MAGRITTE, PAINTER-PHILOSOPHERby Valery Oisteanu
For the first time in Belgium, the art of its native “genius surrealist” gets the royal treatment in a one-man museum similar to those established for van Gogh in Amsterdam, Paul Klee in Berne, Picasso and Miró in Barcelona, and Dalí in Figueres. Finally, some 200 artworks by René Magritte have been gathered for all time, garnering recognition on a global scale and packaged for mass consumption by art students, curious tourists and pensioners, and admiring artists like yours truly.
It is already a year since the facility opened, and more than forty years after the artist’s death. His paintings, drawings, posters, music scores, vintage photographs, films, and memorabilia have found a perfect setting, right in the center of Brussels, across from the King’s Palace, in a multimedia presentation commensurate with the 21st century. This multidisciplinary permanent installation is the biggest Magritte archive anywhere, assembled with the help of mega-investments by Belgian and French corporate patrons. Most of the exhibits come directly from the collection of the artist’s widow, Georgette Magritte, as well as from Irène Hamoir Scutenaire, the painter’s primary collector, including Magritte’s experiments with photography from 1920 on and the short surrealist films he made from 1956 on.
This monumental assembly enables the art to enter into an open dialogue with its own culture, its people, and even with contemporary art. Magritte proves to be a challenging Universalist; it might not be so easy to decipher him, yet his signature symbols—jockeys, bowling pins, musical instruments, clouds, umbrellas, bowler hats, pipes, clouds, birds, eggs, and green apples flying and morphing everywhere, including the exterior of the museum at night, aglow in giant projections—are in no need of translation.
To get there you must go through the Museum of Ancient Art/Museum of Modern Art on Regency Street #3, and then along a semi-underground passage and a series of escalators until arriving at the facility, which spans more than 2,500 square meters. (A surprise awaits at the exit, where the doors open on a piazza overlooking the King’s Palace, just around the corner from where you started!)
This newly built marvel of images, words, and sounds is universal in appeal, even in its frantic exposition; audio guides and brochures translate the explanatory texts for Magritte’s many erotically charged works. One learns that the well-known “This Is Not a Pipe” is an obscene French reference to oral sex. “Pleasure” (1927) reveals a young woman bloodily devouring a bloody bird. In “The Threatened Murderer” (1926), six men ogle a woman’s lifeless, naked body. Often the artist’s wife appears—in a frame within the painting “The Likeness” (1954) or hanging on the painter’s back in a cinematic short.
Naked women abound everywhere: mermaids, a nude painted with faux-wood grain (“Discovery,” 1927), another licking herself on the shoulder, yet another rising with two others nudes in the painting called “The Sea of Flames” (1945) with a big toad on her back—nude after nude, each different, each challenging the senses and mind. One viewed from the back is called “Evening Gown” (1954), while a bottle, painted with breasts and pubes, becomes a standing nude in “Painted Bottle” (1950). My favorite is the painting of a nightgown slung on a hanger yet flaunting juicy breasts—diaphanous clouds as a see-through dream.
The museum’s first floor begins chronologically with the works of 1898–1929, Magritte’s constructivist period, and his collaborations with the “7 Arts” group. (Visits to Paris and encounters with Breton, Éluard, and Aragon influenced not only his aesthetic views, but his politics as well.) Here, elongated chess pieces bearing musical notes are clumped as flowers into collages; secretive veils cover “The Lovers” (1928) and figures in several other works (his father manufactured curtains). De Chirico had a strong impact on his art, as did Max Ernst’s illustrations, and at this point surrealism became Magritte’s tool of communication until the end.
Primarily interested in the relationship between notions of the philosophical and the perceptual, visual signs and language, Magritte considered himself a thinker who used painting to explore ideas, a poet trapped in a pictorial idiom. “To be surrealist is to banish the notion of ‘déjà vu,’” he said, “and seek out the not yet seen.”
The second floor looks at Magritte’s advertising works—he designed posters for Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas films and produced illustrations for books of friends’ poetry. Along the way he had his first show in New York at Julien Levy gallery (1929) and illustrated the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, which came out in 1948. At that time he painted a series of caricatures in oil, and made gouaches inspired by the expressionistic style of James Ensor.
The third floor, “The Enchanted Domain,” highlights Magritte’s research into repetition, painting a grand summerhouse in various lights and reflections (“Dominion of Lights” in several versions).
Magritte was awarded the Guggenheim prize in 1956 and secured a permanent agent/patron in Alexander Iolas. From that time until he died in his apartment on 97 Rue de Mimosas at age 69 in 1967, he lived a more secure existence. Hailed as the father of Belgian surrealism, he was a rebellious spirit who participated in “Exquisite Corpses” and absurdist photo set-ups.
The Magritte Museum is a labyrinth of writing, painting, short films and photos, room after room filled with enchanted works. Descending into the floors below, another persona appears—Magritte as the sculptor of objects that are mysterious and ironic, massive and delicate, where majestic birds turn into plants, standing silently, facing eternity.
My own tour done, walking out into the daylight, I was struck by how concisely the visionary ideas in Magritte’s paintings can be summarized in a line (that I imperfectly recall) by Paul Colinet, a poet and friend of Magritte: “The bird is in the suitcase, the suitcase is in the egg, the egg is in the rock, the rock is in the little finger.”