Working across painting, collage, drawing and sculpture, René Magritte forged a unique brand of Surrealism during his prolific career, securing a position as one of the most famous figures within the revolutionary artistic movement. Taking inspiration from familiar, everyday objects, such as bells, bird cages, bowler hats, green apples, clouds and champagne glasses, he created images that were filled with an intense sense of mystery and strangeness. In the process, Magritte sought to explore and question the very nature of representation, disrupting convention and challenging his viewer’s understanding of reality.
Born in 1898 in Lessines, Belgium, Magritte’s career began in the graphic arts — he earned a living designing wallpaper patterns, before moving on to posters and advertisements, painting in his spare time. While his earliest canvases were influenced by Impressionism, it was the art of the Cubists and the Futurists that had the biggest impact on his bourgeoning style, before he made a decisive move into Surrealism. Magritte’s fascination with the surreal was initially sparked by the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, which he first came across in 1922. Though it took several years for Magritte to process this revelatory experience, he soon reached his trademark Surrealist style in which commonplace objects and scenes are rendered uncanny and strange through dislocation, metamorphosis and unexpected juxtapositions. In this way, Magritte sought to reveal the hidden poetry between objects, making them ‘shriek aloud’.
In 1927, Magritte moved to Paris and was embraced by the city’s circle of Surrealist artists and poets. He forged friendships with Jean Arp, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Paul Éluard and Joan Miró, and took part in the Exposition surréaliste at the Galerie Goemans in 1928. While his time in Paris resulted in a great creative outpouring, Magritte maintained a slight distance from his Surrealist colleagues, living in the suburbs and preferring a carefully constructed figurative style over their celebration of the unconscious and automatic techniques. This distance was solidified following an altercation between Breton and Magritte when the former criticised the artist’s wife, Georgette, for wearing a crucifix to a Surrealist gathering. The artist returned to Belgium in 1930, where he would live and work for the rest of his life.
Magritte’s Surrealist language continued to evolve through the following decades. Words and texts became an important element within his paintings, prompting viewers to question their own assumptions about the images he created. For instance, in his famous painting Trahison d’Image, Magritte’s precisely rendered pipe is accompanied by the statement, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe), drawing our attention to the essential difference between the physical object and the artist’s two dimensional image before us. Around the same time, Magritte began to solve what he saw as the pictorial problems of certain motifs. Describing his process as ‘Elective Affinities’, Magritte united seemingly disparate objects in unexpected situations and scenes, conjuring impossible encounters that shocked his viewers into considering the objects anew.
During the Second World War, Magritte surprised many of his friends and supporters by adopting a new direction in his art, entering his so-called ‘Renoir Period’, before moving on to his notorious ‘Vache’ paintings, which deliberately set out to shock with their crude imagery and violent colour clashes. However, Magritte soon returned to the meticulous, hyper-realist style of his pre-war canvases, and over the following two decades his international reputation grew. He continued painting until very near the end of his life, often revisiting themes he had explored in his earlier work with a more mature eye, pushing his ideas to the very limits of their Surrealist potential. Some of his most famous images emerged during these later stages of his career, from Golconde to L’Empire des lumières and Le fils de l’homme, while his oiseau de ciel or ‘sky bird’ became known around the world when it was adopted by the Belgian airline Sabena as its emblem.
Though Magritte died in Brussels in 1967, his art continued to have an important influence on a younger generations of artists, particularly the pioneers of Pop Art and Conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s.