“Magritte et les publicitaires”

Musée de la Publicité

Discussions of artistic influence generally remain within esthetic terrain, dealing with the effect of formal strategies and ideas on other artists; rarely do such endeavors range beyond insular purlieus to address art’s impact on culture at large. Hence the importance of this exhibition treating the dissemination of René Magritte’s ideas and images in the fields of publicity and advertising. Organized by Georges Roque, who wrote the accompanying book (Ceci n’est pas un Magritte. Essai sur Magritte et la publicité, Flammarion, 1983), the show was divided into two complementary sections. One examined Magritte’s extensive but little-known publicity production; the other demonstrated the commercial pillaging of his oeuvre after his death.

The first part covered the many commissioned posters, brochures, illustrations, and sheet-music covers executed by Magritte between 1918 and 1949. These works delineate a complex juncture of esthetic and financial concerns: needing money, Magritte turned to commercial production; developing ideas, he mingled high and low forms, implanting identical devices in independent and commissioned works. Thus, although Magritte disdained the impulse of his commercial production (he “sought subsistence by doing imbecile work,” he wrote later in his autobiography), he nevertheless prized the products’ effects. His brochures for the furrier Samuel, for example, from 1926 to 1928, were collective Surrealist productions, “scripted” by the poets Camille Goemans and Paul Nougé; Magritte distributed the second of these brochures to André Breton and Louis Aragon. In them furs are draped over treelike hangers while a man’s head lies dreaming on the floor; picture frames, granite, and wood make appearances, while a tabletop sports a woman’s leg. Such devices are less apparent from 1931 to 1936, in advertisements for pharmacies, drinks, and cigarettes, but they recur with a vengeance in the postwar period, when Magritte worked directly from his paintings. In the 1946 gouaches for the perfume company Mem, the treetrunk from L’Arbre savant opens into a triple row of closets, a strange commode displaying odoriferous waters.

Magritte, it should be noted, was the first to put painting to the service of industry. A noted instance of this practice was L’Oiseau de ciel, commissioned by the Belgian airline, Sabena, before the artist’s death in 1967. In a stylized form, the painting echoes the earlier La Grande Famille. And it turns up in myriad commercial variations, decorating Sabena’s airline schedules, tickets, matches, posters, and paper from 1966 to 1973.

Sabena’s use was legitimate, having been sanctioned by the artist, who seemingly appreciated the broad dissemination of his image. However, the work within the second section, consisting of the commercial variations enacted on Magritte’s work after his death, indicates a wholesale borrowing. Advertisements and record covers, book jackets, posters, and more indicate the extension of Magritte within the publicity sphere. While their employment was various, the images were little varied: cloudy skies, apples, pictures within pictures, and bowler-hatted men crowd the scene, promoting toilet paper, wallpaper, and beer. Playboy used the bottle body on its cover, while Magritte’s feet went to work for Canada Customs. The granite rock topped by its tiny civilization took on multiple forms, appearing on the jacket for Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and in an ad for mashed potatoes. The rhetorical lures here are obvious: “Sur-real,” murmurs the individual sighting the image in the street—and remembers the product, promising imminent acquisition by recognition. But undoubtedly it was Magritte’s device of detaching image from word that inspired advertising directors, implying fields of meanings to be filled. And undoubtedly they were attracted to the underlying message (expressed in several texts) that these products “helped you realize your dreams.” This show, then, presented a fascinating survey of the reach of an oeuvre, showing how images extend, and exceed, their author’s established intentions.

Kate Linker