How René Magritte tore the mask off bourgeois respectability

Even the very notion of being an artist was anathema to Magritte
December 9, 2021
Magritte: A Life
Alex Danchev
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Who was René Magritte? Certainly not the petit-bourgeois surrealist of witty word paintings that many take him for. As Alex Danchev’s biography reveals, Magritte’s surrealism was first and foremost a revolutionary project. It aimed to open the eyes of ordinary people to the mysteries of everyday life, and to pull the oppressive mask off bourgeois respectability. Even the very notion of being an artist was anathema to him. He fashioned himself instead as a “man of thought” who merely communicated his ideas in paint.

As much as Magritte’s work was revolutionary, it was also singular; in time he fell out spectacularly with the Parisian surrealists and Belgian communists alike. But being unclubbable did not mean that he was without friends, who remained fundamental to his creative process.

His letters to la bande à Magritte, his forever-shifting “gang,” number in the thousands. Some, like the poet Paul Nougé, provided him with scenarios to paint as well as titles for his works; others, like ELT Mesens and Claude Spaak, gave him financial backing and tirelessly vouched for his work. In many ways, Danchev’s biography is less about Magritte than the atmosphere of his times, an exciting moment in art history cut short by the onset of world war.

Danchev passed away suddenly in 2016, leaving his draft of Magritte: A Life with three question marks at the end. Art historian Sarah Whitfield’s concluding chapter may lack his narrative flair, but nonetheless brings to a satisfying close an engaging account of one of art’s most paradoxical figures: a surrealist who was often not considered a surrealist, an artist who was not an artist who painted a pipe that was not a pipe.