Focusing on one of the most prominent and enduring figures of the early 20th century Surrealist movement, René Magritte: The Revealing Image makes for a surprisingly stark and linear collection of pictures purporting to offer a rare, intimate look into the life of Belgian painter. Indeed, the opening pages are like a glimpse into the Magritte family album, with Xavier Cannone’s thoughtful corresponding text succinctly delivering a rundown of pertinent biographical notes: where his mother (who was “pretty without being beautiful”) and father (“somewhat portly, as befitted respectable men of the time”) met and married; where Magritte and his two brothers grew up; how he reacted to his mother’s dramatic suicide (“keen pride at the thought of being the pitiable centre of a drama”). Soon we’re introduced to his wife, Georgette, and their cadre of artistic friends, in a series of lighthearted and casual photos of the young creatives dressed in bathing suits, wearing Halloween masks, playing with dogs and lounging in the sun.

Though these biographical details—most of which take only an indirect focus on Magritte’s burgeoning but not especially lucrative career as a painter—may be of interest to devoted fans, they make for a drab entry point into the eventual analysis of Magritte’s creative vision. Though Cannone’s crisp, authoritative writing punches up these opening chapters a bit, the pictures themselves are not any more interesting than paging through anyone else’s old family photos, which are occasionally crammed into the margins of this large, coffee-table book or otherwise awkwardly surrounded by too much white space.

But as Cannone’s narrative progresses, we indeed begin to understand that this staid approach to an otherwise creatively adventurous artist actually reflects Magritte’s demeanor. While his most notable Surrealist contemporary, Salvador Dalí, may have become as famous for his wild mustache and bugged-eye mugging for the camera as for his art, Magritte dressed plainly and didn’t seek undue attention. He often preferred reading and listening to his phonograph at home rather than seeking out the wild nightlife common among the European art crowd, and he considered a good night’s sleep essential to his craft. He didn’t keep a studio, preferring to simply set up an easel in the corner of a dining room, and he would often take a workman-like approach to creating art. He and Georgette’s sensibilities were conventional enough that Magritte had a falling out with André Breton, widely considered the founder of Surrealism, when during a visit Georgette wouldn’t remove a gold crucifix necklace, an heirloom from her mother, at Breton’s insistence.

It’s not until the later chapters that the pictures begin to take on as much importance as Cannone’s thoughtful text. We begin to see how Magritte’s playful forays into photography and, to a lesser extent, filmmaking, matched up with how he perceived the world. Initially, he was a bit suspicious of photography, feeling that an image filtered through a mechanical eye rather than a flesh-and-blood eye would lose its mystery. But eventually he played around with cameras and cinematographs to create pictures both moving and static. Ultimately, though, he did this as a lark, and in straining to pull together common threads between these mediums and Magritte’s serious work, the text wavers a bit in an art book whose images, in the end, offer more trivia for completists than essential insight to the oeuvre of Magritte.

  • Oeuvre: David Cronenberg: Shivers

    With a concept and execution as crude and garish as suggested by the project’s working tit…
  • Save Yourselves!

    This techno-satire mostly feels fresh and vital even when indulging in well-worn tropes. …
  • Revisit: Idiocracy

    Just as Mike Judge’s lampooning of cubicle culture in Office Space feels like a relic fro…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Oeuvre: David Cronenberg: Shivers

With a concept and execution as crude and garish as suggested by the project’s working tit…