Magritte's Irrational Logic London Show Confirms Belgian Painter's Place as Master of Visual Enigma

Article excerpt

`MAGRITTE is a great painter. Magritte is not a painter." So observed Louis Scutenaire in 1942: a suitable paradox for Rene Magritte (1898-1967), artist of the paradox if ever there was one.

This surrealist picturemaker once told an interviewer he could as easily have been a mathematician. (Lewis Carroll, with whom he shared a dreamlike sense of absurdity, illogical logic, and discrepancies of scale, was a mathematician). Magritte liked to be an artist while pretending that he was not really one. In some ways he can be thought of as an anti-painter. His paintings are ideas. They have even been described (by a comedian, admittedly) as "gags."

Magritte certainly aligned himself as a subversive among subversives. Opposed to the concept of "the masterpiece," he made "images" rather than "paintings," and demonstrated their deliberate lack of uniqueness by replicating some of them at will many times over. He took pains to make them look impersonal, with a bland surface and a minimum of gesture. He developed a technique that drew attention away from technique.

Yet these paintings (plus a sculpture or two) he spent his life making are entirely individual, and they are being seen more and more as works that can be experienced on an aesthetic level - even, perhaps, his most deliberately vulgar works, the so-called "vache" paintings he made as a rude gesture towards Paris and the Surrealists there who had not exactly lionized him.

Early criticism did often dismiss him as a peripheral figure and not a true painter. But in our post-Post-Modern world we are either freer or more confused, and Magritte's work today looks very much like art. No doubt he would have disavowed this with caustic horror: He, along with his Belgian Surrealist confreres, deplored aestheticism. Or said they did.

As hordes of admirers surge round the Hayward Gallery here, the popularity of this master of the visual enigma appears stronger than ever. Where does that appeal lie?

Mystery is Magritte's subject. Illusion is the tool painters use to persuade viewers into willing suspension of disbelief. One of the mysteries Magritte explores is the ease with which we are so persuaded. He makes a painting of a pipe, rudimentary like the illustration in an infant's first reading-and-picture book. But he writes under it "This is not a pipe." He lifts such amusing banality (it is true, it isn't a pipe - but is it Art?!) into a kind of psychology by his title: "The Treachery of Images." This title might be applied to his work as a whole, not all of which is quite so simplified (or so uninteresting once the initial frisson has passed) as this picture is in its approach to the paradoxical world of representation versus the represented. …