Painting in the Dark

Magritte

an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, May 21–August 2;. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 9–November 22;. The Menil Collection, Houston, December 15, 1992–February 21, 1993;. The Art Institute, Chicago, March 16–May 30, 1993

Magritte: The Silence of the World

by David Sylvester
The Menil Foundation/Abrams, 352 pp., $75.00

Magritte

catalog of the exhibition by Sarah Whitfield
The South Bank Centre/Ludion, 320 pp., $35.00 (paper)

René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné; Vol I: Oil Paintings 1916–1930

by David Sylvester, by Sarah Whitfield, edited by David Sylvester
The Menil Foundation/Philip Wilson Publishers/distributed by Rizzoli, 388 pp., $180.00

By appropriating the art of René Magritte to sell everything from airline tickets to television channels, Madison Avenue has created the impression that he was a painter of lightweight visual jokes. But there is another Magritte, a Magritte celebrated by the English critic David Sylvester and his collaborator Sarah Whitfield. Because of their work in the exhibition and books under review, we have begun to realize that he is a much darker, much more dangerous artist than the one whose sly visual conundrums have held so much appeal for advertisers and cartoonists.

This Magritte explored a world of corroding anxiety. Imprisoning emotion in a palette of shadowy blacks, deep blues, and luminous grays, he conjures up an atmosphere of nameless foreboding, using bizarre imagery not simply to disconcert his audience, but to give visual form to psychological truth. His work is pervaded with autobiographical allusion. In relating Magritte’s art to his life, Sylvester has uncovered a sad and silent world of buried emotion, a world in which the imagery is always absurd, but rarely illogical, and never meaningless.

It is not too much to say that the artist spent his life retrieving and retelling in his art memories from his childhood in Belgium. An early work, Nocturne, of 1925, shows an empty stage on which there lies a framed picture of an isolated house, at night, ablaze. A bird seems to flutter out of the fictive canvas toward a strange object called a bilboquet, one of Magritte’s symbols for the past, which looks something like a chess piece prettily imprinted with musical staff and F hole. In Nocturne the night is a time of dread, a time when physical security and emotional stability can vanish before morning.

For the young Magritte, it did. Born in 1898, René was the eldest of three boys in a fairly prosperous middle-class family living in the Belgian province of Hainaut. The bleak, industrialized landscape of his childhood appears so often in his paintings that it becomes a private metaphor for inner desolation. What Magritte called “the central story” of his life occurred when he was thirteen years old. Suffering from depression, his mother, Régina, had several times attempted to take her own life, and for her own protection she was locked into her room at night. But at 4:30 in the morning on February 24, 1912, she somehow managed to slip out of the house. According to the story Magritte later told the poet Louis Scutenaire, she

shared a room with her youngest child, who, finding himself alone in the middle of the night, woke up the rest of the family. They searched in vain all over the house; then, noticing footprints on the doorstep and on the pavement, followed them as far as the bridge over the Sambre, the local river.

She had crossed the street, walked the short distance down an alleyway between the houses opposite, reached the bridge, and thrown herself into the water.

When the body was …

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