Magritte was born November 21, 1898 in Hainaut, Lessines (a province in Belgium). His father was a tailor and textile merchant, and his mother was a milliner. Two years after he began drawing at age 12, his mother committed suicide in the River Sambre. Aside from this, not much is known about his early life. Magritte was extremely prolific in the late 1920s, producing almost one piece of artwork everyday. In 1927, Magritte moved to Paris, where he more closely interacted with the Surrealist group over there. He would move back and forth between Brussels and Paris throughout his life, and had a rocky relationship with André Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement. Magritte’s popularity greatly rose in the 1960s, and he died of pancreatic cancer on August 5, 1967, at the age of 68. He was buried in Brussels.
Led by French poet André Breton, Surrealism emerged in 1924 originally as a literary movement in Paris inspired by the psychological and political theories of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, respectively. Visual artists eventually began to associate with the movement, often incorporating many of the writers’ techniques, such as “automatism”–or the technique of writing freely from the subconscious–into their own practices. There were two informal groups–one based in Brussels, the other Paris–the members of whom met in cafes to discuss Surrealism and experiment with drawing techniques (ex: collaborative drawing, automatic drawing). The groups regularly communicated with each other, and a few Brussels members (including René Magritte) eventually moved to Paris.
The Surrealists used dreamlike and mysterious imagery, much of which stemmed through stream of consciousness, in order to create odd juxtapositions within their paintings. This often resulted in deeply symbolic works open to interpretation, a direct hit against the styles of Cubism, Realism and Formalism.
Style, Subject Matter, Technique & Their Influences:
Magritte was influenced by Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist who founded the Metaphysical art movement before WWI. Magritte used the same realistic technique that Chirico did in his paintings and also placed normal objects in still life-esque, yet completely bizarre, settings. Magritte was also inspired by a crime fiction series which was very popular before WWI called Fantômas. A dark and detective/crime-inspired vibe appears in some of his paintings, through his occasional use of weapons and frequent use of dark, solitary silhouettes of men.
Magritte’s works often had recurring themes, such as the sky, mirrors, sexual imagery, and paintings within paintings, and he developed a distinctive style which he never strayed far from. He often placed normal objects into an abnormal context–whether by manipulating their perspective, scope or certain underlying characteristics–thus transforming the objects themselves by removing any of associated preconceptions of them. For example, in Personal Values, a comb, matchstick, glass and makeup brush sit in a bedroom with an armoire, bed and rugs. The objects are disproportionately large (the comb is longer than the bed), and the wallpaper of the bedroom looks like a sky. Here, the tiny bedroom takes on a kind of matchbox or jewelry box identity, but its sky walls give it a larger-than-life feel.
His paintings also often reveal or hide things from the viewer, such as in Attempting the Impossible, The delights of landscape, and his arguably most famous painting The Son of Man. In the former, the artist is literally painting his subject into life, revealing the formation of the woman in real time to the viewer. In The delights of landscape, the painting hasn’t even been created yet; it’s not even an blank canvas–it’s empty space. Conversely, in the latter self-portrait, his face is hidden with a single, suspended apple. Both paintings use suspense to pull in the viewer: What is it? What has it been? What will it become?
Magritte flips the role of the viewer and painting in The Portrait, where a single eye peers out at the viewer from a slice of meat. The high horizon of the painting creates the sense that this table is set for the viewer. Yet the hospitality is undercut by the eery, watchful eye.
Many of his other paintings also place the viewer in a state of uncertainty through their ambiguous nature. In Black Magic, the characteristic sky imagery reappears, this time blending in with the woman. The viewer wonders if the woman is painted or is part of the sky and land. Additionally, the adjacent black cliff-like silhouette provides an interesting juxtaposition to her body. This juxtaposition of the female form with natural themes recurs throughout Magritte’s works, such as in Collective Invention. The results are often highly sexualized.
He also made sculptures and reinterpreted famous paintings through a Surrealist lens. Regardless of the medium or content, most of his works put normal objects into strange contexts, somehow always managing to place the viewers in a surreal, yet completely real world.
Compared Artist (21st Century):
Beth Hoeckel is a full time, multidisciplinary artist based in Baltimore, MD. After receiving a bachelor of fine arts degree from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she worked for two years in New York City and then four years in Los Angeles. She now primarily creates mixed media paintings and collages, which she sells on Etsy, Society 6, and her own website.
Like Magritte’s paintings, her collages juxtapose images to put them in a new light. For example, in r e d, the feminine and aesthetically-beautiful roses are juxtaposed with the carnal and grotesque slabs of meat (similar to Magritte’s Collective Invention and Young girl eating a bird ). The “thing within a thing” idea and use of revealing/hiding also appears in her works, such as in the window and/or painting of COUNT SHEEP. In addition, she plays with scope, like through the use of the ocean and the toy boat in TOY BOAT.
JUMP (date unavailable), archivally printed on Fuji Professional lustre paper, 11 x 14 in
I knew of Magritte’s Son of Man painting, but hadn’t seen his other ones. I think out of the people I’ve studied so far, I like his works the most. His use of odd juxtapositions really made me think about the objects, which normally which I wouldn’t take a second glance, in a new way. His paintings are completely surreal and bizarre, but not random and completely “anti-art” like most of the Dadaist works.
The Portrait (1935), oil on canvas, 73.3 x 50.2 cm
Attempting the Impossible (1928), oil on canvas, 105.6 x 81 cm
The Dawn of Cayenne (1926), oil on canvas, dimensions not available
Collective Invention (1934), oil on canvas, 73.5 x 97.5 cm
Young girl eating a bird (The pleasure) (1927), oil on canvas, 74 x 97 cm
The delights of landscape (1928), oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm
Black Magic (1934), oil on canvas, dimensions unavailable
The Son of Man (1964), oil on canvas, 116 x 89 cm
Personal Values (1952), oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm
Elective Affinities (1933), oil on canvas, 41 x 33 cm
“Biography.” Beth Hoeckel. http://www.bethhoeckel.com/BIO.
“Biography.” Musée Magritte Museum. http://www.musee-magritte-museum.be/Portail/Site/Typo3.asp?lang=FR&id=languagedetect.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Surrealism.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Last modified 2013. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/surr/hd_surr.htm.
“René Magritte and his paintings.” René Magritte: Biography, Paintings, and Quotes. Last modified 2014. http://www.renemagritte.org/.
Wikimedia Foundation. “Surrealism.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Last modified April 8, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrealism.