Today Is Not Rene Magritte's Birthday
On this day 120 years ago (Nov. 21, 1898), the renowned Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium.
His parents likely influenced his style of wearing suits and bowler hats--his father, Léopold, was a tailor, and his mother, Régina, a milliner. He began taking drawing lessons in 1910, when he was twelve years old.
Tragedy struck the family in 1912 when Régina threw herself into a river and drowned. His mother's death left a lasting impression on Magritte, notably that, when pulled from the water, she had been wearing a dress that obscured her face. Throughout the course of his career, Magritte's work featured veiled figures.
As a teenager, Magritte went on to pursue a formal art education in Brussels, which exposed him to the radical art of Cubism and Futurism. He later found work in commercial advertising, where he learned about the power to convey messages through images.
Among other things, Magritte was married to the same woman for 45 years; served in the Belgian infantry; joined the Communist Party; met with surrealist artists in Paris such as André Breton, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali; endured the German occupation of Belgium during World War II; and lived long enough to see himself achieve international acclaim. His career spanned nearly 50 years.
By the time he died on August 15, 1967 at the age of 68, René Magritte had forever altered the trajectory of modern art, inspiring artists from Andy Warhol to the Beatles.
The Surreal Life
Surrealism was born out of a cultural reaction to the horrors of World War I and the established values of the upper class. In the 1920s, writers and artists revolted against academic preconceptions of art--what it could or couldn't be. Communist thought factored into these ideals, along with dream analysis and the examination of the unconscious mind.
Artists like Magritte committed to shattering preconceived notions of the nature of reality by showing the world as it is presented in dreams. Unlike Salvador Dali, whose work drew upon an interest in Freud, Magritte's work focused on the philosophical gaps between messaging conveyed by words and images.
Magritte's work frequently features everyday objects shown in unexpected or bizarre ways. A picture of a pipe is labeled, "This is not a pipe." A ripe green apple hovers over a man's face, covering his expression. A single rose blooms large enough to fill an entire room. An enormous egg barely fits inside a bird cage.
Seen and Unseen
Magritte was interested in examining the interplay of the visible and the hidden--observing the spaces between what is at the forefront, and what is obscured. In his paintings, he redefines the idea of an image, showing both the subject--say, a bird in flight--and what is behind, what exists independently of the bird--the sky. He sometimes illustrates the presence of a thing by carefully noting its absence, outlining its general shape and allowing the background to pass through as an illusion.
The noted presence of hidden things--a face, a bird, a landscape--creates both mystery and a source of tension. Piece to piece, Magritte's choice to obscure certain images while leaving others visible provides commentary not only on the objects within a scene but on their symbols as well.
Magritte paints his images flat and clear, with the smooth appearance of a photograph, yet his subjects remain thought-provoking, unsettling. They are at once real and dream-like, obvious and impossible.
René Magritte used words as a tool of deception in his paintings by including captions that both incorrectly and correctly labeled images. What does a word mean exactly, and what does it imply? What does the absence of a word suggest?
For example, the word summer denotes a season, while it connotes hot weather, outdoor leisure activities, and sunshine.
Magritte sought to explore the misunderstandings inherent in language. The mislabeling of a caption is not meant to define a piece; instead, the irony of its presence becomes a new aspect of the work itself. These bold, disparate parts constitute an absurd whole, placing Magritte firmly within the realm of Surrealism.
Critical Thinking Questions
Magritte's works inspire questions from the first moment of viewing. With regard to his work Les Amants
(1928), as seen at the beginning of this post, viewers observe a moment that is both private and public, knowable and unknowable.
Here are some worthwhile questions students and teachers can consider while viewing this piece.
- Why are these individuals embracing with sheets covering their faces? What feelings or impressions do the sheets evoke?
- What is the meaning of intimacy in such a situation?
- Does the mutual, shared isolation of the subjects constitute love?
- Is Magritte forcing upon viewers the idea that the individuals are lovers by using the French word for lovers in the title of the piece?
- How does Magritte define or create the meaning of identity in this piece?
More resources on René Magritte can be found on his eLibrary Research Topic Page
Learn more about surrealist artists on the Surrealism Topic Page
Discover the art of Cubism, including works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, on the eLibrary Cubism Research Topic Page