Art of the motion picture

Even if you’re not familiar with all of Rene Magritte’s Surrealist picture-making, it’s likely you’ve seen movies that they inspired. His “Empire of the Night,” an eerie street scene on view at Frieze Masters 2016 this week, is responsible for the moment in the 1973 horror flick “The Exorcist” when the priest stands in the dark of night outside the house of a demonized girl that he hopes to exorcize. And just as there’s nothing particularly off-putting about seeing someone outside a house, there’s nothing obviously weird about Magritte’s “Empire of the Night.” All you see is a house on a dark street; except that while the scene is clearly nocturnal, it’s set under a bright daytime sky. Placing disparate things like day and night or a priest and the devil in the same picture is vintage Surrealism.

Hats off to Surrealism

And if you’ve never viewed Magritte’s “The Son of Man,” which describes a figure in a suit and bowler hat, it’s likely you’ve seen the moment in the 1999 movie “Thomas Crown Affair” when an #Art thief in same suit and hat packs the Metropolitan Museum of Art with similarly dressed men to confound police as he steals a painting. Something that Magritte said about “The Son of Man” also speaks to this movie. After painting an apple over the face of the “son of man,” he explained it was his way of pointing out that all that we see hides something.

After the fall

Magritte, who died in 1967, made several paintings of men in derby hats as emblems of respectability; but he always added a detail that rendered the image absurd. In “The Fall,” Magritte shows several men in suits and derby hats coming down from the sky like rainfall. But when it comes to his belief that what we see is not all there is, “Empire of the Night” nails it because it asks the what’s-wrong-with-this-picture question that can move us to ask it of everything that we see. Other Magritte images -- like a sky in an eyeball with fleecy clouds that form the white of the eye, or a steam engine train barreling out of a fireplace, or a fish with human legs -- are more blatant depictions of life not making sense.

After Edgar Allen Poe

It’s no wonder, then, that Magritte pooh-poohed material things. He also had other dislikes, such as the decorative arts, advertising, radio announcer’s voices, the news, and drunks. But he had his likes, too: subversive humor, freckles, long hair, and all things impossible or imaginary. In fact, his aim in his paintings was to never paint conventional things. It’s not surprising, then, that he loved Edgar Allan Poe and the house he lived in, calling it the most beautiful in the U.S. One look at Magritte’s work and it’s hard to avoid applying Poe’s often quoted sentiment, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”