• gerard van weyenbergh

Rene Magritte, his art, + video

Painter of Belgian origin, associated with surrealism, René Magritte (1898–1967) is the master of enigmas. Known for his paintings which function as rebuses or metaphors, he highlights, with humor and poetry, our difficulty in making the world's reality coincide with our mental images, in short, what makes up the human spirit. Magritte has developed a true pictorial alphabet by using recurring motifs: the apple, the bird, the man with the bowler hat, the fragmented bodies. His images are often hidden behind or in other images, combining two possible levels of reading, the visible and the invisible.

© Duane Michals/ Moore Gallery NY.

He said

"Everything in my works comes from the feeling of certainty that we belong, in fact, to an enigmatic universe. "

His life

Son of a tailor, René Magritte attended a drawing course at the age of 12. A great reader of comics, cinema, and photography lover, the young boy is undoubtedly a lover of images.

Orphan of a mother (she committed suicide when he was only 14 years old), Magritte produced his first paintings during the Great War. The Belgian region of Charleroi, where he lives, is occupied by the German army. He then moved to Brussels and entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Painting in an impressionist's vein, he received lessons from artists attached to Art Nouveau.

Magritte lives on his father's income and his work as a decorator and poster designer. Already, the artist shows a joker temperament, willingly mocking and close to anarchist ideas, in the Dada movement's vein. Inspired by the avant-garde, in particular cubism and futurism, he painted abstract compositions.

Dadaism, and the metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico, produced an upheaval on Magritte. Working for advertising, he binds at the same time with Francis Picabia, director of the review 391. In 1926, Magritte began his journey in the orbit of surrealism, meeting André Breton, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí. Relations with Breton are stormy, although the artist illustrates one of his works in the 1930s with his drawing Le Viol (1934).

The Belgian artist plays with words and images, questioning our understanding of reality and its representations. One of his most famous works, La Trahison des images (1929), depicts a pipe associated with the contradictory injunction "This is not a pipe". What we designate as real, is this what we perceive?

Magritte, unlike Dalí, has never been a fan of psychoanalytic theories and is more interested in symbols, myths, and beliefs, which he dissects or parodies with humor. His style is deliberately neutral and very precise, perhaps a legacy of his work in the advertising world.

In the 1940s, Magritte returned to the impressionist technique and did not hesitate to pour into a certain kitsch: it was "the cow period". Very appreciated painter; although confusing, he exhibited around the world and benefited from a retrospective at MoMA in New York in 1965. Two years later, sick with cancer, he died in Belgium. A museum dedicated to his work opened in Brussels in 2009, most of the works exhibited belonging to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. His Brussels house can also be visited.

His key works

© ReneMagritte.org

The Betrayal of Images, 1929

The text contradicts our first impression by asserting that what we see is not a pipe. As Magritte explained, the representation of an object is not the object in itself, and the painted pipe can never be stuffed or smoked. Magritte shows himself to be a semiotician (specialist in signs) and a philosopher. Is there a hierarchy between words and images, as the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty thought? Magritte rejected this point of view. By working on the notion of vocabulary, the painter differentiates himself from other surrealists, who advocate the exploration of the unconscious. For Magritte, it is language and our relationship to reality that deserve to be questioned.

© ReneMagritte.org

The Model in Red, 1935

This other archi-famous painting by Magritte testifies to the painter's attraction to the theme of trompe-l'oeil, and therefore of illusionism. This curious pair of shoes is also a pair of feet, mixing the inanimate and the living, like the metamorphoses so frequent in ancient myths. The red evoked in the title prolongs the mystery because this color does not appear in the work. Magritte, who confronts us with our questions, also gives a nod to one of Vincent Van Gogh's famous canvases representing shoes, a form of self-portrait of the bohemian artist.

© ReneMagritte.org

The Son of Man, 1964

Magritte's symbolic character, the man with the bowler hat, has a face largely hidden by a fruit (except for the left eye). Behind him, a low wall, then the sea under a misty sky. Is this a self-portrait here? Magritte does not fully give the key since he hides his face (his "pear" in slang) behind an apple. We recognize here the meaning of the pun dear to the painter. It is also a relatively distressing image: the identity of a man, who stands statically in front of a potentially deadly landscape, remains unknown. © Beaux Arts Magazine 350 works by Magritte video