10 things to know about René Magritte

A primer on the great Belgian Surrealist, whose reconfiguring of commonplace elements of life formed a quest to ’establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world’

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  • Little is known about his early life

René François Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967) was born in Lessines, Belgium. His father was a tailor and textile merchant; his mother committed suicide in 1912, drowning herself in the River Sambre. Four years later, Magritte enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, before spending short periods in the Belgian infantry, and as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory. In 1924 he began work as a freelance graphic designer in Brussels. Over the next five years he produced advertisements for many clients, including a Belgian fashion house and Alfa Romeo. 

If you had seen René Magritte in the street, however, you might have easily mistaken him for an ordinary bourgeois Belgian. Indeed, he later adopted the now iconic bowler hat precisely because it was the uniform of the Belgian fonctionnaire.

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  • In 1927, he moved to Paris — the centre of international Surrealism — but found the atmosphere stifling

Magritte’s move to Paris led to him being introduced to the writers, artists and other characters associated with the movement, not least its leader, André Breton. The supposed lawlessness of Surrealism, however, was undermined by Breton’s prescriptive behaviour. In France, Surrealism conjured up ideas of automatism and the subconscious, concepts that were a far cry from Magritte’s own quest for answers full of magic and mystery to the riddles posed by the world around us. Magritte left Paris after his wife Georgette was publicly criticised for wearing a crucifix, returning to the more bourgeois and familiar sphere of Belgian Surrealism.

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  • He used language in his work, most famously ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’

From the 1920s onwards, Magritte explored the arbitrary way in which letters and sounds are attached to concepts and objects in the world. He was an early explorer of notions of signs and signifiers, and some of his pictures tap into ideas about perception. This is taken to the extreme in his famous declaration, ‘This is not a pipe’, which is emblazoned across his 1929 picture of a pipe. Of course, it is a painting and not a pipe — hence its title: The Treachery of Images.

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  • Magritte invited the viewer to enter into a brilliant theatre of the bizarre, a previously undiscovered reality

Throughout his career, Magritte accumulated a personal inventory of everyday objects and motifs that he deployed in a variety of different combinations or arrangements — apples, eggs, rocks, birds, bowler hats, umbrellas, a glass, clouds in a perfect blue sky, to name but a few.  

In many of Magritte’s compositions, objects are undergoing a transformation, depicted as they change from one state or identity to another. As the artist explained, ‘The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects; a change of substance in the case of certain objects: a wooden sky, for instance; the use of words in association with images; the misnaming of an object… the use of certain visions glimpsed between sleeping and waking, such in general were the means devised to force objects out of the ordinary, to become sensational, and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world.’

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  • His philosophy of ‘elective affinities’ came to him after waking from a dream

From the 1930s, Magritte sought to find ‘solutions’ to particular ‘problems’ posed by different types of objects, a method that enabled him to challenge and reconfigure the most ubiquitous and commonplace elements of everyday life. These problems obsessed him until he was able to conceive of an image to solve them.

This philosophical method had come to him after waking from a dream in 1932. In his semi-conscious state, he looked over at a birdcage that was in his room but saw not the bird that inhabited the cage, but instead an egg. This ‘splendid misapprehension’ allowed him to grasp, in his own words, ‘a new and astonishing poetic secret.’

The pursuit of secret, unknown or unacknowledged ‘elective affinities’ between related objects became the abiding purpose of Magritte’s art from this point onwards. He wanted to reveal the hidden poetry between objects so as to make them ‘shriek aloud’, and to jolt the viewer out of complacency. The ‘problem of the bird’ was therefore solved by depicting an egg in a cage; the ‘problem of the door’ resolved by painting a shapeless hole cut through it; the tree, with a ‘leaf-tree’, and so on and so on.

In La corde sensible (1960), Magritte has solved the ‘problem of the cloud’ by placing an empty glass — a vessel generally used for containing a liquid — under the cloud itself. Water is the ‘elective affinity’ that unites these seemingly disparate objects, its absence here allowing Magritte to render them in a strangely impossible encounter. Among the largest oil paintings that René Magritte produced, La corde sensible was originally presented by the artist to his wife as a gift. He never again returned to the motif of the cloud and the glass in this combination.

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  • He developed many recognisable motifs to which he returned again and again

Le domaine d’Arnheim (The Domain of Arnheim), painted in 1938, is Magritte’s first realisation in oil of one of his most enduring pictorial motifs, the magisterial eagle-shaped mountain. This subject matter so appealed to Magritte that he repeated the same theme nine times between 1938 and 1962. The painting offered in the Art of the Surreal auction in February 2017 formed part of the collection assembled by the great English patron and collector of Surrealist art, Edward James.

Another of Magritte’s most recognisable motifs, La magie noire — black magic — is an image of strange juxtapositions and unexpected poeticism that takes the motif of the metamorphosing nude figure placed in front of an idyllic landscape. Magritte had first explored the subject of La magie noire in 1934, a few months after participating in an exhibition, Le nu dans l’art vivant, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and went on to paint numerous variations on the theme. 

Taking as his initial model his wife Georgette, Magritte invented a nude figure that is reminiscent of the idealised sculptures of antiquity. His explanation for the title is that it was ‘an act of black magic to turn woman’s flesh into sky’ — a metamorphosis that runs throughout Magritte’s art, and which is one of the central tenets of his enigmatic and distinctive form of Surrealism.

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  • During the war he embarked on his ‘Renoir period’

During the Second World War, when he painted La magie noire, Magritte adopted a style of painting he called ‘Surrealisme en plein soleil’, in an attempt to counteract the horror of the conflict that was engulfing Europe. Inspired by the colour, palette and voluptuous nudes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the works he created in this style reflect his desire to explore a ‘beautiful side’ of life. 

In a 1941 letter to his friend Paul Éluard, he wrote: ‘The power of these pictures is to make one acutely aware of the imperfections of everyday life.’ The female body was a key element within this strategy of disruption, and Magritte celebrated the sensuous, elegant forms of women in numerous paintings throughout this period.

The German occupation of Belgium marked a turning point in his art. ‘Before the war, my paintings expressed anxiety, but the experiences of war have taught me that what matters in art is to express charm,’ he stated. ‘I live in a very disagreeable world, and my work is meant as a counter-offensive.’ Le triomphe du mois de mai was included in Magritte’s landmark solo exhibition at the Galerie Dietrich in Brussels in November 1946.

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  • His work was informed by his career in advertising

Magritte’s successful career in advertising [he ran an agency, Studio Dongo, with his brother, Paul, in the 1930s] probably helped to hone his idea of how to make an image stick. In a tumbledown shack in his garden, Magritte created posters, music covers and advertisements right up until the 1950s, long after he had become internationally acknowledged as an artist. He never abandoned the commercial world, but went on appropriating its advertising strategies into much of his art.

Many of his works would become icons for big business; his sky-bird, for instance, became the key emblem of the Belgian airline, Sabena. His strange, haunting pictures continue to fuel advertising some 50 years after his death. These include contemporary advertisements for French State Railways; the award-winning Volkswagen ads from Doyle Dane Bernbach — the original ‘Mad Men’ of Sixties Madison Avenue; the series of Allianz ads which appropriated the Ceci n’est pas un Pipe motif; and the famous Absolut Vodka series. Album covers? How about the image for Mull of Kintyre, by Paul McCartney’s Wings? Or the apple designating the Beatles’ Apple Corp, or the monochrome apple on your iPad or laptop? Directly and indirectly (in the case of Apple computers), all these roads lead to Magritte.

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  • The market for Magritte has become aligned with a more academic understanding of his career

Many of Magritte’s iconic masterpieces reside in major museums across the world. The Magritte Museum, housed in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, has one of the largest and most varied collections of his work.

Over recent years, the greatest change in the market for Magritte has been the increasing attention paid to the important early Surreal works. For a long time his more mature pictures, created when he was already at the height of his fame, were the ones that were recognised and which garnered the highest prices. In recent years, however, the earlier pictures, which are often darker and more challenging, have started to catch up in terms of market attention.

In 2002 at Christie’s New York, Magritte’s 1952 work L’Empire des Lumières (The Dominion of Lights) sold for a record-breaking $12,659,500. ‘The monumental La corde sensible is the most striking painting by Magritte that we will have sold at auction since that sale,’ stated Olivier Camu, Deputy Chairman, Impressionist & Modern Art, before it came to auction in February 2017.  It was sold for £14,441,348.

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  • For Magritte, however, it was the image alone that counted

Throughout his life, Magritte shunned all attempts to decode the meaning of his work. ‘I have nothing to express!’ he once exclaimed. ‘I simply search for images, and invent and invent. The idea doesn’t matter to me: only the image counts, the inexplicable and mysterious image, since all is mystery in our life.’