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Making sense of surrealism – an art professor on deciphering Magritte


By Amanda Sheppard


The art world can be a daunting one to venture into, particularly for newcomers. This task can appear all the more challenging when facing surrealist art. But surrealism is no longer the sole realm of art aficionados. With René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films, a series of rare and intimate photographs by acclaimed surrealist artist René Magritte on display at the new ArtisTree, this movement is more accessible than ever before.


Professor Ken Wach is the former Principal Research Fellow and Head of the School of Creative Arts at The University of Melbourne. Having seen the debut of René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films first-hand in Australia last year, he believes that even amateurs will be able to easily discover Magritte’s talents through the show. “The catalogue is excellent and the works offer an insight into the creative mind of one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic artists,” Wach says. To him, these images provide a glimpse into the inner-workings of a creative icon.


As someone with a deep appreciation and longstanding interest in surrealist art, Wach understands that his interpretation of Magritte’s work may differ to those of the non-art world. “People will puzzle over it, because it is perplexing and because Magritte’s works do not emphasise skill and technique. The works and thoughts need explanation – like most good things in life,” he explains.


“The works and thoughts need explanation – like most good things in life”

But that’s not to say that René Magritte: The Revealing Image – Photos and Films  will be difficult to appreciate. Here is Wach’s insight into how an art lover – of any level – can begin to appreciate this exhibition.


On understanding surrealism 

Though at first it may appear complex and indecipherable, surrealist art – and its philosophy – focuses on the purest and most uncomplicated of human thoughts. “The surrealists’ aim was simple: art had to create rather than re-create – to add to the world rather than replicate it,” he explains. “Art now had to reveal the ‘inner’, rather than reproduce the ‘outer’.”


On discovering Magritte’s surrealism 

“[For Magritte], serious art had to have internal integrity. It had to be about the mental contents of the mind, rather than the visual pleasure to the eye,” says Wach of the artist’s extensive portfolio of work.”


On the rarity of the artwork 

Wach recognises that the intimate photographs and films on show at the new Artistree are in a league of their own. “Viewers are unlikely to ever see these works again,” he says. “I was impressed by the homely and intimate charm of the photographs, and the ways that they offered up rare glimpses into the life of one of modernism’s most original thinkers.”


On what makes Magritte, Magritte 

To come to terms with the late artist is to understand what makes his work quintessentially Magritte-ian. This, says Wach, is signalled by juxtaposition – “the greater the clash of images, the greater the complexity of thought.” Pieces like René Magritte and the Likeness are demonstrative of such qualities.


On the audience 

Wach believes that Magritte’s works are “much more readable and easily digested” than many of those produced by his surrealist counterparts. Speaking about the audience’s reception of the Melbourne run of the show, he says, “The young loved the works’ unpretentious ambience; others gained much from the ‘normalcy’ of the content, and the more creative minds recognised the everyday charm of an artistic life.”


Things to ponder as you’re exploring The Revealing Image at the new ArtisTree:

  • -     What are the best ways to “read” surrealist art?
  • -     In what ways are Magritte’s photographs and films accessible to a wider audience?



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 #MagritteArtistree action

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