Rene Magritte: Master of the Half Dream

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Rene Magritte: Master of the Half Dream


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Brussels, Belgium is only an hour's train ride from Paris, or roughly 162 miles, and yet it is in a different world. More provincial, less confined with a population of roughly 900,000 to 9,000,000 for Paris.

Yet Brussels can pride itself on some important names in the field of art over the centuries. There were the Brueghels, as well as such artists as Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Franz Hals, Rogier van der Weyden, Jacob Jordaens to name just a few. In our own time there were James Ensor (1860-1949), Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) and of course the innovative and influential Surrealist artist Rene Magritte (1898-1967).

Still the train to Paris was always a temptation, not easily resisted. After all many of the movements that created modern art as we know it started there, including Dada and Cubism as well as Surrealism.

The life of Magritte

Magritte began sketching both landscapes and portraits as a teenager. The first years of Rene Magritte's life had followed a conventional middle class pattern, complete with country and beach vacations. Then, his idyllic life was severely disrupted by the suicide of his mother when he was 13. She drowned herself in a small river and was recovered in her nightclothes with her slip covering her face. Over his lifetime Magritte painted images of people with sheets over their heads covering their faces. Similarly caskets and gravestones are seen in his paintings with unusual frequency.

Shortly after this occurrence the family moved from Lessines, Belgium the town where the young artist was born, to a larger regional capital, Charleroi. There he was to meet his future wife Georgette Berger on a carousel at the county fair. Their life together was interrupted only briefly when Magritte fled to Paris for three months during the German occupation of Belgium while Georgette stayed home.

Magritte went the usual school routine as well as art school and on graduation went on to become a designer for a wall paper company. The job trained him to work on large surfaces with bold and colorful designs. But he had other ambitions. One of the major turning points was his discovery of the work of the Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Not only did he like de Chirico's bold coloring but also the fact that the painter was enthralled by the mysteries hidden behind the objects he presented. Magritte was also intrigued by the geometric patterns de Chirico reproduced and the atmosphere the Italian's canvases elicited from the viewer.

De Chirico would not be the only Surrealist master to influence Magritte. Max Ernst (1891-1976) and Salvatore Dali (1904-1989) would also make a profound impression and leave their imprint on Magritte's art.

But first the talented young painter had to have a show of his own work. This included his first major painting "Le Jockey Perdu" ("The Lost Jockey") at a Brussels gallery. The painting introduces many of the themes that would be paramount in Magritte's presentations for the next forty years. Scholars attribute the inspiration for the painting to an early Renaissance work with the title "The Hunt in the Forest," created at least 500 years before.

The painting depicts a jockey mounted on a horse without stirrups. The jockey is furiously applying his whip while galloping past five balustrade posts, the kind normally encountered on a staircase. Tree branches emerge from the balustrades. Curtains frame the painting which is spread out on white cloth hinting at its previous life as a curtain, under a blue sky with a sandy floor. The painting is the first inkling we get of the half-dream, half-reality aspect of Magritte's work. There is one other element that bears mentioning, it is that the balustrades feature long bars of music. The painting marries collage (the practice of applying papers and other materials to a canvas) with gouache (opaque water color paint) to striking effect.

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