“If the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of ‘common sense’, he realises something obvious. I want nevertheless to add that for me the world is a defiance of common sense.” René Magritte.
René Magritte was born in Lessines the son of a wealthy manufacturer. After his mother committed suicide in 1912, Magritte entered the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1916. Some of his early paintings, for example ‘Three Women’ (1919), were in a Cubo-Futurist style, reminiscent of early Picasso. He married Georgette in 1922 and for the next three years supported the household through a number of dismal jobs such as painting cabbage roses for a wallpaper factory. In his free time he experimented with various styles of painting eventually realising Surrealism was his preferred means of expression. Among his first works in this vein were ‘The Menaced Assassin’ (1926) and ‘The Lost Jockey’ (1925), the latter of which he produced many variants upon throughout his career. Around the same time he founded, with the Belgian poet and collagist E.L.T. Messens, the reviews ‘Oesophage and Marie’ which launched Belgian Surrealism.
In 1927 Magritte had his first one-man show at the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels. At this time he was producing almost a painting a day. Later that year he moved to Paris to join the Surrealists. This period up to 1930, Magritte described as his ‘Cavernous’ period with paintings depicting macabre and bizarre scenes tinged with eroticism. After falling out with André Breton, Magritte moved back to Brussels where he would remain for the rest of his life. His work was consistently true to Surrealism throughout almost his entire career. He incorporated many favourite recurring themes into his work for example floating rocks, paintings within paintings and inanimate objects with human features. The bowler-hatted figure also appears regularly and is seen by some as a self-portrait. Occasionally Magritte worked on Surrealist versions of famous paintings such as Manet’s ‘The Balcony’, in which he replaced the subjects with coffins. He later produced sculptures along these lines and it was this playful yet provocative sense of humour that was to inform many of his best works. In his series of pipe paintings, this fascination with the paradoxical is clearly seen; the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ underneath a picture of a pipe have prompted endless philosophical, linguistic and semantic debates.
Magritte’s paintings challenge the everyday, the notion of common sense. By subtly rearranging recognisable forms and perspectives he forces the viewer to look more closely at what is generally taken for granted. He exploited the ambiguities between real objects and images of them and delighted in playing with the viewer’s expectations. Many of his paintings were included in Surrealist exhibitions, but it wasn’t until his 50s that he achieved international recognition. In Surrealism’s progression into Pop Art, Magritte’s work was enormously influential and his images continue to be seen regularly.