René Magritte, fifty years on
René Magritte, surely the most humane and witty of all Surrealist artists, died at the age of sixty-eight, half a century ago this year. He enjoyed international recognition and financial security only during the last fifteen years of his life, and his reputation has continued to grow abroad. He is now seen as perhaps the greatest Belgian artist of the twentieth century.
In 2009, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, which owns the largest single collection of his works, opened the five-floor Magritte Museum within its own walls in his home town, Brussels. This institutional act of homage had been anticipated by a local devotee of the artist, André Garitte, who – against considerable odds and official indifference – managed in 1992 to buy the apartment where Magritte and his wife Georgette lived during the key years 1930–54. He turned it into the René Magritte Museum, which, after much voluntary work by enthusiasts, opened its doors in 1999.
Any past sins of omission are currently being further expiated with various events marking the fiftieth anniversary of Magritte’s death. In the basement below the Magritte Museum are two special exhibitions: Marcel Lecomte: The secret chambers of Surrealism (it was Lecomte who, in 1923, introduced Magritte to the work of Giorgio de Chirico, thereby setting him on an entirely new course); and Magritte, Broodthaers & Contemporary Art (although a generation younger, the poet, filmmaker, photographer and artist Marcel Broodthaers became a close friend of Magritte and was much influenced by him). And at the René Magritte Museum, a temporary exhibition, The Lost Magrittes, offers intriguing recreations of pieces that no longer exist. These include one of a number destroyed during the Blitz in London. Among them is “Le barbare” (The Barbarian), which depicts the face of a masked, top-hatted figure; Magritte posed next to it in his bowler for a publicity photo in 1938.
A handy free map-itinerary entitled Surrealism in Brussels has been published by visit.brussels, guiding visitors to former haunts of Magritte and his Surrealist confrères, including the still extant art nouveau Taverne Greenwich and the Fleur en Papier Doré café-bars. A special Magritte Beer has been brewed; this is available at the Magritte Museum shop and elsewhere, along with other souvenirs memorializing the great man, including the usual fridge magnets, mugs, calendars and notebooks, as well as bright green plastic apples, and a black colander in the shape of a Magrittean bowler hat.
Magritte adopted his bank clerk bowler hat, sober suit and tie as early as the 1930s, and it remained his dead-pan signature attire to the last. He was also a lifelong resident of the suburbs, and there is no better place to begin an exploration of the man’s life and works than the charming René Magritte Museum, in the suburb of Jette, with its young well-informed guides.
The artist and his wife rented the one-bedroom, ground-floor flat in this three-storey terraced house in the autumn of 1930, when they returned from three unsuccessful years in Paris, where Magritte had made little impact and even less money. Although the couple had met and got to know a number of other avant-garde artists in France – Jean Arp, Andre Breton, Salvador Dalì, Man Ray, Joan Mirò and Yves Tanguy among them – they had never felt at home there. When one evening Breton reprimanded Georgette for wearing a crucifix, she stormed off, and the incident precipitated the Magrittes’ departure from Paris.
Magritte had first encountered Georgette Berger in 1913 at a fair in Charleroi (he was a teenager and she was twelve years old). He met her again by chance in the Botanical Gardens in Brussels in 1920 – she was by now a strikingly pretty young woman – and they married two years later. For a long time they depended on her meagre earnings as a shop assistant.
A talented draughtsman, Magritte intermittently worked as a commercial artist, designing the covers for popular music scores, posters and other publicity materials. When the Depression deepened, and he found it almost impossible to sell his paintings, he set up an advertising agency with his brother Paul; “Studio Dongo” was named after Fabrice del Dongo, a character in Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme. Their office was a shed-studio at the bottom of the garden at Essghemstreet 135. Magritte resented the time he spent on this work, deeming it “idiotic” and a distraction from his real vocation. Ironically, his paintings were to prove an enduring source of inspiration for the art departments of international advertising agencies.
In the modest flat in Jette, Magritte painted some 800 pictures (about half his total output) using as his studio the small dining room, which leads on to a tiny kitchen overlooking the little garden. When André Garitte bought the house (including the two other apartments upstairs, now used as exhibition spaces for the numerous art works, documents and photographs the museum has amassed), it was in a sorry state. But with remarkable determination, using auction catalogues from the sales in Brussels and London of the couple’s hand-painted furniture and other belongings after the death of Georgette in 1986, almost everything has been recovered and the original furnishings and decor restored.
Among the odd items that could not be be found was a German Spitz dog that Magritte had had stuffed after its demise in the 1950s. The couple owned six of these dogs in succession, all name Loulou. Fortunately, a stuffed animal of the same breed turned up in a Brussels flea market and now adorns the couple’s double bed.
The dining room was also the scene of regular Sunday suppers for which the Brussels Surrealist Group came together. Most of them were writers and musicians, Magritte being the only significant artist among them. Although he was an avid reader, his approach to his painting was almost entirely visual. He once remarked: “When I want to create a new picture, the difficulty for my way of thinking is to obtain an image that resists all explanation”.
Magritte liked to show his works to his fellow Surrealists at the weekly soirées and invite them to suggest titles. Many were concocted by the poet Loius Scutenaire, a fellow connoisseur of humorous and bizarre ideas, whom Magritte had first met in 1927. Paul Nougé, another member of the group, who worked by day in a lab as a bio-chemist, observed that the titles of Magritte’s paintings were “conversational commodities rather than explanations”.
The rather cramped conditions at Essghemstreet 135 provided surprising inspiration for some of the artist’s most famous images. The fireplace in the living room is still just as it appears in “La Durée poignardée” (Time Transfixed), in which the shiny black iron stove has metamorphosed into a steam engine emerging in mid-air from the back of the chimney breast. Birds also figure in a number of the paintings; it is interesting to discover that Magritte kept an aviary in a narrow courtyard at the side of the house.
In 1940, he painted “The Return”; this was the first of his pictures of birds in flight, which consist of outlines through which we see blue sky with cotton-wool clouds against a dark backdrop of the night. He used the same motif for “Sky Bird”, which was commissioned by the Belgian airline Sabena in 1966. No doubt mindful of the years of straitened circumstances, he wrote to his friend, the collector Harry Torcyner, who did much to promote his works in the US – that this lucrative deal had “put a good deal of butter on my spinach”. Both these paintings can now be seen in the Magritte Museum in the centre of the city.
Roderick Conway Morris was for twenty-five years an arts writer for the International Herald Tribune. He now contributes to various publications.
Subscribe now to the TLS and get the best writing on big books and big ideas from only £1.50 or $2.40 per weekSubscribe