He was a quiet, unassuming, bourgeois surrealist painter who wore a bowler hat and made a living by designing wallpaper and theatre posters. He was a genius who both ate and painted apples, who died in 1967, and who possibly had the longest lasting impact of any artist on the world of advertising and the way we now see ourselves in the 21st century. His name, of course, was Rene Magritte.
René Magritte (1898 – 1967), Souvenir de voyage, circa 1961.
Gouache on paper. 14 1/8 × 10 5/8 ins. (35.9 × 27 cm.)
To be offered in The Art of the Surreal. Evening Sale, London, 4 February 2015
In 2011, subliminal subterranean influences, inspired by Surrealism and its subversion of the everyday into dream objects and landscapes, was recognised in an important and thought-provoking exhibition at Tate Liverpool. The Pleasure Principle presented 100 of Magritte’s paintings against examples of his commercial work and drew in a new generation of advertising creatives.
The point this exhibition made was that, in a sense, we all live in a Magrittean world — and we recognise it when we see it. His strange, haunting, poetic pictures have fuelled advertising for many decades and still do 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 which is still running today.
Album covers? How about the Mull of Kintyre cover of the eponymous Paul McCartney album? 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.
Advertising series by Allianz
Courtesy of Allianz
Magritte’s resonance with advertising shouldn’t come as a great surprise, for in 1924 he began work as a freelance graphic designer in his home town of Brussels. Over the next five years he produced advertisements for many quite different clients, including a Belgian fashion house and Alfa Romeo.
From 1927, he spent three years in Paris trying to make his name as an artist among the Surrealist group gathered there around André Breton. This period ended with an exhibition which was suddenly cancelled, a row with the surrealist group and economic disaster. Magritte retreated to Brussels and established the Studio Dongo advertising agency with his brother.
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 important artist. He never abandoned the commercial world, but went on appropriating its advertising strategies into much of his art.
The very non-painterly finish of his work — which was deliberate, and not because he wasn’t capable of holding a paintbrush — resulted in the slickness of surface that characterised much advertising and still does. It is ironic, then, that the world of commerce has in turn appropriated his appropriations: an endlessly repeating mirror world that is, in essence, very Magrittean.
1924 Alfa Romeo advertisement by René Magritte
BI, ADAGP, Paris / Scala, Florence © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015
Fresh inspirations for another generation of advertising creatives could well be stimulated by the Art of the Surreal sale on 4 February in London which will have a spectacular presentation of five important oil paintings and four challenging gouache studies by Magritte (see below), produced at the height of his powers and demonstrating his continuing influence on our contemporary world.