This is not an exhibition – Magritte at the Tate Liverpool

We called in to the Tate Liverpool on Sunday, principally to pay a second visit to the Magritte exhibition that’s showing there until mid October. There’s a lot to see. The Tate have done a good job at pulling together a large number of his paintings, a significant proportion from private collections.

It was our second visit. We joined the Tate last year because we’ve found that the major exhibitions they organise need more than one visit to properly take in everything on display. There’s normally so many paintings that you become overwhelmed and it’s difficult to absorb everything you’re seeing.  This was certainly the case with the current exhibition. By taking out an individual membership with the “Liverpool extra card option” up to 4 people can visit all the exhibitions at the Albert Dock gallery without having to pay any extra. It allows us to revisit any exhibition we choose to, as many times as we want, meaning we can get a lot more out of them.

Like most of the exhibitions I’ve seen in recent years, the curators take a thematic rather than chronological approach to the works. I don’t think this always works. Sometimes an artist’s output is easier to understand when looked at chronologically. In this case I think the approach was successful, probably because Magritte developed his different themes over time, so there probably wouldn’t have been a great deal of difference if the pictures had been displayed chronologically.

Personally I’m not a great fan of Surrealist art.  The intention of Surrealist artists is to use “visual imagery from the subconscious mind to create art without the intention of logical comprehensibility”. I find it rather unsettling (which is actually what the artists are trying to achieve) and I can’t seem to engage with it.

I find Magritte more accessible than some other Surrealists, particularly Salvador Dali.  His paintings are less fantastic. Many of his subjects are more banal focusing on more everyday objects and situations rather than wandering into the wider realms of fantasy as Dali did. They feature pipes, bowler hats and apples rather than strange, unrealistic shapes and structures that appear in may of Dali’s works. But these ordinary objects are placed in unusual settings. In many ways it makes Magritte’s work more disconcerting.

To say the least, Magritte wasn’t a great draughtsman. Many of the earlier works are crude and not particularly well drawn. However I think his skills develop and his work improves over time.

Overall I wasn’t particularly keen on the works displayed in the first two rooms. I thought the paintings from his “Vache period” displayed in room 2 were awful. They may be of historical interest in terms of understanding his relationship with the French Surrealists, but they are not particularly good works of art. There were some smaller works I liked, some of which appeared to be collages. Unfortunately I didn’t note down their titles and haven’t been able to find them on the Tate website, although I think that one of them was called The Lost Jockey.

One of Magritte’s most famous works is “La trahison des images” – a picture of a pipe with the legend “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. The exhibition included a version of this work, but the legend was in English.


I did like quite a few of the works displayed in room 5, particularly his cloud pictures and “The human condition” and some similar paintings.  It shows a canvas positioned in front of a window where the outside view appears on the canvas and overlaps the curtains as if they aren’t there. He uses a similar device, where the background is merged with the foreground, in a number of other works on display.

“The human condition” 1933

I’m not sure how the image in “the human condition” is meant to relate to the title of the picture. Perhaps it isn’t and is another Surrealist device providing a conflict between the words and the image to confuse the viewer.

I also liked a number of the works displayed in the last two rooms.  There were several versions of his series The Dominion of Light featuring a nigh time street scene under a bright blue afternoon sky. Another example of a disconcerting distortion of reality.

As with most exhibitions I’ve seen at the various Tate galleries, various contextual materials including photographs, home movies and examples of his commercial art were on display. I think these help the visitor to understand the artist and the environment which influenced his art and, to me, they were an important part of the exhibition which is meant to educate as well as “entertain”.

It was definitely worthwhile re-visiting the exhibition. I came away with a deeper understanding of Magritte’s work. However it was mainly an intellectual experience – very few of the works inspired me or engaged my emotions.