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June 11, 2011 2:25 am

Photographing the impossible

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Tate Liverpool hosts the most diverse exhibition of René Magritte’s works, featuring paintings, sculptures and home movies. How do his snapshots fit in?
 
Paul Nougé photographed by René Magritte

René Magritte’s ‘The Giant’, Paul Nougé at the Belgian coast, 1937

In the early 1970s, when the Athena company was less than a decade old and to put up fine art posters was a personal statement rather than a cliché, the work of two artists appeared most regularly on student walls: Picasso and René Magritte. I had a Picasso “Blue Nude”, Magritte fans had either “Time Transfixed” (the train coming out of the fireplace), “The Son of Man” (the man in the bowler hat with an apple for a face) or “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (its proper title: “La Trahison des Images”, “The Treachery of Images”). By the end of the 1970s, Magritte, who died in 1967, was probably the most plundered artist in twentieth-century art, his paintings (or pastiches of them) used for book jackets, advertising logos, album covers, ever more posters and greeting cards. Though Dalí came a close second, it was, as the art historian David Sylvester wrote, “the coolness of the flavour of Magritte’s visual epigrams” that appealed to the widest audience.

Apart from the images themselves, the riddle of their titles offered a frisson of apparent cleverness, rebellion even, to the adolescents of the day. If the object in the picture looked like a pipe, but was obviously not a pipe (you couldn’t pick it up and smoke it), then what was it? By such relatively simple means, assumptions of identity, representation and reality were thrown into question.

Magritte’s paintings, and their mysterious titles, seemed to set an irresistible challenge to the viewer; they demanded interpretation; they promised to unlock a whole new world of meaning if only one could find the key. And yet, in the end, Sylvester, the editor of the five-volume Magritte catalogue raisonné, came to this conclusion about how to read them: “Magritte wanted his pictures to be looked at, not looked into, wanted their mystery to be confronted, not interpreted, seeing it as the revelation of a mystery latent in all things.”

The element of mystery has meant that theories about Magritte’s works tend to depend on the intensity with which a critic projects them. As Magritte himself wrote to a friend who had offered his own interpretations of two of his paintings, “I think that such ways of understanding these pictures should be offered as examples of associations of ideas which can be engendered by these pictures, but that these ideas, among countless other equally possible ones, are simply the sign of mental activity which leaves the images that inspired them intact and irreducible till further notice.”

If mystery defines Magritte’s paintings, what then are we to make of his photographs? Magritte’s photographs had never been shown in his lifetime, and it wasn’t until 1978, when 62 of them were published in a little book entitled The Fidelity of Images (a conscious nod to the famous “The Treachery of Images”), put together by Magritte’s longtime friend and collaborator Louis Scutenaire, that they were seen in public for the first time.

Many of the titles for Magritte’s paintings had been supplied by his friends among the Belgian surrealists, particularly by Scutenaire, who now took on the same duties, posthumously, for the photographs. Each one was supplied with a title – often a rather grandiose one, considering many of the pictures were tiny snapshots about two inches by three – which consciously echoed those of the paintings, capitalising on Magritte’s by now worldwide fame. After 1978 the photographs were included in biographical studies of Magritte and, like the paintings, have offered many opportunities for interpretation. In 2005 they were exhibited in their own right at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, together with the many 8mm films Magritte made during the 1950s and 1960s. But whether they count as official “surrealist photographs” (as opposed to photographs taken by a surrealist) is still open to debate.

What they make very clear is the important role the Belgian surrealists played in Magritte’s life and work. From the early 1920s, when he was just starting out as a young artist after studying at the Académie Royale de Beaux Arts, the friends he made among the poets and writers in Brussels would be the most important of his life. They included E.L.T. Messens, a composer and Dadaist poet who would later own a gallery where Magritte exhibited his early paintings; the photographer and poet, Paul Nougé; the composer André Souris, the gallery owner Camille Goemans, and, from 1927, Scutenaire, who worked as a lawyer but was heavily influenced by surrealism, as was his wife, the poet and novelist Irène Hamoir.

In addition to his friends, the most important figure in Magritte’s photographs is his wife, Georgette, whom he first met as a teenager in 1913, when his family moved to her home town of Charleroi, and then found in 1920 working behind the counter at the Co-opérative Artistique in Brussels where he bought his materials. They were married in 1922, and apart from a period in the late 1930s, when each had an affair (Magritte with an Englishwoman, Sheila Legge; Georgette with a close friend, Paul Colinet) they would be together until Magritte’s death.

Georgette, a clear-eyed beauty, is the subject of many fond portraits, but she also served as the model for Magritte’s advertising work, posing, for example, for a proposal for a series of adverts for the Boule Nationale cigarette company in 1934. She also sat for photographs that relate directly to Magritte’s paintings, such as the two photographic versions linked to the 1928 painting “Attempting the Impossible”, one in which Georgette is posing for Magritte in a bathing suit, and the other in which Magritte seems to be painting “Attempting the Impossible”, modelled on the photograph of Georgette, now in the nude.

In 1978, Dr Ian Walker, currently reader in the history of photography at the University of Wales, visited Georgette Magritte in Brussels. When he asked to see the photographs, she placed a shoebox on the table in front of him just as many of us might pull out our family snaps. They were jumbled up and certainly not captioned or labelled methodically. When Walker visited the Scutenaires, however, on the same trip, they had copies of the photographs, this time carefully dated and mounted in an album. Walker thinks Scutenaire put together The Fidelity of Images “half-seriously, half-jokingly”, as a reflection of Magritte’s fame.

But as to how important the photographs really were to Magritte, he says it’s difficult to know. “Photographs made by artists are often regarded as ancillary to their paintings. In the case of Magritte, the status of the photographs is still very wobbly and I wouldn’t want to be too decisive about them. I think they were made for a variety of reasons: first of all, they were just snapshots; secondly, some were clearly used to explore an idea that was in a painting; thirdly, some can be read more intellectually, as playing around with surrealist ideas, for example, the portrait of Georgette, with Magritte behind her (‘The Shadow and its Shadow’, 1932).”

The majority of photographs date from the late 1920s – when Magritte and Georgette had moved to Paris to be near to André Breton and the French surrealist group – through the 1930s, by which time the Paris experiment had failed (Magritte’s paintings did not sell and he fell out with Breton) and they had returned to Brussels. For the next 24 years they lived in a suburban flat. Magritte painted in the dining room and used a glazed lean-to shed at the bottom of the garden for the commercial design business he had set up with his brother Paul to produce illustrations, posters and advertising campaigns to supplement their income, which they called Studio Dongo.

Every Saturday Magritte and his friends would get together at his flat and, certainly in the summer, judging from the snapshots, they would cavort in the garden, hamming up invented scenarios, acting out for the camera. In one sequence, dated 1935, in which a group of them pose melodramatically in masks, Scutenaire appended the title, “The Extraterrestrials”.

The fact that Magritte appears in so many of “his” photographs frequently raises the question as to who actually was behind the camera, and in many cases it is fair to assume that these were often collaborative efforts, with the camera passing from hand to hand as the situation required. In the same way, his friends also disported themselves in Magritte’s homemade movies, to which he seems to have dedicated himself with enormous and unqualified enjoyment; he was, after all, an artist who was frequently heard to complain that painting was “boring”.

It would be too simple to say that Magritte used photographs as a source for his paintings. Sometimes there is a direct relationship, as in the photograph called “The Destroyer”, in which Scutenaire, dressed as a hunter, poses for a photograph that would become the 1943 painting, “Universal Gravitation”. Or, for the 1937 portrait of his English patron, Edward James, called “The Pleasure Principle”, Magritte commissioned Man Ray to produce a series of photographs to his explicit specifications. But these were rare examples. More often, as Walker suggests, it’s as if Magritte was using photography in tandem with the paintings, to explore the same ideas. A photograph titled “God, the Eighth Day”, taken in 1937, shows Magritte sitting in the garden wearing a straw hat and holding a walking stick. A painting of clouds, with an empty window frame, takes the place of his head and torso. The photograph is just one version of the painting “The Healer”, the first of which appeared before the photograph, in 1936. If art ever had an unreliable narrator, it was Magritte.

Darren Pih, co-curator of the forthcoming Magritte show at Tate Liverpool, thinks that the photographs offer a way of getting closer to the artist. “Whereas Magritte’s paintings tend to evoke a giant question mark, the photographs are more accessible, they give a sense of what motivated him, his humour, his life among his friends. I don’t think we can say that photography was a central part of his practice, but it sheds light on his creative processes, it shows how he used it as a tool for his painted compositions.”

What is important to note, says Ian Walker, is that the photographs take in things that appear in everybody’s snapshots – people playing with different identities, acting out little scenarios, cutting out a slice of everyday reality. “Magritte’s photos share all these elements but he pushes them, he plays with them. It’s like the way he lived his life – on the face of it, a fairly straightforward petit-bourgeois existence, but he turned it on its head. You never quite know whether he was consciously using it, hiding behind it. Certainly, when I met Georgette, she could have been a bank manager’s wife. She showed me the room next to their bedroom where Magritte used to work. There wasn’t a speck of paint anywhere. I mean, this was a man who put on a suit every day to paint.”

‘René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle’ is at Tate Liverpool from June 24 to October 16.

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