`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. …