with a nerve jangling ugly palette and unbalanced organisation on the canvas?

And finally, possibly the toughest:

Step 4: Examine your Feelings

What are you feeling right now, standing in front of the artwork? Pleasure? Disgust? Rage? Scorn? All valid emotions because the artwork now belongs to you, the viewing public. The intention of the artist isn’t that important anymore because without a written explanation, all we are left with is our personal response. And that can be the hardest thing to access if we are stuck on questioning what the artist wants us to feel.

We are a living in a time of visual overload, using our phones, swiping and scrolling past thousands of images in just one hour.  Instagram is our portable gallery and we treat each visual to one millisecond of our attention and I think that may be the reason I found it so hard to linger so long in front of one painting.

So I entered the MOMA with the intention of using these steps…

Screen Shot 2018-09-04 at 23.27.39.pngLes Valeurs Personnelles (Personal Values), 1952.

Step 1: I was drawn to this piece because of the distorted scale of all the objects that dwarf the surrounding furniture, and his clever understanding of light and dark.

Step 2:  

  • The artist’s name is Réne Magritte, a well known Surrealist whose artwork I was already familiar with <Ceci n’est pas une pipe> is super famous. He was part of the 20th century group of avant garde artists who explored the unconscious mind through the strange juxtaposition of images.
  • The name of the piece Les Valeurs Personnelles gives insight into the painting that I will explore later on.
  • Magritte was born in Belgium in 1898 – he would have experienced both World War one and two at close quarters and at a time when art was changing dramatically; moving on from impressionism to all the experimentation of modern art. His contemporaries would have been people like Picasso and Dali.
  • In 1952 he created this piece which would have been towards the end of his life and in an era of optimism, post Nazi control – freedom of expression.

Step 3:

  • It is a medium sized oil painting, which is a traditional technique, however, the painting looks modern owing to the composition, which is appropriate to 1952.
  • The composition is of an interior yet the walls are painted with the sky and clouds. The scale of all the objects have been distorted in some way; the bed has been shrunk, the comb gigantic and the glass fills the entire room. This juxtaposition is in keeping with surrealism but what really grabs your attention is

the photorealistic technique. The artist is a very skillful painter!

Step 4:

How do I feel?

  • I find the painting intriguing, there are so many conflicting elements: the indoors versus outdoors, the exaggeration of scale, the symmetry.  All of these things make me curious and spend time discovering more and more detail – for example the cracks in the ceiling! The obvious skill of the painter is also really pleasing to examine: how did he paint the brush to look so convincingly soft? But there is something about the colour scheme and the old-fashioned objects and the setting that make me feel suffocated.  I like examining the painting but I don’t like looking at it – how surreal!
  • The muted pinks, warm browns and cool blues seem to me aged and banal. The smallest object, the matchstick, grabs your attention with its bold pink and acid yellow. The composition is set in a room where we can see clouds and sky framed by the floor and ceiling, conjuring a feeling of claustrophobia despite the outdoor setting. The central placing of the glass highlights the obvious symmetry of the composition; it has been considered and planned meticulously. Together with the painstakingly precise brush strokes, each bristle visible on the shaving brush, and the translucence of the glass, this painting must have taken a lot of time in the execution. It has been created by someone who is organised and thoughtful, they have not done anything by mistake. Therefore the symmetry, the composition, the contrast and juxtaposition of objects and the expert control demonstrated, make me think the title must hold a clue to explaining the thought process and intention of the artist.
  • Les Valeurs Personnelles translates as Personal Values, which the more you think about possible meanings, the more it throws up:

→ It could be an expression of what he likes and holds dear.

→ Or the principles he follows.

→ Or perhaps the symbolic value of each object represented. The wardrobe and the room symbolise clothing and shelter, the glass stands for sustenance and the match for warmth.  

→ Or, is it the level of comfort one needs to live well or acceptably – all of these things need to be owned?  

→ Or do the everyday objects represent himself and the sky and clouds the freedom of his imagination?

→ Or perhaps the objects were chosen to define his journey of life through adolescence to old age; his childhood room to his first shaving brush to his first glass of wine.

→ Or do we take a more literal translation of values as the ‘content’ or ‘finish’ of each object.  They have all been painted and rendered true to their individual surface texture and pattern. The personal value of each item is exactly as it is in real life; and following on from that fastidious attention to detail, is that something the artist prides himself upon as his personal value, his skill.

In conclusion, don’t let yourself get hung up on the exact message the artist is trying to convey, for the artist’s concept constantly changes throughout the ‘creative process’. As with English text analysis, if you can justify your response then no one can tell you otherwise. I spent exactly 23 minutes picking apart this painting in the gallery; and I think I explored my personal response as fully as possible on that day, but who’s to say in a year’s time I wouldn’t find a completely new set of meanings.

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” – Magritte