René François Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967).
No fewer than nine works by Magritte will go under the hammer in the Art of the Surreal Evening Sale at Christie’s on 4 February. You can view them at the bottom of this page and click through for more detailed lot notes.
So, what was Magritte like as a person?
If you had seen René Magritte in the street, you would have thought he was a plain and simple bourgeois Belgian. Yet he used the uniform of respectability to mask an unexpectedly subversive character. Even the bowler hat that has now become so iconic, so intrinsically linked to Magritte, was adopted precisely because it was the uniform of the Belgian fonctionnaire. If you look at the pictures of his contemporary Paul Delvaux, you will see bowler hats appearing there for the same reason.
Art historian Suzi Gablik tells a tale that indicates Magritte’s undercurrent of rebellion: a visiting guest had turned around for a moment and received a kick up the behind; but on turning around, angry and harassed, saw the blameless-looking, respectable Magritte, and became so unsure of himself that he refrained from making any accusations..
What did Magritte’s friend Louis Scutenaire mean when he wrote, ‘Magritte is a great painter. Magritte is not a painter’?
Magritte was seldom interested in the actual process of painting, or in any concept of the painter's 'touch'. For him, painting was one of several techniques which he mastered in order to be able to translate his vision for the wider world. He tried to avoid 'style', largely, except in works from a couple of periods. However, he was a great painter, changing the entire landscape of art. His ability to twist the world and create something mysterious and revelatory still has an impact on art today.
Some critics say Magritte chose a purposefully dull style of painting and it is this ordinariness and materiality that make his paintings even more fantastical — the meeting of ordinary objects in extraordinary ways. Do you agree?
Exactly. His painting style was as deadpan as his suit. With only a couple of exceptions early in his career and then during the Second World War, his style was deliberately inscrutable, lending his images a sense of authenticity that was only reinforced by the contrast with the craziness of much of the modernist and Surreal art being created by his contemporaries.
How does Magritte use language in his work? Can you explain the famous statement, ‘Ceci n 'est pas une pipe’?
Magritte often explored the arbitrary way in which letters and sounds are attached to concepts and objects in the world. He was an early explorer of notions of signs and signifiers. Some of his pictures recall the observations of the Swiss semiotician, Ferdinand de Saussure. They tap into notions of perception. This is taken to the extreme in his famous declaration, 'This is not a pipe,' which is emblazoned across a picture of precisely a pipe. But of course, it is a picture, not a pipe: you could not smoke it, could you? Hence the picture's title: The Treachery of Images. Magritte is playing with the entire realm of trompe-l'oeil — and again, the effect is underscored by his deliberately understated way of painting.
His style was deliberately inscrutable, lending his images a sense of authenticity
Which writers inspired him and why? And why, for example, did he feel such an affinity with Edgar Allan Poe?
Magritte was primarily involved with the Surrealists in his native Belgium; there, the main corp of the movement was literary, rather than artistic. He was influenced by many of those writers who were also his friends. At the same time, authors such as Poe fascinated him. He loved fantasy and the macabre — and crime fiction too. He took titles of books for his paintings, such as The League of Frightened Men (lot 117), The Man from the Sea (1927), The Elective Affinities (1933), and The Glass Key (1959).
How did Magritte develop as an artist? In what ways did his move to Paris in 1927 affect his work?
Magritte's move to Paris placed him at the centre of international Surrealism. There, he was introduced to the writers, artists and other characters associated with Surrealism, not least its leader, André Breton. This contact certainly added to the confidence in Magritte's pictures and ideas, and one of the very first paintings Magritte created after arriving was Les muscles célestes, (lot 115). At the same time, he found the atmosphere stifling. The supposed lawlessness of Surrealism was undermined by Breton’s proscriptive behaviour. In the end, Magritte left Paris after his wife Georgette was publicly criticised for wearing a crucifix. It was a fight that Magritte doubtless wanted to pick; he returned to the more bourgeois yet more familiar sphere of Belgian Surrealism after that, gradually making rapprochements with many of his Parisian contemporaries.
What differences were there between the Belgian surrealists and the French surrealists?
In terms of Surreal artists, Belgium only really had two of any international standing, Delvaux and Magritte, neither of whom was entirely comfortable with the label of Surrealism. After all, in France, it conjured up ideas of automatism and the subconscious, concepts that were a far cry from Magritte's own quest for answers full of magic and mystery to the riddles posed by the world around us.
Did Magritte mix in artistic circles, and did he come across the work of Ernst or Dali and the artists themselves?
Magritte mainly mixed in literary circles, yet was friendly with a great number of his contemporaries among the artists. There was a constant to and fro between them all. Magritte had a couple of major revelations that really inspired his works. One was seeing a picture by Giorgio de Chirico; however, another seems to have been seeing illustrations of the murals that Max Ernst painted for the home of Paul Eluard, featuring mysterious creatures who had soon spawned heirs in Magritte's early Surreal works. Ernst's collages also chimed with some of Magritte's own works on paper. Ernst owned a painting of an apple by Magritte in which was written, 'This is not an apple.' Within the body of the apple, Ernst himself painted a bird and the sentence, 'Ceci n'est pas un Magritte.' Apparently, Magritte was little impressed by this transformation. Magritte's relationship with Dalí was complex. As early as 1929, Magritte and Joan Miró holidayed with the Catalan painter at his home in Cadaques, and Magritte was inspired by the scenery. But later in life, he became increasingly cynical about his erstwhile friend's output, echoing the misconceptions of many of his contemporaries.
A Magritte painting is instantly recognizable. How much was this influenced by his career in advertising?
‘Magritte’s successful career in advertising [he ran an agency with his brother, Paul, in the 1930s] probably helped hone his idea of how to make an image stick. Many of his works would become icons for big business; his sky-bird, for instance, became the key emblem of the Belgian airline, Sabena. Magritte’s images continue to inspire advertising executives to this day.
Ok, so where can I see his work?
Many of Magritte’s iconic masterpieces reside in major museums across the world. Furthermore, since its inception in 2009, The Magritte Museum, housed in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, has one of the largest and most varied collections of his work.
Finally, how has the market for Magritte’s work developed?
Over recent years, the greatest change in the market for Magritte has been the increasing attention paid to the important early Surreal works. For a long time, his more mature pictures, created when he was already at the height of his fame, were the ones that were recognised and which garnered the highest prices. However, in recent years, the earlier pictures, which are often darker and more challenging, have become the increasing focus of market attention. Interestingly, this shows the market aligning itself with the more 'academic' understanding of Magritte’s career, which often focuses on the earlier works from the more formative years of his career.