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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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)

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