Theatre of the absurd is a belated tribute to Magritte

Belgium is honouring its resident surrealist with a permanent display of his works. Just don't call it a museum, says Claire Soares

"This is not a museum," René Magritte might have quipped. Forty years after his death, the surrealist painter is finally being honoured with his own "artistic space" in his native Belgium.

The facade of the elegant 19th century building on the Place Royale in Brussels says classical gallery, but then there are nods to Magritte's penchant for the absurd.

On an overcast day, the azure blue skies and rolling puffy clouds reflected in the windows jar with reality and signal the approaching visitor's arrival into the bizarre world of the artist.

Starting on the ground floor would be too conventional for a temple to surrealism, so the Magritte tour starts on the third floor and works its way down. Take the lift up to the top floor and it is the disembodied voice of the artist himself that provides the greeting.

Inside there are no windows, only star-shaped lamps that create a nocturnal, dream-like mood. With dim illumination, attention is squarely focused on the artworks. Many of the artist's masterpieces like L'Empire des lumieres (The Empire of Lights) – which shows a house at night-time against the backdrop of a sunny day -- are displayed alone, without text or background.

"I think Magritte is our best ambassador," Charly Herscovici, the chairman of the Magritte Foundation, told Reuters ahead of the opening in Brussels. "Like Picasso in Paris and Van Gogh in Amsterdam, he deserves a dedicated museum."

Indeed it is surprising that the man sometimes described as the most famous non-fictional Belgian (that is to say not Tintin or Poirot) has had to wait so long. Until now, there was just a small Magritte collection displayed in a single room of the adjacent Fine Arts Museum.

The new museum, which houses the world's largest collection of the surrealist's works, was supposed to open in 2006 but the successive collapses of the Belgian government and the usual artistic wrangling helped delay the project. From today, however, Magritte fans can enjoy 250 of his finest works under one roof. (Ironically, after all that waiting, the Magritte opening is clashing with the inauguration of a museum devoted to Hergé, the cartoonist behind the quiff-haired reporter Tintin.)

Many have searched for meaning in Magritte's logic up-ending works but the new museum does not ram an intellectual interpretation down its visitors' throats, preferring to play up the fun the artist had, for example with videos of him horsing around with a Prussian helmet and a tuba.

On an audio tape unearthed by the curators, Magritte himself dismisses the reams of analysis that have been done about one of his most famous paintings – a pipe with the confusing title Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). "This is not a pipe. I do not see any contradiction in this image: because a depiction of a pipe is still not a pipe," he says. As if to drive home the point, further along in the collection, is another drawing with the subtitle "this continues not to be a pipe".

Born in 1898, Magritte had to earn a living designing wallpaper and then drawing posters for an advertising agency before he successfully broke into the art world. Like Salvador Dali and Man Ray, he was inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, but arguably went on to be the most successful of the surrealists. "I think Magritte would have been delighted with this museum – and he would have been especially happy with the shop," Michel Draguet, the museum's director, told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.

This is far from a purely money-making venture, according to the director, for Magritte was interested in how his work could be spread and how spin-offs related to the original.

"Magritte was never against his works being copied. He knew that the originals could also just disappear. When he went around the Uffizi in Florence, he was bored to tears. He was just amused by the postcards."