By Alex Danchev with Sarah Whitfield

Profile Books. 439 pages. £30. ISBN 978-1-78125-077-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

A train seeming to appear from a fireplace, a pipe with words beneath it telling the viewer that it isn’t a pipe, a torso, tuba, and chair hanging over a calm sea. These are all images now instantly recognisable as the work of René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist artist. They’ve been seen a thousand times and adapted, in various ways, for commercial purposes. But the man who created them consistently denied that he was an artist. He was a “man of thought”, he said, and communicated his thoughts through paintings, as “others do through music, words, etc.”. He admired philosophers and “always preferred the company of writers and poets to that of painters”. Alex Danchev says that “Magritte’s art is a cross between Wittgenstein’s thought and Alice in Wonderland, with a seasoning of surrealism, a pinch of eroticism, and a sizzle of dread”.

Magritte was born in 1898 in Lessines, though he grew up in Gilly. His father is described by Danchev as a “chancer”, a man who made money and lost it, liked pornography, and was a womaniser. Magritte’s mother was “prayerful, dutiful, heedful” and suffered from depression. Magritte and his two brothers lived in an atmosphere of “domestic upheaval”, further exacerbated by their mother’s suicide when Magritte was thirteen. They ran wild in the streets, playing practical jokes on their neighbours and in shops and the local café. He wasn’t a good student at school and was often a truant. Magritte rarely, if ever, talked about his mother and, when questioned in later life, said: “No-one can say whether the death of my mother had an influence or not”.

He had some early painting lessons from a local teacher. And he developed what became lifelong passions for popular literature and the cinema (he liked Westerns and especially John Wayne). He read Edgar Allan Poe and Treasure Island, along with detective stories (he particularly enjoyed Rex Stout, the American novelist) and Fantômas, a fictional character who “slipped the bounds of bourgeois morality” and “mocked the canons of good taste”. Magritte wasn’t alone in his admiration for his escapades, and Franz Kafka, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and Pablo Picasso were all Fantômas fans. Many years later, in 1943, Magritte painted his portrait of Fantômas based on the poster advertising the original stories. It may be of relevance to note that the knife carried by Fantômas had been replaced by a rose in Magritte’s version.

In 1915 Magritte moved to Brussels to study at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, though his attendance was irregular. The Académie closed for several months in 1918 due to fuel shortages, and Magritte re-registered in 1919, though his studies were interrupted by military service in 1920-21. He did not take the final exams, and appears to have spent a lot of time in the bohemian cafés of Brussels, associating with fellow art-students but also with writers and philosophers. Magritte read widely and was familiar with the work of Comte de Lautrémont, whose famous phrase about “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella” was of significance in “the thought crimes of the surrealists”, according to Danchev.  It was during this period that he met up again with Georgette, who he had first encountered in 1913. They were married in 1922.

It’s difficult to know exactly what Magritte was painting in those early days, though there are references to canvases in the style of the Hague School, the group of painters largely specialising in coastal landscapes and seascapes. It’s also suggested that he produced some Cubist-influenced works. As an art student he would have been informed of what was happening in Paris, and what people like Picasso and Braque were doing. I would guess that he was facile enough in technical matters to be able to turn his hand to different approaches to painting while developing his own method of expression.

In order to earn enough to provide for himself and his wife Magritte worked as a wallpaper designer, though he had, by the early-1920s, become aware of what the surrealists were up to in Paris. He could identify with them in some ways, though his basic concern was for what Danchev quotes the poet Elizabeth Bishop referring to as “glimpses of the always more-successful surrealism of everyday life”.  It might be useful to mention at this point Magritte’s objection to references to “symbols” in his paintings. They are not symbols, he said, they are objects. His visual inspiration was drawn from the real world. And, as Danchev points out, “he had no truck with le fantastique”, and when asked to paint something in that vein he bluntly replied, “I am not a painter of the fantastic”. 

Magritte’s first exhibition of surrealist paintings took place in Brussels in 1927. It didn’t arouse a great deal of positive critical reaction, and few, if any, sales. But it was around this time that he met the colourful E.L.T. Mesens, a precocious and talented youngster who had launched himself into the world of the avant-garde by contacting the Futurist F.T. Marinetti and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara. As a budding composer he had got to know Erik Satie. He no doubt intrigued Magritte when he talked about these people and their ideas, and they were to remain in contact for many years. Mesens became a collector of Magritte’s work and helped to promote it in more ways than one. He moved to London in 1938 and opened a gallery which spotlighted the surrealists.

It was obvious that Magritte would have to spend some time in Paris, then the key centre of avant-garde activity. The surrealists were entrenched there and André Breton dominated their gatherings and decided who was suitable for acceptance into their ranks. Magritte and his wife arrived in the French capital in 1927, and were at first welcomed by writers such as Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard. But it was significant that the Magrittes chose not to live in the artistic areas of the city, Montparnasse or Montmartre, but instead several miles outside them. And Magritte didn’t look for a studio. He always preferred to work where he resided, preferably painting in the living room.

Magritte spent three years in Paris, but I doubt that he was ever truly accepted into Breton’s inner circle. The Parisians looked on him as a provincial and mocked his French, which he spoke with a heavy Walloon accent. And he deliberately exaggerated it when he thought he was being patronised.  Insofar as fitting in with the surrealists’ collective thinking was concerned, he was too much of an individual to submit his ideas to group inspection. He was, Danchev says, “a maverick, a case apart”.

Breton and his associates may have found his work of interest, but not all of them were happy with his sense of humour, nor his refusal to take all their posturings too seriously. Breton spoke scathingly about the idea of having to go to work – “There is no use being alive if one must work” – but, according to Danchev, “the Belgians by contrast operated under bourgeois cover”, and Magritte’s Brussels surrealist friends had jobs as teachers, civil servants, journalists, and in the case of the influential Paul Nougé, as a bio-chemist. Nougé was to be a key factor in Magritte’s intellectual endeavours. Magritte often relied on friends to provide titles for his paintings and Nougé was particularly good at finding something appropriate. 

A break with Breton was almost inevitable, and happened in a somewhat bizarre way. The surrealists were noted for being anti-religion and Breton one day in 1929 noticed that Georgette was wearing a cross. He ordered her to remove it, she refused and left the room, and Magritte himself followed her. The poet Paul Éluard ran after them in an effort to persuade them to return, but the Magrittes were adamant. Breton had insulted Georgette and they weren’t about to apologise. It was several years before what might be called “normal” relations between Breton and Magritte were resumed, though they never again became totally relaxed and informal.

Magritte and his wife returned to Brussels in 1930 and a house in a “dull street in a drab neighbourhood”, with him attempting to earn a living through commercial work, a situation that more or less shaped his life for several years and probably into the early-1950s. Danchev sums up how it was: “Painters have always been part of the ‘precariat’. Magritte was practically a life member”. There were some improvements in the 1930s, partly thanks to Claude Spaack, a novelist and playwright from a wealthy family, who purchased some of Magritte’s paintings and persuaded his brother to do likewise.

And Magritte also benefited from the patronage of another wealthy person, the eccentric Edward James. He bought several Magritte canvases, but also commissioned him to construct three panels behind two-way mirrors in the ballroom of his house in Wimpole Street. It would mean Magritte having to spend several weeks in London. He was “like a fish out of water in Wimpole Street”, didn’t care for English cooking, and depended on Georgette to keep him supplied with crime novels by Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and similar writers. He did socialise to a degree and met Henry Moore and Humphrey Jennings.

There is a suggestion that Magritte, while in London, may have had an affair with Sheila Legge. He would have most likely first met her in 1936 when several of his paintings were included in the London International Surrealist Exhibition. She was photographed as the “Surrealist Phantom of Sex Appeal” in Trafalgar Square with her head obscured by red roses. It could almost have been a study for a Magritte painting, but it was, in fact, created by Salvador Dali. Artists sometimes work along the same lines.     

When Belgian resistance to the Germans collapsed in 1940 Magritte initially made his way to France, afraid that some of his political affiliations might lead to his arrest. He had never been a political activist, but he had lent his support to various left-wing causes, and he knew people who were communists. His friend, Paul Nougé, for example, had been a founder member of the Belgian Communist Party and the Belgian Surrealist Group. Magritte did eventually return to Belgium but lived quietly outside Brussels. Interestingly, when the war ended, he joined the Communist Party, but didn’t remain a member for very long. The restrictions the Party attempted to impose weren’t to his liking, and he pointed out that “Conformism was as blatant in this milieu as in the most narrow-minded sections of the bourgeoisie”

Things were changing by the late-1940s and early-1950s. Surrealism’s day as a movement had passed, the Belgian group had splintered and broken up, old friends and acquaintances had died or moved on, Nougé was drinking himself to death. There had previously been some dubious involvements in Magritte’s life. During the war he had happily forged paintings by, among others, Picasso, Braque, and de Chirico. And when hostilities ceased he was, for a short time, working with one of his brothers in the production of counterfeit bank notes. Both activities were undertaken to boost his income from painting which was still miserably low. Danchev mentions that, in 1998, when Magritte had become respectably established as a Belgian icon, his portrait was used by the National Bank on a 500 franc note. He would have been amused at the idea of a one-time counterfeiter being celebrated in that way.

But the situation began to alter when a 1951 exhibition of his work in New York attracted attention. The city was beginning to take over from Paris as the main centre for art. Marcel Duchamp took on the role of promoting Magritte’s paintings to American collectors. Young American artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein who, a few years later, would become the stars of Pop Art, enthused about Magritte’s work. In 1954 he was given a solo exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and his work was shown at the Venice Biennale. With all this attention, and the income from sales in America, Magritte was finally financially secure. His lifestyle began to change in line with his new-found affluence.

But it may not have brought him contentment. An old friend, Louis Scutenaire, described as “poet, anarchist, surrealist, and civil servant”, who often gave titles for the paintings, thought that Magritte was uncomfortable with success: “It bothered him. He was much less agreeable than when he was poor, less warm, less happy with himself”. However, he was still producing intriguing pictures in 1963, as can be seen from the reproduction of La Lunette d’approche where what seems to be a window through which one can observe clouds actually opens onto a blank wall. He died in August, 1967.

Magritte: A Life is a splendid well-illustrated book, packed with information about Magritte’s life and insights into his paintings. Alex Danchev sadly died before he finished it, but Sarah Whitfield has done a first-rate job of putting the finishing touches to the story.  It should be invaluable reading for anyone interested in knowing more about the always-provocative and entertaining René Magritte.