The highly coveted Belgian painter of the modern era, Rene Magritte was known for his eccentric painting style, which is classified as Surrealism. His commercial success was a contributing factor to his international fame, having been producing posters and book covers for many advertising companies. This experience however helped him shape his own unique artistic style and identity, which he remained humble about it as compared to the flamboyant lives of his French contemporaries.
It is said that Magritte came from a middle-class family in Belgium but he chose to not flaunt it. He portrayed himself in his paintings as a bowl-hatted man which is a symbol for his decision to stay quiet about his social status. At some point, his rivals harshly criticized his tendency to create several copies of his prints to which they think was a sort of fraud, but this did not weaken the artist’s reputation even after his death. Despite such allegations Magritte remained popular in the industry and some artists looked up to him as an inspiration for 1980’s prints and photos. This development prefaced the advent of Pop Art during the said period.
Rene Magritte’s art is unique in a sense that it challenges the common sense. He re-arranged forms and figures that people recognize normally into something that would shift their perspective from taking the painting for granted to closely paying attention to it. He toyed with ambiguities there were during his time such as ambiguities between ideas of an object and its material representation. Therefore, he often produced compelling paradoxes that would leave people wondering. The bottom line is to give people a new perspective different from their original perceptions of the real world.
Rene Magritte has always been fascinated by the power of combining words and images in an attempt to convey a compelling message. His images are drawn with some kind of air of mystery around them, which is a characteristic that makes it a Surrealist work. The ambiguity of the images are then reinforced by words that can make people question their interpretation of Magritte’s paintings. For example, Magritte often painted self-portraits, including of his wife, in a setting that might come off autobiographical to some. Meanwhile, some people might just see the subject as the artist’s inspiration.
Some examples of Magrittes major art works include The Empire of Lights (1954), The Pilgrim (1967), The Human Condition (1933), The Treachery of Images (1929), Golconda (1953), The Key of Dreams (1930), and The Menaced Assassin (1927).
Rene Francois Ghislain Magritte was born in November 21st 1898 in Hainaut province, Belgium. He was raised in the town of Lessines to a family of merchants. His father, Leopold Magritte, was a dealer of textile products while his mother, Regina nee Bertinchamps, was a milliner. Rene was the oldest among three siblings, although none of them had influenced him to pursue painting.
Two significant childhood events might have introduced him to the idea of becoming a painter. One was when he met a painter in the town cemetery. He even re-told this experience, which goes “I found in the middle of some broken stone columns and heaped-up leaves a painter who had come from the capital, and who seemed to me to be performing magic.” No wonder the young Magritte felt instantly fascinated by painting. The second life-altering event was when his mother committed suicide in 1912. His mother drowned herself in the river and when the locals retrieved the body out of the water, her face was covered by her white dress. This particular image would re-occur in his oeuvre and Les Amants, particularly when he painted figures with their heads concealed with a cloth.
By the time he reached 12, he entered the studio of a local artist and took some painting lessons there. This opened up an opportunity for him to deepen his interest in the arts, especially in films and literature such as the works by Maurice Leblanc and Edgar Allan Poe. In 1914 Magritte went to the Academie des Beaux-Arts at the capital city and befriended Georgette Berger along the way. Historians believe that he met her at a fair and she would become his lifelong muse after getting married in 1922.
In the Academie, he was supervised and trained by Constant Montald but he found the master’s teaching method quite tedious and uninspiring. From 1918 to 1924 Magritte have had produced paintings that depicted elements of Cubism and Futurism. During this period he was employed as a draughtsman by a wallpaper manufacturer in the city after the war. He then moved on to becoming a poster maker and ad designer in the mid-1920.
In 1926, Galerie ‘Le Centaure contracted Rene Magritte to be its fine painter full-time. Thereafter, he executed a series of Surrealist paintings such as The Last Jockey and subsequently held his first art exhibition in the capital by 1927. However, the exhibition was not well-received by the critics that the artist felt depressed over it. He then settled in Paris and there he met Andre Breton, who would become one of his lifelong friend. Breton introduced him to the leading Surrealist group at the time.
In Paris, Magritte’s art evolved into something closer to Surrealism. His paintings are characterized by their dreamy and illusionistic quality but he developed it in his own way. His innovative approach to Surrealism made him become one of the most influential artists in the group and so it prompted him to stay in Paris for three years. During those years, he made little income as an independent artist because he was still working under ‘Le Centaure’s contract. But when the contract ended in 1929, Magritte and his brother decided to put up an agency.
In the 1930’s, Magritte traveled to London, England to try his luck there. He was taken care by Edward James by providing him a flat and painting equipment for free. In return, the artist painting James in two of his major works such as the Pleasure Principle and the Not to be Reproduced. Although the Second World War already broke out, Magritte opted to remain in Brussels and continued painting. This decision led to ending his professional ties with Breton for a while.
From 1943 to 1944 Rene Magritte had been attempting to revive the so-called Renoir Period. This was done as his protest against the feeling of alienation he experienced after the country suffered from the invasion of Germany. In 1946 though he decided to break away from this pessimistic view on life after the war and instead joined a political movement that would change the Belgium art scene for the better. Together with other artists, Magritte signed the Surrealism in Full Sunlight manifesto. A year later, those Belgian artists started the Vache Period, wherein Magritte was one of founding members.
During the Vache period, Magritte’s art resembled Fauve style. Unfortunately he had to resort to producing copies of certain notable artists like Braque, Picasso, and Chirico in order to make a living. He had done this with the help of his brother and son Marcel Marien. The group sold fake art works and forged bank notes, which his rivals and peers found despicable. In 1948, when life became somehow better for Magritte, he returned to painting with styles similar to his pre-war works.
After the war, Magritte worked with Alexandre Iolas, a gallery owner. It was through Iolas that he got to know prominent figures like Henry Torczyner and Dominique Menil. These new social connections boosted his career and reputation. He remained in Brussels for the rest of his life and Surrealism would become his main artistic influence. But as with many other artists he did have recurring symbols and themes such as floating rocks, meta-painting, still-objects, and still-objects drawn upon or over the human figure. Somehow, art critics found this kind of theme as Magritte’s sense of humor, as he once told “I love subversive humour, freckles, knees, the long hair of women, the dreams of young children at liberty, a young girl running in the street.”
The 1950’s was another productive decade for the artist as he befriended Andre Bosmans and Maurice Rapin who provided him review articles about his work. In 1953 he received a major commission by the Casino in Knokke, which was to produce murals for the Chandelier Hall of the casino. The work is now called as The Enchanted Domain which depicts a whole new universe and it inspired him to venture out to filming.
In 1956, Magritte started filming short movies that featured his wife, Paul Colinet and Scutenaires. This served as another medium to experiment with art and discover new techniques that would mark his legacy in the art world. Yet as a matter of fact, as early as 1936 Magritte had achieved international fame as he was invited to exhibit in New York. His art works would make a comeback to the said city by 1965 and 1992 at the sponsorship of Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively.
Even during the last years of Magritte’s life, he would still continue investigating new art techniques and influences. As a result, other artists were able to produce a series of bronze casts inspired by his newly developed art forms and styles. This should continue his legacy across a new movement that flourished during the 1980’s.
Rene Magritte died of cancer on August 15, 1967 in his home in Brussels.