Monday, April 28, 2008

René Magritte Biography

"My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question 'What does that mean'? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable." --René Magritte

Belgian Surrealist artist René François Ghislain Magritte (November 21, 1898 – August 15, 1967) was a master not only of the obvious, but of the obscure as well. In his artwork, Magritte toyed with everyday objects, human habits and emotions, placing them in foreign contexts and questioning their familiar meanings. He suggested new interpretations of old things in his deceivingly simple paintings, making the commonplace profound and the rational irrational. He painted his canvasses in the same manner as he lived his life -- in strange modesty and under constant analysis.

Magritte was born in 1898 in the small town of Lessines, a cosmopolitan area of Belgium that was greatly influenced by the French. Twelve years later, Magritte, along with his parents and two younger brothers, moved to Châtelet, where the future artist studied sketching. On vacations with his grandmother and Aunt Flora during the summer months, Magritte frequented an old cemetery at Soignies. In this cemetery, Magritte often played with a little girl, opening trap doors and descending into underground vaults. This experience would prove a great influence upon his later artwork, as wooden caskets and granite tombstones recur in many of his paintings. Magritte also developed a fascination with religion around this time, often dressing up as a priest and holding mock mass services in complete seriousness.

In 1912, Régina Bertinchamp, Magritte's mother, committed suicide by drowning herself in the Sambre River. The night of her suicide, the Magrittes followed Bertinchamp's footprints to the river, where they found her dead with her nightgown wrapped around her face. Magritte was 14 at the time. He would claim years later that his only recollection of his mother's death was his pride at being the center of attention and his subsequent identity formation as the "son of a dead woman." Some critics point out that several of the subjects in Magritte's paintings are veiled in white sheets as a reference to his mother's suicide.

A year later, Magritte's father moved the family to Charleroi. It was in Charleroi that Magritte would meet his future wife Georgette Berger on a carousel at the town fair. However, the two would not see one another again until a chance meeting in Brussels years later. In Charleroi, Magritte quickly lost interest in his studies and asked his father for permission to study at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. After receiving his father's permission, Magritte studied there from 1916 to 1918. While in Brussels, he met several other painters, poets and philosophers, collaborated on a short-lived review, and exhibited his first work at the Galérie Giroux.

In 1922, Magritte and Georgette randomly ran into each other at a botanical garden in Brussels, and the couple married soon thereafter. Soon after getting married, Magritte supported Georgette and himself by painting wallpaper designs and designing posters, devoting only his free time to serious painting. Also in 1922, Magritte was shown Giorgio de Chirico's painting, The Song of Love. This painting's manipulation of reality supposedly moved Magritte to tears, and Magritte later said of de Chirico: "[He] was the first to dream of what must be painted and not how to paint."

In 1925, Magritte painted what he considered to be his first major work, Le Jockey Perdu (The Lost Jockey). Supported by a contract from the Galérie Le Centaure in Brussels, he began to devote his full time to serious paining. In 1927, he held his first one-man show at the Galérie Le Centaure. While the show flopped and Magritte received much harsh criticism, the gallery's continued sponsorship allowed Magritte to further hone his artistry.

Magritte then moved to Paris to work alongside other Surrealists. During this time, he painted many bizarre and macabre scenes. A classic example of Magritte's work at this time is his 1926 painting, L'Assassin Menacé (The Threatened Assassin). While in Paris, Magritte became acquainted with much of Surrealist theory, including their romanticized notions of scandal, crime and disguise. However, disgusted by the superficial methods of the Parisian Surrealists and their dependence on dreams, drugs and magic for vision, Magritte moved back to Brussels three years later. Upon returning to Brussels, though, Magritte came in contact with more Surrealists. One night, utterly sickened by the group of artists, Magritte burned all possessions reminding him of his connections with Surrealism. Ironically, although Magritte's personal connections with and faith in Surrealism were tenuous, his eye-catching artwork remained clearly Surrealistic in style. As a result, he was represented and recognized in all of the important Surrealism exhibitions of the 1930s. Moreover, as Surrealism gained more and more attention and esteem, Magritte's artwork also became more and more exposed and distinguished throughout the world. Thus, Magritte rode Surrealism's wave to success, but at the same he made a name for himself with his precise technique and unforgettable images.

Despite Magritte's growing disdain for Surrealism, the movement greatly impacted his work. Many Surrealist artists, including Magritte, strove to "rehabilitate the object." To accomplish this goal, an artist would remove an object from its usual context so that its purpose could change. With paintings like La Durée Poignardée (Time Transfixed, 1939), Magritte wanted viewers to put aside utility and common sense while interpreting the objects found in the work. In Time Transfixed, Magritte questions typical perceptions of commonplace objects by painting a miniature train coming out of a fireplace and jutting into mid-air. Unlike the other Surrealists, however, Magritte did not juxtapose unrelated objects to create new definitions. Rather, he believed that all objects are rationally related to other objects. In this way, Magritte explored the relationships between objects in his paintings. The objects painted by Magritte suggest an inherent meaning independent from the viewers' previous experiences, opinions and ideas; as a result, the objects become "concrete universals."

Magritte was also fascinated with everyday language and human communication. He displays this fascination in his 1928 painting, The Use of Words I. This is one of several Magritte paintings containing a pipe and the phrase, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe"). Magritte believed that the relation between an object and its name is completely arbitrary, and he renders this arbitrariness more than obvious in this painting. According to Magritte, words - like symbols -- falsely represent the simple and true meaning of objects.

The German occupation of Belgium marked a turning point in Magritte's artwork. During this time, Magritte experimented with Impressionist techniques, though he used bright colors in contrast to the dreary milieu of the time. Truly believing that art could change the world, Magritte in the 1940s showcased nude women painted in flamboyant colors and with swirling brushstrokes. However, these paintings were not well received, and Magritte soon dropped the style.

In 1948, Magritte began what he himself called his "Vache" ("cow") period, as a parody of Fauvism (the French word "fauve" means "wild beast"). He caricatured Fauvist art in his portrayal of awkwardly erotic women and the use of quick, furious brushstrokes. Magritte wished to annoy the French public, whom he saw as egotistically self-satisfied in their established artistic tastes. Later that year, these works were featured in an exhibition at the Galérie du Faubourg in Paris. The exhibition caused much scandal, but won few admirers. Soon after, Magritte resigned to his original style, though he bitterly attributed this retroaction to his desire to please Georgette, who preferred his earlier paintings. He continued to acquire much success all over the world with paintings such as L'Empire des Lumières (The Empire of Lights, 1954), which employed standard Surrealist techniques and precise Magritte lines.

On August 15, 1967, Magritte died in Brussels. Unlike many of his Surrealist counterparts, Magritte lived quite humbly and inconspicuously. He did not draw much attention to himself, and he lived life relatively uneventfully. Despite his unassuming lifestyle, though, Magritte managed to leave an artistic legacy of transforming the ordinary into the fantastic. While some art historians attribute Magritte's art to his desire to oppose and combat the triviality of everyday life, others suggest that his work goes beyond escapism and serves to reveal some of the murkier and complex aspects of the human condition. Whatever the impetus was for his art, it is certain that Magritte's works are at once hauntingly beautiful and deeply provocative.

Le Jockey Perdu (The Lost Jockey) (1925)
L’Assassin Menacé (The Threatened Assassin) (1926)
La Condition Humaine I (The Human Condition I) (1933)
La Durée Poignardée (Time Transfixed) (1939)
L’Empire des Lumières (The Empire of Lights) (1954)

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