The first painting you see when you enter the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool is One-night Museum 1927.
It’s one of my favourite works by Magritte. One-night Museum articulates one of Magritte’s key artistic concerns, namely to test the world of appearances. The painting makes especially effective use of trompe-l’oeil, an illusionistic device often used by Magritte, evident in his staple imagery of tears in paper, wood-grain, marble, or frames within frames. I think he was attracted to trompe-l’oeil because it revealed the deception of conventional representation, emphasising the fundamental artificiality of the image. As Richard Calvocoressi pointed out, ‘there are plenty of occasions when Magritte reminds us of his taste for trompe-l’oeil decoration … prompting him to ask ‘Is it real or fake?’ – a question which has little meaning within the context of painting.’
The painting has a compartmentalised composition and proffers a random display of objects. The structure of the image might suggest dialogues between each of the items depicted. However, despite the ‘rational’ structure, the relationship between each of the objects is entirely arbitrary. In fact, Magritte’s repertoire of familiar standardised objects – pipes, apples and the like – were chosen and depicted in painting not because they were inherently meaningful, but because he wanted to emphasise their status as ordinary everyday objects.
As in many of his paintings, Magritte evokes mystery by using a veiling device, concealing the contents of the bottom-right compartment behind a paper cut screen. Any narrative reading of the composition is denied. Read as a whole, it offers a pictorial statement that is emblematic of his entire oeuvre. In One-nightMuseumeverything conspires to confound our expectations, revealing the treachery of images.
Darren Pih is Exhibitions and Displays Curator at Tate Liverpool, and co-curator of René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle.