Robbing banks

George Melly

  • Magritte by David Sylvester
    Thames and Hudson, 352 pp, £45.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 500 09227 3
  • Magritte by Sarah Whitfield
    South Bank Centre, 322 pp, £18.95, May 1992, ISBN 1 85332 087 0

Inspired by the bourgeois ‘bad taste’ of Magritte’s house in the Rue des Mimosas in suburban Brussels, Jonathan Miller took off into one of his self-intoxicating fantasies. We were there together in the mid-Sixties to make a film for the BBC, and although I had forewarned him, Jonathan couldn’t believe that this overstuffed furniture, this aviary of china birds, these chiming clocks, garish oriental rugs and draped curtains could form the chosen, or at any rate tolerated, habitat of the austere master of unease. He therefore conceived the notion that, at the back of the wardrobe in the bedroom (a chamber so immaculate one could hardly imagine anyone sleeping in it), there was a secret door leading into Magritte’s ‘real bedroom’, whose squalid vice-stained sheets were full of sausage-roll crumbs, where the po was unemptied, and a stale bottle of Tizer had got stuck to the top of a bedside table defaced by cigarette burns.

This fantasy has some bearing on the task facing David Sylvester in writing this marvellous book. He has discovered a room behind the wardrobe. In 1912, Magritte, 13 at the time, lost his mother who, after several unsuccessful attempts at suicide, managed to drown herself. According to Magritte’s wife, Georgette, René never discussed this event during their long marriage, or spoke of it in her hearing. He must at one point have confided in his friend and champion, Louis Scutenaire, however, and Scutenaire later published an account, clearly with Magritte’s agreement:

    She shared her room with her youngest child and he, finding himself alone in the middle of the night, woke the family. They searched the house to no purpose, then, noticing footprints on the steps and pavement, they followed these and came to the bridge over the Sambre, the local river.

    The painter’s mother had thrown herself into the water and, when they fished out her corpse, her face was covered by her nightgown. It was never known whether she used it to cover her eyes against the death she had chosen or whether the swirling water had veiled her in this way.

    The only feeling Magritte remembers – or imagines he remembers – with regard to this event is great pride at the thought of being the pitiful centre of a tragedy.

Sylvester rightly describes this story as ‘brilliant, mythic in its poetry’ and calls it ‘an inspired mixture of the complacently romantic and shockingly erotic’, acknowledging in conclusion that it provides ‘a frisson, at once oedipal and necrophilic, of a pubescent boy’s glimpse of his mother’s torso laid bare’.

No one, including Sylvester, has ever doubted this story and many, Sylvester among them, have used it to ‘explain’ much of the painter’s imagery: the faces concealed by cloths, the women, often in the proximity of water, whose heads and torsos fade into invisibility. In The Rape, a woman’s body replaces her face, Collective Invention shows a reversed mermaid with a fish’s head and a woman’s legs. That Magritte never acknowledged this theory was considered no obstacle. On the contrary, given his firm and disdainful rejection of psychological explanations, it seemed to confirm it. As we saw it, his feelings, vigorously suppressed, had burst though in this flood of inspired images.

The only objection to this neat equation is that Magritte’s version is itself a total fantasy. By the simple expedient of visiting Châtelet and looking up the relevant newspapers and police records, Sylvester established that Madame Magritte’s body was recovered, not on the same night, as implied, but 17 days later, and moreover, a kilometre downstream. It was inconceivable that the whole family was present or that Magritte could have seen her naked body. On the other hand, Madame Magritte’s corpse, after its recovery, spent a night in the house: Magritte may have seen her face covered with a sheet to conceal the effect of 17 days’ submersion in the polluted waters of an industrial river. His uncle, who had identified her, could have told him that her face was covered to avoid having to describe her decomposition to ‘the pitiful centre’ of the tragedy, and so on. None of this alters the fact that Magritte’s story was an invention.

Sylvester may have wished at some points that he had never thought to disturb the yellowing files of the provincial newspaper, but, having done so, he has not only faced up to the implications, but written in consequence a much more illuminating book than would otherwise have been the case. It is in Chapter Two, the longest chapter in the book and cunningly entitled ‘A Missing Person’, that Sylvester exposes Magritte’s ‘false memory’ and re-examines many of the works affected by this revelation. In replacing certainty (‘of course he watched his mother ...’) with ambiguity, he makes no effort to impose an alternative hold-all theory, but lists all the possibilities, many of them contradictory. Each is prefaced by the word ‘perhaps’, which at first I thought might be an accident, but it soon became evident that it was a deliberate device.

Magritte’s mystery is, if anything, reinforced by this revelation. Instead of being able to explain it neatly away, we are obliged to face it head – or in this case no head – on. Even so, I suspect that we shall hear and read the old ‘explanation’ for years to come. People are very resistant when it comes to abandoning myths. To cite a parallel example, my friend and colleague, John Chilton, has proved conclusively that although the great Blues singer Bessie Smith died following a car accident, it was not because she was refused treatment by a white Southern hospital – a version that is still widely and emotionally cited. I have already read several reviews and articles which, while accepting perforce that Madame Magritte’s body took 17 days to surface, nevertheless transport the whole family a kilometre downstream to witness the event, risen night-dress and all. In his work Magritte often described individual paintings as ‘solving the problem of ...’ In the story he told Magritte ‘solved the problem’ of his mother’s death.

Sylvester’s aim is not to knock the painter off his plinth but to restore him to life. He believes Magritte to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and feels it is essential that we see him as he was. He accepts without question Magritte’s anti-bohemianism – evident in his refusal to paint in a studio or to modify his heavy Belgian accent. After all, he had lived like a bourgeois long before he was widely known. Later in life he perhaps exploited it a little; the bowler hat, no longer in daily use, was within easy reach for journalists and photographers. Bored with the extravagant caperings of Dali, the press and public were intrigued by the contrast between the banal regularity of Magritte’s life and the subversive imagery of his work, and in the short years of his fame he was, it seems, prepared to play along with this.

There were also stories of unpremeditated anti-social behaviour on Magritte’s part which contributed to the world’s perception of the artist as a happening. The most famous of these stories originated, yet again, with Scutenaire, the painter’s Boswell.

    In the early days of his marriage he was alone in the house while his wife was in town with a friend.

    The bell rings. It’s the friend’s husband, who has arranged to meet his wife at Magritte’s house.

    He introduces himself, as they haven’t met before. He is highly respectable, bourgeois, a habitué of the casinos.

    Magritte invites him in, steps back to let him pass and, the moment he sets foot in the drawingroom, gives him a tremendous kick up the backside. The astounded visitor hesitates between the multitude of reactions that come to mind, and in the end sits down as if nothing had happened on the chair which Magritte, as if nothing had happened, hastens to offer him

Like Sylvester, I have no doubt that this story is true. Indeed as late as the mid-Fifties I was present at a similar explosion of black humour. In the company of a girl called Robin Banks I visited the Magrittes, who had quite recently moved to the Rue des Mimosas – an indication that at last René was beginning to prosper. Perhaps because Robin was very pretty, perhaps because Magritte was amused by her name, which he had at first misheard as ‘Robbing Banks’, we persuaded him to give up his early bedtime and, accompanied by Georgette and, inevitably, Lulu the dog, to spend the evening at a small, dark café run by a charmingly eccentric gnome, the painter’s one-time dealer, called Van Bruaene. I think Magritte enjoyed himself. It was almost midnight when, because it was pouring with rain, he telephoned for a taxi. The driver proved to be a surly fellow and growled that Lulu was not to be allowed on the seat. Having first helped Georgette into the cab, Magritte deliberately walked Lulu up and down the gutter. When at last he impassively joined his wife, he sat Lulu next to her while he himself lay recumbent at their feet. The taxi-driver, like the man Magritte had kicked some thirty years before, was so thrown by this ‘solution’ that he drove off without a word.

Such behaviour, while diverting, is not so very surprising. What I did find mildly out of character was Magritte’s petty dishonesty – his cheating of his dealers by withholding pictures and selling them behind their backs, or dating them earlier to release them from the terms of a contract. He also derived some pleasure from cheating the income tax. Until quite late in life, Magritte not only sold with difficulty but was dogged by bad luck and forced to return to commercial work to make ends meet. If at times he behaved like Arthur Daley, it was largely to support Her Indoors. I suspect, too, that his post-war compromises – the made-to-order variations on popular themes, the acceptance of unworthy commissions – were made to give Georgette those luxuries (modest, enough) which his poverty had denied her and to make sure she would be comfortable when he died.

Sylvester may take a humane view of Magritte’s last sad years – ‘it is always questionable,’ he writes, ‘to colour recognition of an artist’s decline with blame’ – but there were others who, for the purest motives, were not prepared to take such a view. Marcel Mariën, for example, a former disciple of Magritte’s, a writer and a collagist, savagely turned on him in his later days. In 1962, Sylvester reports, Mariën issued a spoof pamphlet, purporting to be written and signed by Magritte, deploring the inflated prices his work was fetching. In response, ‘Magritte’ offers to copy his most popular images or to paint portraits at reduced rates. Perhaps because he recognised a certain justice in this lampoon, Magritte was very depressed by it, and by this time there were few left to console him. For one reason or another, most of his circle had drifted away from him, and he had begun to realise his genius was about to join them. Only Scutenaire, Peret to Magritte’s Breton, remained faithful, and even he later expressed the view that success didn’t suit Magritte. ‘In my opinion – but I might be wrong’ he told Sylvester,

success gave Magritte a guilt complex, because in his heart of hearts he was unhappy with success. In his early days, when he began doing surrealist things, he painted with the same objective as the Surrealists, that his work should change the world, not that his work should bring him money, or honours, or visits, or respect. That didn’t interest him, money didn’t interest him, honours didn’t interest him ... He had the feeling that he had made a mistake, he said: ‘I’ve painted enough pictures to bring down, let’s say the throne of China, and instead of that I’ve got five hundred thousand francs in my pocket.’ It bothered him. He was much less agreeable than when he was poor, less warm, less happy with himself.

In some sense, Mariën was right: all talented Surrealist painters (the poets were not at risk) faced the danger of drowning in money To win was to fail. Ernst, Miro and Magritte himself were all eventually dispossessed.

Mariën continued the attack after Magritte’s death. His autobiography, published in 1983, maintained that during their friendship Magritte had forged several modern painters and sold them in order to finance various publications (a perfectly honourable thing to do by Surrealist standards). He had also, Mariën alleged, counterfeited some high-denomination bank-notes and, though it had been done as an acte gratuit, they had entered into circulation.

Georgette Magritte, dignified widow of a Belgian monument, was beside herself with rage. Worse, Mariën revealed that their uxorious marriage, part of the Magrittean myth and in such piquant contrast to l’amour fou chased after by most of the Surrealists, had once been under threat. In the Thirties, while visiting E.L.T, Mesens in London, Magritte had fallen in love with the beautiful Sheila Legg, a Surrealist groupie. To relieve his guilt or deflect Georgette’s suspicions, he encouraged his wife to have an affair with the poet Paul Colinet – a far from original gambit. At first all was well and Magritte even went so far as to write to Colinet giving him advice on how to please Georgette in bed, but the business ended with Mrs Legg fading from view, Georgette talking about divorce, and Magritte racked by jealousy. There was even an absurd and decidedly un-surrealist scene in which he involved a policeman. It took them most of the war to get over it, and Sylvester notes that during this uneasy period Magritte used models other than his wife. He could be genuinely bourgeois at times.

The relationship between the Belgian and French Surrealist groups, and between Magritte and Breton in particular, is a theme which runs through the whole book and Sylvester handles it with typical subtlety. It took longer than I had imagined for Magritte to earn his place at the café table. When the Magrittes arrived in Paris in 1927 Breton had been more interested in the near-automatism of Miro and Ernst: it was Dali’s brilliant debut which revived his enthusiasm for the de Chirico tradition, and led him to recognise Magritte. Then, almost immediately, there was the legendary row over Georgette’s right to wear a cross which had belonged to her grandmother, and René was out in the cold again. This was not, however, the reason the Magrittes returned to Brussels – another well-established factoid. That had been to do with the collapse of his gallery on the eve of his first Paris exhibition, and the consequent loss of his monthly stipend. Some time later, after Breton and Eluard had both sent copies of their books, warmly inscribed to him, Magritte made his peace with the French Surrealists, while always remaining at a distance from them.

Sylvester regrets that Magritte hadn’t joined the movement during its golden age, in the Twenties, rather than on the eve of its glossy decline, but in my view it would have made little difference since Magritte rejected, and continued to reject, so much that Breton held sacred: primitive art, alchemy, automatism. Breton, for his part, took a long time to appreciate Magritte fully; and found it very difficult to write about him. There were several breaches over the years, some of them serious, but Magritte, secure in his own castle, was indifferent to the papal bulls and excommunications thundering in from Paris. Magritte was always a Surrealist on his own terms, but by the end of the their lives they were friends again, and when Breton died, Magritte composed a moving tribute.

So far I have concentrated largely on Sylvester’s successful endeavour to remove the discoloured varnish which has prevented us from seeing Magritte as a complex human being. I shall try now to convey that ability to look at pictures directly which is Sylvester’s particular gift.

Magritte yet again attempted to confuse the issue. He maintained, for example, that he was uninterested in aesthetics, bored by the act of painting, and influenced by nobody, except, initially, de Chirico, and later, the collages of Max Ernst. Sylvester demolishes all these perverse and defensive strategies. Admittedly, the paint is usually thin, in the Northern tradition, but it is often seductively applied. In his extraordinary description of The Eternally Obvious Sylvester writes of those details of a naked woman ‘caressed into existence with the tenderness of a 15th-century Flemish master’. Magritte may once have claimed to be entirely uninterested in putting a certain blue next to a favourite grey, but Sylvester constantly draws attention precisely to the beauty of Magritte’s use of grey. Magritte maintained that he was not a Modernist: Sylvester alerts us to the abstract scaffolding behind the illusory objects, and quotes Rothko, who once said to him apropos Magritte: ‘But there’s a certain quality in his work which I find in all abstract painting that I like.’ The remark would have infuriated Magritte, but it’s true.

As for other painters, Sylvester recognises the influence of Picasso (especially the ‘massive’ period of the early Twenties), of Léger, Matisse, Miro and many other old and modern masters, and in so doing shows how Magritte’s genius is impoverished if we take him at his word. He is a far greater painter than has been suspected, and in consequence a more effective poet-philosopher. As for Magritte’s various periods, Sylvester approaches each of them as if for the first time. The paintings of the Twenties, for example, are often considered inferior because of their clumsy execution. While acknowledging this – the result of inexperience, a torrent of ideas and (possibly) a contract based on the amount of work produced – Sylvester maintains that the dark poetry of these images is so powerful as to overcome any technical limitations. It can also be said that these pictures contain the seeds of all Magritte’s future preoccupations.

Of the Paris period he believes that it represents Magritte at his very best. This may have been a consequence of stiffer competition – certainly he slowed down and worked seriously at his technique – but there is strong evidence that Magritte had reached that precious moment in an artist’s career when inspiration and the means to realise it are exactly balanced. Sylvester is more selective in his estimation of the work done in the Thirties. He is not, for example, particularly impressed by what he calls Magritte’s ‘epigrams’, those pictures in which related objects merge to create a new object, though he acknowledges The Rape, where the woman’s body replaces the face, as one of the great icons of the century. He sees it as both horrifying and comic and, citing several people’s reaction to it, includes the unnerving observation that the navel suggests a nose eaten away by tertiary syphilis. I seem to remember, although he doesn’t confirm it here, that he once told me the originator of this alarming notion was Princess Margaret.

The lack of inspiration towards the end of the decade Sylvester ascribes to the combined effects of the worsening political situation and the crisis in Magritte’s marriage. In somewhat intemperate reaction, Magritte conceived what he called ‘Surrealism in Full Sunlight’, which entailed a rejection of his customary deadpan technique in favour of the loose brush-strokes and bright palette of the Impressionists in general and Renoir in particular. Most people, and especially Magritte’s admirers, detest this period, but Sylvester makes out a strong case in its defence. If I remain unconvinced, I suspect that it’s because, of all painters, I loathe late Renoir. Magritte himself became hysterical in defence of ‘Surrealism in Full Sunlight’ and once more succeeded in totally alienating Breton. Yet, despite his enthusiasm, he gradually returned to his old manner.

In 1948 there was a final act of revolt. Invited at last to exhibit in Paris, Magritte decided to provoke the French by offering them the visual equivalent of a Flemish coachman’s fart. In six weeks he dashed off a considerable quantity of pictures, largely Fauve in inspiration, but including other influences from Ensor to Matisse. Vulgar, erotic, funny and violent, these works produced exactly the effect he had foreseen. Sylvester defends them so brilliantly that I was convinced, rather against my will, that they are in fact rather well-painted. It is the signature and the expectations it gives rise to that throw us. Not one was sold, and Magritte resigned himself to becoming Magritte again. He claimed he was doing so at Georgette’s request – a sign at least that their marriage was back on course.

Over the rest of his life there was a gradual falling off, interrupted by a diminishing number of authentic masterpieces. At the behest of his American dealer, he produced far too many pot-boilers and variations on favourite themes, but even here, as Sylvester scrupulously points out, some proved superior to the original. Sylvester believes that the large bronze sculptures are, with two exceptions, a final triumph, even though he died just before they were cast. Rich and famous at last – ‘too late’ was Magritte’s reaction – he painted on. He had once pretended to believe that ‘one must do something’: this time he probably meant it.

Sylvester makes no attempt to explain Magritte’s mystery away. He describes the means, the effect, the continuous testing of our assumptions, the possible sources, the intermittent return to certain themes, the significance of those irrelevant yet somehow inevitable titles, the use of words, but he recognises that in the end it is impossible to work out exactly why we are moved by so many (but by no means all) of these pictures. The exhibition at the Hayward, fastidiously selected by Sylvester and his colleague Sarah Whitfield, who is also responsible for the illuminating catalogue, will move to America and then break up. Those of us who are obsessed by Magritte will wait, with keen anticipation, for the first volumes of the Menil Institute’s Catalogue Raisonnée, co-authored by Sylvester and Whitfield. This book, however, is within reach. Among its many virtues, it rescues Magritte from the greedy, parasitic world of advertising, shows that there’s more to him than a handful of much-reproduced images, and restores him to his place among those who have altered our perception of reality. We live, after all, in a post-Magrittean world.