Magritte... Ο πατέρας του Σουρεαλισμου

Magritte: father of Belgian Surrealism

The first exhibition in the renovated BAM is showing 500 works from Belgian Surrealists stretching across the decades, and we look back at a surreal event in a Zaventem airport hangar in the spring of 2003.

The father of Belgian Surrealism would have most probably have been intrigued by the surrealist event which took place in a Zaventem airport hangar on 7 May 2003. His 1965 Sky Bird commission, which earned him just enough to “put butter in his spinach”, was sold for EUR 3.4 million – money which will be used to service redundancy packages for some 12,000 former Sabena employees.

The bowler hat figure
became Magritte's emblem

Gilbert Périer, who commissioned the painting when he was president of Sabena World Airlines, was an art lover and a friend of Magritte. The image was the company logo between 1966 and 1973, adorning aircraft tailfins.

This year’s buyer, bidding through an agent against Japanese, American and French rivals, is said to be a relatively well-known French-speaking Belgian who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals.

Despite Magritte’s connection with aviation, he lived all of his life in Brussels, with the exception of two years in Paris. But it was American Alexander Iolas who in 1947 kicked off his international career and remained his agent until his death.

Young painter

Rene Magritte was born in the Belgian town of Lessines on 21 November 1898. At the age of 12 he began taking art lessons and by 1916 he had dropped out of school and enrolled in the Academie des Beaux Arts in Brussels.

While at art school he took drawing, decorative painting and ornamental composition classes. His first works depicted images of the river Sambre in which his mother tragically committed suicide in 1912.

Magritte, as with many painters, struggled to find his own personal style. The pure geometric abstraction which was all the rage in northern European countries seemed too radical, and his search for an original pictorial language was eventually influenced by Cubism and Futurism.

In 1922, he reached a turning point in his life when he married Georgette Berger who was to become his inspiration and model. Three years later he decided to paint only objects placed in situations unfamiliar to the spectator, challenging the boundaries of the ‘real world’.

Blossoming career

Magritte moved to Paris in 1927, the epicentre of the Surrealist movement. But his relationship with the painters associated with the movement— Dali, Miro, and Andre Breton amongst others — was tenuous at best and did not always agree with the definition accorded to the art form.

The movement began in Paris following World War I, led by Andre Breton. Concerned with achieving a heightened sense of reality through the painted image, Surrealism had pigeonholed Magritte’s style.

During the same period, Magritte’s works began combining words with images such as the famous The Treachery of Images. ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ – ‘this is not a pipe’, but a representation of a pipe.

Magritte’s difficult relationship with the surrealist group, coupled with the economic crisis which Paris was enduring, led him back to Brussels where he was forced to depend on a network of friend and sponsors to keep above the poverty line.

Concepts of power, desire and eroticism began to take pride of place in Magritte’s paintings. The Rape, where a woman’s naked body appears in place of a face, was deemed so explicit that it was hidden by a velvet curtain at the Minotaure exhibition in Brussels.

But Magritte was unhappy with the direction his style was taking. Coupled with his dissatisfaction, the German occupation in 1940 led to a crisis in his financial situation.

From this despair was born a fresher, brighter and more optimistic period, symbolised by paintings such as Treasure Island and Companions of Fear.

Several works painted in the mid-1950s ensured his international recognition. In 1953 the Golconda represented small men in overcoats and bowler hats floating in a blue sky in front of a backdrop of houses.

Present since 1927, the bowler hat figure had finally become Magritte’s emblem.

Magritte himself described the works created between 1953 and 1965 as his “found children”. He had finished by combining all of his styles into one in the last ten years of his life to create the trademark which was Magritte.

In 1965 he was asked by the then Sabena boss to paint an image representative of the airline’s place in the skies. In the same year, while at the Gladstone Hotel in New York City Magritte wrote his definition of Surrealism:

“Breton says that Surrealism is the point at which the mind ceases to imagine nothingness, not the contrary. That's fine, but if I repeat this definition I'm no more than a parrot. One must come up with an equivalent, such as: Surrealism is the knowledge of absolute thought.”

Rene Magritte died on 15 August 1967 but lives on in the light and shadows he left behind on canvas and in the definition he gave to a world art movement.

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