Disturbing dream-like landscapes, boring accountants falling from the sky - just what was RENE MAGRITTE keeping under his bowler hat? A major exhibition of his WOI’k brings the surreal to Scotland. Words: Susanna Beaumont
THE STORY GOES THAT WHENEVER RENE MAGRITTE spotted a photographer. he took off his preferred Trilby and put on a bowler hat. The artist celebrated for painting smart-dressed men raining down from the sky onto a grey. dull piece of suburbia clearly believed the bowler was a potent prop when it came to image marketing. If Dali could have a moustache. Magritte could don a bowler and cultivate a look. not of eccentricity. but of a bourgeois Belgian called Rene who looked as if he lunched daily at lpm on a lamb chop.
Yet Magritte. whose way of life was likened to that of a respectable grocer when compared to the more laddish lifestyles of the Paris Surrealists. produced some of the 20th century‘s most surreal collision of images. Heads cloaked in sheets. Cotton wool clouds floating on bedroom walls. Bizarre landscapes. And. of course. silent spaces inhabited by strange bowler-hatted men.
Today. over three decades after the surreal antics of Monty Python first hit our screens. Magritte‘s influence goes on. He delighted the Pop Artists of the 60s and has inspired generations of creative types ever since. His painting of a giant apple squeezed into an empty room was the inspiration behind the logo of Apple Records. And it is no longer just men who rain down on suburbia. The female comedy crew . . . . from TV show Smack l ‘i i 1 i ‘ i lee Pony plummet . j ', j ‘ , from the skies in their current publicity material.
‘Magritte appeals to every taste.’ says curator Patrick Elliott
if! i l i'ii'i'.‘"ﬂa‘s‘a'
from the National Gallery Of Modern Art. which is hosting an important show of Magritte's work at Edinburgh‘s Dean Gallery. Exhibitions featuring Dali and Klee follow next year. ‘Philosophers can tussle with the meaning of the work. others can just look at it. It has entered the language in the broadest sense of the word.‘
Rene’ Magritte. the son of an oil manufacturer. was born in Belgium in 1898 and fast developed the knack of stating what now seems glarineg obvious. In 1927 he moved to Paris. the hot bed of Surrealism. the art movement that liked to say no to
14 THE “ST 2—16 Dec 1999
convention. In the city‘s bars. the likes of the testosterone-loaded Andre’ Breton. Max Ernst and Salvador Dali discussed sex. politics. art and religion. all helping to fuel Magritte's great act of subversion. In 1928 he painted The Treason 0f Images: underneath a painting of a pipe. he added the words ‘Ceci n‘est pas une pipe’ (‘This is not a pipe‘). Basic stuff perhaps. but it disrupted art convention. Of course it was not a real pipe. but Magritte dared to say it boldly. He touched on the farce of art.
However. Magritte. though backslapped by the Paris Surrealists. was not prepared to be one of the boys or fall in line with the posturings of Breton. the group’s power-crazed thug. The final straw came when Breton demanded that Magritte‘s wife. Georgette. should remove the crucifix she was wearing. In I930 Magritte and Georgette retreated to ‘grocer and his good wife' lifestyle in Brussels.
Magritte was never keen on giving explanations of his paintings. He declared the world was a mystery. and his work would appropriately follow suit. saying in 1938 that ‘we are the subjects of this absurd and incoherent world in which arms are manufactured for the prevention of war. science is devoted to destroying. killing . . .‘
So at time when Freud‘s theories on interrogating dreams were tak- ing hold. Magritte 4 painted a bizarre dream-like landscape of the banal which. if r truth be told. was a
territory entered by '1 everyone‘s mind from ' time to time — even
'We are the subjects of this absurd and incoherent world.’ René Magritte
bowler hatted men from the 'burbs of Brussels. And that‘s what scared his critics: Magritte went public with private fears and fantasies. It‘s sharply exposed in The Rape. where the head of a woman is described not with eyes and a mouth. but with breasts and genitalia. Magritte is saying that when a man sees a woman. he sees sex. Beneath the convention of his bowler hat. Magritte had no time for social niceties and pretence.
Rene Magritte is at the Dean Gallery. Edinburgh, Sat 18 Dec-Sun 26 Mar.