In my 5th grade art class our teacher showed us a famous painting of a pipe. Beneath the picture there was a phrase painted in French; “Ceci n’est pas un pipe.” In English it reads, “This is not a pipe.” Our teacher explained that what we saw was a painted representation of a pipe instead of the actual working pipe. I was struck by the audaciousness of this artist and how he dared change the way I would look at every painting after that. Of course, it was many years later before I learned that the artist was René Magritte.
“The Treachery of Images” 1929
René Magritte was born in Belgium in 1898. He was trained in the fine arts but quickly diverged from this path to find a way of painting that would matter to him. With the spread of modernism in Belgium in the early 1920’s, he was influenced by Italian futurism, cubism, and early abstract art. In 1925 he found his true place amongst other famous artists, such as Dali and Ernst, in the Surrealist movement. Surrealism followed no norms and Magritte was able to express his individualism by finding what needed painting (Meuris, 1988). His first exhibition in Brussels in 1927 was ill received by critics. Later exhibitions, such as one in New York in 1936, were better received (Rene-magritte.org).
Around 1943 Magritte dabbled in some Impressionism with lighter and softer palettes. Later in life he did some commercial work out of a need for income. Throughout his career Magritte drew, painted, sculpted, photographed, filmed, and created murals (Meuris, 1988). He died in 1967 of pancreatic cancer. Sadly, it was also during the 1960’s that his works truly gained popularity (Rene-magritte.org). Today he is lauded as one of Belgium’s greatest citizens and one of the most important surrealists in the world. His house in Jette, Belgium was converted into the René Magritte Museum in 1999 (magrittemuseum.be).
"Seated Woman" 1960 and "Standing Woman" 1960. These are some examples of Magritte’s experiments with various artistic styles, including the “Renoir” manner that he explored for some time.
There are many themes throughout Magritte’s many works. Images are often repeated, such as derby hats, clouds, apples, birds, eggs, and detached body parts. He also played with words, dissociating them from the objects they described. In one of Magritte’s biographies Jacques Meuris explains the attraction of his art.
“Magritte throws down a challenge. He disturbs.”
One of the many allures of Magritte’s work is that there are few artists to compare him to (metmuseum.org). He channeled his talent into something completely different. His works are not only beautiful, but also surprising and intellectual. The ongoing ambiguity and double meanings in many of his pieces engage the viewer and keeps them on their toes, just as Magritte intended.
“Untitled” 1967. This pencil drawing shows the reoccurring theme of detached body parts. Magritte often placed realistically represented images in surreal situations.
"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."
- Rene Magritte (rene-magritte.org)
Study for “The Month of the Grape Harvest” 1959
“The Month of the Grape Harvest” 1959. This painting also shows a few of Magritte’s favorite themes; men in derby hats, windows, and cloudy skies. While it may be difficult to tell from this electronic image, it is notable that the men in the painting differ slightly from one another.
Meuris, Jacques. “René Magritte.” Translated from the French by JA Underwood. 1988, The Overlook Press. Woodstock, NY.
“The Treachery of Images” http://www.surrealists.co.uk/viewPicture/164/
“The Month of the Grape Harvest” http://www.rene-magritte.net/the-month-of-the-grape-harvest-1959/
All other images: Meuris, Jacques. “René Magritte.” Translated from the French by JA Underwood. 1988, The Overlook Press. Woodstock, NY.