Perennially popular for his surrealist works featuring apples, bowler hats and bizarre juxtapositions, René Magritte worked in a lesser-known, vastly different mode in the 1940s, creating brightly colored impressionistic and cartoonish paintings.
Twenty of these works, along with dozens of pictures painted in the artist’s traditional surrealist style, are on view in “Rene Magritte: The Fifth Season.” The exhibition, which gives the second half of the Belgian artist’s career 21st-century consideration, is on view through Oct. 28 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, its sole venue.
A leading figure in the surrealist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, Magritte (1898-1967) painted everyday objects in incongruous settings, blended contrasting elements such as indoor and outdoor worlds, and, as in his famed “This is not a pipe” pictures, distinguished between something painted and the real thing.
Philosophical, playful, provocative and mysterious, his works have influenced pop art, conceptual art, David Lynch and the Beatles (who named their record label after his apple motif).
Curated by Caitlin Haskell, the approximately 70-piece show follows Magritte’s career from the 1940s to 1967.
It begins by exploring the immense shift seen in the artist’s style around 1943, a transformation attributed to the Nazi occupation of Belgium. The bleak situation prompted Magritte to break from surrealism and to use his art to embrace joy and beauty.
He pursued that aim from about 1943 to 1947 — his “Renoir period” — via a colorful impressionistic style called “sunlit surrealism.”
Exemplifying this mode, and showing that it wasn’t the career misfire many have believed, is “The Fifth Season” (1943), an impressive picture with rebellious brushwork and artist-themed imagery conveying serious thoughts about what painting should achieve.
The 20 works from Magritte’s break-away years also include “vache” paintings (1948). These works, which include “Seasickness,” often suggest a deliberately cartoonish take on Fauvism or expressionism.
After 1948, Magritte returned to his traditional surrealist style but still explored new terrain.
Works representing his final two decades include those from his “Human Condition” series, which feature easels and windows and include the captivating “Where Euclid Walked” (1955); paintings about flight and gravity, including “The Kiss” (1951); and “hypertrophy” works, in which ordinary objects appear enormous. The comb is larger than the bed in “Personal Values” (1952).
“The Dominion of Light” (1949-1965), a series of exquisite paintings in which Magritte combines nighttime streetscapes with daytime skies, is represented by six works.
Another rare attraction contains four of the eight oil paintings that established the design of “The Enchanted Domain” (1953), Magritte’s monumental circular mural.
Fans of Magritte’s bowler-hatted men should note that these enigmatic everymen, regarded as stand-ins for the artist, have received their own gallery. In “The Son of Man” (1964), an apple covers the face of one such figure, evoking mystery. At the press preview, Haskell called the painting the “most beguiling self-portrait of the 20th century.”
IF YOU GO
René Magritte: The Fifth Season
Where: Fourth floor, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and to 9 p.m. Thursdays; through Oct. 28
Tickets: $27 to $35; free for 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org