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Rene Magritte Exhbition at Tate Liverpool

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle

Exhibition at Tate Liverpool

Reviewed by Denis Joe September 2011

There is something about Belgium that exudes anonymity. Mention Jacques Brel and most people will scratch their heads. Mention some of his songs like 'If You Go Away' or 'Amsterdam' and people will know what, rather than who, you are talking about. Even Belgium's most popular export, Stella Artois lager, is usually thought of as being French. Identifying Rene Magritte has the same problem: many people are familiar with his work, but few can put a name to the artist.


What one must paint is the image of resemblance—if thought is to become visible in the world.
(Rene Magritte)

the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!
(Comte de Lautrémont Les Chants de Maldoror)


Le Jockey Perdu (1926)Allude to surrealist artists and most people will think of Salvador Dali and yet much of his dreamscapes were simply developments of the early work of Magritte such as Le Jockey Perdu (1926). But Magritte was quite different in his approach, from Dali. Whereas Dali was interested in altering the state of everyday objects (such as the famous melting clocks), Magritte took a more direct route in placing everyday things in a different context (of which The Lost Jockey is a perfect example). In one sense, although surrealism is seen as evolving from Dadaism, it seems that much of the approaches that surrealist artists deployed can be found in the paintings of the Flemish renaissance painter, Pieter Brueghel the Elder.


The aims of the surrealists were to unite the conscious and subconscious to provide a new reality. This did not require providing a meaning as Magritte said, “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”


Surrealism had many diverse champions. One of its aims was to shock and outrage bourgeois society, but many embraced the surrealists and Magritte, who had been working as a designer in a wallpaper factory, had little difficulty in finding backing. With the support of a Brussels art gallery, he became a full-time painter in 1926.


The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was also a supporter, and whilst in exile in Mexico in 1938 co-authored (with Andre Breton) Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, seeing in the Surrealist movement, an opposition to the Stalinist imposed Socialist realism. The Manifesto is one of Trotsky’s weaker writings. Primarily, Trotsky was simply interested in posing surrealism against the blandness of Socialist realism, and whilst his concern was also with freedom of expression, it is difficult not to read a sort of immature “my picture is better than yours” rejoinder into the manifesto. What Trotsky failed to see was the contempt that the Stalinist regime held for the people. In many cases modern art was seen as ‘too difficult’ or ‘not relevant’, a view that much of today’s Western elite hold to. The Congress of 1934, laid down four rules for what became known as "Socialist Realism": That the work be: Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them; typical: scenes of everyday life of the people; realistic: in the representational sense and partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.


Yet it could just as much be argued that the chocolate-box-cover approach by artists such as Nikolai Pozdneev or Alexander Semionov was as unrealistic (and unrealised?) as that of the dreamscapes of Magritte or Dali.


Representation (1937) by MagritteThe Pleasure Principle is the first major exhibition of the Belgian surrealist in the UK in a decade. The exhibition features over 100 works and aims to focus on the less explored aspects of Magritte’s life and artistic practice, and on themes including the artist’s use of pattern and artifice, ideas and revelation, and visual fracture and eroticism. The exhibition also investigates the relationship between Magritte’s ‘purely artistic’ work and commercial design, and the inspiration he drew from mass market literature and popular culture. The exhibition traces these themes in Magritte’s major paintings as well as in his early commercial work, in drawings and collages, and in his rarely seen photographs and films. To even get a fleeting appreciation of the works would take a whole day and only the fact that there is an entrance fee prohibits me from returning as often as I would like.


In one sense the exhibition could be seen as the history of the surrealist movement. I would argue that Magritte is the most inventive of the movement, not only in the wide variety of themes that inform his work, nor simply in the forms in which he worked, but his work also pushes the boundaries of what is understood as surrealism. So in Representation (1937), for example, the shape of the frame is dictated by the subject of the picture. Magritte had previously done something similar with Adulation of Space (1928), where the shape of the naked body dictates the frame of a cave and draws out attention directly to them. He had also played with the shape of the frame, thus making the frame an integral part of the picture. He seemed to be drawing on the ideas of the American architect Louis Sullivan, who put forward the credo that ‘form follows function’. But it is with the painting of 1937 that the idea is made more explicit.


Magritte studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts from 1915. There he fell under the influence of much of the modern styles and developed a cubist style that owed much to the art deco movement. This style helped him in his work for advertising, that allowed him to afford to experiment with, and develop his art. Around 1925 Magritte changed his cubo-futurist style and followed a style closely aligned with Giorgio de Chiricho. He was particularly inspired by Song of Love, Chirico’s most famous painting from 1915, that would inspire much that informed the surrealist movement. Magritte acknowledged his indebtedness towards the Italian painter when he said that 'de Chirico is the first painter to have thought of making a painting speak about something other than painting itself'.


Untitled Collage (c. 1925-6) by MagritteHowever Magritte began to develop his own style early on. In his collages he used such things as musical notes (perhaps in tribute to his pianist brother) and bilboquetsthat wouldcome to represent different things in his work. In Untitled Collage (circa 1925- 1926), for instance, the bilboquet assumes the image of a tree. Another recurring theme with Magritte were the round bells, usually used on animals. Sometimes these rather innocent things could take on a rather sinister feel to them, as a result of Magritte placing them where they ‘do not belong’.


One of the most unsettling approached occurs when Magritte plays with the human form. The Spirit of Geometry, Mathematical Mind (1937) take the classic Christian image of Madonna and Child and places the head of the child on the shoulders of the mother, and vice versa. The overall effect is quite shocking and by playing with our understanding, there is a grotesque undercurrent in the effect that the picture has on the viewer. Momentarily it is difficult to make sense of the image and we seemed to be presented with the idea that without the child there can be no mother and, as such, the image of either is irrelevant. If we understand the iconography of the Virgin Mary, for Catholics, then there is sense to be made. Dali's later use of religious themes in his Christ of Saint John of the Cross (1951) also shocks, by questioning the idea of what sort of cruel God is it that Christians worship, as the view of the crucifixion is from above. Damien Hirst attempted the same approach of Magritte’s painting with his Mother and Child Divided in 1993, but I feel that his divided cow and calf seems rather like cheap shock tactics when compared to The Spirit of Geometry, Mathematical Mind.

One of the tenets of surrealism was that it did not concern itself with the ‘outside world’: society. Yet many of Magritte’s works seem to be explicit comments on society. The civil uniform of the bowler-hatted men – another recurring theme – suggests that Magritte was concerned about the individual identity in society. In his famous later picture, Giaconda (1953), the bowler-hatted men raining down on the suburbs seem to be all the same, but closer inspection shows that there is a difference in each of them and that they are not the same individual.


Le Joueur secret (1926-7) by MagritteThe late 1930s saw Magritte flirting with the Communist Party and he produced the poster Le Vrai Visage de Rex, juxtaposing the Belgian fascist Léon Degrelle and Adolf Hitler. Many of Magritte’s portrayals of women seem to imply a criticism against the objectification of women, particularly of the Romantic movement (such as the painting L'Age des merveilles, which pictures a semi-nude woman with clockwork parts for inner-workings) or the idea of women as a sort of form of slave labour. In Le Joueur secret (1926-1927) we wonder who the secret ‘player’ is: is it the turtle or is it the woman, literally, closeted away in the background. Magritte’s Rape pictures also seem to raise questions about the position of women in bourgeois society.


This exhibition takes in so much of Magritte and I was amazed at how much his influence could be found, especially in pop art such as those prog-rock LP sleeves by Roger Dean or even underground comics by the likes of Robert Crumb. The scope of the Tate exhibition is certainly breath taking. 


It is a pity then that the Tate does not pay more attention to the positioning of art works on display. The reflection of electric lighting on some of the paintings, that have glass protection, makes them un-viewable. This was certainly the case with some of the darker Magritte paintings. The section of ‘petrified’ paintings, for instance, features some that do not have glass coverings and some which do. Whilst you can get an idea of the texture of those ‘petrified’ paintings that are under glass by looking at one of its neighbours that are uncovered, I don’t think that is good enough.


It is not just the fact that the public is being asked to pay to view these masterpieces that makes this sloppy approach unforgivable, but the fact that these works are treasured works of art that the public should have a right to view in the best situation. This is a problem I have noticed in other exhibitions, and it seems to be more generalised in the Tate’s approach in general. Whilst I do not pretend to be an expert in the field of displaying art, I could point to the fact that I have never known this sort of cack-handed approach in other galleries. One need only take a few minutes to visit the Walker gallery, to the north of the city centre, to see a much better approach towards display.


Group Pricing

Groups of ten or more receive discounted entry to Rene Magritte: The Pleasure Principle when booking at least two weeks in advance of their visit. Adult tickets £9, concessions £7.10. Family tickets are available from £22 (Gift Aid family ticket includes donation).



Special introductory talks to this exhibition are available at an additional cost of £5 per person. Discounts are available Monday to Friday only. For more information and to book please call 0151 702 7400.

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