Magritte magazine: A life of Alex Danchev – a mysterious man | Biography books| Breaking News Updates

Magritte magazine: A life of Alex Danchev – a mysterious man | Biography books

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ULike his Surrealist contemporaries, René Magritte tended to keep Freud out of his work – although few artists offer so much room for armchair analysis. Speaking in 1961, he observed that “I am not interested in psychology. It claims to reveal the flow of our thoughts and emotions. His efforts are contrary to what I know; he seeks to explain a mystery. There is only one mystery: the world.

One conclusion reading Alex Danchev’s recreation of Magritte’s formative years, in this hardworking and insightful biography (nearly complete by the time of Danchev’s death in 2016), is that he denies being in denial. In their village, 50 kilometers west of Brussels at the turn of the century, the Magritte family was known for its chaos. The artist’s father, a tailor, was also a gamer and a drunkard who sometimes sold pornography to make ends meet. Her mother was severely depressed (“neuraesthetic” was the contemporary term) and apparently had to be locked in the family home overnight for her own safety. The three sons – Magritte was the eldest – were known locally as the “Cherokees”; there were many rumors that they mistreated animals, even starving a donkey to death in their backyard.

This village chatter was made worse when finally, one night when Magritte was 13, his mother slipped out of the house and drowned in the nearby Sambre. His body was discovered by boatmen a few days later. Magritte subsequently refused to discuss the tragedy even with his childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner, Georgette Berger, although it resurfaces in more than one of his paintings; in The Dreams of the lonely Walker from 1926, for example, a macabre, nude female figure floats in the air behind a characteristic faceless bowler-hat figure who turns away from the viewer, staring at the bridge near where her mother’s body was found. “He didn’t talk about things that touched him deeply,” Berger said. “He painted them.”

Instead of nightmares, it seems in Danchev’s account that Magritte found a way to exist in a world of objects, somewhat dissociated from the extremes of emotion. He was a compulsive voyeur, sometimes seen in the keyhole of the bathrooms of the friends’ houses in which he was staying. Thinking back to his own childhood, he often claimed to have been haunted by two singular images that he had always tried to explain. One was a locked safe that was apparently next to his cot (the desire to know what was inside never left him, he insisted). The other was a hot air balloon that he said crashed on the roof of his childhood home before being dismantled and swept away, deflated (Dantchev can find no trace of such an accident).

“A compulsive voyeur”: René Magritte with Woman-bottle, his oil painting of a nude on a glass bottle, circa 1955. Photograph: Stock photos / Getty Images

Magritte, typically, refused any symbolic reading of these images when they appeared in his early paintings, insisting that with his pipes, apples and nudes, they were an effort to “restore objects to their natural value. as objects ”. The drama of his painting lies in the way in which these objects refuse to exist in the mimetic outer space, but in the worlds of the artist’s imagination.

Magritte did his best to bond with Earth in his relationship with Berger, whom he first met at the local fair in 1913, when he was 12 and he was 14; a youthful crush that was interrupted when Germany invaded Belgium a year later but never forgotten. The couple were eventually reunited six years later in Brussels and subsequently barely separated.

Danchev suggests that the stability of Magritte’s marriage was a viable substitute for the antics of the dominant males of the avant-garde. Among the Parisian surrealists, with their penchant for clubbing and manifestos, the painter was both a hero and an outsider. Salvador Dalí noted with approval the philosophical subversion of Magritte this is not a pipe in January 1929 (although there had been no buyers for the painting for 25 years) and by the end of the year, Magritte had been invited to contribute his final thoughts on words and pictures to the newspaper from the group house, The Surrealist Revolution. At a party the day before the publication, however, André Breton strongly insisted that Berger remove a cross – “something we abhor” – that she wore on a necklace. She refused and the husband and wife silently left the party, starting a rift between Magritte and his peers that was never properly resolved.

The Magritte museum in Brussels
The Magritte museum in Brussels. Photograph: John Thys / AFP / Getty Images

The Second World War separated René and Georgette again – this time only for three months – and it was not until the 1950s that the painter could, for the first time, stop worrying about finding a market and an audience for These boards. Having moved to the United States (referred to in the well-balanced Paul Simon song, René and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war), Magritte was adopted as a master by a generation of New York-based artists who included Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Danchev has proven to be a tireless researcher, and Sarah Whitfield does full justice to his work in completing this final chapter in Magritte’s life. Here as elsewhere, however, the artist seems to resist the full bodily life of the page. Still, you can’t help but feel that Rene’s lingering feeling of being there and not being there could have been exactly as he wished it would have been.

Magritte: a life by Alex Danchev (with Sarah Whitfield) is published by Profile Books (£ 30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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