miscellanea  |  visual history
 



 




Art of the 20th Century




Art Styles in 20th century Art Map







Rene Magritte






 

 



Growing up in the Black Country


 






Georgette and Rene Magritte
1920
 

Rene Magritte was born on 21st November, 1898, in a widely unrecognized country, namely in Belgium. The artificially constructed little state had been torn from time immemorial by conflict between its two ethnic groups, the Flemings in the north, speaking a dialect of Dutch and largely Catholic by denomination, and the Walloons in the south, always a bit rebellious and mostly of no one particular religious belief. The union of these two ethnic groups, with their so utterly incompatible mentalities, made it necessary to constantly reach laborious comprises, leading to legal and administrative complications of such a nature that they tended more to deepen the quarrels than to settle them. Foreign observers inevitably gained the impression that this was a state with a character all its own, a "Surrealist" character. This is the reason for the exceptional nature of "Belgian culture", in which systematic self-contempt and regionalist arrogance form curious combinations.

Magritte was born in the southern part of the country, spending his childhood and youth in Charleroi, an industrial city where life was very hard. His whole life through, the quiet, seemingly rather timid man was to hold political views of a left-wing persuasion. After the First World War, he was among those in Belgium propagating the ideas of the Dadaist movement. Together with E. L. T. Mesens, the poet and collage artist, he edited the magazines Esophage and Marie, to which Arp, Picabia, Schwitters, Tzara and Man Ray also contributed. After the Second World War, he joined the Communist Party - for the third time - and wrote provocatively in its press organ, Le Drapeau Rouge, of the exhibition of work by James Ensor: "Finally, the interest shown by the visitors to the Ensor retrospective should be noted. They wander up and down in severe solemnity before the vegetables, the flower vases, the drunken Christ figures and all the other subjects which Ensor amused himself with painting, unaware that this seriousness which they are displaying is slightly out of place. If it were possible to forget all the gossip and the legends which so misrepresent James Ensor, then a large exhibition of his work such as this would perhaps throw a little light upon the artistic atmosphere which is still in a state of some obscurity due to the period of Nazi rule. It would appear, however, that we must needs still live with this state of obscurity."

Magritte's political involvement was based essentially upon his spirit of opposition. All of his poster designs were rejected on principle by the party leadership, and he could not bear having to subordinate his art to an ideological party line, even one so broadly conceived. "There is no more reason for art to be Walloon than for it to be vegetarian", was his reply to those seeking to enlist him for exhibitions aimed at demonstrating regionalist interests. Ultimately, his sole, his real banner was the mystery inherent in objects, in the world, that mystery which belongs to everyone and to no one.


Nude
1919


Pierre Broodcoorens
1921

 


 


Woman Bathing
1922


Self-Portrait
1923


 

 


Georgette
1923


Nude
1923


 

 


The Blue Cinema
1925


Primevere
1926

 

 

 

Magritte apparently retained few memories of his childhood in the province of Hainaut, where his parents' house in Lessines is today a little museum containing various documents. His memories were all the more vivid for being so few, however. His earliest recollection concerned a crate next to his cradle; it struck him as a highly mysterious object, and aroused in him that feeling of strangeness and disquiet which he would encounter again and again later in his adult life. His second recollection was connected with a captive balloon which had landed on the roof of his parents' house. The manoeuvres undertaken by the men in their efforts to fetch down the enormous, empty bag, together with the leather clothing of the "aeronauts" and their earflap helmets, left him with a deep sensitivity for everything eluding immediate comprehension.
 

 


This is not an Apple
1964

The apple, be it painted in never so illusionary and tempting a manner, remains no more than paint on a ground.
Nor does the word "apple" constitute the fruit itself, but is merely a description that is ultimately arbitrary in nature.
 

 

Magritte himself speaks of the third and last childhood recollection, with which we will concern ourselves here, in a lecture given in 1938: "During my childhood, I liked to play with a little girl in the abandoned old cemetery of a country town... We used to lift up the iron gates and go down into the underground vaults. Once, on regaining the light of day, I noticed an artist painting in an avenue of the cemetery, which was very picturesque with its broken columns of stone and its heaped-up leaves. He had come from the capital; his art seemed to me to be magic, and he himself endowed with powers from above. Unfortunately, I learnt later that painting bears very little direct relation to life, and that every effort to free oneself has always been derided by the public. Millet's Angelus was a scandal in his day, the painter being accused of insulting the peasants by portraying them in such a manner. People wanted to destroy Manet's Olympia, and the critics charged the painter with showing women cut into pieces, because he had depicted only the upper part of the body of a woman standing behind the bar, the lower part being hidden by the bar itself. In Courbet's day, it was generally agreed that he had very poor taste in so conspicuously displaying his false talent. I also saw that there were endless examples of this nature and that they extended over every area of thought. As regards the artists themselves, most of them gave up their freedom quite lightly, placing their art at the service of someone or something. As a rule, their concerns and their ambitions are those of any old careerist. I thus acquired a total distrust of art and artists, whether they were officially recognized or were endeavouring to become so, and I felt that I had nothing in common with this guild. I had a point of reference which held me elsewhere, namely that magic within art which I had encountered as a child.

In 1915 I attempted to regain that position which would enable me to see the world in a different way to the one which people were seeking to impose upon me. I possessed some technical skill in the art of painting, and in my isolation I undertook experiments that were consciously different from everything that I knew in painting. I experienced the pleasure of freedom in painting the most unconventional pictures. By a strange coincidence, perhaps out of pity and probably as a joke, I was given a catalogue with illustrations from an exhibition of Futurist painting. I now had before my eyes a mighty challenge directed towards that same good sense which so bored me. It was for me the same light that I had encountered as a child whenever I emerged from the underground vaults of the old cemetery where I spent my holidays."

 

In retrospect, the image of the little girl and little boy climbing out of an underground vault in which death is present, and then discovering a painter who is attempting to record his view of the cemetery on canvas, seems almost an advance announcement of Magritte's later career. The artist's childhood, and the dreams bound up with it, should not of course be regarded as the sole veritable key that enables us to gain access to the mysteries of creative output. It is clear that such pictures from the depths of the past cannot play a role in the creation of a work of art until they have been reappraised and reinvented with the help of and as a consequence of decisions taken, encounters made and coincidences experienced by the meanwhile mature artist. Given Magritte's concern to record in written form precisely this recollection, however, it is fair to assume that it contains elements which - in the manner of a kind of educative experience - serve to introduce us to the imaginary world of his work. The record of his childhood experience specifically mentions the sharp contrast between the view of the two children, who are in principle as far away as can be from the end of life, and the place where they are playing. A cemetery is the place par excellence in which one's memories of those no longer with us are preserved and cherished. It soon becomes clear that elements almost always appear in Magritte's pictures such as present a sharp contrast to each other, thereby triggering a shock which shakes the intellect out of its apathy and sets one to thinking. The simultaneity of day and night in his picture The Empire of Lights, probably his most famous work, makes this clear.
 


The Empire of Lights
1954

A nocturnal scene under a daytime sky.
It is only at second glance that one becomes aware of the surreal nature of this apparently so true-to-life scene.
Magritte interpreted it as follows:
"I have reproduced different concepts in The Empire of Lights, namely a nocturnal landscape and a sky as we see it during the daytime.
The landscape leads us to think of night, the sky of day. In my opinion, this simultaneity of day and night has the power to surprise and to charm.
This power I call poetry."
 

 

This painting owes its title to Paul Nouge, the poet. It should be pointed out, however - and in contrast to the obstinately persistent legend -that it was extremely rare for Magritte's pictures to be given their titles by others. While it is true that the artist loved to gather with friends in front of his completed pictures and enjoyed finding titles for these works in their company, we know of only a few examples indicating his actually taking up their suggestions: Georgette, his wife, tells us how "It often happened that, come the next day, he was no longer satisfied with their inventions, and would then choose a name with which he himself was happy." This is the case with Hegel's Holiday, for instance. The picture portrays an object whose function is to repel water - an umbrella -juxtaposed with an object which contains water - a glass. We should probably talk here not so much of a contradiction as of a contrast, since the idea behind the picture is not very profound. And indeed, it is for this reason that Hegel is on holiday, going without the rigorousness of logical demonstrations so as to devote himself to pictures of an entertaining nature.
 


Hegel's Holiday
1958

Hegel, the exponent of philosophical dialectics, is the inspiration behind this picture.
Magritte sums up:
"I... thought that Hegel ... would have been very sensitive to this object which has two opposing functions:
at the same time not to admit any water (repelling it) and to admit it (containing it).
He would have been delighted, I think, or amused (as on a vacation) and I call the painting
Hegel's Holiday."
 

 

A different contrast predominates in the picture of a rock hanging motionless in the air, a contrast between the weight of the stone and the lightness attributed it by the painting.
Magritte characterizes one impossibility by means of another, as in the picture The Glass Key ; at the same time, he is following a process which he would often employ in order to pay homage to one of his favourite authors, Dashiel Hammet.
 


The Glass Key
1959

"I think that the best title for a picture is a poetic title." Rene Magritte

As in his pictures - here, for example, the rock seemingly hanging motionless in mid-air -
Magritte likewise frequently sought fantastic, "poetic" motifs for his titles.
 

 

In this case, the contrast exists not between different objects but rather between the different qualities of the same object: the weight of the stone cannot be reconciled with the lightness which the painted picture gives it. Depending upon the mood of the artist, reality can be changed and given a different manifestation in the picture; similarly, the artist can give things a logic such as contradicts the laws of common perception. Magritte played ceaselessly with this possibility of diverging from reality, with this unreality within art: one cannot smoke the depiction of a pipe (The Treachery of Images), nor can one make love to a canvas (Black Magic).
 


The Treachery of Images
1928-29

"The famous pipe...? I've been reproached enough about it! And yet... can you fill it? No, it's only a depiction, isn't it.
If I had written 'This is a pipe' under my picture, I would have been lying!"
  Rene Magritte
 

Black Magic
1933-34

"...The idea is that the stone is linked to the ground, remains firmly attached to it. cannot of itself move...
The stone's qualities, its clearly portrayed hardness - 'a hard feeling' -and the intellectual and physical qualities of a human being:
seen from another point of view, they are not unrelated..." 
Rene Magritte
 


Georgette with Bilboquet
1926

The balusters - or "bilboquets", as Magritte called them - a kind of piece not unlike the bishop of a chess set, constitute a recurrent prop in the artist's pictures. Max Ernst called them "phallustrades", thereby indicating their sexual allusion.

The picture of The Lost Jockey from 1926 is the first work to which Magritte himself allowed the label "Surrealist" to be applied. However, there had already been initial signs beforehand heralding the artistic process for which he would later become famous. We will return to this later. The well-known bilboquets, for example, a form of baluster or oversize playing piece to which Max Ernst gave the beautiful, vivid name of "phallustrade", turn up again in the portrait of Georgette with Bilboquet , while the picture The Bather  clearly demonstrates that Magritte had abandoned the Cubist technique in favour of a manner of creating pictures that was already fully Surrealist. He continued working on his pictorial discoveries until 1967, the year of his death, leaving an unfinished painting. As far as we know, the work had been commissioned by a young German collector from Cologne, who wanted "something in the nature of The Empire of Lights ; he was destined never to take possession of the picture he had ordered. The uncompleted painting would remain on its easel in the painter's house in Brussels until the death of Georgette Magritte in 1986.
 


The Bather
1925

 


The Lost Jockey
1926

The jockey is lost in an unreal world, between tree-figures inscribed with musical notation.
The scene is taking place on a theatre stage framed by curtains.
This picture is considered to be Magritte's first "Surrealist" work.
 


The Lost Jockey
1948

The picture represents a purified, simplified return to the 1926 work.
The surreal element has been achieved here through much more economical means.
The trees appear like sketched leaves, or nerve tracts.
 


The Secret Player
1927

The scenery here is similar in its stagelike quality to that in The Lost Jockey:
here, how -ever, two men dressed in white are playing some mysterious, apparently serious game.
 


The Empire of Lights
 


The Empire of Lights
 


The Empire of Lights (unfinished).
1967

This return to The Empire of Lights - Magritte died before he could finish the picture -
renders the mystery of things as if turned to stone.
The light emanating from the interior of the house keeps its secret for ever.
 


God's Salon
1948

"I can imagine a sunny landscape under a night sky;
only a god is capable of visualizing it and conveying it through the medium of paint, however.
In the expectation that I will become one, I am dropping the project.. ."
Rene Magritte
 

 

We may recall that the cemetery where the eight-year-old Magritte played with a little girl and where his erotic sensibility was aroused also constituted the workplace of a painter, a being with magical powers by means of which he could imitate reality while simultaneously portraying this reality quite calmly in an unfaithful manner - painting daytime by night; painting a bird from a model in front of him, despite his model being no more than an egg (Perspicacity), or a mirror in which is reflected the back of the individual facing it (Not To Be Reproduced). We are concerned here with a recollection which announces something with great clarity: a jarring contrast, such as that of "developing life" and "bygone life", is brought together by means of a creative ability that illustrates this contrast, rendering it visible via the painted picture.
 


Perspicacity
1936

Magritte depicts himself here in his occupation as a painter.
More than this, he conveys the idea of the mental process inherent in this artistic craft:
the egg forms the motif, yet, translated by the artist, its manifestation on the canvas takes the form of a bird.
 

Not To Be Reproduced (Portrait of Edward James)
1937

Scenes with mirrors constitute a frequently recurring motif in Magritte's art,
one which he employs in a completely down-to-earth manner
without commentary to question everyday experiences formerly considered reliable.
The observer's gaze, when he looks into the mirror, is not returned.

"What counts is precisely this moment of panic, and not its explanation." 
Rene Magritte
 

 

The essential components of Magritte's work are contained in this early recollection, albeit separated or at least differentiated: there are the children and their first erotic feelings, on the one hand, and the act of painting on the other. It is within the systematic combining of contrasts, in meaningful associations, in the association of thoughts - in short, with the power of free disposition inherent in the act of painting - that the intellectual fusion of the two sources of power takes place such as must occur in order that they may find their way with Magritte into the strange Enchanted Realm. It is of course true that this freedom in painting with respect to its models is not the bequest of Magritte alone. What is specifically Magritte is the carefully considered, balanced, austere and consciously academic manner so characteristic of his work. He left pictures which are also polished in the technical sense; the way in which he employs the colour blue is the equal of Degouve de Nuncques in every respect. The charms of his so-called Impressionist (or "Renoir") period, or his "en plein soleil" phase, are also well known; Magritte was seeking through this phase to communicate to people towards the end of the war the confidence which they so badly needed (Favourable Omens). In order that he might achieve this, he was prepared to fundamentally alter his palette. However, the essential elements of his work should be sought elsewhere.

 

The Enchanted Realm
1953

The figures and locations of Magritte's picture-world, his Enchanted Realm, appear here all in a row.
While they belong together, each of them nonetheless seems completely self-sufficient, apparently preoccupied with itself.

 


The Enchanted Realm
1953

 


The Enchanted Realm
1953

 


The Enchanted Realm
1953
 


Interior of the casino of Knokke-le-Zoute with The Enchanted Realm fresco
1953

 


Favourable Omens
1944

The dove of peace and flowers of the "Plein soleil" period, the latter painted in vivid colours,
should be interpreted as Magritte's anticipation of the approaching end to the Second World War.
This work was a present for Georgette's sister.

 

 

Magritte was primarily a painter of ideas, a painter of visible thoughts, rather than of subjects. He valued neither lyrical nor Expressionist abstraction. In his view, those artists producing such work, in presenting subject-matter, were presenting nothing worthy of a single thought, nor even deserving of one's interest. Magritte did not possess a studio in the strict sense of the word, responding maliciously to those who commented in surprise upon this that painting was done in order that it might land on the canvas, and not on the carpet, which indeed revealed not the slightest stain. The truth is that we cannot even say with any certainty whether Magritte actually enjoyed painting. He clearly liked to think in pictures; as soon as he had elaborated these thoughts with the aid of sketches and little drawings, however, he baulked at the idea of transferring them onto canvas, preferring to go and play chess in the "Greenwich", a well-known Brussels cafe. He was not as passionate a player as Man Ray or even Marcel Duchamp (who was infuriated at losing twice in a row to an eleven-year-old boy named Fischer); nevertheless, Magritte loved this form of visible mathematics more than the act of painting. Numerous anecdotes attest to his great contempt for that which Bram Bogart called "peinture-peinture" (which may be roughly translated as "painting pretty pictures") and Marcel Duchamp the class of the "retiniens" ("retina-cretinas") - in contrast to the class of the "grey subject-matter"'.

 

One day, Magritte let himself be persuaded by Georgette and a couple with whom they were friends to undertake a trip to Holland to visit an exhibition on Frans Hals, possibly the greatest master of using black in painting. Upon arriving in front of the museum, Magritte informed the others that Loulou, his little dog, did not want to see Frans Hals. And so, while his wife and their friends went round the exhibition, he waited for them in a little cafe, getting drunk on advocaat, an extremely sweet, egg-based alcoholic drink which rapidly makes one feel nauseous. He loathed so-called cultural trips. His laconic comment, upon seeing the pyramid of Cheops at Gizeh: "Yes... much as I expected." In the same way, he frequently repeated that the reproduction of a painting was all that he wanted, that he needed to see the original exactly as little as he had to read the original manuscript of books which he had read. The legacy of Dada in such jokes is unmistakable.

 

Nor is there any question that Magritte felt more indebted to the spirit of objects a la Marcel Duchamp than to the spirit of the Woods by his friend Max Ernst, for example, for whom he painted The Nightingale. It is important to underline the considerable emphasis of the intellectual, reason-orientated, reflective starting-point behind this artist's work, painting for philosophers or at least for lovers of philosophical thought. In Magritte's art, the poetic shock, the aesthetic stimulation prompted by the picture, most definitely should not be separated from a love of thinking, an unrestrained pleasure in reflection and nimbleness of mind. The Hereafter is accordingly presented as a simple tomb without any form of inscription, a highly ironic way of reminding the observer that there is no life without body and flesh, without the senses, without sight. Life only exists when it is tangible, and art only exists as something visible; that which one can recognize beyond it is not its essential being, not its invisible essence, but at best an object, one indicating the boundary of what is visible from within, through its contours, and thereby an insurmountable barrier. One cannot go beyond a stone tomb; it is absolutely final, closed in upon itself. The most that it can do is to evoke Memory. And it is surely hard to imagine memory better, or render it more visible, than in the face of a young woman chiselled into the stone, a woman of whom it is known that she no longer exists, that she once lived, that she will never more be, a woman with a bloodstain on her temple which refers expressively to her former existence, one for ever gone.
 


The Nightingale
1962

In French, the term "nightingale" (rossignol) is used to describe a piece of junk, one not worth its retail price. The nightingale's song can also distantly call to mind the rhythmic hissing of a steam engine, however.
For his part, Magritte rejects such direct explanatory interpretations: "The pictures' titles do not constitute explanations; nor do the pictures illustrate their titles. The relationship between title and picture is a poetic one: this relationship serves merely to record certain characteristics of the objects such as are commonly ignored by one's consciousness but of which one sometimes has a presentiment when confronted by extraordinary events which one's reason has by no means been able to shed light upon yet."


The Hereafter
1938

According to Magritte, there is no "hereafter" in the sense of a life after death. The hereafter is the meditation on something final, on a tomb without inscription. The hereafter of painting is to be found in painting, in the same way as the perception of death is to be found in life.

 


Memory
1945

The work was directly inspired by Giorgio de Chirico and keeps in mind the silent life which still lifes negate.
 

 

The Rape, one of Surrealism's most powerful images - Georges Bataille could never suppress a nervous laugh whenever he was confronted by this painting - likewise works with a subversive idea. The breasts constitute the eyes, the navel the nose, the pubis the mouth. So composed, the face reflects the secret desires of the painter and the observer that some women can convey their sexuality in the way in which they look at one. Painting, the art of rendering things visible, reveals its ability here to record impressively the constant sex-appeal which leaves its mark upon almost every moment of our lives. The selection of the work's title indicates the ongoing conflict of the voyeuristic observer; Magritte comes very close here to Hans Bellmer's erotic perversion, albeit without the latter's sadness. He has destroyed what is most obvious of all, namely the face, replacing it with something even more obvious. It is the shock effect of the picture together with the basic idea lying behind it, the simple together with the reflected view, the sight together with the sight of the sight, which represent the key components of his work, those two fundamental demands which he was ever formulating anew. Magritte is subversively turning customary perception inside out: the objects which he paints are all clearly recognizable, come from the banal and everyday sphere, yet as soon as they are painted in a highly academic fashion, like a primary-school lesson in general knowledge, they change, and everything is plunged into uncertainty. Magritte is presenting things here according to a poetic logic, a set of rules such as depicts them in a completely new light, furnishing them with a totally new power.
 


The Rape
1948

"In this painting, a woman's face is made up of the essential features of her body."  Rene Magritte
 

 

The artist is making free in a provocative and bewildering manner with the world of appearances. By placing in a birdcage not the bird itself but an egg of excessive proportions (Elective Affinities), he demonstrates the foolish cruelty of humans, constantly interested only in dominating others, in locking others up, in keeping the various forms of life under their control. In showing us a lion on a bridge, where it surely has no business to be. and a man next to it with folded wings, seemingly dreaming in melancholy manner of going away, of fleeing, even of dying - longing, at any rate, to escape from the prison that this world represents - in depicting all this, is the painter not referring to Homesickness, the bitter dream of a much longed-for but unattainable other place? Magritte - wise, level-headed, reserved and living almost in anonymity -was incensed by the stupidity and downright nastiness of mankind, by the baseness and vulgarity of modern life.

"I'm no 'militant'", he said to Patrick Waldberg in 1965. "I feel unarmed for a political struggle, both as regards my competence and with respect to my energy. However, I hold to what you say I am, I continue to be for 'socialism'.. .that is, a system which does away with the inequality of property distribution, with differences, with war. In what form? I don't know, but that's my attitude, despite every defeat and set-back."
 


Elective Affinities
1933

"One night. I woke up in a room in which a cage with a bird sleeping in it had been placed.
A magnificent error caused me to see an egg in the cage, instead of the vanished bird. I then grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret,
for the shock which I experienced had been provoked precisely by the affinity of two objects - the cage and the egg -to each other,
whereas previously this shock had been caused by my bringing together two objects that were unrelated."
  Rene Magritte
 


Homesickness
1940

Neither the lion nor the man with folded wings have any business being on this bridge.
 They embody the melancholy of those who know that real life is always something else, something that does not exist.
 

 

Magritte's father was a tailor and merchant, his mother a milliner, and business was bad. His childhood consisted of one move after another: Lessines, Gilly, Chatelet, Charleroi, Chatelet, and Charleroi again, where he was finally taken into the care of nannies and his grandmother following the dreadful suicide of his mother, Regina, nee Bertinchamps, who had thrown herself into the dark waters of the River Sambre for reasons which remained unclear. Rene was fourteen years old at the time. The incident was described much later by Louis Scutenaire in words which - according to Georgette, whom the present writer knew well and often talked to concerning this subject - almost stylized the whole episode into a legend. The only recollection which Magritte himself admitted to having of the affair was that of a feeling of pride at suddenly finding himself the focal point of interest and sympathy both in the neighbourhood and among his fellow pupils at the Charleroi grammar school. It is certain that he never saw his mother's corpse, "its face covered with a nightdress". The absurd psychological interpretations of his work undertaken by the likes of David Sylvester are quite untenable. For the sake of clarity, it should be stressed that it is the literary, intellectual and philosophical elements which must be followed up if one is to even approach an understanding of this artist's extraordinary work.

 

"Psychoanalysis has nothing to say, not even about works of art, which evoke the mystery of the world. Perhaps psychoanalysis itself represents the best case for psychoanalysis." Magritte regarded it as a pseudo-science of the unconscious, a criminological and ideological starting point. As Michel Foucault - with whom Magritte had an interesting and instructive correspondence - succinctly explained, psychoanalysis aims at finally confirming existential repression by restricting desire to the family triangle, to the legally legitimized married couple. In psychoanalysis, love always means Daddy, Mummy and me! Magritte was a Surrealist from the depths of his being through his sense of amour fou, once writing: "Happy is he who betrays his own convictions for the love of a woman." He opposed Freud's theses, automatist experiences based upon the power of the unconscious, and everything that all too often in the circle around Andre Breton, the artist, threatened to become dogma and law. It was unavoidable that those artists who were obviously permeated by Surrealism would be excluded sooner or later from the Surrealist movement. Andre Masson had realized this, and himself demanded his own exclusion. Breton's reply to this was remarkable: "Why? I have never exerted any pressure upon you." "Proof, retorted Masson, "that you have exerted it upon others." Magritte, for his part, to whom Breton had written indignantly, "Your dialectics and your Surrealism enplein soleil are threadbare", answered, "Sorry, Breton, but the invisible thread is on your bobbin."

It would be possible to mention further anecdotes in this context; however, this would only do harm to the deep unanimity which served to weld together this little group of inspired people despite their various divergences, childish acts and comments.

 

One evening, when Georgette and Rene Magritte were in a taxi with Paul Eluard on their way to a meeting of the Surrealist group, Eluard drew Georgette's attention to the small golden cross which she was wearing around her neck, advising her to hide it since Breton would be sure to take offence at it. She refused, and "The Pope" indeed made reference to the un-Surrealist character of the object, prompting Magritte to decide that he and his wife would forthwith stay away from these meetings. The whole affair had blown over by the next day, however, and the Magrittes continued to attend the gatherings, along with Breton, Dali, Miro, Max Ernst and the others, while Georgette went on wearing the keepsake from her mother around her neck. With regard to relations within the group, persistent legends occasionally have a tendency to magnify small, harmless disagreements out of all proportion. The only thing of importance here is that Magritte's work is decisively Surrealist. Like many others, he was disturbed by Breton's doctrinaire attitude; however, this had no influence upon his painting. In Magritte's case, Surrealism results from the unfaithfulness of the reflection presented in the picture: the view of the painter, the view emerging from the depths of perception, is a False Mirror.
 


The False Mirror
1935

"The eye is the mirror of the soul within", according to one version of the proverb.
Magritte is playing his game of reversal again here, one of questioning what is outside, what inside.
The overdimensional human eye, instead of providing a view into what lies within, into man's soul,
reflects what lies without, namely a sky with clouds in it.
 

 

The painter's eye betrays what it is regarding; it is a mirror revealing the mystery in things which they otherwise conceal, one which can only be uncovered through the intervention of art and the intellect. Rene Magritte had two brothers, Paul and Raymond , both somewhat younger than himself. Raymond, the youngest, was a clever businessman with a practical and realistic intellect; art and poetry meant nothing to him. Even after his brother's first great successes, Raymond continued to regard him as an idiot and a "nut-case". It is true that Magritte demonstrated something of an antisocial tendency; with his rebellious temperament, he found it difficult to conform to existing conventions. One day, the King wished to give a banquet in his honour, perhaps intending to commission a picture from him; Magritte rang up the master of ceremonies a few hours before the dinner was due to begin, informing him that he had unfortunately burnt a hole in his dinner jacket with his cigarette, and would therefore be unable to participate in the festivities. He soon fell out with Raymond, whom he criticized for being bourgeois and conformist; on the other hand, he always felt very close to his other brother. Paul wrote popular songs, composing "Le petit nid", "Quand je t'ai donne mon coeur", and arranging two works by Georgius, "J'aime ma maison" and "Je suis blase". He also composed the music for a poem by Paul Colinet, "Marie trombone chapeau buse", a minor masterpiece every bit the equal of Satie and Fargue.

 

Paul and Rene often joined forces against Raymond during their childhood; they were both extremely interested in the love affairs of their father, who knew only too well how to console himself as a widower. They also shared a boundless love for the pleasures of the cinema, avidly following the famous Fantomas series in 1913 and 1914, which had been inspired by the novel by Souvestre and Allain. Their Thursdays and Sundays were filled with the heroic deeds of this enigmatic being. Fantomas was a sinister hero without identity, totally criminal but highly popular, who in some enviable way had succeeded in becoming revered precisely because of his disgraceful deeds. There can be no doubt that this mysterious challenge to the established order and the laws of the ruling class represented a rich source of inspiration for Magritte, one which also played a role in the subject matter of some of his pictures: one thinks, for example, of such pictures as The Return of the Flame or The Threatened Assassin.
 


The Return of the Flame
1943

Mystery lives under the visible reality of the world.
Here it is manifesting itself in the form of Fantomas, assuming control.
 


The Threatened Assassin
1926

He has turned his back upon those watching him, nor does he notice those seeking to overcome and apprehend him.
He is observing musical sounds. He is functioning in another way,
 conducting himself with indifference towards the obvious threat posed by reality.
 

 

 The influence of the Fantomas figure also played a significant role in Magritte's selection of titles for his pictures. Patrick Waldberg has been able to provide evidence of the considerable importance of the titles of Magritte's pictures within his work as a whole, where their purpose may be seen as providing a counterpoint to realistic perception. For instance, the woman in the feathered hat, her face hidden by a bunch of violets, should be seen as The Great War, as an incessant conflict with that which is visible, where each object always hides another. In revealing itself, an object simultaneously conceals itself, thereby functioning as the curtain for another. Magritte was always deeply conscious of this tightrope walk between revelation and masking. Things have a flip side, a reverse, which is even more curious and fascinating than their manifested form, the facade presented to everyone, their face; and it was this reverse, this dark side, which Magritte so subtly captured and rendered visible, in defiance of all logic. Accordingly, the titles of his pictures never serve to describe or identify. On the contrary, they bring some additional infringement, some further false trail, into play, the function of which is to create a confrontation within language and the logic of words, one analogous to the confrontation arising out of the painted picture. Magritte's work is certainly representational, and yet, at the same time, it constitutes an incessant attack upon the principle of reproduction in art. What his figures thereby lose in identity, they gain in mystery and otherness. Mystery finds its way into the everyday in Magritte's art, while subversive thought becomes gentle custom. Joy is constant; every moment is a festival.
 


The Great War
1964

"Every single thing which we sec conceals something else;
we would dearly love to see what that which we can see is hiding from us..."
Rene Magritte
 

 

The monotony of everyday life in Charleroi was interrupted not only by the pleasures of the cinema but also by the annual fair, which took place at the Place du Manege opposite the Musee des Beaux-Arts, in direct proximity to the Palais des Beaux-Arts, home of one of Magritte's most famous frescoes, The Ignorant Fairy. The fair of 1913 was to confer a lustre upon his life for ever more. A merry-go-round salon stood between the stalls and various amusements, a fairground institution which is no longer to be found. After a turn on the wooden horses, the boys and girls would walk around hand in hand, to the strains of a Limonaire organ. This merry-go-round was among those places where boys and girls met to embark upon their first flirtations. Magritte, who was fifteen that year, invited a little girl not yet even thirteen to a round: Georgette. Her father was a butcher in Marcinelle. Love was clearly already in the air at their first rendezvous: while life was to separate the two of them for some time, they would find each other again in the end, thereafter never to be parted. When, following the death of Georgette's mother, neither she nor - even more so - her older sister, Leon-tine, could bear the thought of their widowed father remarrying, the sisters left Charleroi and moved to Brussels. They found work in an arts and crafts co-operative near the Grande Place, and settled down in the capital. Leontine married Pierre Hover, the owner of a business; Georgette, after initially remaining alone, met her Rene again in 1920 while they both were walking in the Botanical Gardens (today the Maison de la Culture). The two stayed together, and Georgette became his sole model. They were married in 1922, a year which surely represented the most decisive in Magritte's entire life, not only for the artist himself but also for the direction taken by his work.
 


The Ignorant Fairy
1957

In this fresco from the Palais des Beaux-Arts at Charleroi, painting appears to the observer as an "ignorant fairy":
it is capable of performing a magic whose sense it does not discern.
"Sense is that which is impossible", Magritte repeatedly stated.
 


The Ignorant Fairy
1957

Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

privacy policy