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).

Copyright 2006 MattesonArt.com


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