In Brussels, the visual enigmas of René Magritte
Green apples, bowler hats, clouds–the imagery of Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967) is familiar to all of us. His personal iconography has pervaded popular culture via countless movies (Toys, I Heart Huckabees, The Thomas Crown Affair), posters (The Exorcist), video games, television shows (the Simpsons), music videos and rock album covers (Paul McCartney owns many of his paintings and was inspired to use Apple for the Beatles’ record label). Acclaimed internationally in his lifetime, Magritte himself remains a mystery to most of us, an anonymous figure, a secret agent in disguise, which is how he saw himself.
Magritte’s life reveals the source of much of his imagery. He was born (1898) in Lessines, a small town in Belgium, and lived much of his childhood in the city of Chatelet. It’s easy to see why he would be interested in dark suits and bowler hats; his father was a tailor and seller of suits, his mother a milliner.
As a child, René loved the bells that draft horses wore on their harnesses. Their jingle could be heard over long distances at night, like unseen magical music. Called grelots, the bells appear as mysterious spheres in many of Magritte’s works, their slits hinting at something hidden within, a symbol of Magritte’s obsession with concealment.
Details of Magritte’s childhood are scarce. Magritte didn’t like to dwell on the past, not surprisingly since his mother killed herself by drowning in 1912. Psychoanalysts believed that figures with veiled or obscured faces in his paintings referred to reports that his mother’s face was covered by her dressing gown when she was pulled from the water. Later in life, Magritte would famously discount psychoanalysis: “Psychoanalysis has nothing to say, not even about works of art, which evoke the mystery of the world. Perhaps psychoanalysis itself represents the best case for psychoanalysis.”
Cinema was a youthful escape and inspiration. As a teenager Magritte was enthralled by the Fantomas movie series of 1913 and 1914. Fantomas was a sinister hero, a master of crime and disguise, a man without identity, a man whose face was never seen.
In 1913, on a merry-go-round, Magritte met his future wife, Georgette Berger. He was 14, she 13. The romance was interrupted when the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914. Magritte moved to Brussels to continue his education, attending the Académie Royales des Beaux-Arts from 1916 to 1918. He was working as a poster and advertising artist when he encountered Georgette again; she was working at the Maison de la Culture and as a wallpaper artist. Georgette married René in 1922 and would be his model and muse for life.
Early on, Magritte explored different styles: Futurism, Cubism, Abstraction, Impressionism. Moved to tears by a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico’s painting The Song of Love, Magritte decided to make each of his paintings a visual poem. His first Surrealist work was a collage called Le Jockey Perdu or The Lost Jockey (1926). Blasted by critics but with a gallery contract bolstering him financially, Magritte moved to Paris where he joined the Surrealism group led by writer André Breton and met other Surrealist artists like Salvador Dali.
Surrealism, meaning surpassing realism, began as a literary phenonemon but was quickly adopted by those working in other arts. Outside of Paris, then the world’s art capital, the earliest and most important centre of Surrealism to develop was in Belgium. The movement took different paths: automatism and analytical experiments flourished in France, Belgian Surrealism was more anchored in reality.
In 1930, Magritte moved back to Brussels where he spent the rest of his life at the heart of its Surrealist scene. He and Georgette lived for years in a modest house in the Jette neighborhood. Here in the dining room he used as a studio, Magritte produced 800 works, approximately half of his oeuvre. He entertained other Surrealists in his garden, walked his dog, met friends at pubs and rode the tram into town like any other anonymous bourgeois citizen. World famous in his lifetime, reaching cult status since, René Magritte died of pancreatic cancer in 1967.
On the trail of Magritte in Brussels: Magritte’s paintings can be found in museums all over the world but Brussels, Belgium, was the centre of his world. Here on leafy, orderly streets with cotton-puff clouds floating overhead in a fantastically blue sky, I suddenly ‘got’ Magritte. Devotees will want to make a pilgrimage to:
- Musée Magritte Museum: Opened in 2009 on the Mont des Arts, this world-class museum houses the largest collection of Magrittes in the world and provides detailed, chronological insight into the artist’s life and work through film, graphic art, photos and paintings.
- Musée René Magritte: Magritte’s simply-decorated ‘bourgeois’ home in Jette is now a museum. Sharp-eyed visitors may spot elements of the house that have appeared in paintings. The museum is accessible by Brussels’ Metro and tram network. Tram 94 connects the new Magritte Museum (station: Royale) to the home/museum (stop: cimetière de Jette).
- Le Greenwich bar, 7 rue des Chatreux: Magritte and his surrealist circle talked and played chess at this old-fashioned brown café
in the 1930s and 40s. Chess master Bobby Fischer played here and it’s still a hangout for chess aficionados. Magritte was reportedly bad at the game.
- La Fleur en Papier Doré café, 55 rue des Alexiens: One of the most famous artists’ hangouts in the world, patronized by Dadaists, Surrealists, CoBrA artists, and Tintin creator Hergé.
- Magritte and Georgette are both buried at Schaerbeek Cemetery, Brussels.
From the Surrealists to comic books, Belgium leads to flights of fancy. For more on visiting Belgium and its cozy cultured capital Brussels, see Visit Belgium.
In Brussels, I stayed at the Dominican Hotel, a hushed, glamorous haven with considerable cool factor within walking distance of the Magritte Museum, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, and the Grand Place. I was amazed to discover the hotel was once the private home of French neo-classicist painter Jacques-Louis David.