x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Home of the surreal

A new museum dedicated entirely to the works of the surrealist, Rene Magritte, is about to open in Brussels.

Rene Magritte with friends in the garden of his Brussels home.
Rene Magritte with friends in the garden of his Brussels home.

René Magritte's painting of a pipe is typically teasing. Titled Ceci N'est Pas une Pipe (This is Not a Pipe), it is clearly an image of a pipe but as the great man said by way of explanation: "Just try filling it with tobacco." Very Magritte. Next week, a new museum will open in his home city of Brussels, Belgium, dedicated entirely to the works, life and influences of the surrealist.

This is not a pipe dream, though the publicity for the museum has entered into the subversive spirit of the artist's world by showing the neoclassical building which will house his works as if shrouded in curtains. They have been partly pulled back to reveal another "building" which is, in fact, the artist's mysterious painting, L'Empire des Lumières. Faced with the "treachery of images" as Magritte labelled the tranche of works which included his pipe, the museum's curator, Virginie Devillez, struggles to explain the mystery - and the mischief - of Belgium's most colourful son.

"It is like l'objet bouleversant," she says. "What you are feeling and think you are seeing is turned around." Magritte himself said: "My paintings are visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question: 'What does that mean?' It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either. It is unknowable." 

Until now, many of his works have been in the Museum of Modern Art in the capital's Place Royale and the only museum dedicated to the artist, born in 1898, has been a small red brick terrace house in the city's suburbs, where he settled with his wife, Georgette, when he was 31. It became something of a headquarters for his fellow surrealists - painters, poets and subversives all. The new museum may possibly help us come to grips with the mystery of Magritte. What did he mean by positioning those apples in front of faces, by bowler-hatted gents and crescent moons, by eyes that gaze back from a plate, by suspended female torsos?

Devillez showed me around the new show rooms in Altenloh House, part of the museum's complex, its severely functional rooms at odds with the grand exterior. The walls are rapidly filling with an unprecedented collection for the opening exhibition on June 2 of more than 200 works - 50 from The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, and other private collections - consisting of oils on canvas, gouaches, drawings, sculptures and painted objects as well as advertising posters, music scores, photographs and films directed by Magritte himself.

Visitors start their tour in a lobby that takes them immediately into the world of Magritte with a version of the fresco Le Domaine Enchanté. His eight frames, which were created in 1953 for a casino in the seaside town of Knokke, Belgium, have been transported to the top floor for a strictly chronological presentation of his life. "This will be Magritte before Magritte. Before he was famous," says Devillez. "The top floor starts in 1898 and looks at his life until the economic crisis of 1929. The next floor down covers from 1930 to 1950 and then we end on the first floor with his great works.

"We see how he started work in the Twenties in a wallpaper design factory before working with Georgette on adverts and illustrations for music magazines. We have created something we call The Music Box in which we will play the music and use a projector to match the score." There is a collection of his letters to friends such as the French writer and surrealist Henri Breton and to his US manager Harry Torczyner in 1959, in which he discusses a painting he has been commissioned to do. He illustrates his work in progress with two sketches of the painting Château des Pyrennées, which looks like a huge boulder with a castle on the top plunging toward the sea - or maybe it is suspended in mid air.

Delightful photographs, many of which he used for his painting, show him on the beach with his dog and larking about with friends in the garden of his Brussels home. There are 40 films which give an insight into his life with scenes of him at his easel or on holiday with friends, many of whom were part of his artistic circle, such as the poet Paul Nouge and the artist Louis Scutenaire. Apparently, he enjoyed gathering his friends in front of his new compositions and asking them to come up with a title - only, as his wife Georgette recalled: "It often happened that, come the next day, he was no longer satisfied with their inventions and would then choose a name with which he himself was happy."

No one appears more in the letters and pictures than his beloved Georgette, who he met at a fair when she was 15 in 1913. They met again in 1920 when she became his model and then his wife two years later. They remained married until his death in 1967. The year of his marriage, 1922, was also a seminal year for Magritte artistically. He saw Giorgio de Chirico's The Song of Love which brought together incongruous and unrelated objects such as a Greek sculpted head and a surgeon's glove.

"It was a huge discovery for Magritte," says Devillez. "One which inspired him to paint in that way and move away from the constructivist style he had used before." The top floor traces his first contract with a gallery - the Galerie de Centaur - his first surreal painting, The Lost Jockey (Le Jockey Perdu) which depicts a horseman galloping through trees like balustrades, and his first exhibition in Brussels in 1927. It also records the near universal abuse for his work from the critics.

Depressed by this failure, he moved to Paris, where he became friends with Andre Breton and his clique, which included Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. He had a stormy relationship with Breton about art and politics until eventually they fell out. Magritte left Paris soon after. "He is often compared to Miró," says Devillez, "but he is much more under the influence of de Chirico. Miró was more 'fantastique' but that's because he makes reality different. Magritte has images that shock but everything is real in the way he paints and what he paints until it is put together. For example, he uses words in his titling and descriptions in a different way from other artists."

The next floor down, which looks at his life between 1930 and 1950, reveals a little-known side of Magritte's work. Back in Brussels in 1942, he started to experiment with his "Renoir" or "plein soleil" style in which he intended to cheer up his public in a war-torn Belgium with paintings that were brightly coloured and straight forward. Then, in a bizarre five-week stretch during 1948, he painted his Periode Vache (literally, Cow Period). The style is altogether less controlled than his well known works - colourful, spontaneous and direct.

It was as if he wanted to irritate his Paris public, particularly as he had been given the chance of a solo show in the city. The exhibition in Paris was a failure, as Magritte expected, without a picture being sold. Indeed, only one of the Vache works was exhibited again during Magritte's lifetime. "Georgette preferred his late style," says Devillez. "She influenced him to go back to gouache and his old style and move back to Brussels. It is those great works which followed that change which fill the last floor of the museum."

Seeing these works is like meeting familiar but still strange friends including This Is Not a Pipe, Le Retour (a soaring white bird on a blue background) and The Son of Man, a self portrait with the bowler-hatted artist's face hidden by an apple. "When the private works go back the space will be used to examine how he related to Miró, Dalí and the other surrealists and to help understand how important he was to the artistic world," says Devillez. "He had a big influence on conceptual art and the pop art artists in the Eighties as well as the likes of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns."

His images turn up in pop-culture references world quite a bit; Jeff Beck reproduced The Listening Room, which depicts an apple in a room, on the cover of Beck-Ola, Paul Simon wrote the sweetly haunting song Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War and even The Simpsons have appeared seated on a couch during the opening credits with the caption "Ceci n'est pas une couch gag." Devillez says: "The opening will have a huge echo in the world and bring a lot of tourists. Magritte is important because he is part of the Belgian landscape - it is because of him we understand the word surreal. His work is reproduced so much and people like his pictures because they are easily recognised as nice and familiar images but the more intellectual public also appreciate what lies behind."

In a coup de theatre, five of the windows have been designed to appear as if they are reflecting typically Magritte skies - his trademark blue with fluffy white clouds. As Devillez says: "Everyone knows the blue of Magritte." Now maybe they will get to know the "unknowable" Magritte. June 2, Magritte Museum, Place Royale, 1- 1000 Brussels. Contact:   +32 2 508.31.11, www.musee-magritte-museum.be