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’
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.
In Paris, Magritte was introduced to the writers, artists and other characters associated with Surrealism, not least its leader, André Breton. The supposed lawlessness of the movement, 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.
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’, 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.
Throughout his career, Magritte accumulated a personal inventory of everyday objects and motifs that he deployed in a variety of 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.’
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 and 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.
In La corde sensible (1960), sold by Christie’s in 2017 for just over £14.4 million, 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.
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, which sold for £10,245,000 at Christie’s in London on 28 February 2017, once formed part of the collection assembled by the great English patron and collector of Surrealist art, Edward James.
Another of Magritte’s most recognisable themes is the transformation of the traditional portrait into a theatrical composition, one which plays with an Escher-like, impossible sense of perspective to confound the viewer’s expectations – such as his bowler-hatted figure in Le lieu commun, sold in 2019 at Christie’s for £18,366,250.
Painted in 1962, Magritte’s A la rencontre du plaisir (Towards Pleasure) combines several of the artist’s most iconic motifs into a single image: the solitary man in the bowler hat, the moon, the simultaneous evocation of night and day, a curtain that creates a sense that the scene is both interior and exterior, and what Magritte described as ‘the eternal struggle between the gaze and objects’.
During the Second World War Magritte adopted a style of painting he called ‘surréalisme en plein soleil’, a response to the horror of the conflict that was engulfing Europe. Inspired by the 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 Eluard, 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.’
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, was the key emblem of the Belgian airline, Sabena. His strange, haunting pictures continue to fuel advertising some 50 years after his death: contemporary advertisements for French State Railways; the award-winning Volkswagen ads from Doyle Dane Bernbach — the original ‘Mad Men’ of Sixties Madison Avenue; the Allianz ads that 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.
In recent years, however, increasing attention has been paid to the important early Surreal works, such as the landscape La belle captive from 1931, which sold for £2,171,250 in February 2019 at Christie’s in London.
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.’
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.