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.

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