#39. ‘A miserable world’: René Magritte
Patricia Allmer is the author of René Magritte: Beyond Painting. She considers how the present day might look to Magritte (1898–1967), the provocative Belgian surrealist known for his perception-challenging oeuvre.
Words: Patricia Allmer
René Magritte is one of the best-known (and best-selling) artists we associate with ‘surrealism’, and its aesthetics. He worked in a range of media, from painting and drawing, to objects, sculpture, film, and photography, and his works characteristically teeter on the brink of the playfully humorous and a Poesque eeriness. That Magritte is seen as a surrealist par excellence vouches for the mobility of art-historical understanding – he didn’t care much for the French-associated surrealist pillars of Freudianism or automatism, except to parody those ideas; his brand of surrealism (and a brand it was, which he used very consciously to market his work as well as subvert the very notion of marketing) is more at home within a different branch of the movement, located within the theories and thoughts of the Brussels surrealists.
1. Suit and Bowler
Magritte made the stereotypical suit-and-bowler of the bourgeois man into his personal trademark, transforming himself into a virtually two-dimensional character. He often compared himself to Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s fictional character Fantômas, the master-criminal whose masquerade consisted of various parodic re-enactments of bourgeois male roles. Similarly to the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí, this role became a life (live) performance by Magritte, extending into his life his work’s artistic investigations into the complex interplays between reality and representation.
This performance can even be regarded as an integral part of his work, a further level of the role-plays he performed in film and photography, a further edging towards the subsuming of ‘reality’ into art/the artificial/representation. I wonder how he would have felt about the decline of restricted male dress codes nowadays, and the corresponding proliferation of casual wear rather than formal office-wear. What to do in a world where fashion is so much more multilayered, and so much less descriptive and prescriptive? I’m not sure he would have liked it.
2. René Magritte House-Museum, Brussels, Rue Esseghem 135
In 1930 Magritte and his wife Georgette moved into the townhouse Rue Esseghem 135, in the Jette suburb of Brussels. The couple lived there until 1954, and the house was an important meeting place for the Brussels surrealists. It also provided the setting for key elements in some of Magritte’s most famous works, such as his paintings of windows (e.g. The Human Condition paintings from 1933) exploring the simulacral qualities of representation, or The Interpretation of Dreams (1935), where the everyday window frame becomes a framework redefining relations between words and images (in a clear ironic reference to surrealist Freudianism).
The house is now the location of a Magritte Museum. The ground floor has been recreated with “original” furniture, and the interiors offer uncanny resemblances to the domestic settings in many of his paintings of the period. Magritte would love the irony of the tableaux vivant element of this museum-setting and the twisting of reality, which in this setting becomes a representation of his art which, in turn, is of course a painted representation of this reality in the first place. If he were alive today, I wouldn’t put it past him to turn up there, in order to sit, in front of an easel-prop, pretending to be Magritte.
3. Smoking Ban
Well… one of the most iconic 20th century images (I only say Ceci n’est pas…) wouldn’t have happened with the smoking ban in place. Alas, in the dawn of electronic cigarettes and pipes this famous line, This is not a pipe, is truer than ever. Magritte was a smoker, and (as smokers tend to be) a creature of habit. Smoking bans would have been an irritation without end to him.
In the 1950s Magritte was involved with the Lettrists, the Situationist precursor group consisting of members such as Guy Debord, Isidore Isou and Mohamed Dahou. The touching points and relations between Magritte and the Lettrists included collaborations with them by his close friends (Louis Scutenaire, Paul Nougé, and Marcel Marïen), the 1952 projection of Isou’s Traite de Bave et d’Eternite in Brussels, organised by Jean-Louis Brau, Debord and Gil Wolman, and Magritte’s own collaborations. In 1953 Magritte met Ivan Chtcheglov, who would, later that year, write the influential Lettrist essay ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ (October 1953), and in June 1954 Magritte edited the special issue of La Carte d’apres Nature which included contributions by Debord, Dahou and Wolman. Magritte would have been fascinated to observe the different incarnations and contemporary manifestations of this basically surrealist practice of modern urban walking and psychogeography.
Magritte on Twitter? Of course! He would have loved to represent #surrealist concepts in 140 characters max. His alias? Probably @Fantomas ☺
© 2015, The Fertile Fact / Patricia Allmer