Tuesday, August 9

Magritte: A Life by Alex Danchev review – virtuous portrait of a surreal star | Biography books

GRAMGiven the ubiquity of René Magritte images in our culture, it is a shock to learn that no one was interested in the Belgian surrealist until it was almost too late. All those bowler hat men with occluded faces, the pipe that’s not a pipe, the giant apples, and the looming clouds were hard to please and hard to sell until 1965, when a major retrospective was held at the Museum of Art. Modern New York. put it explosively on the map. Suddenly everyone from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to a young Ed Ruscha couldn’t get enough of Magritte’s visual taunts, linguistic puzzles, and deadpan affection, which made banal objects (combs, matches, bird cages ) were both amazing and irresistible. And still his reign continues: we are all Magrittians now, whether we know it or not, automatically decoding the puzzles of space and scale presented to us in the countless advertisements and other commercial art that remains saturated with his hi-lo sensibilities.

Still his reign continues ... the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte.
Still his reign continues … the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Photograph: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy

Magritte had only two years to live when the MoMA exhibition was held, and he died in Brussels in 1967 in the “villa” he had commissioned from an architect using his flourishing late fortune. He and his wife Georgette were very picky about wall-to-wall carpeting. These boring and bourgeois touches are important, as the received narrative on Magritte’s life has always been that, in contrast to his shocking and sometimes pornographic imagination (one of his most famous works shows the naked body of a woman torn to pieces), his Life was one of almost parodic respectability. He stayed married to the woman he had met when he was 14 years old, invariably wearing a suit like one of the men in his photos, and taking the dog (who was always called Loulou) for a walk at the same time every day. Alex Danchev suggests that Magritte’s rigid programming and proper self-presentation may have provided a model for our own Gilbert and George.

Danchev, who died suddenly and too young in 2016, has surely produced the complete and definitive biography of an artist whose life has been considered too often too boring to care about. The final chapter of this book was completed by Magritte scholar Sarah Whitfield. But everything else is pure Danchev: immaculately researched, deeply felt, and with an insight into the broader political and economic pressures at play in the 20th century that emerged from his day-to-day work as a professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews. Danchev can talk about Magritte’s fractured home life – his father was a bully and a bore, his mother committed suicide when he was 13 – with as much insight as he brings to the artist’s move from abstract to figurative art in 1926, or the appearance of Nazi soldiers trampling the streets of Brussels in May 1940.

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The shift to figurative art came about around the time Magritte moved to Paris, in an attempt to associate himself with the reigning stars of Surrealism: André Breton, the poet Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and the rest. Inevitably, it was a tense time. Magritte was gruesome, clinging to his outsider status (he took a flat in the suburbs) while he wanted to show French citizens that he could give them a run for their money. They, in return, mocked his Walloon accent and stubbornness (his suit read more like a petty bourgeois bank clerk than an ironic disguise).

Still, it was an enormously prolific and productive time. It was then that Magritte began to experiment with his word images, which remain his best-known works. In these he set out to break the old connections between the text and a particular image. The breakthrough came with La Clef des Songes (The Interpretation of Dreams), a painting divided into four panels. At the top left is a bag labeled “Le ciel” (“the sky”); in the upper right, a pocket knife labeled “L’oiseau” (“the bird”); in the lower left, a sheet with the label “La table” (“the table”); at the bottom right, a sponge, labeled “L’éponge” (“the sponge”). It was a format that he repeated many times, each iteration further driving home the arbitrary and treacherous nature of the language. It is no wonder, then, that decades later, poststructuralists, including Derrida and Foucault, did not tire of Magritte’s images, which on the surface pass as jokes, but which actually comprised a deep meditation on the instability of meaning in the modern world.

Magritte: A Life is published by Profile (£ 30). To support the Guardian and Observer, request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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