By Amanda Sheppard
When looking at a piece of artwork, you’ll often wonder: what do I see? Who is the artist? And what is his/her intention? While looking at surrealist art, however, the first question is especially vexing. And, with any great artist born before the digital age, learning the details of their life poses its own challenges.
Just what was behind his signature mise en abyme (picture in picture) technique – and what was René Magritte trying to do? From what did his ideas materialise?
Now, you’ll have a chance to get inside his creative mind, and life and times. René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films offers a unique glimpse of the celebrated artist through a series of rare photographs and films, many of which have never before been exhibited in Asia.
So why wasn’t Magritte known for his photography or filmmaking, and why the renewed interest in it now, five decades after his death?
The answers begin with Mark Themann, Director of the Latrobe Regional Gallery in Australia, who came across a series of rare Magritte photographs at an exhibition in Dusseldorf more than 20 years ago. They left a profound impact: “In 2015, I met the director of the Magritte Foundation in Brussels and put to him the idea of a solo show of Magritte’s photos in Australia, as this work had never been seen [there], ever,” Themann says. This, in turn, led to a collaboration between the Magritte Foundation, Xavier Canonne (the Director of the Museum of Photography Charleroi), and independent arts publisher Ludion to bring the show to Asia.
Following its successful debut in Australia, René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films now makes its way to Hong Kong, with 132 painstakingly curated images and eight films on loan from private collectors. While Magritte is well known in Asia, and his paintings have been the cause of frenetic energy in Hong Kong’s auction houses, the exhibition of these rare works marks the first display of its kind in the region.
Magritte’s images and films documented both personal experiences and artistic experiments. Irrespective of context, their significance is clear. “Even if he didn’t want to show [the images], he remained an auteur, and paid a lot of attention to what he was doing,” says Canonne, who authored the exhibition’s accompanying book René Magritte: The Revealing Image.
So celebrated was Magritte the painter that his photography was long overlooked. “For many years, museums and public institutions didn’t pay attention to the photos,” Canonne continues. “Some didn’t even know Magritte had a camera. These photos were seen as documents, not artworks.”
Magritte did not operate in a dichotomy – his paintings and photography revealed two sides of the same man. “Magritte’s paintings are a way of showing that there was something more,” explains Canonne. “It was the same with his photography – he was always trying to extend the possibilities of the universe. There was always something behind the appearance.”
The fragility and rareness of these artefacts cannot be overstated. Many negatives have been lost, rendering these the last remaining mementos of Magritte’s private life. These intimate photographs and films provide unprecedented insight and a living legacy – not only as documents of his creative process, but also to shed light on the man himself.
“You see his private life from when he was very young – we have testimonies that he was a runaway boy. You also see a man deeply in love with his wife,” says Canonne. The films and photographs also reveal contrasting elements of his persona – “the way he formed his own personality,” as Cannone says, comical and jovial at times, and stern at others in a black coat and bowler hat.
Themann has high hopes of the show’s run at the new ArtisTree. “This material is very rarely seen, mostly hidden in a few collections, from public view,” he says. “I am thrilled that [this show] will be in Hong Kong and I really want to see it travel to other places in the greater region; it inspires so many artists and art lovers.”
Things to ponder as you’re exploring René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films at the new ArtisTree:
- How do insights into an artist’s life shape your understanding of their creations?
- How did film and photography influence Magritte’s public works and persona?
The new ArtisTree and Ludion, in collaboration with The Magritte Foundation Belgium, present 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
The Shadow and Its Shadow (L'ombre et son ombre), 1932. Georgette and René Magritte, Brussels
Collection: Private collection, Courtesy Brachot Gallery, Brussels