'René Magritte: Selected Writings', by Edited by Kathleen Rooney and Eric - Review

By Bayley, Stephen | The Spectator, August 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

'René Magritte: Selected Writings', by Edited by Kathleen Rooney and Eric - Review


Bayley, Stephen, The Spectator


Surrealism was, at least initially, as much about writing as painting. A plaque on the Hotel des Grands Hommes in Paris's Place du Pantheon records that the oneiric movement began in 1919 when André Breton and Philippe Soupault invented 'l'ecriture automatique ' at numéro 17. Automatic writing, with consciousness suspended, was supposed to open a conduit to an internal dreamworld.

René Magritte (1898-1967) became one of the most famous Surrealist painters, but he wrote throughout his life: detective stories, manifestoes, criticism, essays, prose-poems, lectures, surreal bric-a-brac. His Ecrits Complets was published by Flammarion in 1979 and ran to 764 pages. The avant-garde publisher John Calder intended an English edition, but it never appeared. Calder's successors have now, happily, published the (more compact) present volume.

More so than many artists, Magritte was shaped by his circumstances. He was born in nondescript Lessines in western Belgium, where the opening of the post office in 1830 was a signal event in the town's history. Before she married, his mother was a milliner, and hats (symbols of power and authority) are recurrent motifs in his pictures. She killed herself by jumping into the Sambre, a tributary of the Meuse.

So mediocre was Magritte's upbringing that his mother did not even choose a major river for her suicide. It is said the 14-year-old Magritte saw her recovered body: naked except for its face, obscured by her dress. So here was the source of another recurrent motif in his art: a face that is missing, a face that is replaced by an apple, or breasts and pubic mound which, in 'Le Viol' ('The Rape'), are translated into a face. A preparatory drawing of 'The Rape' appeared on the cover of Breton's manifesto Qu'est-ce que le surrealisme? of 1934.

The shrieking horror of a small, quiet town with its lower middle-class psychoses was Magritte's Eden. Yet it is wrong to think of Belgium as a source of non-entities. On the contrary, Belgium has, besides surrealists, produced very fine romans policiers, superb beer, world-class chips, chocolate and, latterly, a noteworthy number of expert paedophiles. In 2005 the Flemish De Grootse Belg media poll did not include Magritte in its top ten, but the Francophone equivalent, Les Plus Grandes Belges, had him at number nine, between Hergé at eight and Simenon at ten. …

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