The famous artist's oeuvre is the subject of an extensive new show which opens today at Paris' Centre Pompidou, spanning bowler-hatted men and apples aplenty
1. His mother’s suicide played a pivotal role in his early work
René François Ghislain Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium at the end of 1898, the eldest of three sons in a manufacturing family. His relatively uneventful early childhood took a turn for the tragic when his mother, who had long struggled with her mental health, committed suicide by drowning herself in a nearby river. At the story goes, the then 14-year-old Magritte was present when she was pulled from the water, at which point her dress floated up to cover her face. This poignant symbolism was to recur in the artist’s work many times in the years that followed.
2. He was experienced in creating forgeries
In 1916 Magritte left home for Brussels, spending two years studying at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, where he was exposed to seminal examples of cubism and futurism. His artistic career did not begin immediately, however; instead, he spent brief stints at a wallpaper company and producing advertising posters – aesthetic and commercial pursuits which no doubt influenced his later output. In a scandalous subtext, alongside his professional line of work, Magritte is believed to have created forgeries of pieces by the likes of Picasso, Titian, Ernst and Chirico – as well as reproducing his own works, in what some critics consider a “subversive strategy against his official oeuvre”. His copycat tendencies were to benefit the artist in the long run, however; rumour has it that when World War II led to the German occupation of Belgium between 1940 and 1944, he forged banknotes, creating a means of survival in the face of poverty.
3. His first official exhibition was a critical failure
Having tapped into his innate fascination with familiar objects – bowler hats, pipes and the like – through his oneiric images, Magritte was quickly absorbed into Belgium’s growing surrealist movement, along with fellow artists Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans, and Louis Scutenaire. All the same, his first official exhibition, which took place in Brussels in 1927, was badly received by critics. This negative feedback was to be the making of the young artist; frustrated, Magritte moved to Paris, where he fell in with the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, meeting contemporaries in literature and music, and participating in the creation of a manifesto entitled Surrealism in Full Sunlight. It took him some years, and a move back to Belgium, to find financial success, but by the early 1930s sales of Magritte’s work were gathering momentum.
4. He delighted in keeping his critics on their toes
Magritte might have found his niche in surrealism, but this did not mean his curiosity for other forms slackened; he found great pleasure in dallying with other genres, spending some time experimenting with impressionism, seemingly as much to confuse his critics as anything else. Most curious of all was his toying with a style he called Vache, or Cow – an extreme fauve-inspired moment which used brash colours and simplified shapes. The works were deliberately misdated so as to remove them from the overarching progression of his oeuvre, and Magritte later referred to these pieces as having been made "in his doomed period".
5. He once employed a friend to distract his wife while he had an affair (a plot which didn't go quite to plan)
Magritte's great love, a woman named Georgette Berger, played a key role in his life from the age of 15, when they first met, until their respective deaths. They married in 1922, but Magritte was as mischievous in his romantic life as in his artwork, and so when he began an affair with a young artist, Sheila Legg, he arranged for a friend, Paul Colinet, to distract his wife. Unsurprisingly, this ‘distraction’ also culminated in an affair, Georgette even demanding separation at one point. Still, once Georgette and Magritte had reconciled, they remained together for the rest of their lives.
6. His most famous works were self portraits
Ostensibly his most famous work, Magritte’s 1964 painting The Son of Man, which depicts the face of its bowler-hatted subject obscured by a hovering green apple, was actually created as a self-portrait. "At least it hides the face partly,” Magritte once said, quizzically. “Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It's something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present." This conflict between the visible and that which it conceals played a vital role in Magritte's work throughout his career.
7. He was a keen amateur photographer and filmmaker
Alongside his professional pursuits, Magritte could often be found experimenting with photography in his leisure time and, although his photographs were never regarded with the same reverence as his paintings, they did have a role to play in inspiring his later works. Perhaps most entertaining, however, was his interest in filmmaking; he often appeared in homemade films, acting out scenarios with a hastily assembled cast of characters.
8. Wordplay was as important to Magritte as images
Take La Trahison des Images, (The Treachery of Images), for example, the now iconic painting of a pipe after which the Centre Pompidou's new exhibition is named. The painting’s text states “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, or “this is not a pipe”, a seemingly contradictory statement offset by the artist’s wonderfully pragmatic explanation: it is not a pipe, but rather an image of one. “To be a surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been,” he once said – a truly revolutionary way of thinking.
9. His work has become too famous to steal
The greatest advantage to achieving enormous public success? In the time which has elapsed since Magritte passed away in 1967, his works have become so recognisable that they can’t even be stolen, as a group of thieves discovered in 2009. Having liberated his 1948 work Olympia, reportedly worth £3.6 million, they failed to sell it on on the black market, potential buyers claiming it was too recognisable to own. The work was duly returned to the Magritte Museum in excellent condition three years later.
10. His influence continues to resonate through the art world today
Over and above creating visual motifs which recur in contemporary culture – though his repeated experiments with bowler hats, pipes, apples and the like have developed into something of a signature homage to the artist – Magritte’s impact on the art world lives on principally in his fascination with endowing objects with new meanings by removing their from their ordinary contexts. Pop, minimalism, conceptual art and many more owe the artist a considerable debt for this trademark – a fact he would no doubt be delighted by.
René Magritte: The Treachery of Images runs until January 23, 2017 at the Centre Pompidou, Paris