René Magritte

The Belgian artist René Magritte (1890-1967) was a Surrealist painter famous for bizarre images depicted in a realistic manner. Many of his paintings showed a dignified gentleman in a bowler hat.

The Belgian painter René François Chislain Magritte in 1940 praised "that pictorial experience which puts the real world on trial," and his career bore out this aesthetic strategy. Born in Lessines, Belgium, on November 21, 1890, he would become a chief proponent of representational Surrealism. By the age of 12 he began drawing and painting and attended informal art classes in Chatelet, where his family then resided. A chance encounter with a plein-air painter inspired the budding artist.

In 1912 Magritte's mother drowned herself, and the family moved to Charleroi shortly after the tragedy. At age 15, at the local fair, he met a girl named Georgette Berger, and though he would not see her again until 1920 the two eventually married in 1922. In the intervening years Magritte enrolled at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he studied intermittently from 1916 to 1918. In 1919, in association with several young artists, poets, and musicians in Brussels, he helped publish the review Au Volant! That same year he exhibited his first canvas, Three Women, a Cubistic picture.

The early 1920s found Magritte using a generally abstract idiom based on Cubo-Futurist principles. After brief military service in 1921 and his marriage to Georgette the following year, he supported himself by working in a wallpaper factory, as well as by designing posters. Around this time Magritte saw a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico's painting The Song of Love (1914), and the image, illustrated in the Roman periodical Valori Plastici, is said to have moved him to tears. The strange juxtaposition of objects in de Chirico's work revealed to Magritte the poetic possibilities of painting, and thereafter his pictures challenged expectations.

Magritte's pictures of the early 1920s already explored thematic ambiguity, and by the mid-1920s he and E. L. T. Mesens helped form a Belgian Surrealist group that included Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans, and Louis Scutenaire, an early chronicler of Magritte's art. The Surrealists, who included writers and composers too, overturned conventional notions by exercising their unconscious impulses for creative effect, and Magritte's paintings often took on a bizarre, dream-like quality. Working at a rapid rate, he investigated these new non-formalist concerns. One subject, The Lost Jockey, typically explored in a sequence of pictures (sometimes collage), contrasted oversized balusters with a horse and rider. Magritte's first one-man show, in Brussels in 1927, was a critical failure, and that year he moved to the Surrealist center, Paris, befriending poet Paul Eluard and André Breton, spokesman for the movement.

Breton released his two Surrealist manifestoes in 1924 and 1929, and between these years the movement was perhaps at its most exuberant. One main inspirational source for the Surrealists was the literature of Isidore Ducasse, alias the Comte de Lautréamont, who around 1870 had written that nothing is "as beautiful a…. the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table." Later, in 1948, Magritte illustrated Lautréamont's complete works with 77 drawings which rivaled the text in strangeness.

The images and techniques of the movies were an influence on Magritte, especially the French film anti-hero Fantômas, a master of crime and disguise. Many of Magritte's works at this time, in keeping with Surrealist practices, disclosed a sinister side of human personality, as in Pleasure (1926) or The Threatened Assassin (1926-1927). In 1930 Magritte, never much one for political endeavors, broke with the Surrealists in a dispute over their dogmatic aims, burned most of his possessions associated with this time in his life, and returned to his native Brussels.

The following decade Magritte developed his mature style, first introduced in 1925. He was represented at major international exhibitions of Surrealist art and wrote on art's potential, though he offered no explanations—choosing instead to maintain its mysterious aura. Though an admirer of Max Ernst, he did not adopt that artist's novel methods of rubbing and blotting. He also persisted with his painstakingly literal approach. He took care to distinguish between an object and its image. Magritte had first presented this lesson in his teasing The Use of Words I (1928-1929), in which the inscription "this is not a pipe" is written beneath a painted image of one.

This semantic investigation of the connection between language and visual source is evident in his Key of Dreams series of the 1930s in which objects depicted do not necessarily conform with the labels below them. Contextual correspondence and associative meaning are at the heart of Magritte's pursuits, and around 1936 he reversed his (and the general Surrealist) tact by exploring similar rather than dissimilar things.

Magritte's definitive work also shows an interest in the coexistence of opposite states of being. Interior is confused with exterior (The Human Condition I, 1933), night fuses with day (The Empire of Lights, 1954), and a human face is comprised of body parts (The Rape, 1945). Though Magritte's method is one of utmost clarity, he confounds imagined and "real identities," commenting on the relativity of perception.

In the 1940s Magritte experimented briefly with Impressionism (1940-1945) and a brash Fauve-inspired style (1948) dubbed "Vache" (literally, cow). Thus, working from his home in Brussels, he forever kept the critics off guard. His sedate bourgeois way of life masked his creative unpredictability. At times he resembled the staid bowler-hatted gentlemen who peopled many of his paintings.

Magritte minimized the importance of his achievements: "… life obliges me to do something so I paint." Yet he raised profound aesthetic issues of much importance for future generations, including the Pop artists of the 1960s. The fantastic content of his art had great appeal for the general public and became widely disseminated in commercial advertising and posters in the 1960s and 1970s. Magritte, who died in Brussels on August 15, 1967, created a world of enchantment with far-reaching consequences.

Further Reading on René Magritte

William Rubin, Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage (1967) locates Magritte in art history and is a fine introduction to Surrealism. Jose Vovelle, Le Surréalisme en Belgique (1972, in French), is a comprehensive look at Surrealism in Belgium. Numerous monographs on the artist exist, among these Suzi Gablik, Magritte (1970, reprint 1985) and James Thrall Soby, René Magritte (1965).