WHEN I asked Marcel Marien how he perceived himself he gave the somewhat misleading reply 'Je suis editeur.' That was certainly not untrue but it was far from the full story.
As a publisher, his significance has been considerable. From its inception in 1954, his publishing enterprise, Les Levres Nues, has ceaselessly sought to bring the work of the Belgian Surrealist writers to public attention. Paul Nouge, Louis Scutenaire, Irene Hamoir, Andre Souris and Paul Colinet feature in the various issues of the series, which extends to hundreds of titles. The collection 'Le Fait Accompli', issued from 1968 to 1975 by Les Levres Nues and comprising 135 numbers, was particularly suited to the often aphoristic and incomplete texts produced by the Belgian group. Its high-quality, in-quarto format, sometimes comprising no more than four sheets, succeeded in rescuing otherwise fleeting letters, tracts and statements, which may well otherwise have disappeared.
One striking example of this mission concerns some unfinished, experimental notes made by Nouge in 1928, which Marien collated and matched with corresponding photographs and then published under the title La Subversion des images. Such was Marien's systematic documentation of Belgian Surrealist activity that it produced many thorough tomes. Les Levres Nues published Nouge's collected theoretical writing under the title Histoire de ne pas rire in 1956 and in 1972 Magritte's texts from the period 1946 to 1950 appeared in Manifestes et autres ecrits. In 1979 Marien published what he had described as 'a history of Surrealist activities in Belgium' in the form of a chronological record of all the documents, manifestos, tracts and articles which appeared between 1924 and 1950.
Perhaps of more significance to the history of Belgian Surrealism, though, is that Marien was responsible for the first monograph on Magritte, published in 1943, and for the subsequent study on the artist, Les Corrections naturelles, which appeared in 1947.
Marien was far from being a detached commentator on Surrealism, however, and well before he became a guardian of the legacy of the Belgian group, he had joined its ranks. His activities began at the age of 17 when he participated in a Surrealist group exhibition in London, Surrealist Objects and Poems, organised by ELT Mesens in 1937. Yet it was not until 1967 that he was to become consistently productive. Using a variety of media, which included collage, decoupage, drawing, painting, toys, household items and even a reproduction of a Michelangelo fresco, Marien produced hundreds of humorous, puzzling and provocative tableaux which challenge and mock our preconceptions and taboos. These can never be said to constitute direct criticism but are rather ways of defying the intellect. For instance, The Houdini Memorial (1977), Marien explained, began with two hands clasped as though in prayer, which had to be wrenched from their symbolic servitude. The addition of handcuffs underlined the subjugation and humiliation implicit in the gesture. By giving the piece its title, which invokes the master of escapology, Marien reverses and defies the initial situation: the devotion is neither voluntary nor will it be insurmountable.
That Marien should urge his spectator to react against time- worn social conventions and beliefs is not surprising since his thinking is motivated by a desire to deride the norms of society, the Church and Capitalism. In a blatant attempt to challenge traditional opinions and attitudes, he produced and directed a film, L'Imitation du cinema (1959), which combined sexual outrage with religious affront. This work caused a scandal in Belgium and was banned in France. It proved impossible to have the film shown in the United States even though it had the support of the Kinsey Institute.
But Marien was not content with a detached, artistic form of mischief. He proved to be equally subversive in life. At the time of the Magritte retrospective at Knokke-Le Zoute in 1962, Marien anonymously issued a tract announcing Magritte's apparent decision to reduce his prices. This infuriated Magritte. Georgette, Magritte's widow, told me that she could never forgive Marien for his troublemaking, even 20 years later.
If Marien appeared intent on continually disrupting and questioning the reality in which he found himself, it was because he had little faith in it. As he once put it, 'Have you ever been alive? Curious sensation isn't it?'