Amid fantasy, Magritte is full of solid ideas

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Continuing articles on Magritte:

Amid fantasy, Magritte is full of solid ideas
By Michael GibsonPublished: SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2003

PARIS: The paradoxical images of Rene Magritte (1898-1967) are quite as familiar to us today as are the soft watches of his contemporary, Salvador Dali, and the exhibition of his work at the Jeu de Paume (until June 9) includes many of his most characteristic works: boots with human toes, an empty nightgown with breasts, a nocturnal street with a blue sky above, a pipe with the inscription "This is not a pipe," a great rock crowned with a city floating above the ocean waves, a parody of David's "Madame Recamier" in which an angled coffin sits on the famous couch, and so on.

Magritte's fantastical visions usually have the immediacy of good advertising, and they don't really need to be seen in their original form to make their point.

In this sense, Magritte is not really a painter at all. He is an illustrator, a subversive communicator, and his careful, academic brushwork is quite as much a part of the message as his adoption of the standard attire of middle-class Belgian businessmen — double-breasted suite, black overcoat and bowler hat — was part of his well-conceived public persona.

Magritte was born into a lower middle-class family in provincial Belgium and was 16 years old at the outbreak of World War I. His mother committed suicide when he was 14 by throwing herself into the Sambre. One may speculate on the impact of this calamitous event on the young Magritte, but the artist himself is not of much assistance here.

He decided early on that his strategy would be to position himself as a "black box" and keep his intimacy to himself. One may be tempted, nonetheless, to assume that both his art and his persona were conditioned by these dour origins and this traumatic loss.

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At that time, Magritte and his wife accompanied Dali to Cadaques, on the Spanish Costa Brava, for a vacation. They also attended a meeting of the Surrealists in 1929, but broke with Andre Breton when the latter, having noticed that Georgette wore a crucifix around her neck, demanded that she remove it. She refused and both Magrittes left.

Magritte himself showed communist sympathies in the 1920s and joined the Belgian Communist Party in 1945. Eighteen months later, his enthusiasm had waned, but he would remain attached to the ideals that had impelled him to join in the first place.

All this is anecdotal, of course, in regard to his work, which is very much self-contained. His paintings are in fact, both in content and style, quite close to the rebus, or picture puzzle, that could be found on dessert plates, and were also published in newspapers in his day. The paintings are wittier and more enigmatic of course, and indeed, they all seem to reflect the view that life itself is a puzzle without a (ready) solution.

He was, in fact, a painter of ideas.

Semioticians and conceptual artists love some of his finds, including the picture of a pipe that is "not a pipe."

It makes a first, and rather obvious point that the picture of a pipe is not itself a pipe, just as the platonic idea of "a bed" is not itself a bed (as Socrates explains in Plato's "Republic").

But other theories also resonate here, including aesthetic theories touching upon realism and the Marxist theory of ideology and superstructure that were very much part of the artistic debate in those years.

Psychoanalysts and philosophers also appreciate a considerable fund of convenient images that allow them to clarify and illustrate their own ideas. Consider a painting entitled "Les jours gigantesques" (1928), which shows a naked woman, desperately repulsing the persistent advances of a man.

The man himself only exists as an image projected on the woman's body.

In rather the same vein, "Tentative de l'impossible" (1928) shows Magritte himself painting the missing left arm of a woman (Georgette) as she stands naked before him.

These paintings may not reveal much about Magritte's own psyche, but they are an eloquent illustration of the psychoanalytic notion of projection.

Other works seem to be provocatively, or desperately, humorous. "L'Invention collective" (1935), for instance, depicts a siren lying on a beach. But this is a rather special siren: The lower part of her body is that of a woman, while the upper part is a fish with a fish head — a reversal of the standard figure in the port of Copenhagen that tends to take all the romance out of the fantasy.

When Belgium was occupied, during the 1940s, Magritte began to paint some rather trite pastiches of Renoir — ostensibly because he wanted to do something cheerful in a grim phase of history. Then, in the postwar years, he went on to paint a number of garish, offensively ugly works which constitute his so-called vache period. "Vache" means cow, of course, but in French slang, it also means nasty, mean, unkind.

Not surprisingly, not a single painting was sold that year, and Magritte reverted to his former style. What had actually happened during those years, the black box did not reveal.

In any event, he remains one of the 20th century's most challenging inventors of images.

Copyright 2006


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