By Luc Sante
Threepenny Review, Winter 1994
We know from photographs and eyewitnesses that René Magritte, throughout his entire career, did his painting in a corner of the dining room, and that he went about his work invariably dressed in suit and tie. The dining room presumably began as his studio during the lean years, when it was the least inconvenient possibility, but it continued to serve until the end of Magritte’s life, when the room was filled with expensive formal furniture. The suit is documented in the two paintings he made of himself at work: Attempting the Impossible (1928), in which he is shown in a literal sort of way painting into existence Georgette, his wife and principal model, and Clairvoyance (1936), in which he is depicting a bird while studying an egg. In David Sylvester’s Magritte: The Silence of the World, there is a photograph of a very young Magritte, in his student days at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, applying a decorative pattern of what look like Art Nouveau leaves to a large canvas; his jacket and trousers do not match, but they are correct, and he is wearing a necktie.
Now, this is a bit extreme, even if we sometimes think of the entire past, prior to 1968 or so, as an era in which men were never seen without suits and ties. It is difficult to imagine many other 20th century painters being so insistent on mundane formality; only Mondrian comes readily to mind. Even before Jackson Pollock, the archetype of the modern painter was a spattered and disheveled figure whose principal concession to appearances was an encrusted smock. Magritte’s contrary propensity is not very surprising, even if we know little about him, in part because it is natural to think of his work as having been executed by his alter ego, the bowler-hatted man. This character, of course, is Magritte’s signature motif occurring over 40 years of his career; seen from the rear, or frontally but with his face obscured, or in multiples. Magritte’s relationship with this figure is ambiguous—he is more often the painter’s homunculus than his self-representation. But Magritte now and then decided to inhabit his trademark, notably during the last years of his life, when he permitted Duane Michals to take numerous photographs of him wearing his bowler. He was also photographed wearing a bowler in 1938, nearly three decades earlier, and in this picture he is next to The Barbarian (1927), his painting of Fantômas either emerging from or melting into a brick wall. He is striking the exact same pose as Fantômas, a chin-on-hand lean that somehow contains a swagger, but while the master criminal sports evening dress, with a topper and a domino mask, the painter wears a sober dark suit, and that hat.
There was and is a certain grayness and inconspicuousness built into the Belgian character, an indisputable boon for a philosophical detective like Magritte, enabling him to blend in with his surroundings and make his style seem like an absence of style.
The effect manages to be one of defiance. Magritte could be posing as Juve, the implacable adversary and celestial twin of Fantômas. Or he could be proclaiming his adherence to Flaubert’s commandment: “Be methodical in your life and as ordinary as a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your work.” Or he could be demonstrating the excellence of his camouflage, superior even to that of his subject. In a sense he is doing all three. Magritte makes a rather ambivalent detective, but that is the best kind. He was 15 years old when the first of the Fantômas books appeared, and along with the rest of his generation he was suckled on the adventures of Nick Carter and other dime-novel heroes. He commemorated one of them, Nat Pinkerton, in the journal he issued on postcards, La Carte d’après nature, in 1953. This account of a day in the life of the fictional detective (whose name was borrowed from that of the real-life private-eye agency founded by Allan Pinkerton) is entirely without drama. The detective goes to his office, smokes a cigar, writes a letter, enjoys lunch in a fancy restaurant, reads a book, while his lieutenant does all the actual work.
He returns home at nine-thirty. His wife and his mother-in-law are waiting for him in the dining room and together they eat some meat and some vegetables. The detective does not speak about his work in front of his family. He busies himself with his wife and mother-in-law, writing a play with suitable roles for both of them, since they are actresses. At bedtime he kisses them and then makes for his private bedroom for a night of restorative sleep.(Translation by Suzi Gablik from her Magritte, 1970)
Although there was no actual mother-in-law in the picture, and no acting career—or any other—for Georgette, the tone here is probably not too far removed from that of the Magritte household. All the struggles, the emotions, the pangs, the discoveries take place between the lines.
But they take place nevertheless. What makes Magritte a superb detective (the resemblance of his name to that of his compatriot Simenon’s Maigret is, by the way, entirely fortuitous) is his methodical, persistent, and subtle nature; what makes him an ambivalent one is his relation to the law. Marcel Mariën, a younger Belgian Surrealist writer and the publisher of the influential review Les Lèvres Nues, claimed in his autobiography that he and Magritte successfully conspired in a series of art forgeries in the 1940s, with Magritte imitating the likes of Picasso, de Chirico, and Ernst, and Mariën selling them off to unsuspecting Belgian bourgeois, the proceeds going to finance books and magazines—some of them manifestly expensive to produce—that the two issued at the time. The only trace of these fakes that David Sylvester was able to turn up is a work signed “Klee” that emerged among Georgette’s effects, which is an obvious fraud and may have been a reject. Magritte certainly had the aptitude for this sort of work, as is demonstrated by the knowing pastiches of Picasso and de Chirico that show up in less deceptive contexts in his paintings, and the pursuit would not have been out of character.
Belgian Surrealists are sometimes mistakenly thought of as more tame than their French counterparts, a reputation that likely came about because of their inability to hew to André Breton’s dictates for very long. Magritte’s own rupture with the Surrealist commissariat came about when Georgette refused to remove a pendant cross, which had been given to her by her grandmother, on a visit to Breton’s apartment. Breton, who collected totems, Kachina dolls, and every other sort of sacerdotal icon but could not tolerate symbols of the Roman religion, took badly to this; the Magrittes, who were no more Christian than he was, walked out. Painter and poet later made up, but Magritte was never again a signatory of collective publications emanating from Paris. He did, however, sign proclamations every bit as subversive, if often less pompous, issued by the Brussels group, which included Paul Nougé, a poet and ideologue who did not have quite the hold of a Breton over his colleagues; Camille Goemans, a writer and art dealer; Louis Scutenaire, a poet known as Jean Scutenaire during his daytime life as a lawyer; and the collagist and poet E.L.T. Mesens, who also dealt in Magritte’s work, with the result that the two had a frequently acrimonious relationship that lasted nearly 50 years. These men do seem to lack the color of the Parisian set. For one thing, several of them had actual jobs (Nougé was a biochemist, for example); for another, they failed to possess much in the way of marketable eccentricities. They did not include a somnambulist like Robert Desnos, or a matinee-idol visionary like Antonin Artaud, or a performing flea like Salvador Dali, or anyone who looked as Harpo Marxian as Yves Tanguy.
Being Belgian was, in any event, something of a handicap. Sylvester reports that Magritte’s friends solemnly advised him, during his attempt to live in Paris during the 1920s, that he should work on minimizing his Walloon accent, although he apparently enjoyed deliberately emphasizing it. And there was and is a certain grayness and inconspicuousness built into the Belgian character, an indisputable boon for a philosophical detective like Magritte, enabling him to blend in with his surroundings and make his style seem like an absence of style. Magritte grew up in the most industrial part of the Hainaut, the most industrial province of Belgium. Lessines and Charleroi, where he lived until late adolescence, are monochromatic places marked by a lot of uniform brickwork and surrounded by slag heaps, smokestacks, and the open flames of refineries and glass works. And yet they are not merely monotonous—Charleroi has tall, curving arcades and gratuitous colonnades and a certain sinister grace to it. But grayness does predominate, and so it is not surprising that one of Magritte’s dominant modes is the grisaille. The series of paintings he made in the mid-1950s, in which figures, background, and even the sky seem to be made of gray stone, might be tributes to the landscape of his youth, although they might just as well refer to the grisaille backs of the shutters of Nederlandisch triptychs. And Magritte’s bowler-hatted man, the equivocal citizen of the 20th century, is also the middle-class Belgian, an agent who works in such deep cover that he may not be aware of it himself.
Magritte’s primary activity as a detective is, naturally, solving problems. These problems have the routine missing necklace or kidnapped-heir conundrums faced by Nick Carter and Nat Pinkerton beat by a mile. Neither they nor Juve or Maigret ever had to contend with such matters as What happens to the human face if it can be broken like an eggshell? or Can we assume that the window is merely a passageway to a landscape, and not its actual location? or Who says the sky can’t be sectioned up into cubes like cheese?
Magritte’s life-as-art conceit was so seamless, and ran so deep, as to be nearly impenetrable. He became his own disguise.
One of Magritte’s advantages is that he can both propose and dispose—sometimes the problem is the interesting thing, sometimes the solution is. What would be the result of interbreeding between a bottle and a carrot? merely sounds like a feeble setup for a dirty joke, but the pictured result (The Explanation, 1952) is troubling and potent. On the other hand, there are works like Hegel’s Holiday (1958), in which the premise (a dialectical object, effortlessly embodying a contradiction) is far more enticing than the rather pedestrian manifestation (a glass of water sitting atop an umbrella). But then, such works as this—smoothly iconic images without much “painterly” interest, which occasionally seem to be as much highly refined products of Magritte Enterprises, Inc., as they are the results of disinterested speculative activity—are often deceptively bland. All those images that have been commodified as designs for posters, greeting cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, record jackets, corporate logos, etc., ad nauseam, are broad and simple in a way that links Jasper Johns’s use of the flag and Andy Warhol’s representations of Brillo boxes with Alfred Hitchcock’s famous statement that when he wished to depict Switzerland in a movie, he showed the Alps, watchmakers, and chocolate, and if he wanted to show Holland he used windmills and tulip fields. Those pictures were conceived as advertising images, in other words, even if they were not really intended to advertise anything but their own limitations.
But it may be that this aspect of Magritte’s work has become altogether too familiar; we’ve seen the picture of the pipe that announces it is not a pipe so many times we no longer register it. The secondhand uses of that and other images have just about overtaken the originals. On the other hand, we can now look freshly at Magritte’s “vache” period of the late 1940s, for which he was castigated at the time. This is the work that is so blatant in its imagery, so frantic in its brushwork, so overloaded in its coloring that it must indeed have given everyone in the solemn art world of the time a splitting headache. Plaid was a big motif in this period of his, followed closely by nose-as-penis. The work looks like nothing so much as the missing link between James Ensor and Zap Comix. It followed closely on another series, equally unpopular in its time, in which Magritte painted garishly sexual Surrealist tableaux more or less in the manner of late Renoir. The failure of such wild formal deviations led him into his last phase, which took up most of the rest of his life, in which he established problems, sought solutions, and manufactured numerous variations—his lifetime output approaches some 2,000 canvases, not counting gouaches, drawings, and collages.
Part of the reason for this was sheer economic necessity. Although he was famous, Magritte in the late 1940s had an income roughly equivalent to a mid-level employee’s, but without the job security. But another major factor must surely have been his need to produce, to issue goods into the world in a way that befitted his sober and industrious persona. It may now have become a bigger puzzle than any of those proposed in the paintings themselves, this notion of a painter who pretends to be a minor commercial functionary; an aesthetic and sometimes political radical who comported himself as if he were a police official. We are perhaps so inured to the idea of artists decorating and displaying their own lives that the notion of one who shirks this sort of activity seems shockingly unusual. More likely, though, Magritte’s life-as-art conceit was so seamless, and ran so deep, as to be nearly impenetrable. He became his own disguise.
This essay appears in Luc’s stellar collection, Kill All Your Darlings.
[Photo Credit: © 2018 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via the Museum of Modern Art]