René Magritte and The Birth of Surrealism

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Born in 1898, René Magritte is considered to be one of the key figures in the Surrealism movement. This involvement with Surrealism marks this renowned artist as the most important Belgian artists of the twentieth-century. 

A Brief History…

René Magritte was born in 1898 in Lessines, Belgium. After his mother committed suicide, he was educated by a governesses and was constantly moving house. During his adolescence, the young Magritte started to paint in the style of the Impressionists. He enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and went on to work in Pierre-Louis Flouquet’s studio. This was where he was first introduced to Futurism and Cubism. He then began to simultaneously show his work and draw at the same time. Happy and content, he married his childhood sweetheart Georgette Berger.

From 1924 he was influenced by Dadaism and founded a magazine with some of his artist friends. Several years later, he and some new members became the Surrealist Group of Brussels. Together they accomplished several advertising projects and illustrated catalogues for Belgian brands.

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His meeting with the Parisian surrealists André Breton, Salvador Dali, Paul Eluard and Max Ernst was incredibly important in the search for his identity. He continued with his writing and illustrations but the economic crisis of 1929 forced him to return to Belgium. In Brussels he met up again with his advertising contacts but continued to create and show his own works, this time as far away as London and New York as possible. During the 1940’s Magritte was especially active creating the equivalent of about fifty works in a few weeks. During his many travels in the 1950’s, Magritte saw his ratings soar and his popularity increase. Suffering from cancer, he died in 1967 at home in Brussels.

Magritte the Artist…

Magritte’s most well known pieces are his Surrealist paintings. The artist aimed to distance the object from its  prescribed purpose. His best known image shows a pipe with a caption “This is not a pipe”. Speaking with a viewer, he replied to their questions by saying : “The famous pipe, haven’t I been reproached enough for that! Anyway, can you fill my pipe ? No, you can’t, it’s just a representation. So if I had written on my picture “this is a pipe”, I would have been lying!”

Ceci n'est pas une pipe, René Magritte, 1929
Ceci n’est pas une pipe, René Magritte, 1929

For Magritte, it is the action of the painter toward the object which is interesting. The painting is not a representation of a real object but rather a representation of the thought of the artist towards the object. He declared: “The art of painting is really only limited by a depiction of an idea which shows a certain resemblance to the way it is seen by the world”. Magritte excelled in the depiction of mental images and created works that transformed reality and confused the viewer. His painting is never a mirror of the reality which surrounds us, it is a mirror of the reality imagined by him.

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What is interesting, is to draw a parallel between the relatively classical and traditional lifestyle of the painter and his completely innovative style of painting. As a viewer, one often imagines the artist as the image of his creations. However, appearances are often misleading. Behind the off-beat works of Magritte, there is hidden a discrete, rational and deeply “normal” man.