By Siobhan Brewood-Wyatt
You’re probably familiar with René Magritte’s most famous work, The Son of Man. It’s a self-portrait, bowler hat atop his head, an apple obscuring his face. But how much do you know about the man behind the apple?
Born in Belgium in 1898, René François Ghislain Magritte was the eldest son of a textile merchant. Magritte’s formative years gave little indication that he would go on to become one of the 20th century’s most prolific artists and help cement the surrealist movement as one of the most definable artistic genres of recent times. So how did he get there and what led him to produce such individual and recognisable work? Moreover, what legacy did he leave behind and how relevant is his work today?
Magritte began drawing lessons at the age of 12; he later studied for a period at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. During this time he dabbled with both impressionism and futurism, before producing his first surrealist painting, The Lost Jockey, in 1926. In his early years he experienced the effects of his mother’s suicide in 1914 – his mother was said to have been discovered in the local river after many days, with her petticoat covering her face. Though biographers are divided on the long-term effects of this trauma, it is certainly true that some of Magritte’s work features partially covered visages, or indeed the averted face.
He married his childhood friend Georgette Berger in 1922; they remained together his death in 1967. As his muse (she is the star of many photographs showcased at René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films), Georgette watched him grow in prominence in the international art world after World War II, largely thanks to two exhibitions in London and New York.
Magritte’s impact on 20th century art was undeniably significant, both during his lifetime and beyond. He was popular in surrealist art circles, and peers and with the gatekeeper to the surrealist group – the writer André Breton – who admitted Magritte into the surrealist circle. However, as Magritte continued to develop professionally, he and several other Belgian contemporaries branched out to create “surrealism in full sunlight” in 1946, a reaction to the depressing pessimism with which Magritte viewed post-WWII Belgium and the broader aspects of surrealism. A counter-approach to the darkness and darkly abstract nature of traditional surrealism (which had roots in Dadaism), Magritte’s approach tended towards lighter, brighter palettes and a gentler tone.
Magritte’s distinctive development of his “surrealism in full sunlight”, often saw everyday and commonplace objects placed in unexpected settings, setting up philosophical conundrums, paradoxes and propositions of wonderment. This artistic approach, which transforms the banality of everyday and celebrates the mystery of the ordinary with a critique of consumerism, proved to be of particular interest to the pop artists, with the likes of Andy Warhol and John Baldessari said to have been inspired by Magritte’s clear, symbolic and allegorical style. His approach would also foreshadow later movements such as minimalism and conceptual art.
One of Magritte’s most recognisable works and celebrated pieces was a 1951 project, which saw him paint the walls of a Belgium casino, leading to other commissions throughout the country. By the mid-1960s, he had also had further exhibitions in New York, including at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 1963, Magritte continued painting and travelling for his work up until his death in 1967.
Today, his work remains as significant as ever, with people continually returning to explore how he represented and re-represented 20th century visual culture. The legacy he left behind inspired a generation of artists to come and his surreal yet distinctive approach remains hugely popular for those seeking to map the evolution of contemporary art that revises the banality of the everyday. “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist”, he is quoted – and that sums up Magritte’s approach to art quite nicely.
Things to ponder about Magritte as you’re exploring “The Revealing Image” at the new ArtisTree:
- What evidence can be seen in his work that suggests he influenced later movements?
- What do you think Magritte’s subject matter and style say about his influences? Is there a common theme across the collection?
The new ArtisTree and Ludion, in collaboration with The Magritte Foundation Belgium, presents René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films.
19 January – 19 February 2018
See the programme page for more details.
Follow @artistreehk on Instagram for all the #Magritte_Artistree action
Credit: René Magritte and The Barbarian (Le Barbare), London Gallery, London, 1938
Private collection, Courtesy Brachot Gallery, Brussels