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Rene Magritte is not the most famous name in the art world. Unlike Andy Warhol or Pablo Picasso, he was not prone to what The New York Times called “the personal shenanigans that made a public figure of Salvador Dali.” Artist Ed Ruscha said Magritte “had a habit of not appearing to be a bohemian character in the sense that he would dress up in a suit and tie and paint his pictures in his home. He looked more like a banker than an artist.” In its obituary for the artist, a friend was quoted as saying Magritte described himself as a “secret agent. By that I suppose he meant to allude to the contrast between his appearance and his reality. He looked like a small-town banker, but under the banker’s innocent allures Magritte was a very revolutionary personality.”


The dichotomy was there in his art. On the surface, his paintings often seemed to be realistic depictions of everyday life. But there was always a twist that made the viewer do a double take.


Was that a train roaring out of a fireplace?


Red bricks in a picture frame?


A water glass balanced on top of an open umbrella?


A crescent moon trapped in a tree?


“The essential difference between Magritte and other surrealists,” wrote New York Times art critic John Canaday in a review of a 1965 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “is the insistent and deliberate banality of the pictorial elements he chooses to juggle. His seas, skies, beaches, city buildings and parks; his derby-hatted businessmen, furnished rooms, automobiles and bridges seem, each within itself, impervious to disturbance by the curious dislocations of scale and perspective that turn them into a world that never was.”

The artist summed up his approach best when he said, “To be a surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been.”


Born November 21, 1898 in Lessines, Belgium, Magritte’s father was a tailor and textile merchant. His mother had been a milliner prior to marriage. Emotionally unstable, she had attempted suicide numerous times, and after one such attempt, her husband locked her in a bedroom to prevent any further self-destructive tendencies. It was not a solution, however. One day in 1912, her clothed body was found face down in a river. Her dress covered her head, and some have theorized that Magritte’s tendency to cover the faces of the figures in his paintings, as in “The Lovers” and “The Pleasure Principle,” is a clue that the tragedy may have been the springboard for much of his art. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Magritte certainly had a fascination with death and the macabre. As a boy, he frequently played in a graveyard, and in adulthood when visiting a friend who was a coffin maker, spent part of a day at rest in a casket with a sliding window that revealed the face of its occupant.


The year after his mother’s suicide, he met Georgette Berger. She would become both his favorite model and, in 1922, his wife. His interest in art burgeoned when he took drawing and painting classes at school. From 1916-1918, he studied at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. He was soon mingling with artists from the young avant garde movement, and began sharing a studio with Pierre Flouquet. He was not interested in following the same artistic path, however, and was instead attracted to surrealism which was beginning to take hold in Paris. Through art dealer E.L.T. Mesens, whose surrealist collages had an international reputation, Magritte saw a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Song of Love,” and remembered being moved to tears.


“Chirico was the first to dream of what must be painted and not how to paint,” Magritte explained to a friend. 


He sold his first painting, a portrait of singer Evelyne Brelia, in 1923, and two years later produced “Le Jockey Perdu,” his first surrealist painting.


Success as an artist was slow in coming, though, and Magritte supported himself designing wallpaper and drawing advertisements. His first gallery showing in 1927 was not a success, and his work was criticized by Pierre Flouquet who wrote that Magritte had allowed himself to be too heavily influenced by art dealers and literary advisers to the detriment of his work. Disappointed with the reaction, he left Brussels to spend three years in Paris. Life there proved too expensive for the struggling artist, and he returned to Brussels in 1930 by which time he had begun what would become his most famous series of paintings, “The Treachery of Images.”


Below a painting of a pipe, Magritte had written “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Translated into English, it meant “This is not a pipe.” In 1936, art dealer Julien Levy presented the first one man exhibit of Magritte’s work in New York, and the pipe became a controversial item. In The New York Times, critic Edward Alden Jewell, noting that “the artist paints a clock and captions it ‘The Wind,’” and “what we positively know to be a pitcher is entitled ‘The Bird,’” approached the painting with an attitude of defiance:


“No, sir, you don’t on any account fool us again!” Citing Gertrude Stein’s famous observation that “a rose is a rose is a rose,” the critic notes that “it will take more than a Magritte to overwhelm us a second time with his sly, horrendous shocks.”


“The famous pipe,” Magritte remarked later. “How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying.”


The same critic was kinder a year later when Levy presented a second exhibit of Magritte’s work, praising the artist for “some distinguished passages of tone and of paint texture.”

When Magritte’s work was exhibited in the Big Apple in 1953, the reaction was even more positive. This time, the same staid newspaper’s Stuart Preston described Magritte as an “impeccable painter (who) possesses considerable imaginative power, but,” he cautioned, “there should be no mistaking that he means, somewhat childishly, to horrify.”


One of Magritte’s most famous paintings is 1964's “The Son of Man,” which was a self-portrait, but with his trademark surreal touch. A man in a suit and bowler hat is pictured standing against a small brick wall with the sky and sea behind him. The man’s face is mostly hidden by an apple.


“At least it hides the face partly,” Magritte said. “Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”


His paintings were bizarre, but Magritte the man was almost boringly conventional. He lived quietly, enjoyed playing chess and the piano, loved dogs, and was an avid moviegoer and a big fan of John Wayne. Regarding his art, he simply said, “Life obliges me to do something, so I paint.”


Magritte’s reputation began to soar in the 1960s, a decade when surrealism was not only finding renewed acceptance in the visual arts, but finding its way into popular music by way of the Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby, wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door”) and Bob Dylan (“he just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette”). It was during a 1965 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that Magritte made his only visit to the United States. At the time, he also visited Houston, Texas where a smaller exhibit of his work was held at the University of St. Thomas.


“He had a simply wonderful time,” a friend remembered. “He bought a ten-gallon hat, and went to a rodeo.


He died on August 15, 1967 at age 68 following a battle with cancer. Two years later, the Iolas Gallery in New York presented an exhibit of sculptures translated from his paintings, all of which he had signed two months before his death. “A ‘must see’ memo is in order,” advised John Canaday in The New York Times who described Magritte as an artist “operating within the realm of true magic.”


Magritte may not be as famous as Dali, but his striking surreal imagery has seeped into popular culture as much as the work of more public artists, but as subtly and quietly as the man himself. You can find Magritte in some very unlikely places. Although May Routh, the costume designer for the 1979 film Being There,never heard Magritte discussed while the film was in production, the film’s poster shows the artist’s influence with its depiction of Peter Sellers in a bowler hat twirling an umbrella. The image was clearly inspired by, and pays homage to, Magritte’s painting “The Son of Man.” The 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair also saluted Magritte in a scene featuring dozens of men in bowler hats, all carrying briefcases stuffed with reproductions of the painting. The cover art for Jackson Browne’s 1974 album, Late for the Sky, was inspired by Magritte’s painting “L’Empire des Lumieres,” and according to actress Ellen Burstyn, the poster for the 1973 shocker, The Exorcist, was based on the same painting. In 1972, playwright Tom Stoppard found inspiration in the artist’s work for a one act comedy titled After Magritte.


Magritte’s oddest appearance in pop culture may have come on Paul Simon’s 1983 Hearts and Bones album which includes the song, “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War.” Simon said, “That was a caption of a photograph in a book I was reading, and I thought, that’s an interesting title for a song.” In the song, Simon imagines Magritte and his wife dancing “by the light of the moon/To the penguins, the moonglows/The orioles and the Five Satins/The deep forbidden music they’d been longing for.” As for its meaning, Rolling Stone suggested the songwriter “obviously identifies with the figure of the grown-up, respectable artist irrevocably smitten with those doo-wop groups,” but Magritte would probably have dismissed any attempt at such an interpretation.


When asked about the meaning of his own work, Magritte once replied, “It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”


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