In Brussels, you can't walk away from René
New museum honours Magritte
Sunday 31 May 2009
In an almost surrealist gesture, the clouds and the bright blue sky have been removed from Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. For the past 15 months this canvas has covered building work on Brussels' new Magritte gallery, known rather cumbersomely as the Musée Magritte Museum. This Tuesday, the world's biggest collection of paintings by the city's most famous artist will be unveiled to the public.
But I'm not there. I'm standing in front of a three-storey terraced house, 135 Rue Esseghem, in the suburb of Jette, six miles away. There's a streetlamp outside that I've seen before. This ornate piece of ironwork features in Magritte's L'empire des lumières. Everyone knows this house. When I go to the door a small black Bakelite plate above the bell reads MAGRITTE. Here, René and Georgette Magritte lived from 1930 to 1954, when he painted most of the works for which he is famous.
I find the parlour painted the blue of a Magritte sky. This was the artist's choice. And I recognise that fireplace.
Magritte painted it frequently, most famously with a steam train emerging from it. Meanwhile the curved top of the front window is most definitely the one featured in La condition humaine and there's Magritte's easel, the same one featured in those landscapes where the canvas in front of us seems to be a continuation of the scene beyond.
Brussels' newest gallery may be about to unveil 200 Magritte works, but this unremarkable house, which opened as a museum in 1999, remains a unique insight into the man.
Magritte also sought inspiration in Brussels' bars. The Tavern Greenwich in St Géry is where he used to play chess and sold some early pictures. It's dusty now and still very much a haunt for chess players. La Fleur en Papier Doré, near the Académie where Magritte trained during the First World War, displays a photo of him with Georgette and several other surrealists. How very respectable they all looked. A convocation of bankers couldn't have dressed better. In those days radicalism was in the art, not the clothes.
Magritte is everywhere in Brussels. The theatre in Galeries St-Hubert has a ceiling painted by him in 1951 and you can see his influence in the restaurant La Roue D'Or, off Grand Place, where green apples float across a ceiling full of white clouds raining bowler-hatted men. Café Vaudeville has flying light fittings based on Magritte's birds and the Eurostar terminal at Brussels Midi is decorated with furled umbrellas.
In the 1940s Magritte's American champion Alexander Iolas cannily advised his impecunious Belgian client to concentrate on a few saleable images. He probably never gave better advice. René Magritte is now a brand, his work defining French-speaking Belgium. The Gallerie René Magritte is long awaited but the city is already his museum.
How to get there
Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk) offers returns from London to Brussels from £59. Hotel Amigo (00 800 7666 6667; roccofortecollection.com) has a Magritte Package from €293 per room per night with breakfast, based on two sharing (includes museum tickets, copy of the exhibition book and customised Magritte-Amigo umbrella, plus a welcome cocktail in the Amigo Bar).
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