“Style is not an end in itself: it is a result,” René Magritte.
A thinker, Magritte was in permanent revolution against banality and crass assumptions. He communicated his ideas through paintings, which he called “visible thoughts,” upending society’s conventions. He united the familiar in unexpected ways to create what is unfamiliar and often disturbing. Famous for playing with words and image, millions of people know his iconic painting of a pipe with the words beneath it, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“this is not a pipe“) — point being the image may be of a pipe, but the pipe is not representative of the image.
In this brave new world of twenty-first century “post-truth politics” in which image matters to an alarming degree, and words no longer need bear any relation to reality, how everyday language disguises thought; the vagueness and ambiguity of words; and the gap between words and seeing, are hot topics. Déjà vu? Magritte captured the essence of the relationship between words and image over half a century ago. The first-ever publication of his Selected Writings in English by Alma Books is long overdue, and timely.
Magritte’s Écrits complets were published by Flammarion in 1979, and an English edition was due to come out in the 1980s with Calder Publications, but never happened. Almost thirty years later, thanks to Alessandro Gallenzi @almabooks taking over Calder’s publishing house, plus backlist, in 2012, Jo Levy’s original translation edited by Kathleen Rooney & Eric Plattner is now available.
Magritte wrote in Les Beaux Arts, Brussels, of 17 May, 1935 (no. 164): “My art is only valuable in so far as it is opposed to the bourgeois ideology in whose name life is extinguished.” General idea being that the shock of Surrealism would stir people out of complacency.
Warhol, Kippenberger, Rauschenberg and other 1960s pop artists were profoundly influenced by Magritte, however he considered them too modish and commercial to be of intrinsic value — “Real avant-garde art is always badly received, whereas fake avant-garde art is enormously successful. Pop art lacks the authenticity that would give it the power to be provocative.”
John Berger reproduced The Interpretation of Dreams (La clef des songes) on the cover of his book, Ways of Seeing, which accompanied the landmark TV series in 1972. He wrote: “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled … the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight … every image embodies a way of seeing.”
Magritte’s Selected Writings are a deliciously readable pot-pourri of poetic thoughts; musings on sex and culture, hallucinatory film scripts (reminding me, partly, of Luis Buñuel); detective and mystery stories (he had an affinity for fictional characters Fantômas, Nat Pinkerton, Nick Carter); three pamphlets (Idiot, Silly Bugger and Fucker); Surrealist games; articles on the origins of his painting; pithy aphorisms (“Surrealism is the appearance of a possibility as yet unknown to the mind”); writings to the Communist Party; Surrealist manifestos; selected interviews spanning his long career; reflections on the creation of enchantment, and on the work of fellow artists — Georges Braque, James Ensor, Francis Picabia Max Ernst and de Chirico among them. And he takes on his critics. It is a bizarre and eclectic mix, giving insights into his weird and wonderful world.
Magritte’s bowler-hatted-and-suited bourgeois exterior masked a subversive agent provocateur. “Surrealism is revolutionary because it is the restless enemy of all the bourgeois ideological values which keep the world in its present appalling condition,” stated Magritte in a lecture given at the Musée Royal des Beaux Arts, Antwerp, on 20 Nov. 1938. He joined the Communist Party in 1945, but became disillusioned.
It is ironic that the images created by this revolutionary artist who stood up against capitalism and its inequalities are so influential when it comes to advertising the ‘objects’ of capitalist consumer culture; spawning myriad derivatives. Doubly ironic, since he believed that, “Imitation, plagiarism are signs of decadence, exhaustion, stupidity.”
Born in Belgium in 1898, Magritte was the eldest of three brothers. His mother drowned herself in the Sambre River when he was fourteen, and his father remarried. He had odd, fragmented childhood memories — one was of himself playing with a little girl in a cemetery, (perfect for hide-and-seek). Although psychoanalysts readily diagnose his pictures for manifestations of the Unconscious and trauma, Magritte was irritated by people searching for symbolism in his work. He apprehended the limitations of psychoanalysis, stating in 1962 that: “Psychoanalysis has nothing to say about works of art that evoke the mystery of the world … I have never dreamt of pictures to be painted. The world doesn’t come to me in my sleep as a dream. I cannot ‘see’ a picture unless I am fully awake, and have, moreover, perfect presence of mind. I do not have that presence of mind when I am asleep.”
Earning a living as a commercial artist, producing all manner of posters and advertisements, undoubtedly rubbed off on Magritte’s own fine art, which often has the condensed impact of an advertisement. The titles he uses are as intriguing as those of his paintings. To read his words about his pictures — and not those of some art critic, or analyst, or pundit — is a gift indeed. Here he is, in an interview with Pierre Mazars in Le Figaro Littéraire (19 Nov. 1964) about one of his world-renowned creations: “I certainly hope to rid all things I show of symbolism. For example take this canvas entitled La Grande Guerre, where we see a person in a bowler hat whose face is hidden by a large apple. The apple is the apparent-visible that conceals the hidden-visible (the fellow’s face). In the world everything always happens like this. So there’s a sort of tension, war: our minds seek to see what we cannot see. I also want the viewer looking at my picture to be in a poetic state; disturbed as by poetry.”
Magritte and his wife lived in Paris 1927-30, but he fell out with André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, so the couple returned home to Belgium which was occupied by the Nazis during World War Two. His words from an interview with Louis Quiévreux published in La Lanterne, Brussels, in April 1947, carry a powerful message: “Experience of conflict and a load of suffering have taught me that what matters above all is to celebrate joy for the eyes and the mind. It is much easier to terrorize than to charm.”
His piece Bourgeois Art (London Bulletin, no 12. 15 Mar. 1939) strikes me as being a pretty good description of what lies behind the brave new world of twenty-first century disaster capitalism and “post-truth politics”; a world where words are used to create the illusion of the real, but in fact trounce reality. The piece begins: “The bourgeois order is a disorder. Extreme confusion deprived of all contact with the world of necessity.
Those who profit from the capitalist confusion defend it by means of a bunch of sophisms and lies thorough which they attempt to influence all human activity…” Buy the book to read on!
Even more resonant is his view that: “This world is run by hooligans and idiots,” (La Révolte en question: Le temps des assassins. Le Soleil noir — Positions, n° 2, June 1952). No surprises there!
Reading Magritte is strangely comforting. His writings are genuinely original and gorgeously oddball; a reminder of historical continuity, and of what really matters. He restores to us the capacity to dream, and the sense of the marvellous. Selected Writings is a perfect comforter for those three-in-the-morning tornado-brain awakenings; his words a spiritual lullaby: “We are all a mystery, we are part of the world, which is a mystery itself.”
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Selected Writings by René Magritte | Translated from the French by Jo Levy | Edited by Kathleen Rooney & Eric Plattner | Alma Books June 2016 £20 384pp HB | ISBN: 9781846883774