Time Transfixed

Searching for Magritte in a Magritte-filled world

Duane Michals, Magritte with Hand Over Face Exposing One Eye, 1965, gelatin silver print with hand-applied text, 11 x 14". © Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

MAGRITTE: A LIFE, BY ALEX DANCHEV, WITH SARAH WHITFIELD. New York, New York: Pantheon, 2021. 480 pages.

“RENÉ MAGRITTE is the single most significant purveyor of images to the modern world.” Such is the bold claim that launches Alex Danchev’s biography of the painter. Danchev, who died before completing the volume, goes on to name Magritte’s many collectors and admirers, a list that includes Jeff Koons, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, and John Berger, as well as highlighting his role in bringing “the frisson of the surreal to Madison Avenue.” It is a small irony, then, that the work of an artist who, early in his career, designed advertisements for cars and fur coats, as well as wallpaper, has become a kind of cultural wallpaper, displayed on “countless book covers, album covers, posters, and commercials of all kinds.” Indeed, many of Magritte’s iconic images are so familiar that it’s doubtful most viewers have any idea of their author, let alone that they were once regarded by André Breton as “a violent robbing of popular opinion and conventions.” Broader success wasn’t immediate. Not a single painting sold from a 1936 show at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery, for which Magritte provided an English language version (“This is not a pipe”) of The Treachery of Images, 1929. But Magritte’s provocations, like Surrealism overall, have been watered down by decades of absorption by advertising, music videos, and internet memes. Owing to its visual polish and readily apprehensible wit, his once-perturbing art—a profound influence on artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ed Ruscha—has been subsumed into the realm of kitsch.

The author of a highly praised life of Cézanne, Danchev takes a scholarly approach to Magritte, focusing on the intellectual debates that fractured the Surrealist movement—its relation to the Communist party, the role of “psychic automatism”—rather than his personal history. He is especially thorough in elucidating the importance of a supportive crew of Belgian Surrealist artists and writers (Marcel Marién, Paul Nougé, Louis Scutenaire, Édouard Messins) with whom Magritte collaborated for decades. Danchev also brings a strong literary sensibility to his readings of the artwork: “Magritte is the master of the prying eye, the keyhole, the door, the threshold . . . He is perhaps the only artist to rival the greatest of all practitioners in this realm, Franz Kafka.” For Magritte, who appears to have drawn inspiration from books as much as from paintings, this proves to be an invaluable interpretative angle.

Perhaps Magritte’s most ubiquitous image, the self-portrait Son of Man, 1964, was painted late in his career, long after the Surrealist and language-based experiments of the prewar decades. It presents a gentleman outfitted with bowler hat and overcoat, his face partially obscured by a bright green apple. The joke here is only mildly disruptive to the overall depiction of bourgeois complacency. By the time of its composition, Magritte was a commercially successful and internationally lauded figure, quite aware of his own stature. Although he had risen far above his small-town origins as the son of merchant in Lessines, Belgium, he retained a certain provinciality that, for instance, precluded him from meshing with the Surrealist crowd in Paris during the three years he spent there in the late ’20s. (At a gathering with Paul Èluard and Louis Aragon, André Breton ordered Magritte’s wife, Georgette, to remove the cross around her neck, and she refused; husband and wife left Paris the next day to return the comfort of his Belgian coterie.) The prickly relationship between Magritte and Breton would continue—Breton would alternately offer effusive praise (“Poetry is a pipe,” the French writer declared in response to The Treachery of Images) and withering denunciation. When he curated a show in Paris in 1947, Breton placed Magritte’s “Sunlit Surrealism” paintings (works Magritte described as exuding “lightness, intoxication, wellbeing”) in a section entitled “Surrealists in spite of themselves.”

Magritte, for his part, rejected Surrealist tenets regarding automatism and the unconscious. The veiled or headless women appearing frequently in his paintings had nothing, he once asserted, to do with his mother’s suicide by drowning and his recollection of the body, nightdress pulled up over her face: “Psychology doesn’t interest me . . . it seeks to explain a mystery. There is only one mystery: the world.” He claimed to be interested in objects as objects rather than as symbols. Many of his paintings had their origins not in buried trauma or wishful fantasy, but rather in the various Larousse encyclopedias that he routinely plundered for both images and titles. (That locomotive steaming out of the fireplace in Time Transfixed, 1938, isn’t phallic; it’s just a train.)

The cover of Alex Danchev’s Magritte.

Magritte’s enigmatic, often eerily threatening images can also be traced to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Lewis Stevenson and the Nick Carter dime novels that he devoured as an adolescent, as evidenced in The Menaced Assassin, 1927, in which three suited men—two armed, one listening to a gramophone—are arrayed before a naked, bloodied female body. The artist was also an ardent fan of filmmaker Louis Feuillade’s The Vampires and his “Fantômas” series. Danchev suggests Magritte was likely impressed by their hallucinatory yet deadpan quality—Feuillade’s ability to combine “photographic realism […] with an astonishing repertoire of the fantastic,” an apt characterization of the painter’s trademark style. This deployment of realist technique in service of defamiliarization clearly influenced American Pop artists. Danchev recounts Johns’s fascination with The Month of the Grape Harvest, 1959, a painting depicting a crowd of bowler-hatted men peering through a window: “Johns, one suspects, appreciated the suspense and ambiguity created by a narrative only half told.”

A crucial influence for the Belgian artist was Giorgio de Chirico, particularly The Song of Love, 1914, which Magritte described as a work of “triumphant poetry” that “supplanted the stereotypical effect of traditional painting.” The dissonance between its title and image—a surgeon’s gloves and the head from a classical statue—proved formative for his own semiotic mischief, beginning with The Interpretation of Dreams, 1927, which depicts a specimen box holding three objects, each labeled in handwritten script as something it’s not: A valise is “Le ciel”; a penknife, “L’oisseau”; a leaf, “La table.” A fourth object is correctly identified as “L’eponge.” Danchev draws a comparison to the “language games” of Ludwig Wittgenstein. “Uttering a word,” the philosopher wrote, “is like striking a note on the keyboard of imagination.”

The playfulness extended to somewhat dodgier pursuits. We learn that not only did Magritte produce forgeries of works by Titian, Klee, and Picasso during World War II, but ten years later he and his brother Paul printed a large number of counterfeit 100-franc notes. Danchev’s assertion that “Magritte had no moral scruples about forgery” because “he considered the social order a system to be continuously challenged and eventually overturned” appears to contradict his portrait elsewhere of an often conventional member of the bourgeoise who, for instance, remained married to Georgette for nearly fifty years.

It can be difficult to reconcile Magritte’s droll wordplay and the cryptic allure of his imagery with a sense that his oeuvre is irredeemably clichéd. The ideas animating his art remain relevant; the ten propositions in his 1929 contribution to La Révolution surréaliste “Le Mots and Les Images” (“1. An object is never so closely attached to its name that another cannot be found which suits it better”) are a bellwether of postmodernism. And the paintings themselves, often meticulously executed to the point of appearing to be slick confections, are rarely less than entrancing. “The way Magritte arouses then frustrates expectations is rather like watching a film and finding the next reel is missing,” Danchev observes.

But being the “single most significant purveyor of images” takes its toll on that purveyor’s relationship with viewers. Pictures such as The Red Model, 1934 (the pair of feet morphing into laced boots), The Treachery of Images, 1929 (“This is not a pipe”), Rape, 1945 (female nude as face), Golconda, 1953 (it’s raining bowler-hatted men), are ingrained in the mind, somewhat oppressively so. Real attention is required to peer past the scrim of commercialized reproduction and experience the paintings’ riddlesome ingenuity. By charting the myriad ways in which his subject connects to culture both “high” and “low,” Danchev demonstrates that Magritte is worth the effort.