Rene Magritte’s Surrealism: Meticulous, Witty Illusions

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Who has not heard of the text on this very famous painting, ‘La Trahison des Images’? It was painted by the Belgium surrealist pioneer, René Magritte.

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La Trahison des Images
Rene Magritte

Exactly two years ago I was lucky to see a wonderful show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) by surrealist painter and sculpture, René Magritte. I loved seeing so many of his works first hand, that, as today marks his 110th birthday, I thought to write about him and his work.

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La Chateau des Pyrenees
Rene Magritte

Uniquely Magritte

What sets Magritte apart is his masterful ability to mix wit with illusion in thought-provoking imagery. His dreamlike paintings are meticulous. They remind you of a documentary on the subject.

By placing ordinary objects in unusual contexts and by juxtaposing or overlaying reality and illusion, Rene gave new meaning to familiar things and challenged our beliefs, perceptions and realities. In particular, Magritte’s surrealism fooled our sense of time and space.

There are two branches of surrealism: one created realistic representations of dream-like states; the other preferred an abstract style. Magritte was clearly a master of representational surrealism.

“If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream.”

While Magritte did not draw upon dreams, the state of pre-consciousness (just before you wake up) was important to him.

“My painting is visible images which conceal nothing… they evoke mystery and indeed when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question ‘What does that mean’? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

“People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image…. The images must be seen such as they are.”

~ René Magritte about his art.

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La Chambre d’ecoute, c.1958
Rene Magritte

Technically as well as philosophically, Magritte’s painting was genial. For example, the pipe in ‘La trahison des images’ does not look and feel as a real pipe, but rather as a model pipe for a tobacco advertisement. Indeed, c’est ne past une pipe ~ it is a reflection of a pipe.

Similarly, Magritte painted his apple in ‘La Chambre d’ecoute’ realistically. Then, he denied that it was real, by framing & captioning it. While realistic art can appear to be real, it is not real, Magritte seems to say. It is just a representation or a reflection of reality.

While Magritte is mostly known for his paintings, he also made sculptures which ranged dramatically in size.

There are small wooden pipe boxes with a model pipe in it and with a small pipe & capture painting on the lid. In a similar way, did he create a small glass cheese dome with a painted plaque inside “Ceci est un morceau de fromage”.

On the other hand, he created say 4-5 meter high bronze sculptures (like the one in the Getty museum). These sculptures directly complemented his paintings.

Rene Magritte
La Golconde
Rene Magritte

René Magritte – Biography

Magritte was born in Lessines, Hainaut in Belgium, but the family moved to Charleloi right after his mother drowned, and then to Brussels.

The sight of her corpse with her dress covering her face is said to have influenced his work. Magritte actually disputed this. Consciously, he often purposefully blocked a subject’s face with a suspended object to challenge human assumptions about the unknown.

Unlike surrealist Dali, Magritte led a ‘normal’ rather than an extravagant life. Magritte basically was a middle-class working man, who painted at his kitchen table. Like a good citizen, Magritte did his military service in 1921. When he returned, the 23-year-old Magritte married Georgette Berger in 1922. In 1940, Magritte moved with his wife to Carcassone, in the south of France. When Magritte died in 1967, he was buried ‘back home’, in Brussels.

René Margritte – Artistic Development

René Magritte started early. He began drawing classes at age 12. He studied intermittently between 1916 and 1918 at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Magritte first exhibited at the Centre d’Art in Brussels in 1920.

Until the blessed day that Magritte landed the contract with Galerie la Centaure in Brussels, enabling him to paint full-time, he worked for a wallpaper factory. He designed wallpapers, posters, and advertising. 1923 marks the year that he sold his very first painting. It was a portrait of singer Evelyne Brélia.

Magritte made his first surreal painting, ‘Le jockey perdu’, in 1926. That was eight years after he left the academy.

He had his first solo exhibition at Galerie la Centaure in 1927. However, the Brussels art world had not been ready for Magritte’s work at that time and critics shunned the art exhibition.

In a way this was fortunate, as Magritte moved to Paris for three years as a result. There, he frequented the Surrealist circle, which included Jean Arp, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Paul Eluard, and Joan Miró. This deepened his understanding of surrealism, and positively affected his artistic style. In 1928 Magritte took part in the Exposition surréaliste at the Galerie Goemans in Paris.

Magritte moved back to Brussels in 1930 when his contract income ended. The Galerie la Centaure had closed. He resumed his prior career in advertising, and formed an agency with his brother.

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Le Modele Rouge, c.1935
Rene Magritte

In 1933 was given a solo show at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. In the ’40s Magritte often showed at the Galerie Dietrich in Brussels. During the following two decades he executed various mural commissions in Belgium.

Magritte did not always paint in his style that he is most famed for. For a few years, starting in 1943, Magritte actually tried out a new style of painting. It was called “Renoir” or “Solar” style. He painted in this way, alongside with his main style. However, when Magritte showed his new style in 1948 in an exhibition at the Galerie du Faubourg, in Paris, his audience was startled. So Magritte decided to give up this new way of painting.

A Magritte retrospectives was held in 1954 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

René Magritte – International Shows, Support & Fame

In 1929, the Magritte family was invited to stay at the Dali’s in Cadaquès, Spain. There, he contributed to the “Révolution Surréaliste”, and he paints the first version of “The treachery of Images”.

Magritte’s first solo exhibition in the US was at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1936. In that same year, he was also represented in the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1937, surrealist art patron and poet, Edward James, enabled Margritte to paint large canvasses in London. His first show in England was at the London Gallery in 1938.

From 1953 he exhibited frequently at the galleries of Alexander Iolas in New York, Paris, and Geneva.

Two more Magritte Retrospectives were held in 1960 in the US at the Museum for Contemporary Arts in Dallas and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Magritte’s work was exhibited again in New York in two retrospective exhibitions, one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992.

Rene Magritte
The Son of Man, 1964
Rene Magritte

René Magritte – Peaking Popularity

While Magritte’s talent and important artistic contributions were recognized early on in his career, popular awareness and interest in Magritte’s work boomed later in his life, in the ’60s. His advertising background had helped him throughout his artistic career, and also then: the increase in popularity in the ’60’s was in part brought about by reproductions of his works featured on rock album covers!

Throughout the ’60s, René Magritte traveled through Europe, the US and beyond. He either visited influential artistic friends (André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray and others) in Paris, or took family vacations in Italy or France. He explore places like Israel.

And last but not least, he attended his own international (retrospective) art shows. In 1965 Magritte traveled to the US for the first time for his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Just before Magritte died, he had opened a major exhibition of his work at the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

René Magritte – The Inspiration

Throughout his art career and afterwards, René Magritte has been an unusually influential artist. His imagery has influenced pop, minimalist and conceptual art.

Actually, the 2006 LACMA exhibition on Magritte that I mentioned earlier showcased this influence. It illustrated how Margritte had influenced contemporary artists by presenting the inspired artworks side by side with the inspiring source-paintings of Magritte.

Amongst the artists inspired by Magritte, were John Baldessari (who incidentally had designed this LACMA show), Sherrie Levine, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Vija Celmins, Marcel Broodthaers, Martin Kippenberger, and others.

He also influenced many musicians, movie directors and video game producers. Numerous films, games, and albums have included imagery inspired by Magritte.

by A. Lee

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