René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle

Alex Danchev revels in a sumptuous display of the Belgian master's playful and profound blend of banality and mystery

June 30, 2011

Credit: René Magritte, Golconda (1953)/The Menil Collection, Houston, Copyright Charly Herscovici

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle

Tate Liverpool

24 June to 16 October 2011

Albertina, Vienna

9 November 2011 to 26 February 2012

Rene Magritte: A-Z

Edited by Christoph Grunenberg and Darren Pih

Tate Publishing, 208pp, £22.50

ISBN 9781849760034

René Magritte (1898-1967) was wide open to the question that most artists love to hate - what does it mean? He replied to an American who ventured to ask what lay "behind" a certain painting: "There is nothing 'behind' this image. (Behind the paint of the painting there is the canvas. Behind the canvas there is a wall. Behind the wall there is...etc. Visible things always hide other visible things. But a visible image hides nothing.)"

The critic David Sylvester, who was wise to his ways, concluded that "Magritte wanted his pictures to be looked at, not looked into, wanted their mystery to be confronted, not interpreted, seeing it as the revelation of a mystery latent in all things, a revelation to be consummated - as with the banal figure which came to seem mysterious when accompanied by its reflection - through presenting everyday things or beings in an alternative way to how they appear every day, though it is not necessarily the pictures in which the alternatives are most surprising that induce the sort of awe felt in the presence of an eclipse."

This perception, or series of perceptions, may be seen as a prospectus for the awe-inducing exhibition now at Tate Liverpool, a show in which the banality and the mystery are magnificently intertwined.

The exhibition is a reminder that Magritte is everywhere. His iconography, his surreal sensibility, his deadpan melodrama, his trompe l'oeil effects, his canniness, his outrageousness, his spookiness, his subversiveness (he is one of the great subversives of our time): the visual field is replete with Magritte. The bowler-hatted Belgian has taught us many things. Images may have nothing to hide, but they are not innocent. The Treachery of Images (Tate Liverpool is exhibiting a version painted in 1935) is one of Magritte's fundamental propositions. Notoriously, this one is a demure little painting of a pipe, labelled "This is not a pipe". It is matched - perhaps outdone - by a kind of picture-object, This is a Piece of Cheese (1963 or 1964), a painting of a piece of cheese, the tasty morsel on a pedestal, under a glass dome: a ready-made, and a cheese board, all in one. This piece of cheese looks too good to be true, like Pop Art Gorgonzola, while an earlier piece looks exactly like a wedge of Brie. A cheese is a cheese is a cheese, but a pipe is not always a pipe. In Freedom of Mind (1948) it is one of the most eroticised objects ever held in the palm of the hand.

These games were deadly serious. Magritte would never have called himself a philosopher, but he did call himself a thinker - a thinker in paint. He rehearsed his thoughts as carefully as he researched his titles. As they suggest, he was intensely interested in the relations of word and image. ("An object is never so closely attached to its name that another cannot be found for it.")

He was also a reader. He read Hegel, Heidegger and Sartre, as well as Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout and Georges Simenon. He devoured pulp fiction: Nick Carter, "le grand detective americain", and Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre's tales of the legendary arch-criminal Fantomas. All these went into the mix.

Some of his best titles were "found" in this way: for a sublime image of a surreal boulder in a stupendous mountain range, he considered and rejected The Metronome, The Lucky Charm, The Keystone, Perfect Harmony, Life Together, Gold and Silver, Fine Words, Clear Ideas, The Gay Science (a nod to Nietzsche), Night and Day (a nod to Fred Astaire), Representation, Page 88 and The Sash Cords, before finally alighting on The Glass Key, originally a Hammett story.

In 1966 he read Michel Foucault's Les Mots et les Choses - known in English as The Order of Things - and wrote to correct him. Magritte felt that Foucault had not adequately differentiated between two of his favoured terms, resemblance and similarity.

According to Magritte, things may be similar (one pea looks much like another pea), but only thought resembles; in his parlance, "the thought that unites things in an order that evokes mystery". By way of example, he sent Foucault some reproductions of what he called his Perspective paintings, which bore an uncanny resemblance to celebrated works by past masters such as David and Manet, except that the figures in the original works had all been replaced by coffins - coffins standing, coffins reclining, coffins en famille.

In subsequent correspondence, Foucault suggested a resemblance between Magritte's thought and that of the writer Raymond Roussel. Magritte replied: "I am pleased that you recognize a resemblance between Roussel and whatever is worthwhile in my own thought. What he imagines evokes nothing imaginary, it evokes the reality of the world that experience and reason treat in a confused manner." Magritte's metier was confused reality.

Despite his strictures, the urge to analyse or preferably to psychoanalyse Magritte has proved hard to resist. The closest thing to a founding myth, at once Oedipal and necrophilic, derives from a conversation with his close friend, Louis Scutenaire, concerning the suicide of Magritte's mother, who disappeared one night in 1912 (when Magritte was 13), after several previous attempts, for instance, to drown herself in the water tank in the cellar.

It was assumed that she had thrown herself into the River Sambre, nearby. Seventeen days passed before the body was recovered, a kilometre downstream, and brought back to the house prior to the burial. According to Magritte, when the body was found, his mother's face was covered by her nightdress; the torso was bare. It was never known whether she had covered her eyes deliberately, at the last moment, or whether the river had done so for her. Scutenaire's account concludes: "The only feeling Magritte remembers - or imagines he remembers - in connection with this event is one of intense pride at the thought of being the pitiable centre of attention in a drama."

Whatever the truth of this story - Sylvester considered that it was not necessarily pure fiction - it seems to echo in the work: the covered and the uncovered, the body and the shroud, the metamorphic face and the mermaid in reverse. The most famous of these images is The Lovers (1928), who kiss with their heads covered. The most disturbing is The Symmetrical Trick (1928), whose shrouded forms are perhaps best left to the imagination - which was precisely the aim of that nimble magician.

A generation ago Tom Stoppard wrote a play cleverly titled After Magritte, first performed in 1970. "Mother is lying on her back on the ironing board, her head to Stage R, her downstage foot up against the flat of the iron. A white bath towel covers her from ankle to chin. Her head and part of her face are concealed in a tight-fitting black rubber bathing cap. A black bowler hat reposes on her stomach. She could be dead; but is not."

We are all after Magritte, as René Magritte: A-Z makes clear. This is not a catalogue, as someone might have said, but a cross between an encyclopedia and a bestiary, aptly touted "for Magritte scholars and fans alike".

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle is a sumptuous affair. My advice: jump on a train to Liverpool and marvel afresh at all the things there are to marvel at, many of them from private collections. But have a care. The Magritte train leaves from the fireplace. The timetable is transfixed.

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