Magritte: A Life
Alex Danchev
Pantheon, $45 (cloth)

While I was reading Magritte: A Life, I started to notice apples everywhere. I’d be on the train, learning about The Son of Man—the 1964 portrait of a bowler-hatted man whose face is masked by a floating green apple—and the woman sitting across from me would be wearing a T-shirt with a reproduction of same painting. Or I’d be in a café and someone a few seats away would be eating an apple in an identical shade of cat’s-eye green. I’d take notes on my laptop and catch a glimpse of the glowing apple on the back. The world suddenly seemed full of apples. This wasn’t an epiphany; it felt smaller and stranger, an itch I couldn’t quite scratch—in a word, Magritte.

There is no moral and less meaning in Magritte’s paintings, though that is not to say that they are meaningless.

René François Ghislain Magritte: born 1898, died 1967; noted fan of bowler hats and pipes; creator of some 1,100 oil paintings and another 850 works on paper, many of which now seem kitschy or lazily repetitive; and yet, I suspect, the twentieth-century artist whose work best anticipated the texture and tenor of life in the twenty-first. The texture: smooth as an iPhone screen, unscathed by contact with the physical world. The tenor: a low rumble, almost silent, somewhere between a growl and a chuckle.

A century ago, the only people who called the world “surreal” were capital-S Surrealists: poets and painters, many of them rooted in Paris, who sought to dig up the buried treasures of the unconscious and convert them into words and images. Today, nobody seriously doubts that the world is a lowercase-s surreal place. Advertising is surreal. Politics is surreal. Dating is surreal. Half of television and all of the Internet is surreal. The art world would be surreal even if Surrealism didn’t sell so well (last week someone picked up a Magritte for the GDP of a small country). At some point between the 1920s and the 2020s, between capital and lowercase, the surreal has been hidden all over again, banalized to the point where everybody acknowledges it but nobody stops to notice it.

Studying Magritte’s life and work forces you to stop and notice. Contemporary U.S. life is surreal, but, at least to me, it doesn’t look like a Salvador Dalí painting or even the work of latter-day descendants such as David Lynch and Haruki Murakami. It looks like Magritte, with its weightless, endlessly reproduced photographs and logos that make everywhere feel like everywhere else (i.e., nowhere). It puzzles in the same placid, teasing way that Magritte puzzles; it seems utterly random and utterly repetitive, at once too obscure and too obvious, creating the illusion that everything will make sense if only you stay and puzzle a little longer. Contemporary U.S. life—like an apple in a café, like many of the figures in Magritte’s paintings, like Magritte himself—is hiding in plain sight.

It’s odd, which is to say totally fitting, that the two artists most famously associated with Surrealism were eventually kicked out.

Danchev wants Magritte to have been as great a philosopher as Wittgenstein. This is a stretch. But some overcompensating is understandable when dealing with the preferred artist of museum gift shops and stoner dorm rooms.

Dalí was happy to call himself a Surrealist as long as Surrealism meant drinking, screwing, gnawing hashish, and otherwise spending quality time with his id. But when Hitler took power and André Breton, self-appointed pope of the Surrealists, called for his followers to take political action, Dalí dithered. Breton excommunicated him. I can sympathize with Breton—it’s a rare biography of Dalí that doesn’t emphasize what a shit he could be—but then again, Breton doesn’t look much better. What was supposedly a sober disagreement over Surrealist orthodoxy in hindsight seems suspiciously like a case of an insecure leader hogging the spotlight from a younger, flashier, more talented rival. (And who’d be foolish enough to demand orthodoxy from a Surrealist, anyway?)

Magritte’s ties to the movement were even flimsier. French Surrealists could be as snooty as the bourgeoisie they claimed to oppose, and many of them sneered at the thick-accented, largely self-taught Magritte. Eventually Magritte learned to sneer back: by the late 1940s, he’d given up on the word “Surrealist” altogether (he preferred “extramentalist,” which hopefully sounds prettier in French than it does in English). Surrealism, he concluded, was too rigidly organized, too dogmatic in its commitment to the proletariat, too devoted to Breton. Breton excommunicated him, too.

Studying the history of Surrealism, you keep bumping into different versions of this problem: in order to become a cultural movement, Surrealism had to organize, define itself, enforce certain rules, reject certain applicants—in effect, become a brand. In so doing, it lost some of its wildness, became more predictable—risked ceasing to be Surrealism, basically. Wildness is hard to sustain for long. Dalí may have tired of Breton’s Surrealism because it wasn’t wild enough, but then Dalí ended up trapped in a tiresome, round-the-clock performance of wildness that by the 1950s had gotten as schticky as an Alka-Seltzer commercial (one of which he starred in).

Magritte took a different tack. His paintings are often compared to Dalí’s (photorealistic; brightly lit; little impasto or implied motion; obsessed with timepieces, women’s breasts, and levitation). But nobody would confuse one man’s personal life for the other’s. Magritte rarely left the house in anything besides his suit and bowler. He gave few interviews and filmed zero Alka-Seltzer commercials. You could say that Magritte, like Gustave Flaubert before him, was playing the part of a boring bourgeois schlub in order to save his weirdness for his art, but I think this misses the point. Magritte was at his weirdest when he was being normal: he was as surreally banal as Dalí was banally surreal. The more one reads about him, the more mysterious he gets, but it’s the kind of mystery that’s easy to miss because it doesn’t cry out for attention.

Maybe it’s because Magritte has been taken for granted for so long that Alex Danchev chooses to begin Magritte: A Life with an unignorable bang. “René Magritte,” he writes, “is the single most significant purveyor of images to the modern world.” “Most significant” is a funny choice of words, not quite “best” or “greatest” or even “most influential,” but you soon see what he’s getting at. Danchev wants Magritte to be a great thinker, not just a great artist: someone who made images primarily as a way of arousing sophisticated thoughts. This makes Magritte sound like a conceptual artist—a Duchamp who never traded oils for readymades. But Danchev has higher hopes for his hero. Magritte, he claims, “was among the most extraordinary thinkers of the twentieth century,” as groundbreaking a philosopher of signs as Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Magritte concluded that Surrealism was too rigidly organized, too dogmatic in its commitment to the proletariat.

This is, if it really needs to be said, a stretch. But some overcompensating is understandable when you’re dealing with the preferred artist of museum gift shops and stoner dorm rooms. And no matter what you think of Magritte as an artist, there’s something irresistible about Magritte the man: the awkward country boy who shuffled onto the sleek cosmopolitan scene in an ugly suit and proceeded to outlast, outsell, or out-paint every single person who looked down on him. His life’s story is charming enough to allow his work to withstand a little over-academicizing.

“Magritte’s propositions on words and images,” Danchev assures us, “have a surprising affinity with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘language games.’” “Surprising affinity” is the kind of phrase that makes me fumble for the Tylenol, but Danchev (who passed away while working on this biography) is usually a more engaging host. His greatest virtue is the highly Magritte-ian one of refusing to overexplain his protagonist. I have to think that this requires constant vigilance, especially when you’re dealing with a psychoanalytic gold mine like Magritte, whose mother committed suicide when he was twelve. Relocating to Paris in his late twenties, he had to play intellectual catch-up, wolfing down the Dada and Marx his rivals had been nibbling on since university. It would be years before he could hold his own in the cafés and years more before he hit on a consistent style. And yet, for all this, what’s most striking about Danchev’s Magritte isn’t his class resentment or his misplaced mother-love but his self-assurance, the combination of thick skin and brisk mind that allowed him to thrive in a foreign city. His background provided him with a sketchy silhouette, but he did the finer shading on his own.

You can be brilliant without being as great a thinker as Wittgenstein, of course. It’s no small intellectual feat that The Treachery of Images (1929)—the painting of a pipe bearing the caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)—has been talked about ad nauseam but never decoded. Its parts—by design—don’t quite fit together; its paradoxes keep your mind racing until you’re back where you began. As anyone with a working visual cortex can confirm, the painting is, sure enough, not a pipe—it’s actually a collection of pigments that, because of the way they’re arranged on the canvas, look like a pipe. But this is just the warm-up; Magritte’s pipe-image is only one half of The Treachery of Images, after all. The writing that explains this image to us is an image itself (made from the same pigments, subject to the same act of looking), and it’s just as treacherous, if not more so. It’s an image that won’t fess up to being an image—it’s like the schoolboy who snitches on his classmate because snitching makes him feel like a grown-up. The word-image is telling the truth about the pipe-image, but it’s a treacherous truth all the same.

We can push this further: the word-image is only capable of telling the truth about the pipe-image because of a deeper lie. The word-image assures us that “this” is not a pipe. But what does “this” mean? Clearly, “this” is supposed to refer to the pipe-image floating a few inches away. But how do we know that’s what “this” is referring to? It’s an annoying, pedantic question, but then, the word-image is making an annoying, pedantic point. The word-image is being hypocritical: it can’t live up to its own standard, can’t handle the pedantry it flings at the mute, defenseless pipe-image above it. And we’re caught up in the hypocrisy and pedantry, too—forced to choose and switch sides as our sympathies shift from one kind of image to the other.

At some point between the 1920s and the 2020s, the surreal has been hidden all over again, banalized to the point where everybody acknowledges it but nobody stops to notice it.

I could keep going and keep getting nowhere—once you start asking questions about The Treachery of Images, there’s no convenient place to stop. With this in mind, what’s remarkable about the painting (and what makes it different from most conceptual art) is that it never feels like a slog. There’s something strangely serene about its difficulty; it scarcely cares how we answer its riddles, or whether we answer them at all. This has something to do with the fact that we’re dealing with a pipe, of all things—not the typical jumping-off point for deep metaphysical riddles—and a lot to do with how Magritte paints the pipe. His brushstrokes are so smooth and thin, so lacking in personality, that the final product feels like a shrug. Long before technology caught up with art, his painting must have felt like a xerox of a xerox of a xerox.

The same is true, only more so, for Magritte’s “problem paintings” of the 1930s. His technique here is as smoothly anonymous as a crime scene wiped free of fingerprints, and the mystery of what, if anything, he’s expressing is correspondingly vaster. Titles and labels are no longer of any help. The treachery of images is assumed from the outset. The Red Model (1934), which shows a pair of boots that’s also a pair of human feet, seems just allegorical enough to bear further investigation, but nowhere near allegorical enough to solve. Vainly, you look to the title (no help at all), and then to the little scrap of fabric in the lower right corner (no help, either—or maybe it is?), and then to the wooden shed in the background (definitely no help, but by this point who cares?). Like a Kafka fable, the painting cries out for interpretation and then shrugs it off.

Leaving us with what? Danchev insists that Magritte was in it for the ideas: ideas about the arbitrariness of meaning, ideas about the fluidity of the relationship between signifier and signified, and so on. Maybe so, but the painting’s the thing, and it seems fairer to say that for Magritte, ideas were a means of creating lively, enigmatic images, not the other way around. Ideas can’t be plucked out of these paintings, as they could from a more conventionally allegorical work. That’s why Danchev is right but wrong to describe Magritte as one of the most original thinkers of his century: he thought in images, but he was always chipping away at his own thinking, showing how it trails off or cancels itself out, until every square inch of the image glows with the same irresolvable mystery.

This may have been Magritte’s most important achievement as an image-maker. It’s certainly his most refreshing nowadays, when lowercase-s surrealism is dumped carelessly over all manner of styles and subjects, spicing up everything from Old Spice commercials to Trump rallies. In such a context, the most powerful surrealists are the ones who know they’re playing a game of inches; that things are at their eeriest when they’re almost normal; that surrealism works best when it’s spread thin through the overall work, not concentrated in any single, showoff object. In the opening scene of Lynch’s film Blue Velvet (1986), the snarling insects beneath the lawn are plenty unsettling—but so is the lawn. Something similar goes for The Red Model: you begin with the mutant foot-boots, of course, but even after you turn away you remember the shed and the dirt and the scrap of fabric. The overt surrealism of the boots trickles down through the painting until every part, no matter how ordinary, has been irrigated. Nothing is allowed to remain itself, not here and not in the rest of Magritte’s oeuvre (very often, the doorways and windows in his paintings feel more otherworldly than whatever otherworldly things happen to be standing or floating there). Things are almost themselves, but they’re ever-so-gently nudged into something else—one reason why, decades after we’ve all gotten used to the shrill surrealism of melting clocks and melting icebergs, these paintings can still get stuck in our heads.

What I’ve been trying to say is that Magritte has no caption. He was relentless about making art for which there could be no caption. Many of his paintings do, literally, have captions, whether it’s a line of text running along the bottom of the frame or the more distant caption of a title, but these almost never do their duty: they clarify nothing at all (The Red Model) or, better yet, they promise to clarify but ultimately don’t (“This is not a pipe”). There is no moral and less meaning, though that is not to say that Magritte’s paintings are meaningless.

Magritte was always chipping away at his own thinking, showing how it trails off or cancels itself out, until every square inch of the image glows with the same irresolvable mystery.

It must be one of the hardest things: making art that fits in the snug space between meaningless and didactic. Few contemporary artists pull off this feat, and many doubt that such a space exists at all. We’re surrounded by images that seem enchained by their own captions: ads (a tagline or a brand name), political propaganda of every stripe (X person or party or country is good; everyone else is evil). Most embarrassing are the images one finds at a typical art gallery in Chelsea or Mayfair or Le Marais: non-artworks of showy, joyless tediousness that flaunt their difficulty before allowing themselves to be explained by a caption printed on a little white plaque, which is usually the first thing gallerygoers “look” at, and sometimes the only thing. This might not sound like a problem. For many curators, art critics, art collectors, and art historians—not to mention actual artists—it’s the opposite of a problem: the racket of phony difficulty and phony interpretation keeps prices high and business steady. The real losers in all of this are the art-viewers, who not only miss out on a lot of joyful, non-tedious art but also have it beaten into them that the goal of art-viewing should be to squeeze the ripe ambiguities of visual experience down into a lesson, preferably one they already know.

Magritte understood the problem well, because he was a Surrealist at a time when the word still meant something. He was a committed man of the left, too, but not a propagandist or a choir-preacher, and so, when Breton pressed, he chose to keep making art the way he’d always made it: sans caption. Danchev is especially strong on why: Magritte had gotten this far in life by refusing to obey anyone, and in a way his disobedience proved that he understood Surrealism better than the leader of the Surrealists. Left unsaid, but surely just as important, is the fact that Magritte had hit on something big in his paintings: a certain strange, modern tone that couldn’t be simplified into politics, no matter how enlightened—simplified at all, really.

None of this has kept the professional simplifiers from simplifying, to the point where it now seems almost boorish to suggest that Surrealism might have some meaning outside of its identity with the left. Consider, if this sounds too harsh, Surrealism Beyond Borders, a spectacular, baffling exhibition that recently closed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The curators, Stephanie D’Alessandro, Lauren Rosati, and Matthew Gale, trace Surrealism through Egypt, Haiti, Cuba, and Korea, not just France, in order to show how the style wasn’t merely used for “poetic and even humorous works” but “deployed by artists around the world as a tool in the struggle for political, social, and personal freedoms.” In so tracing, they’ve brought an embarrassment of riches to the Upper East Side, and for that I’m grateful, though I can’t help but think they’re trying to pound a square peg through a round hole.

I have yet to read a review of Surrealism Beyond Borders that notes, even in passing, the irony that Surrealism—the art of the unconscious, the unpredictable, and the ever-fluctuating—is now routinely interpreted as an earnest political movement whose agenda included toppling imperialism and promoting gender and racial equality. Some elements of this agenda were always implicit in Surrealism, and not just Breton’s version: hierarchy is more or less the opposite of the ever-fluctuating, and so the greater an entity’s tyrannical power, the greater the threat Surrealism poses to it. But to characterize Surrealism mainly as a tool for noble political ends; to contrast good, political Surrealism with poetic, humorous Surrealism (as though Surrealism wasn’t humorous and poetic to its marrow); to subject Surrealism to the same basic interpretation the Met gave Alice Neel’s paintings in the same galleries a few months prior is to curate a show about something other than Surrealism.

It is a great irony that as soon as the Surrealists organized, they took a step away from the impulse that inspired them to organize in the first place.

Such ironies: Magritte lived a complacent life and painted images that are easily interpreted as complacent, but beneath all this complacency, you’ll find a skepticism with labels and meanings and interpretations that, in hindsight, is at least as disorienting and (dare I use the word?) radical as anything his peers came up with. As the Met’s curators see it, global Surrealism was utterly radical in its commitment to dismantling structures of domination. Scratch just beneath the surface of all this revolutionary fervor, however, and you find the same programmatic left-wing plan of attack, id sternly subordinated to superego, to which probably three quarters of Met-goers already subscribe.

Once you understand this, you can begin to understand what painter Barnett Newman meant when he wrote, “instead of creating a magical world, the Surrealists succeeded only in illustrating it.” He’s right, of course: changing the world takes consistent organization, and as soon as the Surrealists organized, they took a step away from the impulse that inspired them to organize in the first place. This may strike you as disappointing. It probably disappointed Magritte, too. Still, as he well knew, the Surrealism of the 1920s arose from the Dada of the 1910s, and Dada arose from the carnage of World War I—a well-organized, well-planned, exquisitely sensible war, to which Europe’s union leaders lent their support in exchange for extra bargaining power. Surrealism became Surrealism by thumbing its nose at sensibility, any sensibility, and if this made long-term political action difficult, it may not have been all bad—even left-wing sensibility has a body count. As long as there are things about contemporary life that make no sense, we’re lucky to have art like Magritte’s fluttering around, refusing to be understood, letting audiences know they’re at least not alone in their unease. Which, inasmuch as it’s “for” anything at all, is what Surrealism—or maybe just art—is for.