EYE FOR THE CAMERA
Surrealist artist Rene Magritte’s rarely exhibited photographs and films are beginning their world tour in country Victoria, writes Victoria Laurie
Who was Rene Magritte? A painter of precise objects whose everyday nature is unnervingly undermined by their juxtaposition — an apple in front of a bowler-hatted man’s face, an eye peering from a ham steak, a tobacco pipe and a sentence beneath that reads: “This is not a pipe.” The surrealist painter from Belgium was aware of the “deadly seriousness of the joke, and the comedy of the deadly serious”, one writer notes.
And nowhere was that serious joking more evident than in hundreds of photographs and a suite of amateur films that he and his close friends created in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
These glimpses into a fertile mind are contained in Rene Magritte: The Revealing Image, Photos and Films. For those familiar with his seminal surrealist paintings, or perhaps only with the men in bowler hats who populate his art, these materials offer a rare new insight.
The exhibition, which opens today at Latrobe Regional Gallery in the Victorian coal town of Morwell, is an extraordinary curatorial coup that received the blessing of the Magritte Foundation in Belgium.
It’s perhaps fitting that these images of a famous painter’s life, lived in the quiet anonymity of a middle-class existence in a regional Belgian town, will have their first international outing in a regional Australian town.
Latrobe Regional Gallery will be the only place in Australia to exhibit 132 original photographs and eight films composed, scripted and performed by Magritte and his close friends. It also will be their first comprehensive showing outside Belgium and France, and the largest since a major exhibition, Magritte and Photography, was held in Brussels in 2005.
In a nod to Magritte’s absurdist tendencies, one could begin with the final photograph — one not taken by him. In August 1967, Magritte’s funeral was held at Schaerbeek Cemetery and a photograph was taken by his friend Georges Thiry. The artist, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, had died aged 68.
He was famous by then, his work having been celebrated two years earlier in a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But he had endured decades of near penury, during which he supported himself as a commercial artist and honed his genius for clear, simple images.
It was only after Magritte’s death that his photographs and films began emerging from private estates, including that of his widow and muse, Georgette Magritte.
“All the time we discovered more photos and now we have a kind of global view of what photos there are,” explains Xavier Canonne, director of the Museum of Photography in the French-speaking Belgian city of Charleroi.
As curator of Rene Magritte, Canonne has borrowed from private European collections and augmented them with rare works from the Magritte Foundation and his own museum.
“We felt it was time to make a precise investigation of the works and it is very nice to start in Australia,” he says from Charleroi, shortly before travelling to Victoria for today’s opening.
The show subsequently will be hosted by galleries in Asia, South America, the US and Europe. It is accompanied by a lavish new book written by Canonne (and published by Ludion), Rene Magritte: The Revealing Image, which will be launched at the Latrobe gallery.
It was the fascination of gallery director Mark Themann with Magritte’s other work that led him, during a period living in Europe, to make contact with the Magritte Foundation.
“I’d seen a Magritte show in Dusseldorf in the late 1990s, a major retrospective. I was familiar with his paintings, but I unexpectedly discovered there were photos. I was really stunned,” he recalls.
“There were two rooms of vintage photos, small scale, and I thought, ‘There’s something here that’s not in his paintings.’ I was intrigued.”
Themann was put in touch with Canonne, who sits on a committee that certifies the authenticity of Magritte paintings. He also was introduced to Charly Herscovici, Magritte Foundation president and close friend of Georgette Magritte.
“He said, ‘ We’d love to get a Magritte photo show together and we’ve appointed Xavier to do it’,” recalls Themann.
“He said we could be the first stop on a world tour, and when did we want to do it?” Themann says the Belgians were direct and encouraging, “which was really refreshing”. But it took another couple of years before he could take up the offer.
By then he had accepted the directorship at Latrobe and embarked on a gruelling $1.5 million refit of the run-down gallery.
Now he is ecstatic, he says, that Belgian largesse — and that of the Latrobe City Council — has enabled him to present a high-quality international show in an elegantly refurbished gallery.
The show is intentionally designed to have wide appeal. “It has six chapters or layers,” says Themann. “It moves between material on Magritte’s background, his family, his early years, then documentary images of his circle of friends, his fellow artists, philosophers and fellow surrealists.
“Then there is a chapter where he is at his easel in front of paintings … It’s him in physical relationship to his work, and we move from documentary to artwork.”
The earliest pictures are of a student Magritte circa 1918, standing at his easel at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.
A decade later, Magritte is posed in a photographic study for his painting Attempting the Impossible. He stands in the sitting room in his slippers, holding a brush towards Georgette, who is wearing a black singlet, and pretending to literally paint her.
In the actual artwork he depicts himself as an artist “impossibly” painting in the unfinished arm of a naked woman standing before him.
Magritte hated the pomposity of artists who required a studio; his easel was set up in the parlour because, for him, mystery lay in commonplace objects and mundane rituals.
He took intimate and playful photographs with his Kodak box camera as his surrealist friends sat around a newly completed painting and tried to outdo each other in choosing the most elaborate title.
“No painting left the house without receiving a title that, far from explaining or describing it, extended its enigma, sometimes providing keys for penetrating it,” says Canonne.
There were skit-like plots such as The Extraterrestrials, in which the group is depicted wearing face masks and posing in a garden setting. In another, they pretend to feast on stones from a high wall.
In other images, Magritte insinuates himself alongside a painting as if he is merely the last in a line of objects captured on his canvas. “For Magritte there was no hierarchy between objects and people, they have exactly the same meaning,” says Canonne. Elsewhere, Magritte has directed that someone photograph him with his back turned, as if about to step into the cloud-strewn sky of his own canvas.
Many photos include key surrealist figures such as Marcel Lecomte, who in 1923 showed Magritte a reproduction of The Song of Love by Giorgio de Chirico. Canonne says the work “moved the painter so deeply that, by his own admission, he could not hold back his tears”.
“Magritte didn’t like to use the term surrealist but indeed he is a surrealist. He was the first
Georgette and Rene Magritte in Brussels, June 1922
Rene Magritte’s The Great War (1964)