René Magritte: A New Hong Kong Exhibition Reveals the Artist Beyond His Paintings

The biopics of fascinating men so often draw upon a moment in the protagonist’s childhood to depict a life-changing event that will shape the person they become. Such plot devices emphasise an important fact: sometimes the most influential people in the world are the ones who grew up quietly battling the greatest of personal demons.

For a film about the life of legendary Belgian surrealist René Magritte, that scene would be a deeply haunting one. It would show the last moments of his mother Régina before she entered the river Sambre – her final, successful attempt at taking her own life. Magritte was 13 years old when his mother committed suicide. He was the oldest son of three, a native of a quiet Belgian town called Lessines.

He only heard about her drowning 15 days after she had disappeared, though historians differ on how much of this event he would have known about at the time. One detail that exists in police records is the following: that Magritte’s mother had been found with her white nightgown covering her face, an image that some see reflected in his own works, several of which depict individuals with sheets covering their heads.

Among them, there is the disconcerting 1928 work Les Amants, which depicts two lovers embracing, each covered in their own white sheet. For curator and academic Xavier Canonne, who has devoted a large portion of his career to the study of Magritte’s life and legacy, the question of whether the recurring motif of the sheet links directly to this chapter in Magritte’s life is an unanswered one.


Jackie the dog: one dog would be white, the next black, the following white, and then black again – Courtesy Artistree

While the extent to which Magritte drew from childhood trauma in his works remains unclear, what Canonne is sure of is that there is much more to the surrealist artist than his paintings. He hopes to demonstrate this by putting together an exhibit that fleshes out the life, story, ideals and wider circle of the enigmatic artist through hitherto unseen photographs and moving image. This is the first time these images will be shown in Asia, and Canonne hopes that audiences here will appreciate the universal visual language Magritte strove to evoke.

There are a few images of his checkered childhood, about which Magritte rarely spoke. But what is present are 132 original photographs and eight films, some of which were assembled from family archives, with many images taken by Magritte himself. They show a flair for novel ways of framing the world through the lens, alongside a tendency to playfully use and turn upside down objects, symbols and their meanings.

The show enters into the private life of the phlegmatic artist, with endearing images of his wife, Georgette, alongside those of his dog, Jackie. Each time his dog passed away he would replace it with the same breed and give it the same name. This practice followed a pattern: one dog would be white, the next black, the following white, and then black again.

That Magritte is not known for his experiments with photographs and film is not particularly surprising. His camera was a simple one, and he considered himself a technological novice simply curious about finding a new way to capture his vision of the world and to contemplate the relationship between fine art and this novel medium.

Canonne believes that there is a chance Magritte might have been a bit shy about these images, keeping them with the bashful privacy of a secret hobby. He was more widely known as a painter in the Surrealist movement whose ideas helped pave the way to art becoming more conceptual, as opposed to just figurative. His fabulist paintings chimed with the mission of the Surrealists: to create unexpected meetings between images, words, sounds and objects that peel away the viewers’ attachments to their framing of reality.


The Shadow and Its Shadow 1932 – credit to Private collection, Courtesy Brachot Gallery

Though he counted himself among the Surrealist set, Magritte differentiated himself in many ways. The Surrealist obsession with recreating dream worlds was not part of his modus operandi, nor was he particularly drawn to the theme of automation, which fascinated so many in his group. And most significantly, while the theme of love as the utmost expression of freedom runs through his ideology, for him that freedom meant devoting himself to his wife, a slight aberration among the many Surrealists who enjoyed a diversity of lovers.

This devotion to Georgette reflects itself particularly strongly in Canonne’s favourite image in the exhibit, the 1932 photograph of the couple together called Shadow and its Shadow, in which she is depicted in front of her husband. The composition of the image is innovative and strong. Canonne points out how, if one cuts the picture in half, it looks like the shape of one head rather than too – a curious visual trick. But it’s also significant in the way he foregrounds and pays tribute to his wife. It’s a rather feminist hat tip to the central role she played in his life, not just as a supporting, invisible figure, as so many of the women close to artists were forced to be.

“For Magritte, there were no hierarchies,” says Canonne. This fact reflects itself as much in his portrayal of heterosexual relationships as it does his eagerness to bring together elements of disparate media, ideology, language and objects. This endeavour, which manifested itself in Magritte’s photographic and film experiments, foreshadows what would later happen to art: the collapse of the high and lowbrow, and the increasingly blurred boundaries of culture, media advertising, entertainment that we continue to see today.


The Oblivion Seller (La marchande d’oubli), 1936 – Courtesy Collection Charly Herscovici

The exhibition “René Magritte: The revealing images – photos and films” runs till February 19, 2018. For more information visit here

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