René Magritte the Surrealist Master

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Is Rene Magritte a painter? Let us be clear: it is not a matter of asking whether he is a “great painter” or a painter who counted in the history of plastic arts in the twentieth century. No, simply: is he a painter? The question may seem provocative, even bizarre, and some will see a game of mind adapted to an artist whose name is invariably associated with the surrealist movement. However, this questioning is not a paradox. It was Magritte himself who, throughout his life (1898-1967), sustained doubt. “I am not, I believe, a painter in the full sense of the word,” he wrote in 1967 to art historian Phil Mertens. If, in my youth, painting was a great pleasure, at times I was not inattentive to a spontaneous feeling that surprised me: to know that to exist without knowing the reason for living and die. […] It is this feeling that has broken me with preoccupations – somewhat less precise – of purely aesthetic order. And, a little further: “Painting bores me like the rest.” Rene Magritte’s real preoccupation is ideas, those which could explain why the world is rotating and almost always so badly, the path that is ours, the reason for which we borrow it. Painting is a tool, liberation and perhaps reconstruction, in an “allegedly civilized” universe, in reality incoherent, absurd and corrupt and whose signs of future ruin are already “shining in the night.” Magritte does not paint what he sees. And especially what he feels, feeling never entering into account. Magritte paints images, which are the representation of what he thinks. Painting is “a mental thing,” said Leonardo da Vinci. How to explain the genesis of this vision? Again, reading it. For Magritte, a prolific writer, says everything in hundreds of letters, articles, manifestos, and conversations. His first encounter with painting, he made the narrative in a conference of 1938 entitled The Line of Life. Often overhauled, often repeated by her friends, she is at the heart of Magrittian thought. “In my childhood, I liked to play with a little girl in the old abandoned cemetery of a small provincial town. We visited the underground vaults … and went back to the light where a painter, who came from the capital, painted in an alley … The art of painting seemed to me vaguely magical and the painter endowed with superior powers. The result is not so enchanting. Magritte learns that painting, far from always being the instrument of liberation that he dreamed of, can also be “at the service of anyone or anything”, practiced by artists who, easily renouncing their freedom , Have the same preoccupations and ambitions as those of the “first arriviste”. How can one recover the magic experienced in childhood, in the face of the cemetery painter, how can one escape “the common sense that bore him so much”?

The consistency of the object

The divine surprise will come from Giorgio De Chirico. While Magritte wins his life as a poster artist, after trying to draw modernist wallpapers, his friend Marcel Lecomte, future co-founder of Belgian surrealism, shows him a reproduction, in the Parisian magazine “Les Feuilles libres” The love of Chirico (1914). Magritte has already exhibited with other young painters in Antwerp and Brussels, his research has led him from futurism to abstraction. Very soon, however, he turned away from it: he had to find the means by which objects could “reveal their existence eloquently”, the consistency and depth that the real world, even if it were seen through the eyes of the ‘Abstraction, do not deliver. The song of love upsets him: one can see the profile of an antique statue placed next to a red punched glove, in a deserted city setting. The painter is fascinated: “This triumphant poetry has replaced the stereotyped effect of traditional painting.” And again: “It is a complete break with the mental habits of artists who are prisoners of talent, virtuosity and all the small aesthetic specialties. It is a new vision in which the viewer regains his isolation and the silence of the world “. The beauty of arbitrariness is in the air of time. It is no coincidence that Chirico’s painting has also become a sort of sacred reference for a young writers movement which was formed in Paris and one of whose members, André Breton, published in 1924 the first text Founder: the Manifesto of Surrealism. Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, and also painters, André Masson, Max Ernst and Francis Picabia. At the same time, in Brussels, Marcel Lecomte, Paul Nougé and Camille Goemans made a commitment similar. Magritte joined them and then established a close collaboration with the French group, staying in Paris between 1927 and 1930. In 1929 he published in the Surrealist Revolution a primordial text, Les Mots et les Images, a sort of inventory of correspondences between the Text and image, doubled by an interrogation, now fundamental in its work, between the object and its representation. His reflection will culminate in the famous painting, La Trahison des Images (1929): a pipe under which one can read the sentence “This is not a pipe”.

A methodical surrealist

Magritte, surrealist painter? This is the category in which it is most often categorized, but once again, to be interested in it is to accept to open a series of nest boxes. The surrealist apparatus, he adhered to it fully in 1925: “Their revolutionary demands being ours, we joined them in the service of the proletarian revolution.” How does the Manifest define its method? “Surrealism, n.m. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, verbally, or in writing, or in any other way, the actual functioning of thought. “Here comes the reign of the hazardous beauty,” as the chance encounter of one An umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table “, in the words of Lautreamont, taken as a mantra. And, in fact, Magritte acknowledges that from 1925 to 1936 his paintings, “a result of the search for a poignantly moving effect”, are obtained by means of the “disorientation” of very familiar objects, images provided with false denominations, canvases Endowed with titles that are “a convenience for conversation and are not explanations”. But already, Magritte stands out from the Parisian movement. If it is surreal, it is Brussels version. Methodical, he refuses the use of automatism, too nebulous to his taste. Psychoanalytic interpretation will never be part of his choices: “No one of sense believes that psychoanalysis could illuminate the mystery of the world.” In his approach, which a Belgian critic notes in 1927, that it is based on “cold reason”, nothing is left to chance. He claims to have become aware of it in 1932, by “seeing” his next picture, “The Elective Affinities,” where one finds that an egg has taken the place of the bird in a cage. This is the end of fortuitous encounters, arbitrary reconciliations. The poetry of images will henceforth be constructed.

A man who thinks

And perhaps it has always been. “I’m not an artist. I’m a man who thinks, “he says. And why should the status of his images be inferior in the transposition of the life of the spirit to that of the verb and of philosophy, as Neoplatonic tradition does? Far from the Magritte “surrealist among others”, the exhibition of the Center Pompidou focuses on a Magritte dialogue with philosophers (the last of them will be Michel Foucault and their correspondence will lead to a text by the French philosopher, published in 1973, This is not a pipe) and all art is centered on the resolution of “problems”. What are they? Didier Ottinger, curator of the exhibition, distinguished five, all related to a myth or an ancient narrative and evoked in his work by recurring motifs. In particular, there is the shadow (but also the cave, the fire, the closed space and the opening of the window or the door) and the cave of Plato, the use of words and the episode of the Tables of The Law, the fragmented body confronted with the ideal of absolute beauty imagined by Zeuxis. Magritte, conceptual painter? The subject finds confirmation in the influence that the painter exerts, from the 1960s, on a whole generation of American artists, in the forefront of which Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, as on the supporters of Pop Art, all observers And wise collectors of his paintings. In 1964, thanks to his friend Louis Scutenaire, he affirmed: “Thanks to Magritte, painting abandons its use as an amuseuse of the eye, as a stimulant or as a sentimental outlet, to help man to Find, find the world “.