Artist of the month: René Magritte

René Magritte is for sure the most celebrated Belgian artist of the 20th century. He has always been one of my favorite artists and I just love looking at his mysterious paintings.

After finding a book about his oeuvre in the bookshelf of my flatmate, I started reading about his life and art. This article should help you to get a little overview of Magritte. 

In 1898 everything began: René was born in a small Belgian town called Lessines without any artistic backgrounds or artists in his family – His father was working in the manufacturing industry and his mother was a hat maker. 

Magritte’s development as an artist was influenced by two significant events in his childhood: The first was an encounter with an artist painting an avenue in a cemetery, who he happened across while playing with a friend of his. Magritte later said, that he felt like the painter seemed to perform magic. 

The second crucial event was the suicide of his mother in 1912 when Magritte was 14. According to several documentaries and books she threw herself from a bridge and Magritte was present when her body was fished out of the river, her face covered completely by her white dress. The white fabric can be found in a lot of his paintings, for example in “The Lovers”. Some artworks even show women lying in a river and the reference to his mother’s tragic death is evident. 

Early years: Magritte first began to paint in 1915 and went to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels the following year. However, he was fairly uninspired by his classes, he became close friends with a fellow student, Victor Servranckx, who introduced Magritte to FuturismCubism, and Purism. In particular, Magritte was drawn to the work of Jean Metzinger and Fernand Leger, both of whom had much influence on Magritte’s early work, as is evident from his experiments with Cubism such as his 1925 piece Bather.

Mature period: In 1921, Magritte has been sent to obligatory military service and returned home in 1922 to marry Georgette Berger, a girl he had known since childhood. As he couldn’t afford a living only by his art, he had to start working in a wallpaper factory. After one year at this job, Magritte became a freelance designer of posters and publicity. 

In 1926, he signed a contract with the Galerie le Centaure in Brussels and was able to make his living as a fine artist. This period was marked by profound changes in Magritte’s work. Around 1925 he first saw the work of Giorgio de Chirico and was truly inspired by the Italian Futurist. He even shifted many of de Chirico’s favorite objects such as spheres, trains and plaster hands onto his own canvases.

From 1927 to 1930, Magritte lived in Paris and had strong connections to André Breton’s coterie of Parisian Surrealists that included artists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. Most significantly for his stay in Paris was that he began to experiment with the use of words and language in his paintings. The most famous painting of this type is certainly “This is not a pipe”. Magritte later said, that he was right, because the canvas wouldn’t be a pipe at all, so he was totally right. 

By the late 1930s, the growing interest of international collectors, including Edward James in London, led to Magritte’s increased financial independence, and he was at last able to give up commercial work almost completely.

Late period: Just as Magritte was achieving success and recognition, the 2nd World War broke out. Although he continued to develop his signature style, he also increasingly changed the colors in his works. Soon he was showing a bright and impressionistic palette as a response to the pessimistic events of war. He wrote “Against widespread pessimism, I now propose a search for joy and pleasure.”  In his last ten years of life Magritte enjoyed fame and had retrospective exhibitions

What’s so interesting about Magritte? The most fascinating aspect about Magritte’s work is that he put objects where we don’t encounter them usually. This creates mysterious and sometimes absurd motifs, such as theater curtains in a dry landscape. Very often a man with a hat appears in his painting. Those works can be interpreted as self-portraits. Portrayals of the artist’s wife, Georgette, are also common in his work. Another interesting fact is that he usually painted with dark colors and this can be linked to his fear of death (accused by his mother’s tragical death?).

Why is Magritte an important art icon? Magritte’s work had a major impact on a number of movements that followed his death, including Pop ArtConceptualism, and 1980s art. In particular, his work was used for upcoming trends in art for its emphasis on concept over execution, its close association with commercial art, and its focus on everyday objects that were often repeated in pictures. It is easy to see why artists such as Andy WarholMartin Kippenberger, and Robert Gober cite Magritte as a profound influence.

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A painting from war time when Magritte changed his style and color palette completely.

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