On this day in 1898, the great surrealist painter René Magritte was born. When I was younger, I didn’t much care for his art. There were a good too many apples and bowlers and too little of the overwhelming brilliance of Salvador Dalí. But over time, I came to appreciate Magritte’s art. For one thing, he has much less of a clear style than Dalí. And so the genius behind the paintings is clear.
It’s also the case that Magritte didn’t produce that many works. This may be partly because he wasn’t that successful until quite late into his life. In fact, he had a career arc rather like that of Cervantes: producing work throughout his life, but doing many things to support himself. But it is also the case that he tended to have very distinct thoughts behind his work.
By the late 1920s, he was producing very interesting — clearly surrealistic — work. Some of this, such as The Treachery of Images, is over-intellectual. But other works, such as The Empty Mask, seem to be much deeper than Magritte himself was aware of. I think that is important for an explicitly intellectual artist; the work has to be somewhat out of control or it becomes contrived.
Magritte was always interested in the question of what was behind images. We see that as early as The Empty Mask. It is a profound question to consider coming from an artist who is, after all, only interested in the surfaces of things. But in fact, every image is just covering up another and on and on. In the mid-1930s, he looked at this quite explicitly in his two paintings The Human Condition, where a painting rendered inside the painting covers up exactly the reality it displays.
He did some other interesting work around this time such as Not to be Reproduced and On the Threshold of Liberty. And then his production slowed way down for a decade because of the war. He produced some good work and experimented a lot with color in ways that he didn’t seem to bother with much at other times. And then in the late 1940s, he seemed to arrive at a fairly dependable style that we know him for as in paintings like The Art of Life.
In the early 1950s, he produced a series of paintings, The Empire of Lights. The concept is simple enough. But it is lovely:
Magritte didn’t produce his best known work until shortly before he died, The Son of Man. What Magritte wrote about it could stand as a general description of his entire output:
Happy birthday René Magritte!