It takes some exploration of the subconscious to truly learn about surrealism, finds Kiran Mehta at Musée Magritte in Brussels.
I gaze at the captivating yet bizarre nude that takes centre stage in one of the many display rooms within the sprawling Musée Magritte in Brussels. The oil-on-canvas is that of a mythical creature who is part woman and part celestial being. Her lower limbs are skin toned, while her upper half is a serene shade of blue that merges into the sky. She seems to be undergoing a metamorphosis right before my eyes. Is she becoming earthlier? Or more mystical? It’s hard to tell. Or should this painting be interpreted philosophically— humans journeying though life with their head in the clouds. I search for clues and think I’ve managed a glimpse into the painter’s psyche with the title, ‘La Magie Noir’ (The Black Magic). But just then I turn to another canvas, a temporary exhibit—an image of a smoking pipe, which paradoxically bears the words, Ceci n’est pas une pipe or ‘This is not a pipe’. Belgium’s foremost Surrealist, Rene Magritte, has viewers doing a double-take, questioning what they see and read.
It is clear from Magritte’s work—a boat made from the water it floats on, a mountain that’s also an eagle—that the aim is to challenge established norms and logic. This is hardly surprising since the Surrealist movement, born between the two World Wars, was a reaction to the ‘rationalism’ that artists believed to be the reason behind the politics of destruction. In 1924, renowned poet and critic Andre Breton published ‘The Surrealist Manifesto’, in which he defined Surrealism as a state where dreams and reality come together; the uniting of our conscious thoughts with the elusive subconscious. Keeping this in mind, it is given that a walk through the Musée Magritte reveals as much about the viewer as it does about the artist. For instance, in ‘Le Joueur Secret’ (The Secret Player), how long does it take one to notice the woman in the window? There’s something eerie about her as she stands there with a mask covering her mouth. What does she represent—Lady Luck or something sinister? It is the viewer’s state of mind that is exposed in the answers. While very little is known about this intriguing painting, the iconic images most identified with Magritte are objects depicted in his more popular works—bowler hats, smoking pipes, and flaming tubas.
You will find several manifestations of these across Belgium, from prints on coasters, posters, and fridge magnets sold at the many street markets in Brussels, to the colourful graffiti on the walls of Werregarenstraat, the famous art tunnel in Ghent. It is through these pop-art representations that Magritte continues to live on in the public imagination. Yet, the ideas that spoke to the artist himself can be seen in the recurrent themes of water and enshrouded faces.
At the young age of 14, Magritte experienced tragedy as his mother committed suicide by drowning in the nearby Sambre River. The young boy witnessed her lifeless body being fished out of the water, even as her nightgown covered her face. According to art historians, many of Magritte’s paintings, depicting a hidden visage, at times enshrouded by cloth, were his attempts to deal with his grief. His mother, however, wasn’t the only woman to feature in his works. His wife Georgette Berger was his favourite muse. On a guided tour offered by the gallery, I learn that it is Georgette who is featured in ‘La Magie Noir’ and several other nudes. In almost all these creations, there is an alluring, mysterious air about her, suggestive of her appeal to the artist.
A soft murmur of conversation follows as I make my way through the gallery; fellow visitors discuss the artworks in hushed tones, expressing opinions as varied as humanity. In ‘La Plage Blanche’, I see the moon, while someone nearby believes it’s a part of the canvas that has been left unpainted; in ‘Primevera’, I am intrigued by the elegant, bourgeois woman, while others notice the dark circles under her eyes as a symbol of loss of human values to crony capitalism. In all, it’s your perception of the world around you that Magritte’s skillful play with ideas and symbols draws out. Be warned though, as you explore the subtle nuances of the subconscious mind, you may discover a whole new side of yourself.