From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
René François Ghislain Magritte (November 21, 1898 – August 15, 1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist. He became well known for a number of witty and amusing images and the use of self-referentiality in such works as The Treachery Of Images, as well the frequent use of paintings within paintings.
Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium in 1898, the eldest son of Léopold Magritte, a tailor, and Adeline, a milliner. He began drawing lessons in 1910. In 1912, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Sambre. Magritte was present when her body was retrieved from the water, and the image of his mother floating, her dress obscuring her face, was to be prominent in his amant series. He studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels for two years until 1918. In 1922 he married Georgette Berger, whom he had met in 1913.
Magritte worked in a wallpaper factory, and was a poster and advertisement designer until 1926 when a contract with Galerie la Centaure in Brussels made it possible for him to paint full-time. In 1926, Magritte produced his first surreal painting, The Lost Jockey (Le jockey perdu), and held his first exhibition in Brussels in 1927. Critics heaped abuse on the exhibition. Depressed by the failure, he moved to Paris where he became friends with André Breton, and became involved in the surrealist group.
When Galerie la Centaure closed and the contract income ended, he returned to Brussels and worked in advertising. Then, with his brother, he formed an agency, which earned him a living wage.
During the German occupation of Belgium in World War II he remained in Brussels, which led to a break with Breton. At the time he renounced the violence and pessimism of his earlier work, though he returned to the themes later.
His work showed in the United States in New York in 1936 and again in that city in two retrospective exhibitions, one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992.
Popular interest in Magritte's work rose considerably in the 1960s, and his imagery has influenced Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptual art. In 2005 he came 9th in the Walloon version of De Grootste Belg (The Greatest Belgian); in the Flemish version he was 18th.
Philosophical and artistic gestures
- It is a union that suggests the essential mystery of the world. Art for me is not an end in itself, but a means of evoking that mystery.|René Magritte on putting seemingly unrelated objects together in juxtaposition ("A Bottle Is a Bottle"; The New York Times, December 19, 1965)
Magritte's work frequently displays a collection of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The use of objects as other than what they seem is typified in his painting, The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images), which shows a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement. Magritte painted below the pipe "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe"), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true: the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. It does not "satisfy emotionally"—when Magritte once was asked about this image, he replied that of course it was not a pipe, just try to fill it with tobacco.
Magritte used the same approach in a painting of an apple: he painted the fruit and then used an internal caption or framing device to deny that the item was an apple. In these "Ceci n'est pas" works, Magritte points out that no matter how closely, through realism-art, we come to depicting an item accurately, we never do catch the item itself.
Among Magritte's works are a number of surrealist versions of other famous paintings. Elsewhere, Magritte challenges the difficulty of artwork to convey meaning with a recurring motif of an easel, as in his The Human Condition series (1933, 1935) or The Promenades of Euclid (1955) (wherein the spires of a castle are "painted" upon the ordinary streets which the canvas overlooks). In a letter to André Breton, he wrote of The Human Condition that it was irrelevant if the scene behind the easel differed from what was depicted upon it, "but the main thing was to eliminate the difference between a view seen from outside and from inside a room." The windows in some of these pictures are framed with heavy drapes, suggesting a theatrical motif.
Magritte's style of surrealism is more representational than the "automatic" style of artists such as Joan Miró. Magritte's use of ordinary objects in unfamiliar spaces is joined to his desire to create poetic imagery. He described the act of painting as "the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced, so that familiar objects—the sky, people, trees, mountains, furniture, the stars, solid structures, graffiti—become united in a single poetically disciplined image. The poetry of this image dispenses with any symbolic significance, old or new.”
René Magritte described his paintings as "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."
Magritte's constant play with reality and illusion has been attributed to the early death of his mother. Psychoanalysts who have examined bereaved children have said that Magritte's back and forth play with reality and illusion reflects his "constant shifting back and forth from what he wishes—'mother is alive'—to what he knows—'mother is dead' ".
In popular culture
The 1960s brought a great increase in public awareness of Magritte's work. One of the means by which his imagery became familiar to a wider public was through reproduction on rock album covers; early examples include the 1969 album Beck-Ola by the Jeff Beck group (reproducing Magritte's The Listening Room), and Jackson Browne's 1974 album, Late for the Sky, with artwork inspired by Magritte's L'Empire des Lumieres. Alan Hull of UK folk-rock band Lindisfarne used Magritte's paintings on two solo albums in 1973 and 1979. Styx adapted Magritte's Carte Blanche for the cover of their 1977 album The Grand Illusion, while the cover of Gary Numan's 1979 album The Pleasure Principle, like John Foxx's 2001 The Pleasures of Electricity, was based on Magritte's painting Le Principe du Plaisir.
Rock band Jethro Tull mention Magritte in a 1976 lyric, and Paul Simon's song "René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War" appears on the 1983 album Hearts and Bones. Paul McCartney, a life-long fan of Magritte, owns many of his paintings, and claims that a Magritte painting inspired him to use the name Apple for the Beatles' media corporation. Magritte is also the subject and title of a John Cale song on Cale's 2003 album HoboSapiens.
Numerous films have included imagery inspired by Magritte. The Son of Man, in which a man's face is obscured by an apple, is referenced in the 1992 film Toys, the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair and in the 2004 short film Ryan. The same motif also appears in Michael Jackson's music video "Scream". In the 2004 film I Heart Huckabees, Magritte is alluded to by Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) as he holds a bowler hat. According to Ellen Burstyn in the 1998 documentary "The Fear of God: 25 Years of 'The Exorcist'" the iconic poster shot for the film The Exorcist was inspired by Magritte's L'Empire des Lumieres.
Hanging above a fireplace on the set of the television show Good Eats is a painting of a turkey floating in a blue sky with a bowler hat floating above it—another homage to Magritte's The Son of Man, which is also referenced in the Treehouse of Horror IV episode of The Simpsons.
Magritte's painting The Treachery Of Images is referred to in The Forbidden Game: The Chase, a book by L.J. Smith, in which the difference between image and reality becomes key to solving the entire conflict. The same painting (and its caption, This is not a pipe) inspired a graphic in the video game Rayman Raving Rabbids. The online game Kingdom of Loathing refers to this painting, as well as to The Son of Man.
Selected list of works
- 1920 Landscape
- 1922 The Station and L'Écuyère
- 1923 Self-portrait, Sixth Nocturne, Georgett at the Piano and Donna
- 1925 The Bather and The Window
- 1926 The Lost Jockey, The Mind of the Traveler, Sensational News, The Difficult Crossing, The Vestal's Agony, The Midnight Marriage, The Musings of a Solitary Walker, After the Water the Clouds, Popular Panorama, Landscape and The Encounter
- 1927 Girl Eating a Bird, The Oasis (started in 1925), The Meaning of Night, Let Out of School, The Man from the Sea, The Tiredness of Life, The Light-breaker, A Passion for Light, The Menaced Assassin, Reckless Sleeper, La Voleuse, The Fast Hope and The Muscles of the Sky
- 1928 The Lining of Sleep (started in 1927), Intermission (started in 1927), The Flowers of the Abyss, Discovery, The Lovers I & II  , The Daring Sleeper, The Acrobat’s Ideas, The Automaton, The Empty Mask, Reckless Sleeper, The Secret Life and Attempting the Impossible
- 1929 The Treachery of Images (started in 1928), Threatening Weather and On the Threshold of Liberty
- 1930 Pink Belles, Tattered Skies, The Eternally Obvious, The Lifeline, The Annunciation and Celestial Perfections
- 1931 The Voice of the Air, Summer and The Giantess
- 1932 The Universe Unmasked
- 1933 Elective Affinities, The Human Condition and The Unexpected Answer
- 1934 The Rape
- 1935 The Discovery of Fire, The Human Condition, Revolution, Perpetual Motion, Collective Invention, The False Mirror and The Portrait
- 1936 Clairvoyance, The Healer, The Philosopher’s Lamp, Spiritual Exercises, Portrait of Irène Hamoir and Forbidden Literature
- 1937 The Future of Statues,The Black Flag, Portrait of Edward James and Portrait of Rena Schitz
- 1938 Time Transfixed, The Domain of Arnheim and Steps of Summer
- 1939 Victory
- 1940 The Return, The Wedding Breakfast and Les Grandes Espérances
- 1941 The Break in the Clouds
- 1942 Misses de L’Isle Adam, L'Ile au Tréson, Memory, Black Magic and The Misanthropes
- 1943 Universal Gravitation and Monsieur Ingres’s Good Days
- 1944 The Good Omens
- 1945 Treasure Island, Les Rencontres Naturelles and Black Magic
- 1946 L'Intellience and Les Mille et une Nuits
- 1947 The Cicerone, The Liberator, The Fair Captive, La Part du Feu and The Red Model
- 1948 Blood Will Tell, Memory, The Mountain Dweller, The Art of Life, The Pebble, The Lost Jockey, God's Solon, Shéhérazade, L'Ellipse and Famine
- 1949 Megalomania, Elementary Cosmogany, and Perspective, the Balcony
- 1950 Making an Entrance, The Legend of the Centuries, Towards Pleasure, The Labors of Alexander, The Empire of Light II, The Fair Captive and The Art of Conversation
- 1951 David's Madame Récamier, Pandora's Box, The Song of the Violet, The Spring Tide and The Smile
- 1952 Personal Values and Le Sens de la Pudeur
- 1953 Golconda, The Listening Room and a fresco for the Knokke Casino
- 1954 The Invisible World, The Explanation and The Empire of Light
- 1955 Memory of a Journey and The Mysteries of the Horizon
- 1956 The Sixteenth of September
- 1957 The Fountain of Youth and The Enchanted Domain
- 1958 The Golden Legend, Hagel's Holiday and The Familiar World
- 1959 The Castle in the Pyrenees, The Battle of the Argonne, The Anniversary, The Month of the Grape Harvest and The Glass Key
- 1960 The Memoirs of a Saint
- 1962 The Great Table, The Healer, Waste of Effort, Mona Lisa (circa 1962) and L'embeillie (circa 1962)
- 1963 The Great Family, The Open Air, The Beautiful Season, Princes of the Autumn, Young Love, La Recherche de la Vérité and The Telescope
- 1964 Evening Falls, The Great War, The Son of Man and Song of Love
- 1965 Carte Blanche, The Thought Which Sees, Ages Ago and The Beautiful Walk (circa 1965)
- 1966 The Shades, The Happy Donor, The Gold Ring, The Pleasant Truth and The Mysteries of the Horizon
- 1967 La Géante, The Blank Page, Good Connections, The Art of Living and several bronze sculptures based on Magritte’s previous works.
- On the Threshold of Liberty, Magritte's 1937 painting based on his 1929 painting of the same name
- The Son of Man, Magritte's 1964 painting
- Golconda, Magritte's 1953 painting
- The Portrait, Magritte's 1935 painting
- List of Belgian painters
- Western painting