If someone on Governors Island asks you to buy the house of a dead surrealist, you’re not being duped. A group of artists is conducting a sort of seance to resurrect the ghost of René Magritte during each of the remaining weekends this summer. Set in an abandoned two-story building that once housed Naval officers, The Enchanted Realm of René Magritte is an immersive play peopled by his mother, his lover, his wife, his wife’s lover, and a fish.
Exquisite Corpse Company is a performance collective that makes work using the methodology of a surrealist parlor game: it commissions work to various artists and Frankensteins their creations into a cohesive narrative. “You don’t know what’s going to come out of this brain soup,” Exquisite Corpse artistic director Tess Howsam tells The Creators Project. “The Enchanted Realm could go a lot of ways. It could become Alice in Wonderland-y. But it became a story of love and memory and a lot about Georgette, Magritte’s wife.”
Magritte aficionados appreciate a good "pipe" joke or Son of Man Halloween costume, but few are familiar with the painter’s life story. When he was 13, Magritte’s mother drowned herself in a river near their home. He met his future wife, Georgette, at 15, but then cheated on her in his 30’s with a younger artist named Sheila Legg. And he died in 1967, at 68, of pancreatic cancer. The play on Governors Island resurrects Magritte’s melancholy personal life through exchanges between the artist, his lovers, and his parents.
Set up as “open house” to hawk the painter’s childhood home, the play unfolds through eight crumbling rooms, each housing different memories from Magritte’s life. “I started to see him as more human than ever before. I always thought of him as this philosophical, ahead-of-his-time brainiac, and that’s why I was initially drawn to Magritte, but then it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a man.’ I guess my takeaway is an appreciation of human nature, of mistakes, of relationships,” Howsam says. Strewn with Magritte’s most recognizable motifs, including green apples and bowler hats, The Enchanted Realm of René Magritte hints at the pathos behind paintings of blindfolded lovers and trains steaming out of fireplaces.
The source material for the play is a lesser-known Magritte mural commissioned by a Belgian casino in the ‘50s. Magritte cobbled it together from eight canvases replicating the best images from his earlier paintings. There’s the cloud-filled sky over a nocturnal street from The Empire of Light. There’s a reverse-mermaid with the torso of a fish and the lower anatomy of a woman. Each room in the house on Governors Island was decorated by a different team of visual artists, and these symbols show up on the walls, in costumes, and in props.
Howsam says contrasting the wacky imagery with Magritte’s fraught biography helps her understand the artist’s pathos. “Now that we’ve walked together for a while now, I feel like I can see a lot more of his life in his work, and it humanizes the absurd. Magritte calls it ‘the mystery of the ordinary,’ and what we’re exploring here is the mystery of being ordinary. Yes, there are magic fish in this show, but it’s mostly about life,” she says.
The Enchanted Realm of René Magritte runs every weekend from now till the end of September 25, 2016. To learn more and get tickets, click here.