René Magritte: Realism in a Time of Surrealism
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Price tag aside, what truly captivates me about Magritte is that, despite being a surrealist juggernaut, his work somehow seems very realistic to me.

When Christie's hammer fell on René Magritte's "L’ami intime" (1958) this month for £29 million (£31 million after fees), I was somewhat taken aback. The sale price was only slightly above the low estimate — not by much for a quintessential Magritte, with his ubiquitous bowler, everyday objects, and an uncanny setting.

Despite the modest final bid, the painting's sale at 320 times its 1980 auction price stands as a resounding testament to his remarkable market appeal.

Famed for his mysterious bowler-hatted figure (which appears in his canvases more than 50 times) and his quirky take on the mundane, the Belgian surrealist remains a heavyweight in the modern art market. 

Just two years ago, his cinematic canvas “L’empire des lumières” (1961) fetched a record-breaking £59.4 million at Sotheby’s, placing him in the pantheon of art luminaries alongside Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, and Pablo Picasso.

Price tag aside, what truly captivates me about Magritte is that despite being a surrealist juggernaut, his work somehow looks very realistic to me.

And to truly appreciate his evocative paintings, one must delve into his life.

Born in 1898, Magritte’s life was punctuated with upheavals that echoed throughout his oeuvre. The shadow of his mother’s suicide – particularly the rumoured detail that her nightgown covered her head – was reflected in the shrouded faces in his paintings. Her former occupation as a milliner is often linked to Magritte’s fixation on bowler hats.

René Magritte: Realism in a Time of Surrealism
The Lovers (1928) by René Magritte

Then there were the two world wars that disrupted his life, prompting him to question the status quo and challenge the nature of reality and representation. All of which translated into the themes and motifs that became his trademarks – a pipe or not a pipe? A foot or a boot?

René Magritte: Realism in a Time of Surrealism

The Treachery of Images (1929) by René Magritte


The German occupation of Belgium during world war two was also a profound influence, prompting a shift in his work to “express charm, to bring about joy and pleasure,” as he once wrote: “I live in a very disagreeable world, and my work is meant as a counter-offensive.”

This perspective might explain the juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar in his art: a loaf of bread fixated to a man’s back, floating umbrellas, or an apple obscuring a face.

René Magritte: Realism in a Time of Surrealism
The Son of Man (1964) by René Magritte

Magritte’s work was also striking for its adman’s savvy – developed when he ran his own advertising agency with his brother in the 1930s, keeping his hand in the commercial game through to the 1950s. He had the knack for engaging viewers with the comfort of the familiar, only to then disrupt the ordinary, compelling them to think, challenge, and ponder.

René Magritte: Realism in a Time of Surrealism
The Portrait (1935) by René Magritte

Like many modern artists, the adman-turned-artist refrained from imposing interpretations of his work. Instead, he insisted that his art was not intended to express anything specific. “The idea doesn’t concern me; I am only interested in the image, the inexplicable and mysterious image, as everything in life is a mystery."

Mystery is indeed a golden thread woven throughout his oeuvre. We are left to wonder at what captures the attention of the figure in the bowler. We cannot even say for sure he is a man; all we see is the bowler and an overcoat. Some interpret the bowler as a symbol for the bourgeois everyman or perhaps even a self-portrait, given Magritte's own fondness for the headdress.

But I tend not to overanalyse. To me, these provocative visuals serve as artful reminders to always challenge what we see, and to question the so-called familiar – especially in times brimming with more questions than answers.

Tags: artauctionsurrealismartwork
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