If we knew only one painting by Magritte, it would seem impossibly enigmatic; it takes an exhibition of almost a hundred of his works to begin to understand his methods.
The artist himself explained:
Since my first exhibition in 1926 […] I have painted a thousand or so pictures, but I have not conceived more than a hundred of those images. Those thousand pictures stem solely from the fact that I have often painted variations of my images: it is my way of better grasping the mystery, of better possessing it.
This output based on repetition, variation, and the combination of a few figurative motifs is what we have called "the Magritte machine".This exhibition includes different versions of some of his most iconic motifs.
Magritte always defined his painting as “an art of thinking”.Thinking and making people think about painting itself and its relationship with reality was his constant aim. Nothing is what it seems in his pictures. The painter makes use of a whole range of devices to dash our expectations and prompt us to ask questions about what we see.
The exhibition is organised into themed sections, albeit arranged in an order that traces Magritte’s progression from approaches that are almost conceptual (“Image and Word”) or semiabstract (“Figure and Ground”) to an in-depth exploration of the traditional conventions of European painting (“Picture and Window”, “Face and Mask”) and the possibilities and limits of visual illusionism (“Mimicry”, “Megalomania”). As he grew more accomplished as an artist, Magritte became increasingly committed to the language of figurative realism.
The Magician’s Powers
Magritte’s self-portraits are a departure from usual examples of this genre. He does not set out to study his own features, as other painters do, and less still to tell us about his life. What interests him is to present the figure of the artist as a magician, endowed with superpowers. The concept of the magician is deliberately ambiguous here: is he a sorcerer capable of working wonders or a conjurer with a bag of tricks? Unlike André Breton and other Surrealists, in his self-portraits Magritte hints at an ironic attitude towards the myth of the creative genius.
Image and Word
During the years he lived in Paris (1927−30), in close contact with the French Surrealist group, the artist incorporated into his paintings words written in the handwriting style taught to schoolchildren; these words are combined with or replace figurative images. Magritte drew inspiration from school primers where the names of objects are displayed alongside pictures of them; but in Magritte’s paintings the names rarely match the images. This mismatch between images and words makes it possible to question the very reality to which they both refer.
In his most radical paintings, words appear on their own, in place of images. The framed words and the biomorphic contours surrounding them bring to mind absent objects and bodies, like traces of images that have vanished or not yet materialised. These works display the influence of Miró and his painting-poetry.
The paradoxical relationships between images and words extend to the relationship between paintings and their titles. Magritte's titles are designed to bewilder the viewer so as to safeguard the paintings from trivial interpretations, just as his paintings protect the objects they represent: “As I see it, the art of painting represents objects so that they resist habitual interpretations”.
Figure and Ground
Max Ernst once stated that Magritte's paintings were ‘collages painted by hand’. Although the Belgian artist made only a small number of collages, the influence of collage as a compositional method is clearly visible in his paintings, especially those dating from 1926 to 1931, which are full of cut-out, pierced, or torn planes and human shapes that are flat like stage scenery. In these experiments Magritte discovered a procedure that he continued to use for the rest of his life: the inversion of figure and ground, which enabled him to turn solids into hollows, into holes through which the spectator looks out onto a landscape or simply a patch of sky.
Picture and Window
The motif of the picture within a picture, well established in Old Master painting, is used by Magritte in a systematically ambiguous manner, leading us to doubt whether the picture he includes is a picture, an empty frame, a niche in a wall, or a window. Pictures have been likened to open windows ever since the invention of perspective in the Renaissance. Magritte sometimes interprets this comparison literally and reduces it to absurdity. If we take the picture to be a window, he seems to say, the ideal picture would be completely transparent – that is, invisible. Perfection in a picture would amount to vanishing altogether. Though Magritte does not seek a sudden and definitive absence, but rather a gradual disappearance that always leaves us wondering whether we really see what we think we see.
Face and Mask
Another source of enigmas is the face, or rather its deletion from the human figure. The figure viewed from behind, concealing its face from us, acts as a kind of representative of the spectator in the painting; it makes us aware of the act of looking. But the painter has other ways of causing his figures’ faces to disappear, such as placing an object in front of them or covering their heads with a cloth. Sometimes Magritte removes the face from where we expect to find it – that is, on the human head – and at other times he projects it, in mask-like fashion, onto other parts of the body, onto some object, or even onto the landscape.
Later on, Magritte’s imagery is dominated by processes of metamorphosis based on two key concepts of his poetics: likeness (ressemblance)and decontextualisation (dépaysement).
LFor Magritte likeness is not merely a relationship of similarity between two things: "To be like is an act, and it is an act that pertains only to thought. To be like is to become the thing one takes with one. In itself, the thought can become the thing it takes with it". Magritte is fascinated by mimicry in the sense of the tendency of beings to camouflage themselves with their surroundings and even to dissolve into space. The outline of a bird is filled with sky, a sailing boat takes on the colour and texture of the sea’s waves, and the flesh of a naked body turns blue to blend in with the air. Mimicry seeks invisibility.
Whereas mimicry embodies the tendency of an organism to submit to its environment and disappear into it, we also find an opposite movement in Magritte’s work: the painter removes an object or body from its usual context and places it in a foreign environment, making it more visible. This is what Magritte and other Surrealists call "decontextualisation".
Magritte’s frequent device of changing the scale of familiar objects is part of this anti-mimetic tendency. Inspired by Lewis Carroll's novels, where Alice grows and shrinks repeatedly, Magritte increases the size of objects until they appear strange and monstrous. For example, he enlarges an apple or a rock until it fills the entire space of a room. Whereas in mimicry the body was devoured by space, now the body devours the surrounding space.
Levitation can achieve the same effect as enlargement – for example, with the image of a rock suspended in mid-air. An object’s essence is revealed when we place it in an unusual location that is incompatible with our habitual experience. This is a way of showing us things as if we were looking at them for the first time. As the painter says, "Things are usually so well hidden by their uses that if we do catch a glimpse of them we feel we possess the secret of the Universe".
Magritte. Photographs and films
The exhibition is completed with an installation in the Museum’s first floor exhibition room. It presents a selection of photographs and amateur films made by the artist himself, thanks to the courtesy of Ludion Publishers.
Curated by Xavier Canonne and titled The revealing image, the display includes the photographs and films of René Magritte which were discovered in the mid-1970s, more than ten years after the painter’s death. Their evaluation and study have made it possible to gain access to a sort of family album, an informal Magritte, irrespective of the biographical elements unearthed from his archives and those of the peo ple close to him. Their discovery also led to an examination of the relationship Magritte maintained with these ‘other images’ he executed or posed for, his affinity for the mediums of photography and cinema, and the role he assigned to them in his painting, whether in creating or recreating.
René Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium, in 1898. On 24 February 1912, his mother committed suicide by throwing herself into the River Sambre; when her corpse was retrieved days later, her face was covered by her nightgown. Magritte never spoke about what happened.
In 1916, he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and attended the classes intermittently. In 1923, he discovered a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico’s painting The Song of Love, and was dazzled by it. Around 1924−25, he met the writer Paul Nougé, who became his close friend and mentor and a key member of the Belgian Surrealist group. At the end of 1925, he painted his first Surrealist works under the influence of De Chirico and Max Ernst. In September 1927, he moved to Le Perreux-sur-Marne, outside Paris, with his wife Georgette and remained there until 1930; during this time, he was in frequent contact with a few members of the Paris Surrealist group.
Magritte’s first solo exhibition was held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in the spring of 1933. On 20 November 1938, he gave a lecture entitled "La Ligne de vie" outlining his artistic aims at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The first monograph on Magritte, written by his friend Louis Scutenaire, was published in 1947. Between 1960 and 1961, the American artist and critic Suzi Gablik spent several months with Magritte preparing a book on him that came out in 1970.
In December 1965, he attended the opening of the major René Magritte retrospective at the MoMA in New York; during this trip, the only one Magritte and his wife made to the United States, the painter visited Edgar Allan Poe’s house in the Bronx and the couple travelled to Houston, where they were received by his collectors John and Dominique de Menil. Magritte was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in July 1967 and died on 15 August at the age of 68.