Ceci n'est pas an artist

Rene Magritte's images have become student poster classics, but the revolutionary intent of his poetic puzzle pictures has not lost its bite. How should we mark the great Surrealist's centenary? By Andrew Lambirth

How shall we remember Surrealism? Last month a row broke out in Belgium over the arrangements made to celebrate the centenary of the great Surrealist artist Rene Magritte. Surrealism is by its nature subversive, say those Surrealists and their followers left alive, and its protagonists would never have tolerated official recognition. Nothing could be more foreign to the true spirit of Surrealism than this kind of Disneyfication. Perhaps these veterans fear that if Surrealism is tamed, its potency as an artworld force will be extinguished, and as a movement it will be relegated to the history books. Doubtless the ghost of Magrittte watches the proceedings with a sardonic smile.

The oldest living Surrealist, certainly in England and perhaps in the world, is Conroy Maddox (born 1912, or according to some sources, 1908). Still active as a painter, collagist and object-maker, Maddox recently opened a retrospective of work by the odd (even by Surrealist standards) couple, Dr Grace W. Pailthorpe (1883-1971) and Reuben Mednikoff (l906- 1976). Charmingly titled "Sluice Gates of the Mind", this exhibition continues at Leeds Art Gallery until 8 March, and might be viewed as an appetiser to the Magritte-fest. Maddox comments on the general interest in the psychological investigations of Pailthorpe-Mednikoff, and reports that there is still great enthusiasm for all branches of Surrealism. If as an art movement Surrealism now has little political force, that is because it has been so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream of art and life. Even if we don't realise it, we are all now a little surrealistic.

Maddox condemns the gimmickry of the Magritte celebrations, but sighs, half in resignation. "I think the real spirit of Surrealism is still there, so this kind of thing should matter - it debases Surrealism." The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, in cahoots with the Belgian Tourist Board, have implemented such abominations as a "Magritte Trail", visiting the artist's old haunts. The theme-park mentality is in danger of smothering the real mystery of Magritte's best work, and that cool epigrammatic wit, which is even more popular today than it was in the artist's lifetime.

What is so special about Magritte? He was the supreme modernist in that he recognised the disparity between words and their ability to describe the thing they name. He was crucially aware of the unreliability of language, of its inexactitude. Magritte distilled images of wonderful poetic resonance to illustrate this. He always maintained that "the function of painting is to make poetry visible." He was a storyteller in a style of hallucinatory ordinariness, yet produced puzzle pictures which demand a double-take. He made us think about how we decode images.

"Snapshots of the impossible" is how the art critic Robert Hughes acutely describes Magritte's paintings. Magritte had the ability to make the dream look real, to capture the overpowering dread of nightmare, to snare what Andre Breton, self- styled pope of Surrealism, liked to call "convulsive beauty". Art wasn't supposed to be comfortable like an old armchair, it was intended to shock. Nor was it meant to be too closely analysed or explained. As David Sylvester, the leading authority on Magritte, says, the artist wanted the mystery of his pictures "to be confronted, not interpreted".

Magritte originated the most extraordinary imagery, some of which has now become the stuff of visual cliche, though much retains its freshness and bite. A fleet of long loaves gliding past the window; the half-span of a bridge disappearing into nothingness; the pipesmoker whose nose curves down to plug into his pipe's bowl (shades of Monty Python). Images were born of long deliberation. Magritte, like GK Chesterton, loved paradox. Chesterton's line "One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak" would have struck a chord with Magritte. He was the supreme artist of the hybrid image - the alternative and scary view. For instance, the alternative mermaid: a fish with human (female) lower half, which the artist Patrick Hughes has slyly dubbed "a practical man's mermaid".

Rene Magritte was a naturalistic Surrealist - if such a term is not a complete contradiction for one who queried the very existence of the real. His work had all the lack of expression of a signwriter. In terms of the application of the paint, there was little overt personality, apart from two periods when Magritte attempted something different (his short-lived "Renoir" and "Fauve" periods). He made no claim to advance the technique of painting; his style derived from late Symbolism. As Conroy Maddox says: "If you look at it as painting, it's the worst kind of 19th-century academic stuff, but Magritte rises above it ... he deals with ideas beautifully." The importance of Magritte lies in him as an image-maker, as a philosopher- painter. He disliked the name of artist, saying merely that he was someone who communicated his thought through painting. This was why his style of painting was so literal; its purpose was to convey the clarity of his thought without painterly frills.

As to character, Magritte was melancholic and sarcastic, with a taste for black humour. He was a pessimist who led an outwardly ordinary life, working at home, either in the kitchen or the dining room. He lived virtually all his life in Brussels, apart from a brief interlude (1927-30) on the outskirts of Paris, He kept budgies and Pomeranians. Evidently he needed to be inconspicuous. George Melly, who met Magritte and for some years owned the major painting entitled The Rape, says, "I always thought of him as a kind of spy."

However, an old friend of Magritte's, the poet, collagist and dealer ELT Mesens (who also became George Melly's mentor), was continually feuding with the artist. For his part, Mesens wanted to pigeonhole Magritte as a model bourgeois who reserved his audacity for his work. But Magritte was too aware of the absurd for that. He posed once, straight-faced, for a photograph, wearing a tuba as if it were a bowler hat.

Marcel Marien, the Belgian writer and artist, wrote to me some years ago that "Magritte acted many times very unusually: doing fake Picassos, Braques and Chiricos. Also making (with his brother who printed the banknotes) fake money. In fact, in daily life, he acted not at all as a bourgeois, making many jokes. It is too big a matter to describe..." Marien, to whom had fallen the task of selling the forgeries, was the first of three surrogate sons to Magritte. Twenty-three years younger, he was particularly close to Magritte during the war years. Their friendship ended in 1954, and in a complex hoax of 1962 Marien accused Magritte of selling out for financial gain. (Actually, success didn't suit Magritte, and he'd never sought it.)

The Surrealists went in avid search of le merveilleux, the inner meaning of things present just below the skin of reality. They sought to startle, to disturb. Surrealism was a new language. The Surrealists, unlike most art movements, were actively political and wanted to transform the world. One of their writer-heroes was the Comte de Lautreamont (aka Isidore Ducasse, 1846-70), who was responsible for this compelling image: "As beautiful as the chance encounter upon an operating-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella". This is the order of Magritte's imagery.

How committed a Surrealist was Magritte? He was not a fully-paid-up member of the Parisian Surrealist Group: they needed him more than he needed them. Artistically, he was more of a loner. He wanted intellectual support and stimulation largely from the poets of the Belgian chapter. In 1930 he quarrelled with Breton. He dismissed what the Surrealists got up to as artificial, disliking their petty feuds and stance-taking. Later he burnt all his Surrealist possessions - though not, of course, the paintings.

There is a deep vein of humour in Magritte, though it is always delivered deadpan. In the early 1930s he painted a door with a hole in it shaped as if someone had just walked right through it, an image so effective it was soon adopted by countless film-makers. Magritte was also addicted to puns: there is a 1936 picture in which he depicts himself painting a bird, but using an egg as his model; the title is Clairvoyance.

What kind of influence has Magritte exerted on later generations? His serial imagery foreshadows Warhol - compare the four compartments of Magritte's Man Reading a Newspaper: the man is present only in one, but otherwise the four are identical. Nothing happens, as nothing much occurs in Warhol's films. Also, like Warhol, Magritte was not over-concerned with the original painting. Since it was the image that mattered, he was quite content that its message be disseminated through copies, variants or printed reproductions (in later life, Magritte shamelessly recycled his early ideas). Unlike Warhol, however, he was never particularly interested in artist prints, considering the process both too technical and too mechanical.

Although Pop was primarily a development of Magritte's vision, he hated to be called the father of Pop art. He thought Pop a joke, derided its humour as "orthodox" and "within the reach of any successful window decorator". (Perhaps this was a crack at Dali who had made quite a reputation for himself in New York by surrealising the Fifth Avenue department store Bonwit Teller's window displays.) Pop shared with Surrealism the rejection of aesthetics for its own sake, and wanted to bring together art and actual experience. Both movements celebrated the common object. But whereas Surrealism challenged the conventional and everyday, Pop deified it. This was the great difference between them.

How does Surrealism stand today? The viewing public has long lost its innocence. Just before Breton died in 1966 he lamented, "It is no longer possible to scandalise anyone." Of course that isn't quite true, as the presence of Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley and the Chapman brothers' mannequins at the Royal Academy's "Sensation" exhibition proved. People are still shocked, but it is not by the art-form, it is by the content. Maybe it was ever thus: Magritte's imagery shook the public up, not his painting technique. Likewise, Dali's soft watches were painted with Renaissance virtuosity. Today's Young British Artists are in a direct line of descent from Pop art, which in turn developed out of Magritte's brand of Surrealism. Does that make the YBAs third-generation Surrealists?

Not really. Too many of the YBAs are strikingly lacking in inventiveness (most of their "ideas" are second-hand versions of earlier 20th-century art) and determinedly knowing and cynical. They don't want to change anything, merely to exploit it. Their fondness for outrageous behaviour does not qualify them as honorary Surrealists - if anything, they exhibit more the traits of nihilism. Too often, they don't shock in order to challenge stale conventions, or to make us think, but for the sake of publicity. (Compare the Chapmans' low-life nastiness with the revolutionary obscenity of the Surrealist Hans Bellmer's horribly mal-jointed dolls.) There is not the slightest whiff of idealism about the YBAs, but in this perhaps they epitomise the contemporary spirit. They act more like rock or film stars than artists.

From the early 1970s Magritte's images became increasingly popular. Posters of The Red Model and Golconda adorned many a bedsit. Idea-hungry advertising executives seized on Magritte, and have still not exhausted him more than 20 years later. Pastiches and adoptions continue to appear - Golconda, for instance, was the basis for one of a very successful series of tobacco adverts, the rain of bowler-hatted men exchanged for a cigarette-shower. As David Sylvester has pointed out, Magritte is "the world's most popular provider of images for the covers of paperback books, fiction and non- fiction alike".

The latest offshoot of the Magritte industry is a children's book entitled Now you see it - now you don't by Angela Wenzel (Prestel/Biblios pounds 9.95). It is a bold attempt to tell the stories behind Magritte's pictures, without dumbing them down. But at what age group is this admirable little book aimed? The illustrations include Magritte's painting The Portrait, which depicts a slice of ham with a human eye in its middle. Isn't it rather too horrible, the stuff of nightmares? Just when we think we've seen it all, Magritte comes along to refresh our jaded palates and remind us of the fundamental mystery of existence: nothing should be taken for granted

The Magritte retrospective will include some 300 paintings and gouaches, along with documents, films and examples of his commercial art. At the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels, 6 March-28 June.

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