Artisanal surrealism: on “Magritte: a life” by Alex Danchev

I always try to make the painting itself unnoticed, as inconspicuous as possible. I work a bit like the kind of writer who tries to find the simplest tone, who avoids any stylistic effect, so that the reader can only see in his work the idea he was trying to express. Thus the act of painting is hidden.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967)


IF THERE IS down-to-earth surrealism, meat and potatoes (or, since this is a Belgian artist, mussels and fries surrealism), René Magritte is its paragon. With his wife Georgette almost always nearby, Magritte eats, meets friends, rolls out the carpet to paint in the dining room of his modest house in the Brussels suburbs. Very early, in 1929, he painted image betrayal (image betrayal) — that infamous smoking pipe with the caption “This is not a pipe.” (It’s not a pipe.) – one of the most reproduced images in the history of art. Was Magritte avant-garde? Late in the game, the artist himself sums it up : “In life as in my painting, I am also a traditionalist, even a reactionary. Of course, it is not so simple, and Alex Danchev, in his new foolproof biography, Magritte: a life, completed after his death by Sarah Whitfield, recalls the complications.

Magritte was born in Lessines, a small town near Brussels, to an irreligious borner father (“[H]we were spit on the cross in front of mum”) and an unhappy terminally ill mother who committed suicide by drowning. Magritte was a bad boy. He skipped school and had – as mentioned in one of Danchev’s many happy expressions – “a drip feed of [the fictional villain] Fantômas and company throughout his adolescence. At the age of about 11, he began what was to be his fascination with pornography and became visibly horny forever; his friend Charles Alexandre says: “Magritte painted a naked young girl. In our presence, he finished the canvas, then disappeared into the next room with his model, telling us solemnly: “And now, gentlemen, the artist is going to fuck up the model.” it is, but one could plead, as in traffic court, “guilty with an explanation”. The early years of the 20th century weren’t exactly the epitome of genre enlightenment, and the Surrealists (despite a few female artists) were a boys’ club – some might say a group of sneering teenagers who saw Sigmund Freud give them anything sexual. license (and sexist) they needed.

In Georgette (née Berger), Magritte found a counterweight. He first met her at a fair when she was 12, he was 14; seven years later, they met at the Botanical Garden in Brussels and immediately fell in love. For Magritte, “his body [was] both temple and model”; he adored her, but at the same time he used her – artistically, painting after painting, and less honorably in pranks (he once locked her in a coal bunker just for fun). There is dubious speculation that during their marriage Magritte had an affair with “a beautiful surreal groupie”, but, on the other hand, it is indisputable that Georgette had a long and serious affair with Paul Colinet, a friend close to Rene. Georgette eventually canceled and “reinstated Magritte as the apple of her eye”. For his part, by a kind of revenge, Magritte multiplies the frequentation of prostitutes.

Magritte’s life as a fine artist was not without compromise either. In his early twenties he got a job as a wallpaper designer and continued to trade for most of his life. He set up a separate shed – “Studio Dongo” – for his non-fine art products. A “model of professionalism” in this regard, Magritte created posters for Alfa Romeo and designed the “Skybird” logo for the now defunct Belgian national airline, Sabena – which, he said, “put lots of butter on my spinach”.

On the other hand, Magritte was also a forger; he concocted a Hobbema, simulated Titians, and even had the nerve to combine elements of existing paintings to create his own hybrid Titian. (A question I cannot answer is how such an anti-elegant painter as Magritte was able to craft a convincing Titian.) Magritte also created ersatz modern pictures. Between 1942 and 1946 (when Belgium was occupied), the undercounter dealer Marcel Mariën said, “I sold a significant number of drawings and paintings attributed mainly to Picasso, Braque and Chirico, all made by Magritte”. The forger justified his fraud by saying that the forgeries gave satisfaction to the unsuspecting buyer while providing an income for a desperate artist. In a clever surreal rationalization, Magritte added that counterfeits were a sort of time bomb whose inevitable revelation would make a mockery of the current social order.


Almost from the start, surrealism was bifurcated. In one faction were those more directly engaged in social action, who saw style as the aforementioned ticking time bomb. In the other were the true believers in the Freudian unconscious. The direct expression of the latter was not for Magritte. “Psychic automatism, writes Danchev, was enough to make Magritte see red”. The contempt was mutual. The French surrealists – for the most part purveyors of the unconscious – thought that the Belgians were bouseux. A popular joke in France asked the difference between a potato and a Belgian. Punchline: A potato is grown.

Poet/provocateur André Breton, the self-proclaimed “pope” of Surrealism (“nothing but a moralist, with a fine line of disdain”, notes Danchev), actually excommunicated artists who did not meet his standards. and decreed that “[t]There’s no point in being alive if you have to work. The Belgians, on the contrary, had jobs. Magritte, who discovered surrealism around 1925 and began a three-year stay in Paris two years later, fell out of favor with Breton on December 14, 1929. Breton scold Georgette for having carried a cross to a surrealist party; she left, and Magritte followed. But before he finally left Paris in the summer of 1930, Magritte and Georgette accepted an invitation from Salvador Dalí – whom Magritte was rather fond of – to come to Catalonia for a month. The “two bad boys of surrealism – Dalí the deviant, Magritte the mocker – painted side by side, almost”, says Danchev, “or in any case studio by studio”.

Magritte’s surreal epiphany had been a 1923 encounter with a reproduction of The Song of Love (The love song), a 1914 The painting by Giorgio de Chirico (yes, the same de Chirico whose works Magritte later faked). Danchev writes: “He was upset. Magritte de Chirico’s discovery (and therefore of himself) is one of the great mythical moments of modernism. The discovery of the artist whom Magritte will say was his one and only master, however, has the effect of making him stop painting. Not for long, however: for a period in 1927 he averaged three completed paintings a week, and while in Paris he released just under 300 paintings, about a quarter of his total oeuvre. Magritte himself boasted of being “able to do sixty paintings in a single year, some of them very large”. Such productivity is surprising. We might not be surprised if Magritte was a not-too-fussy Abstract Expressionist or a Jeff Koons with a veritable factory full of assistants. But Magritte was solitary, pragmatic and precise. Its blue skies sparkle, its rocks (leviting or not) weigh tons of convincing, its human figures are, if not masterful, at least believable, and no one makes a bowler hat more engaging. Certainly, a rock by Magritte is much scarier than a tiger by Dalí.

This Belgian competence, however, has its comings and goings. Magritte’s God “sunny” period of the mid-1940s, which Danchev describes as “a pseudo-Impressionist style reminiscent of the late Renoir, gone mad”, could be excused as an attempt to counter the darkness of Nazi occupation, but it’s still painful to to look at. The brief “cow” period (the word means cow but connotes stupidity) is only good as a flash-forward to, say, Peter Saul and the “Bad Painting” of the 1970s. 1950s and early 1960s: The Empire of Lights (The Empire of Light — its day/night contradiction which comes in several versions) or personal values (Personal values — a room filled with gigantic objects).

With, finally, financial success (which came largely thanks to the American art dealer Alexander Iolas), Magritte was able to travel abroad (“something he had always done his best to avoid”) and build a beautiful house. Well, almost. Magritte bought land in the upscale Brussels suburb of Uccle, but the cost of the details of the future home (we feel here that Georgette was getting into debt) simply led him to buy the house he was renting nearby, in the more modest municipality of Schaerbeek.

As pedestrian as his residence was, everything else seemed to fall in Magritte’s way: retrospectives in Brussels, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis and, in 1965, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Not only was Magritte influential on dozens of contemporary artists (his art is so tempting to riff on), but Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg bought works from him. And with Alex Danchev Magritte: a life, René Magritte gets a biography he deserves – thorough, with delicious snippets of writing: for example, “Magritte bragged about having made Mesens lose his virginity that very evening, with a waitress who s discharged his duties with the exercised automatism of a switchboard operator.”

On August 15, 1967, Magritte checked into a hospital for gallbladder surgery, but doctors concluded that surgery was not possible. Georgette noted that Rene drove to the hospital but returned home by ambulance. He went straight to bed and never woke up. (Georgette, the guardian of the flame, lived until 1986.) Magritte is buried in Schaerbeek under a slab without an epitaph. His professional irreverence could have been captured on a tombstone, however, if someone had engraved there his sardonic remark made after a hasty visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy: “I saw Botticelli’s work Primavera, it’s not bad, but it’s better as a postcard. The tombstone, of course, would be painted.


Peter Plagens is a painter and writer who lives in Connecticut.