Words and images, surrealism in broad daylight, “cow” paintings…words that I like to hear both amuse and move me, illustrated in Magritte’s painting. His work transforms into poetry like magic, and likewise, poetry becomes painting. It’s impossible to be bored in an exhibition like this, as our eyes and minds are continuously captivated by Magritte’s landscapes, portraits, and assemblages. We read and reflect on “The Beautiful Captive,” “The Decisive Memory,” “The Smile of the Devil,” each one becoming a puzzle we take pleasure in solving.
We engage in a game the artist presents, which through his work, takes over our thoughts. He says that the unconscious doesn’t exist, thus changing our feelings and memories.
Little by little, he unveils his secrets to us, ones that are occasionally dramatic. We view him as a sad child who has lost his mom in terrible circumstances—he sees her dead with her face hidden beneath the fabric of her dress.
He invents ideas that enchant me, one being “surrealism in full sunlight.” I love this discovery, which occurs in 1943 when the Germans begin to retreat to Stalingrad. There’s a new hope of peace, and Magritte rediscovers the sun and the colours of Renoir—the painter of delight. I don’t understand why André Breton refuses Magritte’s declaration to him. I would have said yes, with pleasure!
His whole life, he searches for answers to how images are connected to thoughts, to not be dependent on what we see, but instead on what we feel and imagine. These advertisement drawings are a far cry from what he called “stupid works” of youth.
The 1924 discovery of Giorgio de Chirico’s “Song of Love” upsets him, eliciting a new start.
1927 is the year of Magritte’s first paintings of words. That same year, he moves to Paris, attending surrealist meetings alongside leader André Breton, who doesn’t treat him well.
However, in 1954, there is an exhibition at the gallery of Sydney Janis in New York, under the title “Word vs. Image,” visited by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and others.
These artists don’t forget this artistic showing, which exhibits Magritte’s work, and they later return to acquire his paintings. Americans quickly understand that Magritte’s paintings exceed surrealism —as a conceptual generation, the group of pop artists recognise their future values in his art.
1933 is a pivotal year, during which Magritte paints “The Elective Affinities” a piece that portrays an egg in a cage. He moves from fortunate beauty to reasonable beauty. “My work is a plan to solve problems.” Magritte.
And here is the problem! The paintings hanging on the walls that we see, represent solutions to problems: the one of the window, the woman, the car, the glass of water…It’s important to understand that Belgian surrealism is very different from the movement in France, led by the poet André Breton. In Belgium, its leader is surrealist Paul Nougé. A figure of marxism, he co-finds the Belgian communist party and is also a scientist. Thus, Magritte makes painting a form of mathematical equation.
One time, as Magritte listens to the radio, he discovers Alphonse De Waelhens, to whom he writes, “there is a small number of theoretical problems in your work…” This man then becomes his friend and philosophical guide, giving rise to many intriguing stories. Waelhens recommends Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “The Eye and the Mind” to Magritte, to which he responds “Your Merleau-Ponty understands nothing about painting.”
An extremely significant encounter occurs with Michel Foucalt’s painting in 1966. As Magritte is in a bookstore, a work catches his attention: “words and things.” He immediately writes to Foucalt and tells him “there is a small problem, you seem to confuse ressemblance and similarity!” The exchange that follows prompts his 1973 painting, “This is Not a Pipe.”
Magritte talks to us about beauty, he studies it—maybe observing the sculpture of Venus de Milo, and sketching it in his office. He also looks for the formula of beauty and reconstructs it like Zeuxis. Ideal models of beauty from Antiquity are challenged, causing the female body to be divided and measured. “Delusions of Grandeur” 1962.
We always find themes of beauty and love in the origin of painting. In Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History,” painting would be the imprint of amorous desire. Magritte paints “A Young Woman Whose Shadow Draws a Bird Taking Flight.”
Didier Ottinger, curator of the exhibition, passionately talks to us about Magritte, defining him as “the man who thinks in images.”
Florence Briat Soulie
Translated by Tess Holland Wesleyan University, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2016.