art presents the facts as he doggedly finds them, leaving his audience to make the connections between Magritte’s biography and art; to each reader, his own little bowler-hatted man.
Much in Magritte’s life is precisely as you would imagine it from his work, and much precisely as you would not. Born in 1898 in small-town Lessines to a newly prosperous father, Léopold, an inspector of margarine factories, and Régina, an ex-milliner, young René’s life was as dull and as hidden as that of his little grey men. For all his outward airs and graces, Léopold was a serial philanderer and sometime syphilitic. Régina, despairing of his infidelities, drowned herself in the River Sambre when René, her oldest son, was thirteen.
Legend has long had it that Magritte was present when his mother’s body was dragged from the water three weeks later, and that her nightdress was over her face when it was – the supposed source of such images as The Lovers I and The Lovers II, of figures with their heads wrapped in scarves. Danchev quietly lays these myths to rest. The particularities of the discovery of Régina’s body seem to have been embellished, if not invented, by Magritte himself, and certainly spread by him, fiction being another form of concealment.
Thus we get to Magritte’s most famous picture, La trahison des images (‘The Treachery of Images’), with its legend Ceci n’est pas une pipe (‘This is not a pipe’) below what is clearly a pipe. It is a compelling image, not least because pipes are so dull, paired immemorially with carpet slippers and armchairs. Like all of Magritte’s works, La trahison des images is a Cretan paradox, an insolubilium. It is telling a palpable lie, and yet it is true. The work is not a pipe, but the picture of a pipe: paint on canvas. The inescapable dishonesty of art had troubled, among others, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had sought a way out of it with his tell-all Confessions. Perhaps it is in the same spirit that we should approach Magritte’s work, the confession here being always the same: that Magritte is not to be trusted.
And he wasn’t. As Danchev shows, the boy from Lessines was a bit of a shit.
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This was also one of his favoured materials for practical jokery: take, for example, the side-splitting time he poured yeast down the lavatories of a local restaurant so that its septic tank effervesced over the patrons’ shoes. Sausages, too, might be a source of hilarity. In the midst of Great War hunger in Belgium, Magritte would use his lavish allowance to buy four metres of saveloys, which he would wear down his trouser leg so that they dragged in the dust behind him. Among the observers of this was a classmate at the Académie who would shortly be diagnosed with malnutrition. It was all very Bullingdon Club. The young Magritte was also, in his own telling, a rapist. Danchev retails all of this with the stony face of one whose job it is to report rather than judge.
There is a plea in mitigation: Magritte was, perhaps, a little mad. This is where dullness came in, as well as Belgium, the two being inseparable in the painter’s mind. In Danchev’s account, boredom was not a thing forced on Magritte but one he actively courted. For a quarter of a century, from 1930 to 1954, he lived in the same dingy flat in a drab part of Brussels that now houses the Musée René Magritte. Dullness was a safe haven, a place free of devils. Here he could by turns abuse his beautiful wife, Georgette, and spoil her rotten, cooking her excellent meals and walking their dogs while she lay on the sofa and dozed. As always, there were two Magrittes, the seen and the unseen. Many of his best-known works – Empire of Light, Personal Values – date from this time of fecund aridity.
This is a fine book, and Whitfield’s tenth chapter, covering the last twenty years of its subject’s life, does Danchev’s efforts full justice. As a historian, Danchev was polymathic, writing on everything from artists’ manifestos and Lord Alanbrooke to the Gulf War and Braque. If there is a single annoyance in Magritte: A Life, it is Danchev’s tendency to wear his breadth of knowledge on his sleeve: quoting Félix Fénéon, Humpty Dumpty and Samuel Beckett on successive pages looks like showing off. But this is a quibble. For those who love Magritte and those who do not, Danchev’s biography will come as a revelation.
Literary Review | november 2021 12