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"He is a secret agent; his object is to bring into disrepute the whole apparatus of bourgeois reality" - George Melly, BBC
Born in 1898, the eldest of three sons of a Belgian family of modest means, René Magritte was taken care of by his grandmother and the family housekeeper after his mother's suicide in 1912. In 1913, he met the adolescent Georgette Berger who, many years later would become his wife. An abysmal student who excelled only at drawing and writing, Magritte did not return to regular school after the Germans occupied his native Belgium early in W.W.I but went to Brussels as a draughtsman. There he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in 1916. After a couple of years of courses at the Académie, he began to find work in the commercial field, designing posters and flyers. Several times over the years, he worked as a commercial artist to make ends meet.
By 1920, Magritte's work displayed a keen awareness of French Cubism. But from the end of that year, he found himself doing his military service, only painting the odd portrait of his officers and finishing his tour of duty as a mapmaker in early 1922. That autumn, he became a designer for a manufacturer of wallpaper and carpet. In his own words, he "found the factory as unbearable as the barracks," giving up after about a year to seek a living doing miscellaneous commercial projects.
For Magritte, 1922 was a momentous year. Six of his paintings were included in the Antwerp Congress of Modern Art show, he married his Georgette and, most importantly, first saw reproductions of de Chirico's work, which had a profound influence on him. Until the mid-thirties, this influence is seen in urban perspectives, where incompatible objects are juxtaposed. While still very enthusiastic about de Chirico, in 1925, he met and was affected also by the Dadaists. He soon became part of the avant-garde Brussels gallery, Atelier Sélection, and in 1927, he and his wife moved to the Paris suburbs to be closer to their surrealist colleagues. At the end of 1929, he partook with Arp, Tanguy, and Dali in the opening of a new Parisian gallery that, due to the Wall Street crash, was quite short-lived. In 1930, he found himself in profound disagreement with the Parisian surrealists and returned to Brussels.
Often classified as a Surrealist, Magritte is more properly a "Magic Realist", using his careful draughtsmanship to link objects in unexpected, paradoxical ways, subverting the "science" of perspective. Interestingly, he did not believe in the subconscious, considering psychology, psychiatry, and, particularly, psychoanalysis to be nonsense. And unlike Dali who cultivated eccentricity, Magritte was the soul of banality, displaying an obsessive desire to not seem like an artist.
Except for a brief foray into a more impressionistic painting style during the Second World War, Magritte retained a very precise line mixed with fresh colours and dark humour to elicit his trademark originality. Late in his career, having dabbled in many media including film, Magritte took up sculpture, completing the final moulds in early 1967. Shortly after returning from Italy in June, he was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and passed away at his home in August.