An Introduction to René Magritte, and How the Belgian Artist Used an Ordinary Style to Create Extraordinarily Surreal Paintings

With his dark suit, neat hair­cut, and bowler hat, René Magritte embod­ied ear­ly-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Bel­gian nor­mal­i­ty. Yet the feel­ings his work stirred in their view­ers were very much the oppo­site of nor­mal. He had var­i­ous ways of accom­plish­ing this. One was “to com­bine two famil­iar objects and make a new one,” says gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne in the new Great Art Explained video above. “Anoth­er method was to paint a sol­id object as if it were a see-through por­tal. In some paint­ings he would defy grav­i­ty and show heavy objects float­ing. He would give an unfa­mil­iar name to famil­iar objects. He would change scale by mak­ing small objects huge and large objects impos­si­bly tiny.”

One of Magrit­te’s par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive meth­ods was “to obscure or to hide a face or an object, set­ting up a con­flict between the vis­i­ble that is hid­den and the vis­i­ble that is present.” The pow­er of this tech­nique is vivid­ly show­cased by The Lovers II, from 1928, in which Magritte takes the “cin­e­mat­ic cliché” of the kiss and “dis­rupts our voyeuris­tic plea­sure by cov­er­ing the faces in cloth. A moment of col­lec­tion becomes one of iso­la­tion, of sex­u­al frus­tra­tion. An inti­mate moment becomes some­thing dark and effort­less­ly dis­turb­ing, some­thing hid­den and anony­mous.”

Might this have some­thing to do with the death of his moth­er, who threw her­self in a riv­er when he was young? “When her body was even­tu­al­ly found, a night­dress had been dragged up over her naked body and was cov­er­ing her face.”

The artist him­self would­n’t have thought so. “Psy­chol­o­gy did­n’t inter­est Magritte, who avoid­ed any in-depth inter­pre­ta­tion of his work,” Payne says, and yet his work “offers so much oppor­tu­ni­ty for arm­chair analy­sis.” Employ­ing an “extreme con­trast between the drab­ness of his style and the extra­or­di­nary sub­ject mat­ter,” he demon­strat­ed his under­stand­ing that peo­ple want to see what’s hid­den, that remov­ing what they expect “cre­ates a ten­sion and an anx­i­ety,” and that “if the style of the image does­n’t attract atten­tion, the irra­tional­i­ty of the image becomes even more shock­ing.” Giv­en Magrit­te’s cur­rent stature, it may come as a sur­prise to hear that his paint­ing did­n’t earn him much in his life­time. But giv­en his evi­dent abil­i­ty to manip­u­late view­ers’ thoughts and feel­ings through visu­al means alone, it won’t come as a sur­prise to hear that he made his mon­ey run­ning an adver­tis­ing agency.

Relat­ed con­tent:

René Magritte’s Ear­ly Art Deco Posters (1924–1927)

The Home Movies of Two Sur­re­al­ists: Look Inside the Lives of Man Ray & René Magritte

How Famous Paint­ings Inspired Cin­e­mat­ic Shots in the Films of Taran­ti­no, Gilliam, Hitch­cock & More: A Big Super­cut

An Intro­duc­tion to Sur­re­al­ism: The Big Aes­thet­ic Ideas Pre­sent­ed in Three Videos

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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