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09Dec

Magritte: A Life by Alex Danchev review – virtuosic portrait of a star surrealist

Whether capturing his fractured home life or the wider political currents of the time, this is an expert analysis of the Belgian artist’s life

Given the ubiquity of René Magritte’s images in our culture it is a shock to learn that no one was interested in the Belgian surrealist until it was almost too late. All those bowler-hatted men with occluded faces, the pipe that isn’t a pipe, the giant apples and the looming clouds were hard to like and difficult to sell until 1965, when a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York put him explosively on the map. Suddenly everyone from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to a young Ed Ruscha couldn’t get enough of Magritte’s visual teases, linguistic puzzles and deadpan affect, which made banal objects – combs, matchsticks, bird cages – at once uncanny and irresistible. And still his reign continues: we are all Magrittians now, whether we know it or not, automatically decoding puzzles of space and scale presented to us in the countless advertisements and other commercial art that remains saturated by his hi-lo sensibility.

Magritte only had two years left to live by the time of the MoMA show, dying in Brussels in 1967 in the “villa” he had commissioned from an architect using his late-burgeoning fortune. He and his wife Georgette were very particular about having wall-to-wall carpeting. These dull, bourgeois touches are important, since the received narrative about Magritte’s life has always been that, in contrast to his shocking and sometimes pornographic imagination (one of his most famous works shows a woman’s naked body cut into pieces), his life was one of almost parodic respectability. He stayed married to the woman he had met when he was 14, invariably wore a suit like one of the men in his pictures, and took the dog (which was always called Loulou) for its walk at the same time every day. Alex Danchev suggests that Magritte’s rigid scheduling and besuited self-presentation may have provided a model for our own Gilbert and George.

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