Revealing the Mystery of Magritte’s Materials and Techniques
From left to right: Conservators Michael Duffy, Anny Aviram, and Cindy Albertson, and Curator Anne Umland in MoMA's Paintings Conservation Lab with René Magritte’s The False Mirror, The Palace of Curtains, III, and The Portrait

From left to right: Conservators Michael Duffy, Anny Aviram, and Cindy Albertson, and Curator Anne Umland in MoMA’s paintings conservation lab with René Magritte’s The False Mirror; The Palace of Curtains, III; and The Portrait

In his polemical 1938 speech “La Ligne de vie (Lifeline),” René Magritte spoke of his “objective representation of objects,” claiming that, “In my view, this detached way of representing things is characteristic of a universal style in which the manias and minor preferences of the individual no longer play any part.” Given his self-proclaimed “detached” style, it may seem unproductive to study Magritte’s materials and techniques in depth. However, three years ago, when beginning to prepare for the exhibition Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, we had a hunch that there was much to learn and discover. The Magritte catalogue raisonné (the bible for Magritte studies) includes some fascinating x-ray images and descriptions of materials but conservators had never studied Magritte’s materials and techniques thoroughly before.

This exhibition is the first to focus on the beginning of Magritte’s career. It explores the years when he became a Surrealist and developed into the artist that we recognize today. One of the thrills of organizing a major exhibition like this is that it offers conservators and curators the unique chance to examine a group of works from a concentrated time period. In this case, we were particularly excited because we knew that the 13 years covered by the exhibition were the most experimental and prolific of Magritte’s long career. Some of the techniques we used to study Magritte’s work were x-ray, infrared reflectography (IRR), ultraviolet (UV) scanning, and thread count analysis. We also treated the paintings, particularly removing varnish, so that they would look their best in the display.

Anne Umland and Michael Duffy examine Rene Magritte's The Portrait

Curator Anne Umland and Conservator Michael Duffy examine René Magritte’s The Portrait

MoMA co-organized the exhibition with the Menil Collection in Houston and The Art Institute of Chicago. The holdings of these three museums allowed us to examine, over a period of two years, about 20 paintings and objects. MoMA curators and conservators first concentrated on looking at the five paintings from the years 1926 through 1938 in our collection. Then, in the spring of 2012, we traveled to Houston and to Chicago to examine those objects in person and to discuss our overall findings. Other museums, primarily lenders to the exhibition, generously contributed information about their works, making it even more clear that there is more than meets the eye to this artist’s oeuvre!

Conservators Cindy Albertson and Michael Duffy examine an x-ray of René Magritte’s The Portrait

Conservators Cindy Albertson and Michael Duffy examine an x-ray of René Magritte’s The Portrait

Some of our findings revised and augmented the catalogue raisonné, including the discovery of a major lost composition to be discussed in a later post. Additional information was incorporated into the exhibition catalogue, adding a new dimension to the Magritte literature. Other findings were included on the exhibition website.

Curator Anne Umland and Conservator Anny Aviram discuss René Magritte’s The False Mirror

Curator Anne Umland and Anny Aviram discuss René Magritte’s The False Mirror

At the end of August and beginning of September, the works on loan to the exhibition began to arrive at MoMA. As they were uncrated and installed we were struck by noticeable shifts in the artist’s palette over the 13-year span of the exhibition. We think that many viewers will be surprised by the smoky grays and blues and the somber earth tones of his work from 1926 to 1928. Then in 1929 there is a notable shift towards a lighter, clearer palette; visitors will likely be more familiar with the bright blue skies and white clouds of paintings like The False Mirror.  After seeing the paintings together at MoMA, it also became more apparent that Magritte’s technique varies throughout the show. Two versions of The Red Model, one made in 1935 and the other in 1937, provide an excellent case study. Although painted only two years apart, the later and larger version shows Magritte’s desire at this time to achieve a notable trompe l’oeil effect. Shortly after, he proclaimed his desire to show objects with “all the details they show us in reality” so that they “challenge the real world.”

In the forthcoming posts in this series we will outline the conservation treatments of MoMA’s paintings, the various research techniques and imaging methods we used during our study, and our exciting discoveries. Stay tuned!