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John Kirby – exploring Magritte

13 October 2011 by Lisa

Our curators at the Walker Art Gallery are currently working on a project with the contemporary artist, John Kirby, whose paintings have been compared to the work of René Magritte in the past.

Although John doesn’t really see this similarity himself, he still took up the invitation to visit the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool when he visited recently. It turned out to be a revelation… 


John Kirby looking at paintings in the Walker

John Kirby having a look at paintings in the Walker before visiting Tate Liverpool.

Over the years, my work as an artist has occasionally been compared to that of the Belgian Surrealist, René Magritte. Although I found his work interesting I was never influenced by him as I was by say Edward Hopper, The American Realist painter or Balthus who depicted claustrophobic interiors charged with an uncomfortable eroticism.

I can see vague similarities in the way Magritte painted his rather stiff and secretive characters and I was once in a show of contemporary artists that seemed to the organisers at the Modern Art Museum in Ostend, Belgium to have an affinity with the Belgian artists but I was wary and a little bored by the assumed link. So when I was asked I visited the show at the Tate Liverpool, tired after a long day and without much enthusiasm. However, I was wrong to dismiss the artist.

The beautifully hung and lit show was a revelation. There were many paintings and some sculpture that I hadn’t seen before, even in reproduction and those I thought I knew quite well held a strange atmospheric mystery. It seemed like a very comprehensive overview and perfectly suited to the Tate’s intimate rooms. Dark and secretive.

Perhaps artists look at the work of other artists’ from a different perspective  and we sometimes miss the point. Magritte is a story teller not, I feel, over interested in or obsessed by the formalities of drawing and painting. He was exploring being alive in the middle of the 20th century in a Europe of dictators, terrifyingly destructive political systems and post-Freudian angst. He depicts the fractured narrative of dreams and nightmares and retains a sense of magic and humour.

The show takes us on a voyage through his long career and we see how the painting begin to be formed in Magritte’s use of film, photographs, notes and sketches. We also see him in relationship to his fellow Surrealists.

Magritte’s influence remains potent in Western culture, advertising and all forms of absurdist visual comedy such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He speaks to us in a language we can recognise (even if we can’t begin to understand) about the madness and psychological confusion of life and the individual’s search for meaning within it. Art as good as this helps us to see the world in a different way an I find myself looking at things afresh through Magritte’s distorting prism. Nothing is quite how it seems.

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