I have been on holiday… In case you wondered why I had been quiet. It has been a crazy week, with a trip to Brussels and then a mad dash to Lincoln to watch two amazing people get married, so this left very little time to sit down and write, but while I was away, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in not only the chips and mayonnaise culture of Belgium, but also a couple of Magritte exhibitions, which were truly marvellous.
Born in 1898, not much is known about Magritte’s early life, and information only really starts to come to light about him when he gets to about the age of 12, when he starts to take drawing lessons. In 1912, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Sambre. This was not her first attempt, and previously her husband had taken to locking her in a bedroom to try and stop her attempts. On this sad occasion, she had managed to escape and had been missing for days before her body was found a mile down the river. A story circulated that the young Magritte was there when they pulled the body from the river, and as they pulled it out one of her white petticoats drifted up and covered her face. This story has been recently discredited by researchers, but I am not really sure that this could be totally discredited, who are we to say if a 13 year old Magritte was there or not, as the image of cloth covered faces definitely penetrate his early work.
Magritte went on to live a colourful life, with the love of his life Georgette Berger, despite both of them having affairs they stayed together from the age of 15 until death.
Magritte’s career was somewhat turbulent, not able to make a full wage in the beginning so worked in a wallpaper factory and designed posters. He was later employed by the Galerie Le Centaure where he produced his first surreal paintings and finally managed to work as an artist full time. While he had secured a full time contract with the gallery, critics slated his first exhibition in 1927. He moved to Paris and became friends with Andre Breton, stepping fulling into the surrealistic world and became the leading member of the group. In 1929 the gallery closed and Magritte’s contact ended. Having made little impact in Paris, he moved back to Brussels and opened an advertising agency with his brother.
During the German occupation of Belgium Magritte made a living by creating forgeries of Picasso’s, Braques and Chiricos, he also tried his hand at forging bank notes. During this time he felt alienated and abandoned and his own paintings took on a crude and provocative Fauve style.
After the occupation ended, he returned to his surrealistic style, and during the 1960’s gained in popularity. Influencing major art movements such as pop, minimalist and conceptual art.
Magritte died in 1967 of pancreatic cancer. He was 68. Despite his tumultuous career, Magritte’s artwork is now so well known that it is impossible to steal and sell on the blackmarket as robbers found in 2009. The piece Olympia was stolen from the Magritte museum with an estimated value of £3.9 million. After failing to sell it on the blackmarket as buyers knew it was too recognisable, the piece was anonymously returned to the museum in perfect condition 3 years later.
That is a real whistle stop tour of his life, but I think that there are some very important elements to his life, to help understand this his work… especially “The Lovers” paintings.
At first glance, I guess you could say that “The Lovers II” is a little mundane. There is nothing remarkable about the room they are stood in, its just a couple of walls and a ceiling. The lovers themselves, man and woman, ok have their heads covered, but they are in an embrace and lips locked… so what is so great about this painting… then you start to think…
The walls are painted different colours… and not a flat colour either, there are no windows, the coving on the ceiling only runs along one wall. The covering over the faces are tight to the face and top of the head, yet loser at the back, the man is in the dominant position, pushing his cloth even tighter so that you can see the outline of his nose.
There is a lot going on here, with no obvious meaning. Now we could look back to his apparent sighting of his mothers body, and how his father tried so hard to stop her suicide attempts. Whether the young Magritte saw the body or not, he would have been aware of his mother being locked in a room within the house, and this could have influenced his young mind into thoughts of hidden agendas, the cloth being a symbol of never really knowing a person truly no matter how intimate you are with them.
We could look at this and say that this painting is about hidden desires… we know he had an affair to the point he employed someone to keep his wife “busy”… this backfired on him and she ended up having an affair with the man employed to keep her busy… so this could be about secret desires and how only the people in that moment know what is happening despite the fact that there are no on lookers except for the paintings audience – not even the lovers see each other’s faces… but we know love is blind…so do they really need to see each other’s faces to know they are in love, and do they need witnesses.
Or, as I have read some say, they feel that this painting is filled with sadnesses and a distinct loneliness of being so intimate without ever truly touching, a bit like being alone in a crowded room, these lovers are alone yet with each other.
Personally I see the love is blind scenario, but maybe that is the old romantic in me. With no windows for prying eyes to look at them, and the coverings over their faces, they still want to be in this lovers lock. It doesn’t matter about their surroundings, the relationship is not for show, it is theirs and theirs alone.
This painting was created in 1928, and is one of four paintings of lovers with their faces covered. Magritte’s work never really had clear explanations, preferring to create something that kept the audience forever thinkings and considering what they are really looking at.
Magritte denied that these paintings were inspired by his mothers death, rather said “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing. They evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable”. Obviously in his own eyes, he is correct, its a very pessimistic view, almost verging on nihilism, but he was trying to say to his audience that there is no hidden meaning – he has put everything on display.
While at the exhibitions, I saw a quote by Magritte which resonated with me (probably because I am usually classed as a bit of an eccentric and I usually see the world through a surrealists lens) which was “Surrealism is the immediate knowledge of reality”. For me, this meant, once you can understand surrealism, you can see the true reality in front of you. I have spoken to a lot of people who don’t like/understand surrealism because they feel it doesn’t represent life as they see it, but for me (an obviously Magritte) to understand a different perspective allows one to be open to different views and possibilities.
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