Growing up in the Black Country
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.
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
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.
Empire of Lights
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
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, 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
He would have been delighted, I think, or amused (as on a vacation)
and I call the painting
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.
"I think that the best title for a picture is a poetic title."
As in his pictures - here, for example, the rock seemingly hanging
motionless in mid-air -
Magritte likewise frequently sought fantastic, "poetic" motifs for his
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).
Treachery of Images
"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
"...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..."
Georgette with Bilboquet
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 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.
picture represents a purified, simplified return to the 1926 work.
The surreal element has been achieved here through much more
The trees appear like sketched leaves, or nerve tracts.
The scenery here is similar in its stagelike quality to that in The Lost
here, how -ever, two men dressed in white are playing some mysterious,
apparently serious game.
Empire of Lights
Empire of Lights
Empire of Lights (unfinished).
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
"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.
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
Scenes with mirrors constitute a frequently recurring motif in
one which he employs in a completely down-to-earth manner
without commentary to question everyday experiences formerly
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
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.
Interior of the casino of Knokke-le-Zoute with The Enchanted Realm
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.
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."
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.
The work was directly inspired by
Giorgio de Chirico and keeps in mind the silent life which still lifes
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.
"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."
"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
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
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 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
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
Mystery lives under the visible reality of the world.
Here it is manifesting itself in the form of Fantomas, assuming
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
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.
"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.
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.