Posts From April, 2009

Ceci n’est pas la révolution (the 1962 Marien scandal) 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 10:57:39 PM

Ceci n’est pas la révolution


Martin McGarry


Le surréalisme en Belgique, by Xavier Canonne, Actes Sud, 351 pp, €79, ISBN: 978-2742772094

In the late summer of 1962, panic apparently seized a number of US collectors of the works of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967), who had by then become an established figure (and a good investment). The reason was a leaflet issued to coincide with a retrospective of his work in the casino of the Belgian seaside resort of Knokke, a prelude to a similar exhibition in Minneapolis. The leaflet was headed with a reproduction of a Belgian 100-franc note, with Magritte’s head, wearing a suitably haughty expression, replacing that of the first King of the Belgians. The leaflet went on to proclaim a kind of sale, intended to bring the “mystery” of the painter’s works within the reach of the less well-off. In reaction to the way his work was becoming a sort of merchandise, the subject of “sordid speculation”, the text over Magritte’s name announced that a range of variations on his paintings would be available at reasonable prices (frames not included). People were invited to place their orders soon, as the artist did not expect to live for ever and was not a factory.

Versions of Magritte’s most famous paintings (“in standard format”) were offered at different prices (in Belgian and French francs, as well as US dollars), depending on the direction in which a head was turned and on whether, for example, La condition humaine came with a view of the sea (the most expensive option), the countryside or a forest (the cheapest version). At the opening of the Knokke exhibition, the Belgian minister for justice congratulated Magritte on the joke. André Breton wrote from Paris to express his approval.

The Belgian police were less amused. Magritte had a visit a month later from a senior officer, acting on foot of a complaint from the Bank of Belgium, who pointed out that reproducing banknotes was an offence. Magritte himself was not amused either: the first he had known of the leaflet was when the minister offered his congratulations.

The man responsible for the leaflet was a younger Belgian surrealist artist and writer (and one-time ship’s cook, clerk, bookseller and Beijing-based editorial assistant on China Reconstructs, among other things), Marcel Mariën (1920-1993). He had once been close to Magritte, but the two had drifted apart in the 1950s. Mariën’s joke was not just a matter of simple begrudgery, or resentment that Magritte had become an established figure. It contained a reference to episodes in the painter’s less prosperous past in which Mariën himself had been an accomplice, the creation of fake paintings by famous artists, for one thing, to raise funds many years before; and, even more extraordinary, the counterfeiting and spending of a number of large-denomination Belgian banknotes in the early 1950s.

In his autobiography, Le radeau de la mémoire (1983), Mariën describes his role in passing counterfeit 100-franc notes in 1953, designed by René Magritte and printed by his brother Paul – mostly at resorts along the Belgian coast. Of course it is impossible to know how much of his account is true; but his description of the painter’s reaction to the newspapers’ enumeration of the notes’ imperfections, once the fraud had been tumbled, makes amusing reading, recalling as it did that of “a painter reading a malicious critique of his work”. Many years later ironically, the last Belgian banknote to be issued before the introduction of the euro, a 500-franc note, carried a portrait of René Magritte and partial reproductions of some of his works.

Printed matter that isn’t quite what it seems at first sight has a history in Belgium. Indeed Magritte was an unamused victim more than once. But the most famous such coup deserves to be better known outside the country. It happened not quite twenty years before the announcement of Magritte’s special offer. One of a multitude of Belgian resistance groups during the Second World War (in itself a reflection of Belgian individualism and political division), the left-wing Independence Front was the umbrella body for armed groups such as the Patriotic Militias and the Partisans and a range of clandestine papers.

In the run-up to November 11th, 1943 (the anniversary of the 1918 Armistice), a young man in the Front’s press had an idea. The German occupiers had appointed a bunch of collaborators to run the Brussels daily Le Soir. When the slimmed-down wartime paper hit the city’s news kiosks at four in the afternoon, there was always a rush. Marc Aubrion’s original idea was to sneak an anti-Nazi article into this collaborationist paper. But then he had a better one: to deliver a resistance paper under the same name to the kiosks, which would be snapped up before anyone realised what was happening.

Easier said than done. But the idea grew. A printer was found and Tuesday, November 9th, 1943 was agreed on. It was decided to produce a humorous lampoon version of Le Soir, looking just like the normal one but poking fun at the paper and its Nazi masters. The final plan was to print 50,000 copies, most of which would be sold to raise funds. But, first of all, 5,000 would hit the kiosks in and around central Brussels in bundles of 100, in wrappers announcing that the normal delivery would be late.

Aubrion hoped for a dummy Allied air raid to delay the usual delivery vans. It never came. But the printer did his job and so did teams of young resisters on bikes. Soon, all over the city, eyes were widening as the audacity of the coup dawned on people. Commuters burst out laughing on the trams, others jumped off at the next stop to see if they could get a copy. As a morale-booster, it was magnificent, even though many of those involved later died in Nazi concentration camps (Aubrion himself survived imprisonment and torture).

An old Belgian friend, born in England (where many Belgians had taken refuge) during the First World War, had a copy he picked up on the day. A participant thrice over in the Second World War (on military service, in the Resistance, and in the Inter-Allied Commandos, with whom he arrived on the Elbe in time to celebrate VE Day with Russian vodka from filthy billycans). He died a few years ago. I don’t know what happened to his copy of the “faux Soir”.

Heroism is not something the outside world associates with Belgium and Belgians, but the multifarious Belgian Resistance threw up quite a few heroes – and, indeed, the country’s army put up a better show in 1940 than it suited the French or British to acknowledge. But the national image is staid and boring. Not meaning quite the same thing, Marx once referred to it as “the most bourgeois country in Europe”. Perhaps because the state was a stable, anomalous buffer between great powers and potential powers, the city of Brussels has always hosted political exiles, right down to Joseph Kabila and supporters of the Peruvian Maoist Sendero Luminoso. The Communist Manifesto was written in Brussels, the Bolshevik Party was founded there (and Victor Serge was born there), but history of that kind is not currently a tourist draw. (Even in Trier, the only postcards referring to Karl Marx, the city’s most famous son, were in Chinese the last time I was there.)

All kinds of people passed through the city – and still do. Not just those exiles, refugees, and immigrants of various kinds, but, down the centuries, a succession of armies, empires, and occupiers. Originally the capital of Brabant, some of which is now in the Netherlands, Brussels became a key city in the Burgundians’ relatively short-lived attempt to carve out a power between France and the Holy Roman Empire, from the Alps to the North Sea. Burgundy came a cropper over five centuries ago, but is still blamed by Brussels folk, and Belgians more generally, for their fondness for good food and drink (at its best, they claim to enjoy French quality and German quantity).

Various dynastic chess games and unexpected deaths led to Brussels coming under the Spanish crown when a local boy of mixed Burgundian-Habsburg-Spanish origins, known to history as Charles V, inherited the (then fairly new and unsteady) Spanish crown and also became Holy Roman Emperor, going on to be monarch of the first empire on which the sun never set. Charles, born in the “memorable” year of 1500, spent a lot of energy trying to squash the Reformation. His thoroughly Spanish son, Philip II, stepped up those efforts. One early sign of his determination was the decapitation on the main square in Brussels, the Grand-Place/Grote Markt, of (Goethe and Beethoven’s) Egmont and Hoorn. Their smarter friend, William the Silent, lived to lead what became known as the Dutch Revolt and is revered as the founder of the Netherlands.

Historical terms can be misleading: in fact, much of the “Dutch Revolt” actually took place in what is now Belgium. Belgium, in fact, is what the Spaniards succeeded in holding or reconquering; the Dutch-Belgian border, to the north, is more or less a military ceasefire line. Many Protestant “Belgians” eventually fled north. The southern section of the mixed bag of duchies, counties etc put together by the Burgundians remained Spanish until the early eighteenth century, when Louis XIV’s last great war resulted, among other things, in the Southern Low Countries (or Netherlands) becoming an Austrian Habsburg possession. Earlier, Louis had nibbled away at its southern frontiers, annexing, among others, Dutch-speaking areas with obviously non-French place names such as Dunkirk. In an earlier war in the mid-1690s his artillery destroyed much of Brussels, including most of the Grand-Place. (The art critic and publican – among other things – who runs a city-centre pub called Monk, named after Thelonious, recently pointed out to me that the premises, owned by the brewery, had survived the bombardment because they were just inside the city walls and the guns had fired overhead.) Some idea of the city’s then importance and prosperity can be gleaned from the speed with which most of the splendid buildings now found on the square were erected soon after.

At that time, and for a long time after, Brussels was a largely Dutch-speaking city. Over “Belgium” as a whole, then as now, the northern majority spoke Dutch and the southern minority spoke French. Much of the city’s wealth, apart from its role as a political and administrative centre, had come from the tapestries that a huge proportion of its population was employed in making and which can still be found in palaces and museums all over Europe.

After the Austrians came the troops of revolutionary France, and of Napoleonic France, whose final defeat came when its armies were beaten on their way to Brussels, just a few miles south of the city at Waterloo. There followed an interlude (less than two decades) when the old Low Countries were united again, this time as the Netherlands, before the south broke away in 1830-1831 and became known as Belgium, finding, as one did in those days, a German prince willing to become King of the Belgians (Leopold I, whose head was replaced by Magritte on the “sale” announcement mentioned earlier).

It was this relatively new Belgium, the one that Karl Marx knew, that had the most thoroughgoing industrial revolution on mainland Europe and that saw mainland Europe’s first railway and developments in coal, steel, and iron that paralleled what was happening in England. The country may not have rivalled Britain as the “workshop of the world”, but over the following century Belgians could be found supplying and installing railways and trams all over the globe. The wealth generated by Belgian capitalism and by the plundering of the Congo as the private property of King Leopold II (which Roger Casement did much to expose – a tale well told in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost) helped to fund the avenues, public buildings and handsome private houses (many of them by innovative art nouveau architects) of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Brussels.

During the First World War almost the entire country was occupied (the front line of the unoccupied south-western corner ran through or around places like Ypres – Ieper to its Dutch-speaking inhabitants – and Passchendaele, which became household names in Britain and Ireland). Away from that front line, resistance was largely passive; the then mayor of Brussels, Adolphe Max, became a national hero for his opposition to the occupier, which earned him four years of captivity in Germany, a return as mayor until his death in 1939, and commemoration in the name of one of the main streets in the city centre. Despite the shock of war (when neutrality turned out not to be simply a question of choice) and occupation, the Belgium of the 1920s was still a fairly confident place. Even though it was the exception to the rash of ethnically based states then emerging all over Europe after the war, it remained quite stable; it was to be some time before the fault line between Dutch-speakers (now collectively dubbed “Flemings”) and French-speakers (in Brussels and what is now called Wallonia, to the south) emerged as a serious threat to the very existence of the state. Even now, the vast majority of Belgians do not want to see the country split, but that is another story.

Before the First World War the Congo had been “nationalised” by the Belgian state; now, in the 1920s, the first Africans were arriving (and were shocked to find people addressing them by terms such as “Monsieur” and “Madame”, which – along with other polite formulas – are much more widely used by Belgians than, for example, by people in Ireland). Under an essentially French-speaking state (this was before the successive waves of devolution and constitutional reform that have led to today’s complicated federal system), Brussels had become a predominantly French-speaking city, although poorer and older residents still often spoke a local Dutch-based dialect with a variety of words picked up from all the different languages and groups that had washed over the city down the centuries.

The shock of the war and of the Russian Revolution contributed to a range of iconoclastic and revolutionary ideas and feelings. It was in that context that Belgian surrealism developed in the mid-1920s. If, nearly forty years later, Marcel Mariën was offended by Magritte’s success with bourgeois collectors and disturbed by reports that he was painting to order, it was not just that he begrudged him the recognition (and the money) that had finally come his way. Nor indeed because Magritte had in 1950 rejected the possibility that was opening up of making money painting for rich people “who have no taste”. It was because surrealism had always been seen as something revolutionary, as a political movement as much as an artistic one, since its emergence after the First World War. 

Magritte, who had been born in Hainaut in south-western Belgium in 1898, appeared on the Brussels scene in 1925, as a “Brussels group” was signing up to the “revolutionary surrealist” manifesto of that year, in alliance with the Paris-based surrealists. He had his first Brussels exhibition in 1927; it was to be 1948 before he had his first one-man show (which was not very successful) in Paris. Before interest in his work finally took off, he made a living designing wallpaper, cosmetics packaging and advertising material, among other things.

The various manifestos, letters, pamphlets, posters, and periodicals so profusely quoted in Xavier Canonne’s massive (six kilos) and richly illustrated Le surréalisme en Belgique make the political nature of the movement clear, even if a perusal of those quotations leaves one a little confused as to just what surrealism is or was and what its political significance might have been. Whereas in France the Communist Party eventually became a major force and many artists and writers came under its leadership and, in some cases, were more or less under its orders, in Belgium communism never became such a powerful influence. Perhaps for that reason, the politics were more diffuse; indeed, some have accused the Belgian surrealists of playing at politics, aware that their views had no significance or influence.

Be that as it may, the mood in the early days – and indeed over a number of generations – remained decidedly anti-establishment and some of the Belgian surrealists were communists and others fellow-travellers. In Canonne’s book, however, it is often hard to see the wood for the trees. The emphasis is very much on the publications, however ephemeral, of individuals and groups, some of whom were quite obsessive about publishing whatever came into their heads. This leads Canonne, for example, to provide a list of signatories of an obscure 1990 leaflet. What was not recorded in print at the time by one surrealist or another tends not to be considered worthy of mention.

Back in 1936, the Belgian surrealists were unanimous in deciding on the expulsion of the poet and musician André Souris in 1936 for the crime of conducting a Mass in memory of the banker and patron of the arts Henry Le Boeuf. Not long after, however, in 1939, the Hainaut group of surrealists (in southern Belgium) was expressing its concern that the Brussels group had become Trotskyist. After the war, when the issue of the future of the Belgian monarchy, and in particular of the exiled King Leopold III, who was accused by many of collaboration with Hitler, brought the country close to civil war, the “Groupe surréaliste de Belgique” produced a tribute to the French revolutionary extremist Saint-Just. Canonne’s book gives no idea of the influence of such documents, but one suspects it was minimal.

René Magritte himself, who had spent about three years in the late 1920s living near Paris, where he had some direct contact with the group around André Breton, was still fond of shocking the bourgeoisie after the war. He cooperated with the younger Mariën on humorous, scabrous leaflets and on a prospectus for a three-session seminar at the Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts on “Sexual Practice”, given by a Professor Ijowescu of the Academy of Advanced Sexological Studies of Sofia (Bulgaria), which would be “illustrated by explanatory scenes” thanks to the assistance of “young intellectuals of both sexes”.

Magritte also, at least in his private correspondence, expressed his delight at a stunt in Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris at Easter 1950, whereby two agitators occupied a pulpit and proceeded to give a sermon on Nietzsche and the death of God until their audience finally figured out what was going on. However, when Mariën and some others launched a new review in 1954, Magritte showed little interest and seemed to disapprove of its political tone; a few years earlier he had attended a conference of communist artists in Antwerp. By the summer of 1956 he seemed to regard a protest against Shell’s sponsorship of an exhibition as being something that belonged to the past, which no longer interested him. In 1963 he responded to a request to sign yet another leaflet, by, in Canonne’s paraphrase, telling its authors “that surrealism is dead, in its historic phase at least” and that any attempt to revive it would be either outdated or eccentric (folklorique).

As to the political significance of surrealism in art (whatever about its literary form, whose appeal has remained fairly limited), Magritte had written in 1961 that it was a mistake to attribute to painting the ability to set out ideas or express sentiments. And indeed, when one looks at surrealist art (including the many fine illustrations in Canonne’s book), it is hard to argue with him. As he himself put it:

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.

Surrealism was revolutionary in shocking people at times, in disturbing perceptions and assumptions and associations, but one would be hard put to trace any clear political thrust, even from its most political practitioners. While the titles of Magritte’s paintings sometimes hinted at deeper significance, these were often the result of meetings of a group of his friends, and of the suggestions of Louis Scutenaire in particular.

Mariën once, in 1952, hailed Magritte as one of those who – with Valéry, Lenin, Einstein, Stalin, and Chaplin(!) – would be remembered as having, in the twentieth century, done most to shake up, in a positive way, the history of human expression and power (“qui bouleversèrent heureusement l’histoire de l’expression et du pouvoir de l'homme”).

One wonders what Mariën would make of the new Magritte Museum due to open next spring within the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, thanks in part to the sponsorship of the multinational energy conglomerate Suez (you can see a video presentation on the museums’ website).

Magritte ART: Surreal Hero for a Nation of Contradictions 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 4:02:08 PM

ART; Surreal Hero for a Nation of Contradictions
Published: Sunday, April 26, 1998

AFTER centuries of being variously ruled by Austria, Spain, France and the Netherlands, Belgium was already suffering something of an identity crisis when it finally became a nation in its own right in 1830. Since then, things have not got much better. Divided between Dutch-speaking Flemish, French-speaking Walloons and polyglot Bruxellois, to this day Belgians often seem uncertain what, if anything, they have in common. No wonder local intellectuals entertain themselves by predicting that their country will soon break up.

But it may not happen quite yet. This year, at least, Belgians have discovered a rare point of unity in the dapper figure of Rene Magritte, Belgium's most influential artist this century. Joining forces to organize exhibitions, publications, television programs and walking tours to mark the centenary of his birth, they have embraced Magritte as the quintessential Belgian, the respectable pipe-smoking bourgeois in the bowler hat whose Surrealist paintings mirrored the absurdity of existence.

Thus, Belgians have found that to celebrate his art of the unlikely juxtaposition is to celebrate a nation in contradiction with itself. To accept the artist's refusal to explain his paintings is to be relieved of the need to explain Belgium. Magritte's ''This is not a pipe'' has become ''This is not a country,'' which is fine, because Magritte's nonpipe was also a pipe, just different.

An alternative take on this year's Magritte mania is simply that, having seen France quietly appropriate many of their French-speaking heroes (from Georges Simenon to Jacques Brel), Belgians are delighting in seeing the French traipsing in large numbers to Brussels to pay their respects to Magritte. Then there is the pleasure in recognizing Magritte in everyday life, not just those of his images that have been endlessly plagiarized in advertising and the performing arts to the point that their provenance is often forgotten (two new productions at the Paris Opera are full of uncredited Magritte references), but also those visual and intellectual enigmas that are now simply called surreal but were in fact first isolated by Magritte.

Of course, there may also be a simpler explanation: that anniversaries are hard to resist. Once Belgium's Royal Museums of Fine Art decided four years ago to record the Magritte centenary with the largest art exhibition in this country's history, other shows were destined to follow. ''Hommage a Magritte: 1898-1967'' at the Galerie Christine et Isy Brachot in Brussels through May 31 focuses on his photography and sketches; ''Rene Magritte and Contemporary Art,'' at the Museum of Modern Art in Ostende through June 28, looks at his influence on later artists, and ''Magritte in Chatelet,'' at the Town Hall in Chatelet through May 17, is showing the work he did during his teen-age years while he was living there.

But the centerpiece, through June 28, remains ''Magritte'' at the Royal Museums of Fine Art, which is presenting 300 paintings and gouaches as well as posters, cover designs of musical scores, tracts, letters, magazine covers, photographs and homemade movies. The exhibition is displayed chronologically, starting with the groping steps that preceded the artist's discovery of Giorgio de Chirico and Surrealism in 1925. First came Magritte's encounter with Italian Futurism, which he proclaimed ''a revelation'' and which led him, as he later put it, to ''do Futurism.'' A couple of years later, he belatedly found Cubism and produced what he described as ''a mixture of Cubism and abstract art.'' But, he wrote near the end of his life, ''these experiences gave me little satisfaction.''

From 1925, though, he developed the style that, with a couple of brief digressions, would stay with him until his death in 1967 at the age of 69. It was a style marked more by his eye and his mind than by his hand, more by its content than by its technique, more by his desire to disturb than to give pleasure. Today he is considered to have been a competent but unexceptional painter, yet more than de Chirico and Max Ernst, whom he regarded as mentors, his work remains remarkably popular and topical. He did not like to be called the Father of Pop Art, and he was right. This show demonstrates that he has survived Pop Art.

THE decade that followed Magritte's conversion to Surrealism was enormously creative. Already in the 1925 ''Nocturne,'' some of the motifs appear that would stay with him for decades, in this case the notion of a painting within a painting, a bird in flight and what he called a ''bilboquet,'' the carved wooden pole that variously resembled an ornate table leg, a staircase balustrade and a chess pawn. Other favorite motifs, like the sea and clouds, joined his vocabulary the following year in ''The Birth of the Idol'' and ''After the Water, the Clouds.'' In ''The Musings of a Solitary Walker'' of 1926, the mysterious bowler-hatted man, seen from behind, makes his entry, this time standing near the River Sambre where Magritte's mother drowned when he was 12.

In 1927, he became entranced with the double image: the back and front of a bowler-hatted man in ''The Meaning of Night''; a man in tails on either side of a door in ''Portrait of Paul Nouge,'' his closest friend at the time, and, in ''The Secret Double,'' where the double is an illusion because what is missing from the face and torso of a woman is placed beside her. All this was relatively simple: things are not as they appear.

In 1928 alone, when Magritte painted no fewer than 100 works, including the famous hooded images of ''The Lovers,'' he began introducing words into his paintings, invariably meant to create tension between the perception of the eye and of the mind. A white blob becomes the body of a woman, dark blobs are variously described as a horse, a cloud, a gun. In time, he came to use fewer words on his canvases and concentrated instead, often with the help of friends and children, on coming up with bizarre titles for his works. A 1930 full-length portrait of a nude, in which the body is divided into five separate paintings, became ''The Eternally Obvious.''

Amusingly, for a man who never explained the meaning of his images, Magritte in fact spent a lot of time explaining why they could not be explained. ''Too often by a twist of thought, we tend to reduce what is strange to what is familiar,'' he once said. ''I intend to restore the familiar to the strange.'' And perhaps unsurprisingly, this exhibition serves to confirm how many of his strange images are now all too familiar: the train emerging from a fireplace, a blue sky and clouds in the shape of a dove against a night sky, a lamp in a dark street against a bright sky, a green apple filling an entire room, a vast rock topped by a castle hovering over breaking waves, birds growing out of plants.

Less familiar are the works of the early 1940's, in what he called his Renoir period, when Magritte embraced the rich colors of Impressionism as an antidote to the grimness of World War II, and of the late 1940's, when he created his ''vache,'' or cow paintings, as a way of shocking Parisians who in 1948 belatedly gave him his first one-man show. But he soon returned to his old style, which in ''Golconda'' of 1955 would produce that most Belgian of images of dozens of men in bowler hats and dark overcoats falling like huge drops of rain among gray apartment blocks.

Magritte kept working to the end, often making several copies or variations of the same work (for example, he did 16 versions in oil and 7 in gouache of ''The Dominion of Light''). But he never felt a need to apologize; he derided the idea of a unique work of art. Indeed, near the end of his life, he liked to boast that he had done 1,000 canvases but had only 100 ideas. Nonetheless, 31 years after his death, both his ideas and his images are still being copied, still drawing crowds, still provoking a frown or a smile, even threatening to unite Belgians, which isn't bad for a man who insisted he was not really a painter.

Photos: ENIGMA ''Le Pelerin,'' 1966, by Rene Magritte, is one of 300 works by the artist on view at the Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels. (Charly Herscovici/SABAM Belgium); STILL IN STYLE Rene Magritte at home in Brussels in 1965. The man looked quite a bit like some of his paintings. Or was it vice versa? (Duane Michals)

Magritte And His Defiance Of Life 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 3:28:05 PM

Magritte And His Defiance Of Life
Published: Friday, September 11, 1992

"IF the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of 'common sense,' he realizes something obvious," said Rene Magritte, who is the subject of a stimulating retrospective that opens tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I want nevertheless to add that for me the world is a defiance of common sense."

In a way, Magritte himself defied common sense, or at least conventional expectations.

His depictions of trains steaming out of fireplaces, of rooms stuffed to the brim with giant green apples, of bowler-hatted men raining like hailstones from the sky are among the most enduring images in modern art. For the millions of people who have seen his work co-opted, as it has been over and over again, by advertisers and corporate image makers, Magritte is the essence of Surreal weirdness.

Yet he was said to be like one of his bowler-hatted men, painstakingly punctilious in appearance and in his habits, married to the same woman for 45 years. He was tied not to the glittering scene in Paris, where in fact he failed to achieve popularity for many decades, but to the quieter, more modest milieu of his native Belgium. Unlike the French Surrealists, who sought public scandal, he strove in his personal affairs to be inconspicuous. The grayness of Hainaut, the province where he was born and grew up, which is known as the Black Country for its slag heaps and sooty skies, pervades much of Magritte's art, contributing to its air of mystery. And it is the ethos of his Flemish and Belgian predecessors, from Hieronymus Bosch through James Ensor, with their shared predilection for the bizarre, that Magritte carried forward until his death of pancreatic cancer in 1967, at the age of 68.

The retrospective, the first major overview of his art in the United States in more than a quarter of a century, includes about 150 paintings, drawings and sculptures. Almost all of the famous works are here, from two versions of "The Treachery of Images," with its depiction of a pipe above the text "this is not a pipe," to the earliest version of "The Domination of Light," with its incongruously darkened street below a daylight sky.

The show comes to the Metropolitan from the Hayward Gallery in London, where it was organized by the Magritte scholars David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield, who are putting together the artist's catalogue raisonne. It has been handsomely installed by William S. Lieberman of the Metropolitan, so that the full course of Magritte's career unfolds, as it should, with all its ups and downs.

What emerges is a mixed portrait. Over the years, perhaps especially as they have become commonplace through countless reproductions, Magritte's paintings have lost much of the ability they once had to shock. His sculptures are gimmicky. And his penchant for recycling a handful of ideas only contributes to the impression that he was ultimately a limited artist.

Yet as this retrospective makes clear, he could at his best be a memorable and witty painter, and there is no denying the graphic power of certain images: the absurd ballet of Picassoid limbs performed in "Entr'acte," the sexual terror of "The Titanic Days," the matter-of-factness of an eyeball resting like an olive in the middle of a piece of ham in "The Portrait," and the wonderment of a battalion of loaves of bread, like fantasies from some children's tale, floating across a starry sky in "The Golden Legend."

One of the show's revelations comes with the paintings of 1948, which Magritte in self-parody named his "vache" period, and which has long been derided for its loosely brushed, cartoonish imagery. There is, for example, the image of the one-legged, green-faced, top-hatted Jean-Marie, a painter and transvestite, striding in front of an orange plaid sky, trailed by a rooster. Or the erotic image of a red-headed woman, against a different plaid backdrop, licking her shoulder and caressing her breast. Such works are derived from artists like Renoir and Daumier, and rendered in ways that can also bring to mind Ensor, Francis Picabia and especially Giorgio de Chirico, whose curious career Magritte's echoed at many junctures. Now, these slangy vache paintings seem not all bad, with a vigor and no-holds-barred flair that are all the more striking coming as they do in the midst of Magritte's otherwise painstakingly uninflected canvases.

Another revelation concerns the early works, when Magritte was still affected by the Cubism of artists like Fernand Leger and Albert Gleizes and also by the smooth curves of Art Deco, which he carried over to his paintings from the advertising layouts he did for fashion houses. Even in these earliest efforts are intimations of the Surreal art that, under the sway of de Chirico, Magritte suddenly began to produce in 1925. The eroticism, the preference for crisp forms that hints at his carpentry skills, and even certain leitmotifs, like open windows, drawn curtains and faceless figures, are already to be found.

It did not take long, once Magritte turned to Surrealism, for almost his entire repertory of themes to evolve. There was the rectangular block of sky, the jigsaw pieces, the shattered face and the severed body part. There was the claustrophobia of the large object crammed in a box, like the tree in "The Vulture's Park." There was the bilboquet, a kind of baluster or table leg or giant chess piece, which took on many roles, often a very human, phallic, one. Magritte saw the instability in everything around him and his art was full of objects metamorphosing, of musical instruments as bodies, of faces as torsos, of men as women, and of pieces of fruit as blocks of stone.

There was also the grelot, or slotted bell, which could hover in the sky like a U.F.O. And there was the hooded figure, whose eerie presence harks back to the suicide by drowning of Magritte's mother; he said she was found with her nightgown pulled up over her face. The hooded figures also suggest the sense of something hidden and unknowable that is recurrent in Magritte's art. His paintings were intended as insoluble riddles.

Yet what made them all the more puzzling was their apparent straight forwardness, a straightforwardness that can recall the art of Magritte's Flemish forebears, Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Clinically detailed, frontal, with objects laid out in compartments or aligned as if they were hieroglyphs, Magritte's images seemed to invite translation, only, like dreams or nightmares, to frustrate the literal-minded. A work like "Discovery" resists simple translation. Does it depict a woman painted with wood grain, or a painting on wood grain of a woman, or a woman changing into a piece of wood?

As words came to play a larger role in his art (he often chose words and titles in collaboration with other Belgian Surrealists), the conundrums multiplied. But by the mid-1940's, Magritte seems to have temporarily exhausted his inventiveness. The vache period was a jolt to his system, because during the 1950's and 60's, some new twists appear. The final galleries of the exhibition are filled with paintings that are larger, more whimsical, more theatrical and, like "Son of Man" and "Intimate Friend," unexpectedly spiritual.

Only in the last years of his life did Magritte win genuine fame, earned partly through the enthusiasm of some of the Pop artists and their supporters, for whom he, in turn, had little regard. His attention to everyday objects and the billboardlike, just-the-facts way of painting that he studiously cultivated had put him out of step with the modernist mainstream, which in the 1950's was epitomized by the Abstract Expressionists. He did not share with other Surrealists and their New York School followers an interest in so-called automatic drawing, in chance and the occult, and in non-European cultures.

But precisely his flat painting style and his extraordinary depictions of the most ordinary things appealed to the Pop artists of the 1960's. Since then, Magritte's stature has become firmly established.

And now he may be more fashionable than ever. For in several ways he was what might be called a proto-post-modernist. Like many contemporary artists, Magritte was a painter of narrative who appropriated images from both art history and popular culture, juxtaposing them in disorienting ways. He frequently denied interest in the formal qualities of painting. He rejected the idea of the art object as something precious. And, like numerous Conceptualists today, he was concerned above all with language, which he incorporated into his works in ways that emphasized its tenuousness and unreliability. An ironist with a perverse sense of humor, Magritte was forever pointing up art's artificiality and contrivance, revealing the gaps between words and images, between image and reality.

No wonder he liked to speak of himself more as a philosopher than as a painter. "I hope I touch something essential to man, to what man is -- to ethics rather than esthetics," he once said. As this retrospective underscores, Magritte was neither a profound philosopher nor a profound painter. But he left behind some of the 20th-century's catchiest and most unforgettable images.

"Magritte" opens tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 82d Street and Fifth Avenue, on the Upper East Side, and remains there through Nov. 22. It is partly financed by the Murray and Isabella Rayburn Foundation. The show travels to the Menil Collection in Houston (Dec. 15 to Feb. 21 ) and the Art Institute of Chicago (March 16 to May 30, 1993).

Photos: Detail of Rene Margritte's "Intimate Friend," 1958, at the Metropolitan. (Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert E. Kaplan) (pg. C1); Detail of Rene Magritte's "Treachery of Images," a 1929 oil on canvas, with the text "This is not a pipe," part of a survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (pg. C26)


Friends of Magritte: Harry Torczyner 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 3:08:01 PM

Friends of Magritte: Harry Torczyner

Harry Torczyner or Justice Has Been Done 1958

Harry Torczyner met Magritte around 1956 was Magritte's New York-based attorney, friend, and stateside promoter. Up until Magritte's unexpected death in 1967, Torczyner kept every letter that they exchanged (including replicas of his own responses) during their ten year correspondence. This book of letters with photographs, handwritten excerpts, and Magritte's working sketches are also interspersed throughout the anthology "Letters Between Friends." Accompanying each letter is a French translation -- the language in which they were originally written -- and exact dates of composition are meticulously recorded. The highlights, of course, are Magritte's letters themselves, with his candid descriptions of inspiration, roadblocks, the creative process, and revelations about his own art and that of his contemporaries

Biography and obituary: Harry Torczyner (1910-1998) New York

New York lawyer and poet
who befriended the painter René Magritte

Wolfgang Saxon, "Harry Torczyner, 87, Lawyer, Writer and Promoter of Artists" (obituary), New York Times (April 13, 1998):

Harry Torczyner, an international lawyer, art collector and writer who championed the causes of Israel and his native Belgium, died on March 26 at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. He was 87.

Through museum and gallery exhibits Mr. Torczyner helped introduce a wider American public to the work of Beglian artists, especially the Surrealist painter Rene Magritte, to whom he was a friend and advisor. He wrote several books and articles ab out the artist, arranged for showings and donated some of Magritte's work to the Museum of Modern Art in New York ("L'Éternité" and "La Perspective") and to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

A Native of Antwerp, Mr. Torczyner received his higher education at the University of Heidelberg and Columbia University School of Law. He practiced law in Belgium before fleeig the Nazis and coming to the United States via France, Spain and Cuba. Besides English, he spoke French, Dutch, German and Spanish.

During World War II he workd for the Office of War Information. He set up his practice in New York in 1946, dealing with international and foreign law, copyright law and general practice.

He served as counsel to American diamond dealers like Harry Winston Inc., to the Diamond Trade and Precious Stone Association, and to the World Federation of Diamond Bourses, and was a director of the Belgian Chamber of Commerce in the United States. . . .

Mr. Torczyner is survived by his wife, Marcelle Siva Torczyner; two daughters, Evelyn Musher Schechter of Manhattan and Denise Wiseman of Caper, Wyo.; a brother, Jacque, of Manhattan; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The entry on Torczner in the Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature 812-813 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2nd ed., 1980)(Jea-Albert Bédé & William B. Edgerton eds.) notes that: "In the 1960s, with Lous Scutenaire, Marcel Lecomte, André Pieyre De Mandiargues, and René Magritte, among others, Torczyner contributed to the literary and artistic journal Rhétorique. Moreover, various poems of his have appeared in the periodical Le Moi and in Spanish in Comentario.


Harry Torczyner, Miettes (New York: Egmont Press, 1952) (translated title: Crumbs)

_____________, Un Coin de désert ([France?]: Éditions Vynckier Courtrai, 1958)(Octave Landuyt illustrations)(translated title: A Corner of the Desert)


Richard Miller (trans.), Magritte | Torczyner: Letters Between Friends (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1994) [Harry Torczyner, L'Ami Magritte, Correspondance et Souveniers (Antwerp: Fonds Mercator, 1992)]


Leo M. Drechsler & Harry Torczyner (eds.), Forgery in Art and the Law: A Symposium (New York: Federal Legal Publications, 1956)

Harry Torczyner, O. Landuyt (New York: Albert Landry Galleries, 1962)

____________, "The color of time," 30 aquarelles and 4 large brushdrawings by Alechinsky: ... [exhibition] March 9 to April 10, 1976 at the Lefebre Gallery" (New York: Lefebre Gallery, 1976) ["The color of time / by Harry Torczyner": p. [3]-[5]. / Chronology of Alechinsky's life: p. [6]-[12]]

_____________, Magritte, Ideas and Images ( New York : H.N. Abrams, 1977) [René Magritte, signes et images (Paris: Draeger, 1977)(Paris: Draeger/Vilo, 1982)

_____________, Magritte, the True Art of Painting (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979) (New York: Abradale Press/Abrams, 1985)(1979)(Richard Miller trans.) [Le véritable art de peindre (Paris: Draeger, 1978)]

_____________, The Castle of the Pyrennees i Jerusaleum (1990)

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