Born on November 21, 1898 in Lessines, Belgium, René François Ghislain Magritte was a major figure in the Surrealist movement and is considered by many to be the greatest Belgian artist of the 20th century. From 1916 to 1918, Magritte studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels under Constant Montald and his early paintings were Impressionistic in style. Between 1919 and 1924, Magritte was influenced by Futurism and abstraction under the influence of Cubo-Futurism. He was particularly impressed by the work of Giorgio de Chirico. However, “his doubts about abstract art led him to reintroduce more overt imagery into his work.”
By 1921, Magritte had completed his service in the Belgian infantry after which he worked as a draughtsman for a wallpaper factory and a poster and advertisement designer. In 1922, he married Georgette Berger whom he had known since childhood. In 1926, Magritte gained a contract with Galerie la Centaure in Brussels which enabled him to paint full-time. He had his first solo exhibition there in 1927. From 1927 to 1930, Magritte lived in Le Perreux-sur-Marne, near Paris, where he associated with Surrealists including Jean Arp, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Paul Eluard, and Joan Miró. From the 1920s, Magritte also experimented with black-and-white still photography, “borrowing subjects from his paintings in order to record unconventional staged situations.”
“Magritte played an important role in the foundation of the primarily literary Belgian Surrealist group in 1926. He was also active in the formation of the group’s theories, which were developed independently from those of the French Surrealists. While the French strove for a transcendent experience of reality through the expression of the unconscious, Magritte tried to reach the same goal by consciously disrupting conventions for representing reality. In order to express his views about mysterious and inexplicable levels of experience beyond surface appearances, he changed the conventional order of objects, altered form, created new objects and redefined the relationship of words to images.”
Magritte is known for his “standardized human types” especially the man in the bowler hat who makes numerous appearances in his paintings. “Words and texts also began to play an important part in the paintings as a way of provoking an analysis of conventional assumptions as in the Treachery of Images (1929), in which a precise image of a pipe is accompanied by an inscription, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, that draws our attention to the essential difference between an actual object and its representation in two dimensions.”
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Magritte and his brother Paul opened Studio Dongo in Brussels where they produced work for advertising and publicity including stands, displays, posters, advertising texts, drawings, and photo-montages. Magritte exhibited only twice at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels during this time. In 1938, his friend E. L. T. Mesens purchased the stock of Galerie la Centaure and moved to London, where he became director of the London Gallery. Through this action, Magritte gained greater recognition in Great Britain.
In reaction to WWII, Magritte adopted a more colourful, “painterly” style. “From 1943 even making use of a parody of Impressionism with lighter colours, while maintaining the Surrealist character of the imagery. Although he was consciously mocking Impressionism, such works were strongly criticized in Surrealist circles.” Following this, Magritte created a whimsical body of oil paintings and gouaches which he exhibited in his first solo show in Paris at the Galerie du Faubourg. The style of these works were somewhat related to Fauvism and were partly a way of “attacking what he considered the superficiality of the French public.”
In 1948, Magritte, already having considerable recognition as a part of the Surrealist group, became internationally famous when he signed a contract with New York Dealer Alexandre Iolas. From 1953, he exhibited often at the galleries of Alexander Iolas in New York, Paris and Geneva. Retrospectives were held in 1954 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and in 1960 at the Museum for Contemporary Arts, Dallas, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. From 1956, Magritte also produced a series of short and often humorous Surrealist films, using friends as directors and actors. Magritte’s critical and popular recognition continued to grow during and after the 1960s. In 1965, Magritte traveled to New York for the first time for his retrospective at Museum of Modern Art.
René Magritte died from cancer of the pancreas on August 15, 1967. His work has influenced generations of artists, including Pop, minimalist, and conceptual art.