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October 7, 2014

Art Institute explores the weird works of René Magritte

According to TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice awards, the Art Institute of Chicago is the number-one attraction in Chicago and also the number-one museum in the world. But what does that mean for those of us who aren’t quite tourists? We have free entry with our University IDs for a reason: this fall, through October 13, the museum is showing an incredible collection of surrealist artist René Magritte’s most formative and prominent work in an exhibit that is definitely worth a visit.

Magritte is well known for several iconic images. One famously depicts a pipe with the sentence, “Ceci n’est pas un pipe,” or “This is not a pipe.” The man in a bowler hat with a green apple in front of his face and the fireplace with a train extending from it are also well-known works. The exhibit follows Magritte from his first exhibition of surrealist paintings in Brussels in 1926; through the time he spent in Paris, where he met other surrealist artists; and culminates in 1938 just before World War II, thus encapsulating some of the most important parts of his career.

Despite the wild reputation of other artists creating similarly strange pieces at the time, Magritte sought to remain independent of that movement by maintaining the air of an academic exploring and communicating his discoveries. Many of his paintings play with themes of linguistic theory, perception, and the definition or purpose of art, ultimately challenging what is considered ordinary. Yet however bizarre the content is—images labeled with mismatching names or a human form made solely of legs—he paints them with technique so realistic and compelling that the content begs to be considered.

Through liberal spacing and bold lighting, the exhibit forces its visitors to carefully consider the value of the bizarre and sometimes disturbing works he created. For those who are not fans of modern or experimental art, the exhibit makes its case well, sparking conversations with some of his less jarring work. (For example, one wall holds a series of images created by a mixture of white space and separately framed segments of the whole that perhaps more accurately captures the way an eye views an image.) Yet those who know and love surrealist art will find an immersive exploration of the themes and growth of an artist who both helped define and also in some ways defied the movement. However, both the uncharmed and the impassioned visitor will likely feel the very tangible connections his work has in the greater context of 20th-century thought.

After the museum closes, be sure to take a walk in the beautiful gardens on either side of the museum. They are open to the public and will likely be in the final throes of their summer glory. Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary is not an exhibit that lets you leave without some new thoughts and greater appreciation. Take some time to chew on it. Let it brew.

The Art Institute of Chicago is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

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