Art of the 20th Century


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Rene Magritte





The Enigma of Poetry


Rene Magritte

Artistic life is not possible in Charleroi. That was the case in 1916, and nothing has changed in this respect down to the present day. Creative figures are confronted with the choice between omnipresent indifference and intellectual stagnation on the one hand, or the difficulties of exile on the other. Magritte chose to move to Brussels, enrolling at the Academie des Beaux-Arts, where he unenthusiastically and irregularly attended courses on literature given by Georges Van Eckhoud and on painting by Constant Montald, the Symbolist. The latter was also the teacher of Paul Delvaux and Andre Masson, the young Frenchman whose precocious talent had resulted in his being admitted to the courses from the age of thirteen.

Masson had already left by the time Magritte arrived in the Belgian capital, experiencing the indescribable horror of war as an infantry soldier right at the front. Neither Kubrick's Paths of Glory, nor Celine's Journey to the End of Night, nor even Ernst Junger's The Storm of Steel come near to portraying the military horror of which Masson spoke and which remained a harrowing memory for him his whole life long. The author had numerous discussions with him, in which Masson spoke of Heidegger's considerations regarding Sartre's Being and Nothingness ("he's put in too much of the Nothingness"), as well as of the German thinker's view that he had discovered and come to an understanding of painting "too late". In the course of these conversations, Masson inevitably came to speak of the "cleansing of the trenches", that moment in which Frenchman shot at Frenchman, German at German, so that the lines might be "set up again" in order that the command to launch an assault issued the following day could be executed with the minimum of complications.

Magritte, who - unlike Max Ernst and others - always shared the utmost admiration felt by Masson for the author of "Being and Time", had no first-hand experience of the horrors of trench warfare. What he did know, however, was deprivation and constraint, that loathing of the gulf fundamentally separating artistic doctrine from the requirements and mysteries of poetry. He consoled himself about such defects through reading, for example "Fantomas", the figure mentioned earlier, to whom he remained loyal all his life, but especially the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, to whom he paid ardent homage in several versions of "Treasure Island". When leaves are transformed into birds, their stalks into perches, then one ceases to be amazed at anything any more. Such a metamorphosis of flora to take on the form of fauna occurs in The Companions of Fear  and various other works. Stevenson alternates in a highly artistic manner between realism and romanticism, strict description and the wonderful: Magritte, similarly, abandons and calls into question the firm basis of common perception through the unexpected manifestation of the unreal. What he was seeking, stimulated by his reading of Stevenson but as yet without any firm direction, was concerned less with the relationship of form and colour, or other questions affecting the form of pictorial composition than with the concept of visible reality and its inherent fragility.


The Companions of Fear
A further variant of Magrittc's leaf-birds, here owls - thus definitely nocturnal animals.
The plant-creatures appear to be growing out of the rock, like some living - albeit frozen -
monument or memorial, watching over the expanse of a bleak mountainous landscape.

The Natural Graces

The bronze sculpture by Berrocal takes up the "Treasure Island" theme.
Robert Louis Stevenson understood how to allow that which arouses wonder to look out from a realistic description.
These magnificent leaf-birds without branches or trees are dedicated to him.

La isla del tesoro


It is not only to Stevenson that Magritte makes reference in his pictures. Mention should be made of Hegel as regards In Praise of Dialectics, Baudelaire in connection with Flowers of Evil and The Giantess, as well as Verlaine, Heidegger and Lautreamont. More than any other writer or philosopher cited here, however, it was without doubt Edgar Allan Рое who exercised the most powerful and lasting influence upon Magritte's thinking and on his work as a whole.

Take, for example, the well-known story "The Purloined Letter". A minister who enjoys the confidence of the royal couple observes the Queen trying - successfully - to conceal a letter from her august spouse. Before the Queen's eyes, the minister steals the letter, substituting another for it. The Queen has no choice but to remain silent; any protest at the theft would inevitably bring with it the disclosure of the very piece of evidence which she is seeking to keep secret. In order to extricate herself from this dependence, the Queen instructs the Prefect of Police to recover the stolen letter, taking care to describe to him the seal of red wax with which it was closed. The poor official sets to work, blindly and without further thought, yet all his investigations come to naught. In contrast, Dupin, whom he has told of his misfortune, strikes it lucky, immediately espying the letter in the minister's cabinet. On a second visit to the cabinet, he sees no more than the reverse of the letter, crumpled and closed with a black seal. He nevertheless manages to recover it by means of a clever tactic: he arranges for a shot to be fired outside in the street, and when the minister opens the window to see what has happened, the cunning Dupin seizes the letter, conjurer-like, substituting another letter for it, in which is written -in Dupin's own handwriting, with which the minister is familiar -some lines by Crebillon the Older: "... such a sinister plan, if unworthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes."

In Praise of Dialectics

"An interior with no exterior could itself hardly constitute an interior."  G. F. Hegel

Magritte's most frequent concern in selecting his motifs is the inversion or fusing of interior and exterior views,
or of opposites or extreme positions, to put it in more general terms.

Flowers of Evil

''It was the unexpected picture of a statue of flesh and blood, of a woman holding a rose of flesh in her hand.
I saw the sea behind her through two red curtains.
The title, 'Flowers of Evil", complements the picture like a name
that refers to its object without cither illustrating or explaining it."
  Rene Magritte

The Giantess

Baudelaire's poem - it also exists in other versions to the one which served Magritte as inspiration -
describes the wonderful and sensuous powers of poetry. It is precisely that which the artist is seeking to render here in pictorial form.


The letter, the written word, which has been stolen here, alters its meaning upon changing owner, since the new owner, the communication falling into his possession, himself becomes one possessed. What in the Queen's hands is a declaration of love proving her infidelity becomes in those of the minister a means of blackmail, albeit one which turns out to be unusable, since it calls into question the very unity between King and Queen from which he, the minister, draws his entire power. The letter in his hand simultaneously provides evidence of the disorder which it is his job to prevent; he cannot restore order without doing himself harm. Dupin, in stealing back the letter, reveals the conceited, narcissistic superiority of the minister to be no more than illusion: all that is lacking is that the latter, following the example of Thyestes, should devour his own children. Dupin sells the letter to the Prefect of Police, who, for his part has seen nothing and understood less. The Prefect's mistake lay in searching for the real letter, rather than for its sense, which is modified every time the letter changes owners or external appearance. This story by Edgar Allan Рое, in which the actors are divided into observers of action and observers of reflection, reads like an introduction to the art of Magritte. It is not sufficient, upon looking at his pictures, to study what can be seen, to check identities; rather, it is necessary to reflect upon what one sees, to imagine it.

It is only through such a meditative attitude that the observer can gain access to Magritte's subtle game of enigmas. This does not mean, however, that it is possible to grasp this mystery as one would a possession. Reflection merely enables one to sense the mystery; it does not offer any concept, any formula, any key. Patrick Waldberg has rightly remarked that one could speak here of a "key of ashes", one which opens up nothing and fits no lock. The thoughts which become visible in Magritte's pictures lock up their secret as soon as the observer believes that he has completely plumbed the depths of their meaning. The images are poetic through and through.

The Domain of Arnheim, a principal work which exists in different versions on canvas and in gouache, emphasizes in another way the unreserved admiration which Magritte evinced for Edgar Allan Рое. The artist borrowed the title from Рое, depicting a mountain with the form of an eagle, while two bird's eggs in the foreground refer to the lightness of poetry, to the affinity of the latter's nature to that of air. In so doing, he was establishing a lasting monument to his greatest source of inspiration.


The Domain of Arnheim

The story of "The Domain of Arnheim", by Edgar Allan Рое, the American writer,
contains some passages with descriptions of landscapes and mountain ranges.
Рое, renowned for his stories dealing with "that which is uncanny, gruesome, supernatural, in oppressive suspense",
writes in this work: "... no such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce."

La llamada de las cimas


La primavera


The Domain of Arnheim



In addition to what he read, the significance of which has often been underestimated, Magritte was also inspired by contacts and acquaintances in Brussels, which were calculated to intensify both his hatred of the established order and his passion for the poetic. The first of these acquaintances was Pierre Bourgeois, together with whom Magritte had done his military service. Bourgeois introduced Magritte to the Futurists, whom he joined for a few years, albeit in a highly unorthodox manner. He was far more inspired by their eroticism than by their belief in progress and the grandiose promises that technology held out for the future. It was for this reason that the poets Edouard Mesens and Marcel Lecomte were able to so decisively support Magritte in the initial years of his development. Mesens, the piano teacher of Magritte's brother Paul, already held the artist's work in some esteem at an early stage, and arranged for him to have a considerable number of stimulating contacts with the Dadaist circle. He also provided him with financial assistance by purchasing his pictures, becoming Magritte's London agent at the beginning of the 1930s, supported by Penrose. Lecomte likewise felt an allegiance to Dada, for example with Clement Pensaers, who produced strange little pamphlets with such titles as "Bar Nicanor" or "Le pan pan au cul du nu negre". Magritte, discouraged by his first financial setbacks, had just commenced working as a textile pattern designer in a wallpaper factory - together, incidentally, with Victor Servranckx, the Cubist painter - when he met Lecomte again. Lecomte showed him the picture of a painting by de Chirico, entitled Song of Love. The painter was later to write: "That was one of the most moving moments in my life; for the first time, my eyes saw thought."

It is astonishing that Max Ernst was gripped by a similar feeling in Munich in 1919, as was Tanguy in 1923, who even jumped out of a moving bus in order to admire a work by the master of enigma. And it was also de Chirico, whom Andre Masson held to be "one of the greatest painters in the whole world", who would inspire and enthuse the other important representative of Belgian Surrealism, namely Paul Delvaux, born in Huy in 1897 and also a Walloon. In fact, Magritte did not regard Delvaux especially highly, calling him "Monsieur Delvache" (Mr. Delcow), who "has once again done something or other". There was much to separate these two great painters from each other, for example their reading matter (Delvaux preferred the powers of imagination of Jules Verne, Magritte the poetic austerity of Edgar Allan Рое); the principal difference, however, lay in their respective manners of painting. Delvaux was a "retinien", a "retina-cretina"; he loved beautiful materials and simple visions, appealed to the emotions and prompted dreams rather than reflection. He was from a well-to-do family, and therefore never had the material worries of Magritte, the rebel; he was a painter of the grey subject-matter, a child more of metaphysics than of the seductive sweetness of the imagination. Magritte did not like Delvaux' populist art, but was nonetheless capable of expressing the admiration due his inspired countryman, who, moreover, had been a great source of inspiration for him, as had once de Chirico. Divergences in mentality and temperament aside, the Surrealists considered that they owed an extraordinary debt to the Italian master of the metaphysical.

La llave de los campos


The Forest


1922 was the year in which Magritte married Georgette, the woman of his life; it was also in this year that he made his most far-reaching and most inspiring discovery of the visible, one which without doubt surpassed both the Blind House (1853) by Degouve de Nuncques, the source of The Empire of Lights, and Max Ernst's overwhelming collages, for which Magritte had always felt great admiration. In addition to E. L. T. Mesens and Marcel Lecomte, Camille Goemans was also of great importance for the painter, who settled in Paris in 1927. In October of that same year, the Magrittes went to Perreux-sur-Marne. Nor should Andre Souris, Van Bruaene and - in particular - Paul Nouge be left out, the latter a man of letters whom Magritte perhaps admired as deeply as he did Stevenson and Рое, not forgetting Mallarme. The best commentary on the picture The Blank Page, in which the moon is visible in front of, rather than behind, a curtain of leaves, may be found in "Brise marine", while the flower that is "present in every bouquet", formed purely of words found by poetry, surely receives its finest hymn of praise in the thoughts behind such works as The Ready-Made Bouquet or The Tomb of the Wrestlers. For reasons unknown to us, Paul Nouge fell out with Magritte to such an extent that he advised Max Loreau, the philosopher, against ever visiting him, and always replied to every one of Patrick Waldberg's questions: "The dear fellow no longer interests me." Nouge nonetheless was later to write, in "Les Images defendues", one of the most heartfelt homages ever dedicated to Magritte: "A bell, a forest, a woman's torso, a piece of sky. A curtain, a hand, a mountain, in the midst of the silence of proclamation. And a mysterious wind is getting up; the experiment is about to begin."

The Blank Page

Further homage to Mallarme, who meditated upon the impossibility of handwriting upon a blank page.
In this picture, the moon is rising in an impossible constellation - it is located in front of, and not under or behind, the leaves.

The Ready-Made Bouquet

For a time, Magritte enjoyed combining motifs from his own repertoire with those from art history:
so here, where we see the rear view of his man in a bowler hat together with Botticelli's famous Flora from The Primavera.
The combination has an effect that is equally unfamiliar and mysterious,
a further example of Magritte's poetic and surreal intentions in his art.

The Tomb of the Wrestlers

"A rose is a rose is a rose..." Gertrude Stein's famous observation could be taken as commentary on this picture.
The overdimensional, blossoming red rose reveals characteristics of a pronouncedly bodily nature;
it accordingly possesses an aura that is almost erotic.


It was also through Paul Nouge that Louis Scutenaire met Magritte. This encounter occurred in 1926, in "Cirio", a Brussels cafe, which has remained unchanged down to the present day. Scutenaire's "Inscriptions", published in Paris in 1945, contains a sentence on Magritte which precisely sums up the latter's singular genius: "He made use of his prison in order that he might escape." There exists no apter commentary on Beautiful World. The picture demonstrates how the painter employs what is visible as a curtain, as a means of concealment, making use of this concealment to prepare a trap for it by compelling it to reveal itself. The same obsession may be observed in Transfer, a work stolen from Charm Perelman, the philosopher, shortly before his death, to appear again later in London. Like Alphonse de Woulhens, this specialist in rhetoric and argumentation was very well known to Magritte, who also read Hegel, Heidegger, Foucault, Husserl, Nietzsche and Plato. The artist's reading matter further included "The Songs of Maldoror" by Lautreatreamont, published in Belgium in 1870 but not until 1885 in Paris (by Huysmans and Leon Bloy), Iwan Gilkin deciding only now to present to the French the poet who had sent Max Waller, Camille Lemonnier, Rodenbach, and all the Symbolists of the "La Jeune Belgique" group into raptures. There can be no doubt that Magritte's illustrations to "The Songs of Maldoror' belong to the finest examples of a genre in which the Surrealists generally shone.


Beautiful World

"I could see the world, as if I had a curtain in front of my eyes."  Rene Magritte

La Gioconda



The left-hand silhouette appears to have been cut out of the folds of the curtain, as sand and sea are rendered visible.
This is incorrect, however; the cutout is not identical.
It is all merely painting, demonstrating to us that what we see, from which painting selects a part,
consists of a close network of coverings-up that are endless in number.

Duane Michals
Rene Magritte, double portrait


Since 1926 and his picture The Lost Jockey, Magritte had conceived of himself as a Surrealist; inevitably, therefore, he was tempted by the Parisian adventure. He accordingly went to further the respect accorded the foreign painters, who were bestowing such splendour upon a movement which was in fact so "Parisian" in nature. It was during these years, between 1927 and 1930, that his deep friendship with Max Ernst, Dali and - especially - Paul Eluard developed. After growing up in the Belgian country, serious, profound, frail socially but stable intellectually, easily hurt but basically unshakeable, Magritte had decided to live in a suburb of Paris. However, his unassuming origins and fear of failure did not fit in well with the lavish and expensive Parisian lifestyle. He accordingly returned to Brussels with his wife in 1930, where he found new friends, among them Harry Torczyner, a lawyer from Antwerp living today in New York, and Marcel Marie'n. However, Magritte was later to break with the latter, after Marien had had a leaflet in the form of a bank note depicting Magritte distributed at the official opening of The Enchanted Realm fresco, intending in this way to denounce the petty-bourgeois nature of his friend, who had been granted this late -if important - success.

Carte Blanche

"Visible things can be invisible. If somebody rides a horse through a wood,
at first one sees them, and then not, yet one knows that they are there.
In Carte Blanche, the rider is hiding the trees, and the trees are hiding her.
However, our powers of thought grasp both the visible and the invisible -
and I make use of painting to render thoughts visible." 
Rene Magritte



The Window


El nacimiento del idolo


The Difficult Crossing


Left Behind by the Shadow


Magritte twice joined the Communist Party in the years prior to the Second World War, in 1932 and 1936; despite his socialist inclinations, however, realism was not for him, and doctrinaire attitudes put him off again and again. He spent the war years in Brussels, constantly afraid of arbitrary raids and attacks upon his "degenerate" art. This presumably constitutes a further reason why he felt the need after 1945 to change his style of painting, now creating pictures in the style of Renoir, cheerful and ironic works. A series of crude, coarse pictures followed, described by his friends as "vache" (literally, "cowlike", meaning "crude", "unfashionable"). Jean Dubuffet would certainly have approved of this style: one can hardly deny the affinity that his Bird-eaters share with the savage wildness of such a work as Pleasure. Yet neither the sensual gracefulness of a Renoir nor the coarseness of a Jean Dubuffet would ultimately provide Magritte with a path that he could take. For this reason, he soon returned to his old style, which had experienced enrichment through refined shades of blue and a painting technique that was more flowing, more sensuous. Success gradually arrived, thanks to Iolas, his agent, and to America. Despite all the disagreements which they had gone through earlier, Breton opened his American exhibition in 1964 with words which have stuck in Patrick Waldberg's memory: "Everything that Magritte has done represents the culmination of that which Apollinaire once described as 'true common sense' - that is, that of the great poets."

Magritte disproved the legend of the exceptional longevity granted painters, dying of cancer at the age of 69.


Illustrations for "Les necessites de la vie" (The Necessities of Life) by Paul Eluard

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