René Magritte’s body of work has become part of our collective unconsciousness. His gaze-arresting images continue to go around the world and captivate the imagination of young and old alike. His secret? As the master of Mystery, Magritte manages to turn our perceptions on their head with seeming simplicity. In fact, he thoroughly throws the world in which we live into disarray. In his canvases, items as commonplace as an apple, a glass of water, an umbrella or a bowler hat, suddenly become refreshingly quirky! Magritte teaches us how to see the world around us in a different light.
In the early days of his career, Magritte was particularly prolific. His first surrealist paintings oozed a mysterious atmosphere in which Magritte developed a dark and frightening pictorial vocabulary. These early works show things like a jockey getting lost in a forest of giant cup and ball toys, veiled figures kissing, a young woman devouring a bird, the body of a woman transforming into wood… Whereas the French surrealists were interested in dreams and the unconscious, the wakeful Magritte was already more concerned with our world, his preferred subject matter.
Words and Images
In the series of painted word canvases he created in Paris between 1927 and 1930, Magritte was keen to show there is nothing to link a real object, its depiction and the name it is given. In La clef des songes (The Key of Dreams), he impugns language: words are arbitrary! Why shouldn’t an egg be called “acacia”? Or a shoe, “moon”? Who decided to give these objects the names we now know them by? In this series, Magritte exposes how words are ill-suited to describe reality and how we do well to be weary of them.
Revealing hidden connections
In 1933, Magritte came up with a new way of exploring everyday life through what he referred to as elective affinities. From this time forward, he set out to reveal the hidden links between objects. In doing so, in one and the same image he was seen to bring together things like a cage and an egg, a door and an opening and feet and shoes. Seizing on the metamorphosis in Le modèle rouge (The Red Model), he showed that wearing shoes is in fact a “monstrous custom” as he put it himself!
Living on the good
At the height of the Second World War, Magritte used his skilled brush to cross the occupying Germans. Over the four years under German rule, he changed his style and colour palette: borrowing the dots & dashes touch from the Impressionist painters, he swapped his earlier dark tones for vibrant colours. His topics too were seen to change: sirens and mermaids, children playing music, floral bouquets, animal portraits, Scheherazade,… Standing in stark contrast to the harsh realities of war, charm and fun became part of the Magritte experience.
The poetry of everyday life
Evoking the mystery of the world
Magritte produced his greatest masterpieces during the last twenty years of his career. More than a painter, Magritte is a poet of imagery. In his paintings, anything is possible: day and night are seen to meld, rocks float beneath the sea, a giant apple worms its way into a room, a skybird flies over the city. Thanks to Magritte, our world has changed. Objects and the way we experience everyday life are steeped in mystery and poetry which has not ceased to amaze and beguile us since.
"Qui pourrait fumer la pipe de mon tableau? Personne.” (Who could smoke the pipe in my painting? No one) This is how Magritte summed up the essence of his famous La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images) painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe): it is about the image of a pipe, not the actual object.
This painting is so harmonious it is difficult to work out its inherent contradiction… and yet! A daytime sky above a landscape swathed in darkness. An unexpected encounter between day and night endowed with sheer poetry.
However much the apple may conceal the man’s face, the man himself has not vanished! An object hidden from sight behind another object is still there, even though we are unable to see it. Something we experience at any time, every single day.