The Magritte Museum Exhibition

Posted on: 08 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews the new Magritte Museum in the heart of Brussels.


Mention the name Magritte and you would be forgiven for immediately conjuring up an image of a man with a bowler hat, pipe and umbrella, but the great Belgian photographer and philosopher showed just how multi-faceted he was.

Just opened in the heart of Brussels the new Magritte Museum, in the Place Royale, pays tribute to the artist who spent the greater part of his life in the Belgian capital.  More than 250 works have gone on display by the man who was famous for his slyly subversive analysis of language and its conceptualisation of the image and, who, according to Michel Draguet, director of the Royal Fine Arts Museums of Belgium, was “the man who transformed poetic images into plastic poems”.

Magritte was not just an eminent painter.  His work opens up perspectives that the museum, containing the world’s biggest collection of work by the artist, catalogues in fascinating display.  In his paintings, his writings, his interviews, his photographs and his correspondence he created a world in which what is perceived is in fact an illusion since it portrays not reality but the conventions through which we construct “reality”.  And this intellectual painter for representing reality, has himself the appearance of a very ordinary man.  What Magritte does so well with the abstract reality he shows us is to make us look at the world in an entirely different way.

René Francois Magritte was born in Lessines in Hainault on 21st November 1898, the year his parents married.  Régina Bertinchamps gave up her work as a milliner to run the home she had founded with Léopold Magritte, a tailor and businessman.  In 1900 in what would be the first of many moves, the family settled in Gilly, where René’s two brothers, Raymond and Paul were born – one later became a businessman, the other a musician.  In 1904 the family moved to Châtelet.

Magritte rarely spoke about his early childhood, it was not, it seems, a very happy time.  The family atmosphere was oppressive, any expression of tenderness seemingly taboo.  His mother suffered from severe depression and made several suicide attempts before one night in 1912, throwing herself into the River Sambre.  Her body was found only seventeen days later, with her nightshirt wrapped around her face.  Critics have seen the veiled faces painted by Magritte later in his career as recollections of this tragic event.

With his twin brothers, René, now fourteen, was placed in the care of a series of governesses.  His father, who was often away on business, left the children to their own devices.  Although he was a good pupil, René apparently took little interest in his studies at middle school, and tended to be unruly.  However he had developed a passion for drawing and painting and started collecting posters.

Drawing indeed was an important part of the young teenager’s life.  René continued his artistic training at the Athénée Royal in Charleroi when the family moved there in 1913.  Another significant event that year was meeting his future wife, Georgette Berger, at the fair.  She was only twelve at the time and he was fifteen, but the young girl made a deep impression onhim and her image was engraved on his memory.  In 1917 he moved to Brussels, followed courses at the Académie and did his military service.  In 1922 he finally married Georgette. 

Over the following years to make ends meet he drew posters and advertisements.  He had already designed the eye-catching poster for the famous Feuillade silent film Fantômas, and among his later commissions probably the most well known was his design for the Belga cigarette packets.

After meeting with Chirico, Magritte joined the Dadaist movement and in 1927 held the first of his own exhibitions at Le Centaure gallery.  The surrealist adventure followed.  Four years later Magritte returned to Brussels and spent the next twenty years at 135, rue d’Esseghem in Jette, where he painted more than half of his body of work.  Indeed the house became the headquarters of Brussels surrealism with weekly meetings and events with his poet friends.

During the Second World War this artist with a penchant for provocation was said to have been denounced by   one of his painter friends yet, surprisingly, despite the radical nature of his art, was never arrested by the Germans.

After the war Magritte continued to do bread and butter work to keep body and soul together.  In 1953 he exhibited in a cellar in Verviers.  Having sold nothing, he returned to Brussels with his work wrapped up in newspaper.  A year later the exhibition at the Palais des Beaux Arts provided the turning point and he achieved overnight success, with Alexandre Iolas, a New York dealer launching him on the international market.  Magritte died in 1967 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 69.

The exhibition spans three floors chronologically charting the artist’s life, with the top floor looking at his early years and concluding with his most mature works on the first floor.  In Magritte-land we see recurrent images of bells, pigeons, pipes and bowler hats, as his world of mystery and reams take on a life of their own.  In one of his most famous paintings, The Treachery of Images (1952), Magritte’s trademark pipe is there, with the inscription underneath saying ‘This is not a pipe’.  In Sheherexade the seductive eyes and mouth of a woman are sandwiched between a collection of pearls, while in The Fifth Season (1943), he depicts a man carrying a picture of the sky under his arm meeting a man carrying a picture of a forest under his arm.

Possibly one of Magritte’s most startling works was painted during the war – The Companions of Fear (1942), which shows the metamorphosis of plants into threatening eagle-like creatures.  Also worth mentioning are two stunning surrealistic paintings, Forbidden Literature (1936), in which a large disembodied finger points to a metal weight suspended in mid-air while a small staircase on the right leads up to a blank wall, and in The Red Model (1953), he depicts a pair of boots in the shape of human feet.

The best of Magritte’s many portraits of Georgette is a marvellous black and white sketch from 1921, in which the face of his wife conveys an appealing, sensual quality.  Finally there is an impressive selection of works from his controversial 1947-48 Vache period, despised at the time but now adored by young painters.

This is undoubtedly a stunning exhibition that reveals the iconic Belgian artist as one of the true greats of the twentieth century.  Indeed my view of the world will never be quite the same again!

By Laurence Green

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