When he was just 14 years old, Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte was forever traumatized. Suffering from depression, Magritte’s mother, Regina Bertinchamp, took her own life by drowning herself in the Sambre River near their home in Chatelet. The night of her suicide, the Magritte family walked through the darkness, following Regina’s footsteps to the river’s edge. There, the young Rene watched as his mother’s lifeless body was fished out of the water, her wet nightgown hiked over her head, covering her face. The year was 1912.
Whether you’re a fan of surrealist art or not, it’s hard to deny that the imagery and symbolism they employed have a haunting, indelible effect. Metaphorical, allegorical, and often irrational, surrealism dwells in the subconscious, inside the darkest dreams, where memories lurk, fears and neuroses run amok, and nothing is quite as it appears. I’ve always found it appropriate that the surrealism school coincided with the 20th century Sigmund Freud revolution in psychoanalysis, dream interpretation, and the like.
Shortly after his mother’s suicide, Magritte met a young girl at a local town fair while riding the carousel. They would randomly meet again years later at a botanical garden in Brussels. She was Georgette Berger, and she would eventually become Magritte’s wife, model, and muse.
During their marriage, Magritte supported Georgette and himself by designing wallpaper patterns and advertising posters. But he soon abandoned the decorative and commercial arts to pursue his own inspirations. The grief and psychology of his youth played an important role no doubt, with Magritte having produced many works of people with their heads covered in cloth. Much like the painful memory of seeing his mother being pulled from that river. A good example is his famous Les Amants.
Georgette modeled for many of Magritte’s works, among them La Magie Noire, or “Black Magic”. What an unusual painting, and one can’t help but wonder what it is Magritte is trying to communicate. Amateur that I am, I see in the “split” figure of Georgette, half earthly and half celestial. Unless the bottom half is not earth, but perhaps blood?
From 1935, this is Magritte’s La Magie Noire:
Although their marriage was far from perfect, Rene and Georgette stayed together for 45 years. They lived at the same address in Brussels until 1954 when they moved to the Paris suburbs. They had no children.
Interestingly, in spite of the tragic loss from his childhood, Magritte is considered the least “dark” of the surrealists, often incorporating irreverent humor and everyday objects – such as pipes, hats, and apples – into his work. He eschewed the hellish, nightmarish themes of his counterparts. In fact, Magritte’s imagery is so much more palatable and accessible than those of other surrealists, that his work achieved even greater popularity in the 1960s and 70s by entering the realm of pop culture. Magritte reproductions appeared on rock album covers and his name was mentioned in song lyrics by Jethro Tull and Paul Simon, just to name a few. And this is my favorite; Paul McCartney, a big admirer of Magritte, claims that it was the artist’s work who inspired the name choice “Apple” for the Beatles record label. Don’t you just love it when art and music “come together”? <— clever Beatles reference 🙂