Magritte: The power of reality and illusion by Mona Iskandar
Rene Magritte was imaginative, witty and thought provoking, whose dream-like quality in his art fascinated people and influenced movements. He would place ordinary objects in an unusual context to give them a new meaning, make them strange, provoking, and mysterious. It was his way of transcending the realistic depiction of common scenes, explaining: “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”
Magritte rebelled against bourgeois conceptions and questioned the traditions of language and visual art. He would misname objects, use repetition, or conceal his intentions by producing half hidden scenes, to blur reality. He challenged ordered society and the way people think and see. In his work, there is almost always tension between nature and the man-made, the real and the imagined, truth and fiction, making his art unique, dream-like and imaginative, such as clouds looking like loafs of bread or a pipe attached to the nose to become part of the face. He liked to shock, and could be disturbing.
Magritte would misname objects, as in one of his most famous paintings ‘ This is not a pipe’, where he questioned definitions and representations, as all is not what appears. Called ‘The Treachery of images’, he wrote under a pipe ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’, which seemed like a contradiction. When asked about it, he explained:” The famous pipe! How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!” He highlighted the difference between the object and its image since the pipe in the painting cannot be filled with tobacco or smoked.
Magritte was born in Belgium in 1898 to a middle class family. He started taking painting lessons in 1910, when he was 12, and then joined the Royal Academy of Art in Brussels. In 1922, back from the military service, he worked as a draftsman in a wallpaper factory and a year later, became a freelance poster and publicity designer. The influence of commercial art showed later in the clarity and sharpness of his work, and in his habit of making more than one copy of his art.
In 1927, he had his first exhibition in Brussels, which was so badly received that he decided to move to Paris where he got involved with the Surrealists and became a leading member. He also started using words in his paintings. After three years, unable to sell and support himself, he went back to Brussels to form with his brother an advertising agency. Fortunately, the success of a New York exhibition gave him international recognition, and he went back to serious painting.
When he was 13, the painter’s mother committed suicide by throwing herself in the Sambre River near where they lived. There
is an unverified theory that his mother’s face was covered with her dress when she was taken out of the water. This image can be behind some of Magritte’s paintings of people with white veils over their faces
In 1922, Magritte married Georgette, the butcher’s daughter, whom he had met when she was 13 and he was 15. In 1936, he had an affair with a young artist and arranged to have a friend distract his wife; predictably, they too had an affair. They were eventually reconciled in 1940.
The artist was influenced by the new disciplines of psychoanalysis and of the surrealist use of dreams. The bizarre, the illogical and dreams fascinated him.
In ‘The Human Condition’, he used the optical illusion device, painting a landscape in front of an open window, then painting the picture on an easel from inside. He showed the association of nature and its representation in art and the boundary between the interior and exterior, between reality and the imagined. He painted different versions, using the same name. ‘The Key to the Fields’ had the broken glass of a window with the exterior landscape still showing on the splinters.
‘The Empire of light II’ is a very surrealistic image where the lower part is a street scene painted at night, while the upper part has the bright blue sky and white clouds of daytime.
‘Le Blanc- Seing’ shows a forest with a horse and rider dissected and sliced with a tree trunk in front of the picture while its base behind.
A train juts out of the chimney to an empty room in ‘La Duree Poignardee’, and the mirror over the fireplace reflects only one of the two candlesticks, typical of the strange and mysterious that Magritte loved to transmit.
In ‘The Lovers’, a couple are kissing, their faces hidden by white veils. Is this the memory of his drowned mother, or are they unable to give fully their love to each other?
Instead of a bird, there is an egg completely filling the cage in ‘Elective Affinity’. Here, he goes back to the source of the bird and plays with the concept of size and scale. Another painting on the same theme has the artist looking at an egg and painting a bird. There is also a canvas with stairs that lead nowhere. Typical of his unrelated comparisons, he wrote to a friend:’ the present reeks of mediocrity and the atom bomb”.
Magritte thought of his artistic practice as a process of reasoning. He wrote:” I had to discover ‘for myself’ that thought offers the only illumination.” Many artists, singers, advertising agents and cinema directors use Magritte’s images in their work.
La Trahison des Images (This is not a Pipe) - 1929
La Clairvoyance (Perceptiveness) - 1936
La Durée Poignardée - 1938
La Clef des Champs - 1936
Le Blanc-seing - 1936
Les Vacances de Hegel - 1958
La Lampe Philosophique - 1936