Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926—1938 focuses on René Magritte’s breakthrough Surrealist years, peeling back the layers of this inventive and experimental period in the artist’s career to reveal the development of the themes and motifs that make his art so unforgettable. Each of Magritte’s enigmatic works encourages viewers to think and search deeply, and in the case of the Art Institute’s iconic Time Transfixed, that kind of probing investigation revealed surprising twists and turns in the making of painting. Scroll up to see and hear the story of Time Transfixed unwind in four parts.
Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 explores the intensely innovative early career of the Belgian Surrealist as he developed his foundational strategies, themes, and motifs to defamiliarize the familiar and make, in his words, “everyday objects shriek aloud.”
The Art Institute is the final venue for this groundbreaking exhibition and will be the only institution on the tour to feature a special presentation on Magritte’s relationship with the eccentric British poet, patron, and collector of Surrealist art, Edward James.
In 1937 Magritte accepted a commission from James for 3 paintings—including the Art Institute’s iconic On the Threshold of Liberty—that proved to be a watershed moment for the artist. The works will be reunited here for the 1st time since they were removed from James’s home before World War II.
The 3 paintings of the commission were the 1st of many artworks by Magritte that James would acquire between 1937 and 1939. Time Transfixed—a work now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago—was the last.
In preparation for the exhibition, all of the paintings by Magritte in our collection underwent extensive technical examinations, revealing a number of twists and turns in the making and life of this iconic painting.
This was the first time that Time Transfixed had ever been x-rayed, and looking beneath the surface of Time Transfixed revealed many surprises...
The train had been moved
Transmitted IR images revealed the crossed legs of a seated figure to the right of the fireplace and mirror, extending vertically up the right side of the canvas. When the image was turned sideways we were able to see the figure of a seated male leaning on his elbow, with legs extended and feet crossed at the ankles. The outline and placement of his proper right shoulder and his head were also visible beneath the lower portion of the fireplace.
Transmitted light photographs revealed colors below the surface of Time Transfixed that corresponded to this earlier composition: orange-brown for the painted flesh-tones on the legs, and dark red for a towel beneath the figure’s arm. This indicates that the image was painted in to some degree.
The discovery led us to ask—who was the figure beneath the surface of our iconic painting?
The figure beneath Time Transfixed was distinct and we turned to the catalog raisonné of the Magritte’s works to look for a possible source.
In the catalog raisonne, we found two working drawings of reclining male figures.
We also found a finished gouache of the same subject called Spring Eternal, which the catalog raisonné author, David Sylvester, believed to have been lost at the time he was working on the project. As it turns out, Magritte had described the same image in a lecture he gave in 1938 as a picture of a reclining male nude with a beard, and a small ballerina in his lap.
When we overlayed the drawing with the our canvas, there was a clear correspondence between the two.
The discovery of another composition beneath the painting alone was thrilling, but further digging into this period in Magritte’s career and his relationship with James revealed that this was not—in fact—the end of the story.
In a strange turn of events, the original picture that Magritte had abandoned was tied to James, though James knew nothing of this when he bought the canvas.
Magritte finished Time Transfixed in 1938 and James purchased the work in 1939. In between that time, Magritte and James had had a short break in their relationship. When the artist found out that James had purchased Time Transfixed and he wrote to him saying, “I had you in mind when I made this work.”
Indeed Magritte had thought of James when he was working on the first composition on the canvas—the figure of reclining man. Trying to pique the collector’s interest to purchase the work, Magritte had actually written a letter to James in 1937 describing a painting featuring Zorina, a ballerina with whom James was fascinated.
In the letter from 1939, Magritte does not mention the earlier composition, but instead focuses on what he believes to be the ideal location for the installation of Time Transfixed in James’s London home.
The artist tells James that he thinks his patron should place the work at the foot of his grand winding staircase to “transfix” viewers on the ground floor.
Indeed, he says that he had James in mind when he was painting the work because James’s staircase reminded him of the staircase featured in the 1937 film The Last Gangster, with Edward G. Robinson. In the film, there is a mirror on the wall at the bottom of the stairs—just in the same place Magritte draws his painting’s proposed installation at James’s house. Also in the film, there is a clock at the base of the stairs—perhaps the initial instigation to Magritte’s clock in Time Transfixed.
Magritte’s enigmatic works always asks us to think and search deeper—in the case of Time Transfixed, even deeper than we realized we would ever need to go.