Magritte: A Life by Alex Danchev review – a man of mystery | Biography books

WLUnlike his Surrealist contemporaries, René Magritte tended to keep Freud at a distance from his work – although few artists offer a greater scope for analyzing armchairs. In his 1961 speech, he noted, “Psychology does not interest me. It claims to reveal the flow of our thoughts and emotions. Its efforts are contrary to what I know. It seeks to explain a mystery. There is only one secret: the world.”

One conclusion in reading Alex Danchev’s paraphrasing of Magritte’s formative years, in this tireless and insightful biography (completed roughly by the time of Danchev’s death in 2016), is that he was in denial for being in denial. In their village, 30 miles west of Brussels, at the turn of the century, the Magritte family was famous for its chaos. The artist’s father, a tailor, was a gambler and a drunkard who sometimes sold pornography to make ends meet. His mother was severely depressed (“neurasthenic” was the contemporary term) and apparently had to confine her to the family home overnight for her own safety. The three sons – Magritte the Elder – were known locally as “the Cherokees”; Rumors spread widely of animal abuse, and even ass starving to death in their backyard.

These village chatter was exacerbated when one night when Magritte was thirteen, his mother ran away from home and drowned herself in the nearby Samper River. Her body was discovered by a bargainer a few days later. Magritte subsequently refused to discuss the tragedy even with his childhood sweetheart and life partner, Georgette Berger, although it appeared in more than one of his paintings; in a The solitude meditations Walker In 1926, for example, a nude female ogre floats in the air behind a distinct, hooded, faceless figure who has been turned away from the viewer, gazing at the bridge near where his mother’s body was found. “He didn’t talk about things that affected him deeply,” Berger said. “Draw them away.”

Instead of nightmares, it appears in Danchev’s novel that Magritte has found a way to live in a world of things, somewhat far from the extremes of emotion. He was a compulsive voyeur, sometimes seen at keyholes in the bathrooms of the friends’ homes he stayed in. Given his childhood, he often claimed that he was haunted by two single images he was trying to explain. One was a closed box that had apparently been next to his bed when he was an infant (he insisted that the longing to find out what was inside never left him). The other is a hot air balloon who claimed to have once hit the roof of his childhood home before being disassembled and carried away, deflated (Danchev can find no record of any such incident).

“Compulsive Voyeur”: René Magritte with Femme-boutille, his oil painting of nudity on a glass bottle, circa 1955. Photo: Archive Images / Getty Images

Magritte, ordinarily, refused any symbolic reading of those images when they appeared in his early paintings, insisting that they were, along with pipes, apples, and nudes, an attempt to “reclaim their value to things as things”. The drama of his painting lies in the way these objects refused to exist in simulated outer space, but in the realms of the artist’s imagination.

Magritte did his best to tie himself to the ground in his relationship with Berger, whom he first met at the local fair in 1913, when she was 12 and he was 14; The crush of events that stopped when Germany invaded Belgium a year later has not been forgotten. The couple were finally reunited after six years in Brussels after which they never parted.

Danchev suggests that the constancy of Magritte’s marriage was a viable alternative to the peculiar alpha male behavior of the vanguard. Among the Parisian surrealists, with their penchant for clubs and statements, the painter was at once a hero and an outsider. Salvador Dali observed with approval the philosophical subversion of Magritte This is not a tube In January 1929 (although there had been no buyers for the painting for 25 years) and by the end of the year Magritte was invited to contribute his latest thoughts on words and pictures to the group’s home magazine, surreal revolution. At a party the night before publication, Andre Breton loudly insisted that Berger remove a cross—”something we hate”—that she wore on a necklace. She refused and the husband and wife left the party silently, causing a rift between Magritte and his peers that was not properly resolved.

Magritte Museum in Brussels
Magritte Museum in Brussels. Photo: John Teese/AFP/Getty Images

World War II separated René and Georgette again – this time for only three months – and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the painter, for the first time, was able to stop worrying about finding a market and an audience for his images. After settling in the United States (evoked in Paul Simon’s sweet, quiet song of Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war), Magritte is adopted as a mentor by a generation of New York-based artists including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. Danchev has proven to be a tireless researcher, and Sarah Whitfield is doing full justice for his efforts to complete this final chapter of Magritte’s life. Here as elsewhere, the artist seems to resist access to the full bodily life on the page. However, you can’t help but feel that the constant feeling of Renee’s presence and non-existence may be just as he wished.

Magritte: life By Alex Danchev (with Sarah Whitfield) Posted by Profile Books (£30). to support guardian And Foreman Request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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