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 recovered her face was found to be covered by her nightdress. It was never known whether she had hidden her eyes with it in order not to see the death which she had chosen, or whether the swirling currents had veiled her thus.
The unforgettable details include the woman’s face concealed by the nightgown, and the pubescent boy’s horrified vision of his mother’s naked body, glimpsed for the first time in death. It in no way diminishes the force of the memory that it is not true. Newspaper reports reveal that the body of Régina Magritte was not retrieved from the Sambre until March 12, two weeks after she was missing. By then her decomposed face would have been badly battered, since that part of the river is congested with barge traffic. Would a thirteen-year-old boy have been allowed to view his mother’s body in that condition? Did he simply hear the story of the nightgown from his father or his governess? Or was the nightgown a fantasy which protected him from having to imagine the sight of his beloved mother’s face? It does not matter. What does matter is that Magritte consistently rejected the suggestion that this childhood trauma affected his painting in any way:
Of course, such things cannot be forgotten. Yes, it left its mark, but not in the way you think. It was a shock…. It is impossible to say whether my mother’s death had any influence or not.
And yet Magritte’s work utterly contradicts this statement. Despite his expressed rejection of the unwelcome memory, he returns to it over and over again. In his pictures one finds women whose heads are concealed but whose torsos are bared. Sometimes he refers directly to his mother’s death, as in an untitled work in papier collé showing the clothed torso of a bourgeois woman sinking through a wooden floor, her head obliterated by a pall of smoke, like an uplifted nightdress. An early masterpiece, The musings of a solitary walker (1926), actually shows a naked woman floating above a view of the river Sambre just where Régina Magritte died. The garment of adventure of 1926 depicts a drowned woman in a shroud, and in both Deep waters and Homesickness, each painted in 1941, suicide by drowning is implied. Corpses, shrouds, nightdresses, water, bodies in tatters, missing faces: these are Magritte’s subjects.
Other details mentioned in Scutenaire’s account find their way into Magritte’s art, though one should beware of reading his imagery as if it necessarily symbolized specific events in the past instead of evoking a pervasive sense of the inexplicable, the mystery of a dream, the frustrating feeling that the meaning is just beyond our grasp. A dense fog enveloping one half of the lovely Heraclitus’s Bridge suggests that to attempt its crossing would lead the traveler to oblivion. In The red model a pair of lace-up boots is seen to be a set of bare human feet, reminding us that Régina Magritte left her bare footprints on the path to the bridge: it is as though the painter imagines her pulling on her feet as if they were boots before leaving the house.
Or, to take another example, Magritte was fascinated by death masks. In The future of statues of 1931, he takes a plaster cast of Napoleon’s death mask and covers the surface with clouds drifting across a bright blue sky, a sky pitiless and indifferent to any death, whether of the illustrious or of persons unknown. This strange object can be seen as a comment on the ultimate fate of dictators, but it becomes a much richer and more moving image when seen in relation to another famous death mask, which turns up in Magritte’s art, that of a beautiful young woman popularly known as L’inconnue de la Seine. L’inconnue was the opposite of Napoleon, a nameless woman, a suicide like Régina Magritte, whose body was fished out of the Seine in the 1880s.
At other times Magritte’s subject is not suicide but depression. No other painter so tangibly conveyed the reality of neurotic suffering as did Magritte. Among the artists I can think of he is the one who makes us feel what it is like for a dark curtain to descend over the mind, for every door to open onto a black chasm, for each enclosed space to become a place of sepulcher. In The central story of 1928 a woman muffles her head in a cloth, demonstrating, as in an advertisement, how depression suffocates, how the sufferer is unable to do anything about his or her distress.
It is this passivity that seems to me the most menacing quality of Magritte’s world. By and large his figures are frozen, motionless, as in a dream. There never seems to be a solution to the state of psychic immobility in which they are stranded. As with T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, it is not the anonymous man in the bowler hat that interests Magritte, it is his isolation, his unprotesting desperation.
In The Perfect Image, a woman looks into either a mirror in which nothing is reflected, or else a picture frame surrounding nothing. But the painting is not surrealistic. Magritte is simply describing the mental condition of a potential suicide, the state of being in which all the victim feels is emptiness, the sense that she is not real.
In still other pictures it is not his mother’s death to which Magritte returns but to his own childhood. A number of early paintings show the fictional criminal Fantômas, a sort of archfiend capable of any crime, whose adventures in novels (and later movies) were wildly popular when Magritte was a boy, and who was taken up as a subversive hero by Magritte and other members of the Surrealist movement. For Magritte Fantômas is no joke. In The man from the sea, the monster emerges headless from a mist-laden ocean, a terrifying creature who walks by night, able to unlatch any window and creep into any drawing room. He is the very incarnation of all childhood fears, inexplicable anxieties, dreadful mental oppression.
Magritte, as Sylvester shows, recalls in his art much else from his early youth, including the sound of harness bells, a game of cup and ball, paper cut-outs, pretending to be invisible, and above all, the children’s game of “What if?” “What if the clouds were made of stone? or the sky of wood? or a ship of water?” Then too, Magritte as an adult was devoted to Surrealist games such as “Exquisite corps,” where a folded sheet of paper was passed from one artist to another, each blindly adding a different section of the anatomy until the unfolded sheet revealed a monster.
One of the most haunting of Magritte’s hybrids is The mathematical mind of 1936 or 1937, in which a large figure with a mother’s body and infant’s head holds in its arms an infant with a mother’s head. This seems an uncannily perceptive way to suggest the relationship of a sensitive child to a depressive mother. Looking at it, one asks oneself whether, at some level, Magritte felt responsible for the protection of a woman who had clearly been in a fragile mental state for some time before her death.
In The use of speech he once showed himself and André Breton playing a word-association game borrowed from psychoanalysis, and there are any number of paintings in which the artist elaborated on the game by substituting a word for a picture. In The literal meaning or The lost world an amorphous shape, which looks as though an image had been scissored out to leave a blank space, is designated “femme triste,” and “corps de femme.” But even here we should pay attention to the words and images Magritte plays with: Which woman is so sad that the artist cannot picture her? Which woman’s body are we not allowed to see?
The most famous canvas related to this series, The treachery of images of 1929, shows a picture of a pipe with the words neatly written in schoolboy script underneath, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” On one level, Magritte merely makes us aware of the inadequacy both of language and of painting. The sentence makes no sense without the picture of the pipe, and Sylvester tells us that Magritte was realizing in paint his aphorism that “Everything tends to suggest that there is little connection between an object and what represents it.” But the picture also clearly mocks Freud’s writing on the sexual symbolism of everyday objects. If this is not a pipe, then what is it? A Freudian might say it is a phallus, or a breast, or a vagina.
Magritte made the spoof clear in another picture, the repellent The philosopher’s lamp of 1936, in which the painter’s nose becomes a penis inserted into the bowl of his pipe. And it is precisely in taking account of Magritte’s fierce resistance to interpretations of his pictures as merely Freudian symbols, and not for what they appeared to be, that we can best understand his intentions. He wanted to mock such responses in his picture entitled The interpretation of dreams of 1927. In it we find a penknife labeled “bird” and a handbag described as the “sky.” Critics often say that Magritte undermined our sense of reality. Magritte might have answered, “No, Freud did.”
Though he was as virulently an anti-Freudian as Nabokov, this does not mean that Magritte was opposed to a poetic interpretation of his pictures. Far from it. He wished to preserve the mystery of dreams, not to explain them.
Psychology doesn’t interest me. It claims to reveal the flow of our thoughts and emotions; its efforts are contrary to what I know; it tries to explain a mystery. The only mystery is the world. Psychology concerns itself with false mysteries.
In The daring sleeper of 1928, the banal objects the dreamer dreams about seem to be embedded in an amorphous stone slab. As Sylvester observes, the dreamer is brave because in sleep we lose control of our conscious selves and so are vulnerable to our deepest fears. The picture is Magrittian rather than Freudian because it simply describes the human predicament without offering an explanation for it.
“There is nothing ‘behind’ this image,” he once replied to a tiresome question. “Behind the paint of the painting there is the canvas. Behind the canvas there is a wall, behind the wall there is…” etc. In 1929 he gave memorable form to this statement in a small masterpiece entitled The alphabet of revelations, in which he shows a canvas as though from behind, the stretcher side painted with the trompe l’oeil shapes of a leaf, a pipe, a key, and a goblet apparently cut out to reveal the “nothing” underneath them.
By the early 1930s Magritte had retreated into the non-life of solid Belgian respectability. This seems to have been part of a strategy to outwit bourgeois society, or perhaps the pain of life itself. He lived and worked in camouflage, appearing to fit into the established social order while actually engaged in a deadly serious game of trying to undermine it. A withdrawn and melancholy poet of the absurd, in his art he fought a subtle, rear-guard action designed to point up the futility of trusting to appearances. One by one Magritte examined the bland certainties of our everyday lives, calling into question the two pillars of our sanity, language and perception. Nature he turned upside down and inside out, showing the sky as the lining of a great curtain drawn back to reveal an empty stage. Day descends over night; time turns to stone.
Few people nowadays would deny, I would guess, that Magritte created some of the truly memorable images in twentieth-century art. But considerable argument exists about how good a painter he was. The idea persists that to see his art in reproduction is as satisfactory as to view it in the flesh. This notion is given weight by the undeniable fact that this most literary of painters wrote and spoke about his pictures as though they had to do only with images and ideas, not with the actual application of paint on canvas.
The retrospective exhibition of Magritte’s work recently shown in London demolished this received idea. David Sylvester, who installed the show in the notoriously difficult spaces of the Hayward Gallery, restored Magritte to his rightful place as a painter. Sylvester built a series of intimate, boxlike chambers within the galleries so that each painting could be hung on its own wall, sometimes with only one or two paintings per space. In doing so he revealed the still, iconic quality of these mysterious images, particularly those from Magritte’s finest period, from 1926 through the early 1930s. In London one wandered through Sylvester’s maze as if in a dream, or as if in one of Magritte’s paintings. Not only was the atmosphere appropriately somber but, without the distraction of seeing one picture compete with another on the walls, the visitor familiar with Magritte’s work only in color reproductions was encouraged to study closely the surface of his canvases.
The result was, at least to me, a revelation. True, the earliest works are not particularly well painted. Despite five years’ study, on and off, at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Magritte could almost be said to have been self-taught: the early collages are much more accomplished than the paintings of the same period. But by 1927 Magritte could do pretty much anything he wanted with pigment, and by 1930, the date of his masterpieces The annunciation and The eternally obvious, one can say that Magritte was a beautiful painter—not as fine as Ingres, but in paintings like The rape of 1934 aspiring to the quality of Ingres.
Disagreement about Magritte’s status as a painter arises because his paintings do not call attention to the process by which they were created. By bringing his thinly painted surfaces to a high degree of finish, Magritte effaced himself from his work, stepping back to approach his art in the spirit of an anonymous craftsman. What he paints may be very sensual but how he paints it rarely is. Magritte used a slow, meditative brushstroke, the exact opposite of Dali’s technical pyrotechnics (although, Sylvester points out, after 1929 one finds a greater clarity and smoothness in the handling of paint, which certainly reflects the influence of the dazzlingly talented but shallow Spaniard). Magritte, always articulate about his own work, later wrote:
I had in fact replaced the formal qualities which the critics had not failed to note with an objective representation of objects, clearly grasped and understood by those whose taste has not been adulterated by all the literature written about painting. This detached way of representing objects seems to me related to a universal style, in which the idiosyncrasies and minor predilections of an individual no longer count. For instance, I used bright blue wherever the sky had to be represented and never, like those bourgeois artists, used the need to represent the sky as an opportunity to show such and such a blue against such and such a grey that I favoured.
More than most other artists, Magritte needs to be hung sympathetically. Sadly, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art chose to ignore the advice Sylvester gives on page 166 of The Silence of the World:
Magritte’s pictures always tend to have an iconic quality, in the sense of being the antithesis of a series-painting or a member of a cycle or a fragment of a frieze, in the sense of offering an entire, self-contained experience. It is doubtless because they have this quality that, when a number of Magrittes are exhibited together, it is a waste to string them out along a wall in a receding procession of rectangles; they are best presented one at a time, each on a separate wall, so that each in its turn is separately confronted.
Even allowing for the relatively restricted space available in the Metropolitan’s horribly cramped Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, so badly has the spirit of Magritte been mauled by the insensitivity of the hanging that the artist almost doesn’t survive the experience. The show is over-lit, with rows of pictures hung too close together on the same walls, making them look more like billboards than the objects of meditation they were meant to be. (I hope Sylvester and Whitfield will repudiate the New York installation.)
In London it was easy to see the sensitivity with which Magritte was capable of handling paint. Easy to see, too, that he was an uneven painter. After 1936 there were many variants and replicas, and the most beautiful painting in a given series may not be the first version but a later refinement. For this reason, in selecting a Magritte show it is even more important than usual to secure the loan of the right version of the right picture. This is a matter of connoisseurship and also of luck with lenders, and both Sylvester’s standards and his rate of success seem to have been extraordinarily high. There are, however, duds, like The magician of 1951, a crudely painted self-portrait in which Magritte, Shivalike, is shown eating and drinking with four arms, and a few late pictures in which the slick technique masks a recycled idea. I disagree with Sylvester’s high estimate of the sculptures, all of which were lifted virtually unchanged from the pictures they are related to and cast posthumously. Blown up to life size and given downright hideous patinations, to me these are truly repulsive objects, whose only reason for existence is to make money.
A more difficult aesthetic question is raised by Magritte’s “Renoir” and “Vache” periods when, during and just after World War II, he turned out joky pastiches of Impressionist and Fauve pictures painted in exactly the sort of vulgar, attention-seeking brush work and in the strident colors he had for so long avoided. These works have a quality of parody, but of an angry parody, as of frustration finally boiling over. They have never been popular, and many are ghastly, and yet the more I see them, the more I warm to them. One must not lose sight of the conditions under which they were made. It is as though Magritte, like Francis Picabia and Otto Dix in their different ways, changed his style to accommodate the taste of the Germans—or, since so many of them are jokes at the expense of Matisse and Dubuffet—perhaps it was only the Parisian critics he was mocking. In the 1950s he returned to his cool, dispassionate style, producing some of his glossiest and best-known images, including Golconda, in which it appears to be raining little men, and The dominion of light, where day falls on night.
Many people consider Magritte an illustrator, and this suggests the interplay between his art and commercial illustration. Like Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol, Magritte produced images for advertising, accepting commercial commissions from the early 1930s up until 1946. Many of his paintings both draw on and parody the easy-to-read images he designed for posters and music covers. As early as 1938 advertisers began to draw on Magritte. The famous CBS logo of the eye reflecting the passing clouds, based on Magritte’s The false mirror (itself plucked out of Dali and Buñuel’s famous eye-and-razor sequence in Un chien Andalou), is the best-known example, but the dove in the Sabena airlines logo is also by Magritte. By the 1970s dozens of images had been lifted intact from Magritte. But by then, too, many young American artists looked on him as a Pop artist before his time.
David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield have devoted the last twenty years to compiling the catalogue raisonné of Magritte’s work, of which the first of five volumes sponsored by the Menil Foundation has recently appeared. They are also responsible for selecting the retrospective exhibition, for which Whitfield wrote the catalog. In addition—and most useful of all for anyone who wants a general introduction to Magritte’s work—Sylvester’s monograph on the artist has been published in America, with the title Magritte: The Silence of the World.
Each publication serves a different purpose. Volume I of the catalogue raisonné covers the oil paintings done between 1916 and 1930, and consists of 333 entries on separate paintings plus an appendix of fifty-six documented works for which no reproduction exists. Based on the authors’ personal inspection of every canvas, the content of each entry is limited to known facts, including dating, exhibition history, technical examination, and important critical writings. It is a magnificent guide for dealers, museum curators, and scholars.
The 120-page, highly detailed chronology of Magritte’s life published as a preface to the catalog is once again limited to documented facts. It must be said here that Magritte succeeded so well in disguising himself as a boring middle-class Belgian that the minutiae of his life are interesting to most of us only when they contribute to our understanding of the imagery in his paintings. Nor did I find myself engrossed by the activities of various members of the provincial Surrealist circle with which he surrounded himself. Still, the book is a superb work of scholarship, and it is beautifully produced.
By contrast, Whitfield’s exhibition catalog can be used as a serviceable guide to the show itself. As an introduction to Magritte’s art it falls somewhere between the factual and the interpretative. Occasionally I felt the author hesitated to duplicate in the catalog her own and Sylvester’s work in the other two publications. As a result, the still unsatisfied reader should go to Sylvester’s Silence of the World. This is the best long essay ever written on Magritte, providing the insights through which one can hope to enter the mind of an extraordinarily complex figure. Sylvester is particularly good at weaving together the personal and formal sources that went into the creation of Magritte’s memorable images, and he discusses in detail such fascinating subjects as the lengthy participatory process by which the artist arrived at his titles, Magritte’s humor, his literary sources, from Poe to Robert Louis Stevenson, and his relationship with the mainstream Surrealists. In the end, Sylvester succeeds in making us see exactly what Magritte meant when he wrote of his “determination to make the most familiar objects yell.”
November 19, 1992