“The painter’s art, as I see it, is about making poetic images visible.”
Clouds, pipes, bowler hats, and green apples: these remain some of the most immediately recognizable icons of René Magritte, the Belgian painter and well-known Surrealist. He produced a body of work that rendered such commonplace things strange, slotting them into unfamiliar or uncanny scenes, or deliberately mislabeling them in order to “make the most everyday objects shriek aloud.” With his pictorial and linguistic puzzles, Magritte made the familiar disturbing and strange, posing questions about the nature of representation and reality.
Magritte began his career as a graphic artist and quasi-abstract painter, but his work underwent a transformation in 1926, when he began to reinvent himself as a figurative artist. A key canvas in this project was The Menaced Assassin, his largest and most densely populated painting to date. Completed in 1927 and included in the artist’s first solo exhibition, at the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels, it helped launch his career as a Surrealist painter whose interest in severing the links between surface and essence would remain a constant. Painted in the deadpan style that would become his hallmark, each figure appears as though in a state of suspended animation: a naked female corpse with blood at the mouth lies on a red chaise longue, while a suited man nearby listens to a phonograph. Two men in bowler hats flank the doorway, and three male heads hover outside the rear window. Cinematic in its staging, the scene suggests a menacing narrative, but the specifics remain elusive, the visual details hard to reconcile into a single, coherent storyline.
In September 1927, Magritte moved to Paris to be closer to the French Surrealist group. His three years there would be the most prolific of his life. Surrealism, a movement led by André Breton, sought to liberate the mind by subverting rational thought and giving free rein to the unconscious. Until the late 1920s, Surrealist painting had tended toward a style of biomorphic abstraction, often achieved through automatic techniques supposedly outside the artist’s conscious control, as advocated by Breton (and seen, for instance, in André Masson’s free application of gesso and sand in Battle of Fishes). Magritte, by contrast, pursued a figurative style that, in his words, “challenge[d] the real world” through a naturalistic and highly detailed depiction of ordinary objects and subjects.
A signal development of Magritte’s time in Paris was his word-paintings, in which he sought to investigate the relationship between text and image, often breaking apart well-worn connections between the two. One such work, The Palace of Curtains, III, presents viewers with two representations of the sky: on the left, a shard of atmospheric blue; on the right, the corresponding noun, ciel (French for sky), written in the artist’s neat, firm script. Magritte thus divided a single concept into two, cleaving its visual and verbal signs into discrete, self-contained panels. Image and language interrupt one another, challenging artistic conventions of representation and urging viewers to ask which, if either, is more “real” than the other. With The False Mirror, Magritte posed a similar puzzle about observation. Here, an enormous eye fills the canvas, its iris a powder-blue sky dotted with clouds, its pupil a jet-black dot. The eye looks at the viewer, while the viewer looks both at and through the eye, as through a window, becoming both observer and observed.
Magritte reimagined painting as a critical tool that could challenge perception and engage the viewer’s mind. His was a method of severing objects from their names, revealing language to be an artifice—full of traps and uncertainties.
Note: The opening quote is from “Foreword,” in René Magritte, 1898–1967, ed. Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque and Frederik Leen (Ghent: Ludion, 2005), p. 11.
Natalie Dupêcher, independent scholar, 2017