René Magritte: The Anti-Surrealist, Surrealist

Thursday, April 9, 2009 2:23:19 AM

René Magritte: The Anti-Surrealist, Surrealist
By William M. Noetling For Art History 109: 19th and 20th Century Art November 26, 1997

René Magritte, while an integral part of the Surrealist movement, really shouldn’t belong in the surrealism category of painters. Though the majority of his work is surrealistic in nature and theme, the painter himself didn’t really enjoy interacting with the rest of the surrealists. In addition, Magritte, like many artists, shifted styles several times throughout his career.

Magritte was born during the last few years of the 19th century, on November 21, 1989 in Lessines, Belgium, the oldest of three boys. In Suzi Gablik’s invaluable biography of Magritte’s work and life, he is quoted as saying:

I detest my past, . . . and anyone else’s. . . . I also detest the decorative arts, folklore, advertising, voices making announcements, aerodynamism, boy scouts, the smell of mothballs, events of the moment and drunken people. (Gablik 16).

The seeds for his dream-like themes were most likely planted in his childhood. Gablik points out that:

Magritte’s recollections of early childhood were few, but they were all bizarre. What he remembered especially, as in a kind of vision, was a large wooden chest, which had stood enigmatically near his cradle. He also remembered how, when he was a year old and his family had moved from Lessines to Gilly, two balloonists arrived suddenly one day, dressed in leather and wearing helmets, and dragging down the stairs the deflated envelope of their balloon, which had somehow become entangled on the roof of the house where he lived. (Gablik 21).

Both of these images will later be referenced in Magritte’s work.

Magritte’s mother drowned under mysterious circumstances when he was very young, and their father brought up the boy and his brothers. He met his future wife Georgette at the age of fifteen. At the age of eighteen Magritte enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, here he began his professional artistic career in a style that was similar to the early Picasso Cubist works. A short time later he began to write Surrealist and Dadaist poetry under the influence of E.L.T. Mesens. It was in the magazines co-edited with Mesens that Magritte would first encounter the work of Man Ray, Arp and other important members of the Dada movement.

In 1920, at the age of twenty-two Magritte endured several months in the military outside of Antwerp. During his military service he continued to design posters and utilized his free time to paint. It was during this time that Magritte’s search for his defining style would take a turn to Futurism.

While lecturing to students at the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp in 1938, Magritte said of Futurism:

In a state of real intoxication, I painted a whole series of Futurist paintings.

Yet, I don’t believe the lyricism I wanted to capture had an unchanging center unrelated to aesthetic Futurism (Torczyner 214).

Gablik suggests "his Futurism was never orthodox, in that it was always combined with a certain eroticism, as in the picture Youth, where the diffused figure of a nude girl hovers over the image of a boat (Gablik 23).

In a letter to Andre Bosmans written in April of 1959, Magritte himself said:

I’m neither a "Surrealist" nor a "Cubist" nor a "Patawhatever" (‘a philosophy invented by Alfred Jary, which was taken up by the Surrealists and Dadaists’) even though I have a fairly strong weakness for the so-called Cubist and Futurist ‘schools.’ Were I really an artiste-paintre, I would waver between these two disciplines. Were I an innocent intellectual, I would be content with what Surrealism entails in a large, very large part of unimportant matters. . . .

The elements that entered into the compositions of my paintings were represented by means of flexible shapes and colors, so that those shapes and colors could be modified and shaped to the demands imposed by a rhythm of movement (Torczyner 184).

In an earlier essay Magritte explained the artist’s penchant for new styles thusly:

So painters, misunderstanding the problem of painting, cast about for new techniques, and through them managed to restore to painting a few fleeting moments of superficial vitality. The Impressionists, Cubists, Futurists, all experiences moments of agitation and excitement due to original techniques, but they were futile, since these same moments of agitation and excitement could be achieved, and better, through other means than those related to painting (Torczyner 218).

Magritte would soon abandon all these styles for fully realized Surrealism. Gablik says "In 1925 Magritte painted what he considered his first ‘realized’ picture, in that it introduced a poetic idea. This was the presence of something more than what can actually be seen – something mysterious and unknown" (Gablik 25). This monumental painting would be called The Lost Jockey, and while the piece was painted in many versions, it would mark the first piece done in the style that Magritte would continue in for the remainder of his career.

Magritte had been influenced by Girogio de Chirico’s The Song of Love, which revealed to him "’the ascendancy of poetry over painting’" (Gablik 25). Gablik further states that de Chirico’s work "could be made to speak about something other than painting. . . " (Gablik 25). Magritte avidly explored this style during this period, often painting a piece a day. He had his first solo exhibition in 1927 in Brussels, and while it carried very little success, it did bring him the financial support that he needed to devote himself entirely to painting.

Somewhere in this time period Magritte found himself meeting other Belgian Surrealists, including Marcel Lecomte and Louis Scutenaire. Soon after he jointed the Surrealist crowd in Paris. Gablik describes:

The Surrealists under Breton were fanatical activists, and many of them were politically involved on the extreme left. . . . Magritte himself avoided all political affiliations, with the exception of a short-lived and nominal membership in the Belgian Communist Party in 1945 (Gablik 43).

Magritte spent only three years in Paris with the Surrealists. He left in 1930 after an altercation with Breton in which the subject of religion became the crux of an argument. Though Magritte would continue to correspond with Breton for quite some time to come, he would continue to distance himself from the Surrealists and their leader. Gablik says "Magritte burned all the possessions which recalled to him his Surrealist period, including letters, tracts, and even an overcoat, in the gas heater" (Gablik 66).

Magritte would write in 1946:

Surrealism always meant Breton, and we never did anything to make the public connect us with the word. When Breton lectures in Brussels, we let him go ahead without interfering, etc. Perhaps it is too late for us to get this venerable term back and make use of it, and we will probably have to work hard if we want the public to understand the term differently. Wouldn’t it be simpler to use a new word and direct our energy elsewhere? New ideas call for a new vocabulary, and a new name would avoid confusion.

I have laid Surrealism to rest – my own for some time now, and Breton’s with even greater reason (Torczyner 68-69).

Gablik further points out the difference between the two men:

Breton saw in Surrealism the possible resolution of two states, contradictory in appearance, dream and objective reality, in sort of absolute reality which he called ‘suréalité. If dreams are a translation of waking life, equally waking life is a translation of dreams. For Magritte, references to unconscious activity only satisfy the persistent habit of explanation. The world does not offer itself up like a dream in sleep; nor are there waking dreams (Gablik 71).

Gablik writes that "His feelings about Surrealism, as we have seen, were rather ambivalent" (Gablik 72).

During the post-war years, Magritte exploited Impressionism, in what he called "Surrealism in full sunlight" (Torczyner 186). These oils are very reminiscent of Renoir’s works. He soon abandoned this style for a style that was derivative of the Fauves. He called this style "l’epoque vache" which when translated is a direct response to the name "Fauve." If a Fauve is a wild animal, the a "Vache" is a sort of domesticated beast.

Magritte would return to his previous Surrealist style, accidentally "fathering" pop art in the process. A parentage that he would disdain. He would say:

Yes, I know I’m called the father of Pop Art, Op Art, and all kinds of other "arts". . . . But Pop Art is nothing but another vision -- an infinitely less audacious one – of the good old Dadaism of fifty years ago! Modern painting went through an evolution that ended with Picasso. Everything touted today as novelties is only a variation on what was already done many years ago.

. . . And Pop! Let’s just say that it’s not very serious, and that it’s probably not even art? Or perhaps [it is] poster art, advertising art, a very temporary fashionable art. It is effective enough in the streets, I admit, on young girls’ dresses (Torczyner 68).

He simply wasn’t interested in being known as the founder of this modern art movement, no would he have been interested in being associated with any art movement.

Towards the end of his life Magritte ventured where most Surrealists feared to tread; sculpture. He had several bronze pieces cast of his most famous works. Unfortunately he died on August 15, 1967, without ever seeing one of these pieces.

"Magritte was the most paradoxical of all the Surrealists." Gablik explains: "Where the others deliberately created scandal in life, he tried to remain outwardly inconspicuous" (Gablik 154). She also references a point that Louis Scutenaire made in a monograph simply entitled "René Magritte". Scutenaire says that "Magritte had the ideas of everyone else on matters where we might expect singularity, and extraordinary ideas in realms where we would be unlikely to expect them" (Scutenaire 16). For Magritte these ideas, though rooted in Surrealism existed in an artistic category of his own, one that, like many other artist’s styles, cannot easily be defined.

Magritte’s imagery and iconography are not soon forgotten. Perhaps his greatest achievement in artistry is that his work is still viewed and appreciated, as well as appropriated. Magritte’s bowler hatted men are continually being utilized in print advertisements as well as video and film. Though his primary artistic style is clearly Surrealistic in nature, Magritte would never characterize himself as a Surrealist. In fact, he went to great lengths to disassociate himself with that group. It is a testament to his skill that he is recognized as a great Surrealist, despite this admonition.

Works Cited

Chilvers, Ian. Ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Arts and Artists, 2nd Ed. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1996

Gablik, Suzi. Magritte, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1970

Noël, Bernard. Magritte, New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1977

Paquet, Marcel. René Magritte 1989-1967: Thought Rendered Visible. Köln, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1992

Torczyner, Harry. Magritte, Ideas and Images, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977

Copyright 2006


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