A visit to the Rene Magritte Museum



from a photograph by Duan Michals

As with everything, I live in the mystery.” Magritte to Carl Wai, Bruxelles April 1967.

Before travelling to Bruxelles to see this museum exhibition for the second time, the first was a few years ago soon after this larger museum opened (there is also another one based around a house he occupied for many years) I decided to do some research into the artist to try and get to the bottom of his message. In this I have not been successful since I do not think there is a bottom line to Magritte or is it that there is no top to his work!? Continuing the interview with Carl Wai, given not long before his death in august 1967, Magritte says, “There has to come a moment when suddenly mystery is no longer an object that can be talked about … ” and about his painting he says that it “evokes mystery, but it is conceived in order to evoke it.”


a variation on the pipe theme !

There is one famous work of his, a painting of a pipe while underneath is written the words “this is not a pipe” ( Ceci n’est pas une pipe). The “treachery of images” is an understanding that is not unique to Magritte but has roots in semiology and particularly the work of De Saussure. Magritte was a thinker who painted.

While I do not find it easy to explore the written work of Magritte, he was after all a painter who worked visually, the following lines full of mystery do make some more obvious sense … “It’s a complete break with the mental habits of those artists who are prisoners of their talent, their virtuosity. The point is a new vision, where the viewer rediscovers his isolation and hears the silence of the world … Neither modest nor proud, I’ve done what I thought I had to do.” (From L’Express, Paris, 16’th January 1967).


from a photograph by Duan Michals

This year marks 50 years since Magritte’s death though I have not as yet heard anything about this anniversary. The details of his life do not seem so important yet he did not adopt a Bohemian kind of life style in the sense that he was married to one woman and appeared to live an ordinary life. He referred to himself as a double agent.


work by Gavin Turk

I walk to the museum from my hotel. It takes me about half an hour as I wander along an indirect route. In the museum entrance, there is a security guard. After buying tickets in the foyer along with use of an audio-guide, I go down to level 2 to put my coat and bag in a locker. There is a Magritte exhibition here before entry that includes two art pieces by Gavin Turk, a U.K. artist, who made models of Magritte’s works (cripple and oscar) in the year of Magritte’s death, 1967.


Words and Images (Les Mots et les Images)

There are also three large black and white photos of Magritte by Duan Michals on the walls, a blow up of his diagrammatic Words and Images, (Les Mots et les Images), and a series of 8 Magritte painting reproductions in a circle above and around the entrance hall.

One then enters the museum proper by means of a lift which now takes one up to the third floor. Magritte’s work used to be scattered around the place mostly in different Belgian museums and departments until it was decided to bring it into one place so the public could focus on the work of this one man. Although regarded as one of the great Surrealists, Magritte was only really a member of the group lead by Andre Breton for a relatively short time while living in Paris for three years with his wife.


More larger than life black and white photographs are on the third floor.

Magritte’s early life was marked by the suicide of his mother when aged only 14, first meeting his wife to be at around 15 and studying fine art, learning the necessary tools of the trade which he regarded as important if not essential. He came into contact with Dadaism and was involved with Surrealism. Some of his early work reveals a Cubist influence.


painting made by Magritte using his wife as a model

Following meeting his wife to be when she was only 12 at a fairground in Charlesroi, Magritte (the I in his name is short so that the second part sounds a bit like grit) met her again some years later in a park by accident and after that they never seperated. Georgette Magritte donated much of the work on show in the museum.

Initially, Magritte came into contact with Futurism and Impressionism which made a great impact on him. His earlier work in this style did not however sell and he was forced to undertake what he called “idiot work” that included designing wallpaper and covers for musical scores (his brother was a music publisher).

Colluding with artists inspired his early work and also resulted in a newspaper called 7  Arts which stated “Art is an active expression of civilisation” and “Art is an organised invention”; one has to create an art based in the present without any references to the past. This paper was challenged by the Surrealists with whom Magritte was already drawn to; he therefore left the constructivist Bauhaus based artists under accusation that he was being Bourgeois.

The Shooting Gallery (La Salle d’Armes) from 1926 is an example of the early Surrealist influence.


It is interesting to see how photography plays an important part in this museum to recreate the era Magritte lived in yet also as a counterpoint to his work; his art has a photogenic quality. One feels that were he alive today, he would be using computer software like Photoshop. The museum walls are black as if the viewer is inside a vast photographic album! Magritte was not however interested in developing photography as an art form although he did use it to document goings on, ideas for paintings perhaps and to create little cameos with friends.


Paintings like The Man from the Sea (L’homme du Large) from 1927, mark the beginnings of Magritte’s unique approach.

Magritte was more profoundly influenced by painters such as De Chirico. Chirico was creating something genuinely new unlike the Futurists who were more concerned with discovering just a new way of painting. Paintings like The Man from the Sea (L’homme du Large) from 1927, mark the beginnings of Magritte’s unique approach.


Paul Nouget, painted by Magritte in 1927

Paul Nouget, painted by Magritte in 1927, was a Belgian critic who regarded the 7 Arts as too formalistic and espoused Surrealism. Magritte was drawn  to him as were others and so the Belgian Surrealist group was born; they maintained independence from the French Surrealists.

Georgette emphasised an important function of Magritte’s work. He thought of something, he painted that something, the viewer saw what he painted … there was nothing more to it than than that and to look for symbolic meanings is fruitless.

In 1927, Magritte went to Paris with Georgette, hoping to find a more appreciative public and drawn by the Surrealists, went to Paris for three years. He did not become close with the Surrealists and eventually argued with Andre Breton who ordered Georgette to remove the cross hanging around her neck that was a gift from her grandmother. Magritte had absorbed the Surrealist message in his own way.


In 1929, Magritte sketched his famous Words and Images that was published in The Surrealist Revolution, December 1929, Paris. This is easy to read and consider yet the meaning is profound hence requiring contemplation.

The first gallery ends with a reproduction of the pipe image, the treachery of images, as the original is in Los Angeles, California. The text hear reads “this continues not to be a pipe.” Simply put, one can not put any tobacco into the pipe Magritte has painted; it is the representation of a pipe not an actual pipe, a simple truth that needs stating even more today than ever in our image saturated world.

Magritte using painting to say what the mind wants to but is not yet known. This is second hand translation and seems to miss the point. In fact, Magritte in translation seems compromised often with words assuming different meanings. An example is the painting called L’homme du Large in French but The Man from the Sea in English. The French word directly implies size which the English translation misses.

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Louis Scutenaire is seen smoking and wearing a helmet

On level 2, there are some cameos playing. These little dramas are spiced with Surrealistic humour and feature Little Red Hood; Magritte liked Lewis Carrol. One of his friends, Louis Scutenaire, is seen smoking and wearing a helmet; there is much footage of his wife, Georgette.

Although basically chronological, this exhibition jumps around a little as different influences in his life are explored.

Magritte returned from Paris in 1930. He had to return to advertising work to make a living but after some years his work started to sell.

He painted a statue of the Venus de Milo, giving her a flesh coloured coat. Paul Nuget commented on this as did Andre Breton. Magritte started to be exhibited.

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God is no Saint

Titles play an ambiguous role in Magritte’s work and were conceived later in the process of making a painting. For instance, a bird possibly a Jackdaw, perched on the side of a shoe is called “God is no Saint.” Birds feature frequently in Magritte’s work but have no stated symbolic meaning. Life is a mystery!

Using painting to create another dimension, another space … as in a door with a shape cut in it. Depth! A partially hidden layer.

Symbols that Magritte used were the sky, the sea, small spherical bells and, as with other Surrealists, mirrors.  Play of day and night. Metamorphosis. Stone, cloud. Crescent moon. Trees, eggs, dusk … his visual vocabulary. Bowler hatted, figure in coat, houses,

During the war, Magritte started using bright colours in a more impressionistic style. Trees which bore one large leaf instead of many (The Blaze, 1943), a group of owls growing from the ground like leaves (the companions of fear, 1942) and also in 1942, Treasure Island, with doves growing out as plants. Andre Breton was not enthused.

Magritte embraced Communism for awhile after the war and attempted to get them to see that art could be practiced in its’ own right rather than in the service of the state. He failed like others who tried, to get the communists to see this and so discarded them. He was accused of lacking political conviction and called a capitalist; by now his work was selling and being exhibited in America.

In 1947, Magritte was banished from the Surrealist group. He entered a period called “Vache” in which he made a group of paintings that were intended for a show in Paris. This included copying the style of painting found in comics. Gavin Turk is a British artist who has made sculptures from this period.

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portrait of Adrienne Crowet (1942)

Magritte sometimes undertook Portrait commissions; these were not straight pictures and showed his unique style as in the portrait of Adrienne Crowet (1942).

Magritte initially did not appeal to the Americans with his Renoirlike style and was told to continue with his former style much to his mortification. He eventually died on Assumption Day 1967.

Magritte did achieve success towards the end of his life but too late for him to really enjoy it. He did not care if a painting sold for a million because such success was based on a misunderstanding. Magritte remained true to himself.

He did have an influence on the modern world as with his Apple , adopted by the Beatles and perhaps giving way to the huge company of that name! Magritte regarded Pop Art as a watered down form of Dadaism; often it did not require much original thinking as perhaps in the multiple photos of soup cans.

In some ways, the last room is of most interest as it shows Magritte’s later work with which I am most familiar. Here, he does seem to have produced some of his best work.

Magritte was a cerebral painter, searching for something in his work. He sometimes left the titles of works to others and certainly did not agree with psycho-analytical interpretations of his work.

The Masked Ball is a strikingly mysterious image showing the sun rising or setting over the sea with a monolithic stone in the foreground. (The Masked Ball, 1958). A haunting beauty or is it just another sunrise/sunset image.

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His last painting which features a full moon in front of rather than behind the leaves of a tree and reveals a night sky with houses on the horizon, lights lit, is called The Blank Page.

Salvador Dali described him as an exemplary painter who should be used in every school in the world to illustrate what poetry is. Magritte did not know the real reason for his painting.

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A Magritte altered to fit into a local cafe

The mass reproduction of his images is really the realisation of his concept that the image is really only the vehicle for an idea.

After the shop, the cinema where a film about Magritte is playing. Painting a tool for him. The movie seems to add its’ own narrative which rather distorts what the exhibition has shown yet it is obvious he could not have done what he did without his wife, Georgette. Magritte did not play the role of artist yet he was undoubtedly one. He discovered what he had to paint. De Chirico a major influence; from the classical world while Magritte was part of the modern one.

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The museum shop is considered to be part of the exhibition

One item I purchase (along with cards, fridge magnets, books, a mug, a badge) is the catalogue of the recent Magritte retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This gives an updated contemporary view of Magritte as a philosophic individual who painted. He managed to continue his own path and not be drawn too far into the Surrealist school which did not really accommodate him. The catalogue is yet another narrative about Magritte and one senses that the Musee Magritte gives a more authentic one. After all, the Surrealists were largely poets and saw words over images unlike Magritte who saw that images could take precedence over words.

The recent retrospective exhibition in Paris was called The Treachery of Images after Magritte’s famous “This is not a pipe” image which makes a statement about semiotics rather than merely being a witty Surrealist gesture. There is also an image of an apple that is followed by text, “this is not an apple”. The admiration of an object because it is a painted representation rather than the real object might be ultimately misleading! The Parisian exhibition seems to have done a good job of revealing Magritte’s attempt to reveal that paintings are false, they do not actually show what they claim to represent.

“Making thought visible!” was essential to Magritte’s work.

An interesting aspect to Magritte’s work is the fact that he came into contact with many different schools of art … constructivist, Bauhaus, Dada, expressionist, futurist and of course, Surrealist … he seemed to have absorbed and rejected such influences to find his own way.

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