Book review — A visit with Magritte (Duane Michals)

René Magritte was the first artist that I identified with — particularly his sense of humour yet thought provoking presentations of surrealism.

One of my favourites paintings of his — and one of his more famous ones — is Ceci n’est pas une pipe, because literally it is not a pipe; it is an image of a pipe. And thus compelling one to think of reality, illusion, and possibility.

I had high hopes and expectations when a work opportunity enabled me to make my own visit at Magritte’s place — Musée Magritte Museum in Brussels. The leaflet boasts that it contains the largest Magritte collection in the world, covering his three major epochs.

While I do not doubt the accuracy of the claim, I was disappointed that most of his more famous works are not here. Instead, there are many drafts and sketches, as well as adequate finished works.

I did appreciate the bronze sculpture work, Sitting coffin, challenging our perceptions of what it means to rest in peace.

In the museum shop, I wasn’t enticed by the books and catalogues, as I have read many of them over the years.

But one by a photographer, Duane Michals, caught my eye. Une Visite chez Magritte (or roughly translated, A Visit at Magritte’s Place) is a concise, 64-page hardbound book, about A5 in size, published by Steidl.

After a brief, one-page introduction by the author (see translation below), what follows is a beautiful series of images that resonate with the subject’s dreamy disposition.

There are intimate images of Magritte’s house interior, including some of his works on the walls, as well as some cleverly staged images outdoors.

I particularly liked the experimentation with multiple exposures, exemplifying the process of imagination.

While there are others, such as Michel Foucault, who provide a philosopher’s examination of Magritte’s poetic genius, I much prefer this photographer’s demonstration of respect and understanding of this great artist’s world, told through images only.

We know that Magritte approved, because on display is a handwritten letter of gratitude.

In return, Michals leaves an ode; Magritte died less than two years’ after his visit:

Goodbye, René Magritte
Subtle maestro of the grand opera of wonder,
Your works remain in our memories
Like the tune of a song,
Even long after the music has ended
Through the land of silence,
Maybe you can hear the echo of our applause.

Introduction by Duane Michals (translated):

If I release myself to my memories, I can still feel the excitement that gripped me when I turned the corner of Mimosas Road, on the search for René Magritte’s house. It was August 1965. I was thirty-three years old and I was about to meet the man who’s deeply spiritual and surrealistic paintings had contradicted my original ideas about photography.

A friend of a friend who had written a book on Magritte and had resided with him in Brussels introduced us. It seemed strange to me that it was possible to know Magritte. The artists and poets that I admired always gave me the impression that they didn’t belong to the real world. They were like fictional characters that didn’t exist except between the pages of a book or on the surface of a table. Conversely, traditional celebrities such as movies stars are all too accessible. We know their most obscure traits, and the flood of information that their actions causes becomes tiring. While some paintings are more like traditional celebrities, the most mythical artists are truly set apart. Their work is as a gift left behind by an invisible entity. The art of Magritte was a huge gift for me. I knew nothing of him, and I was curious to see what sort of man could create such works. I had no idea what he looked like: I could have, I would say to myself, crossed him in the street and never known it.

Upon ringing the bell, I still doubted some of the reasons that had brought me there. I also felt like a sixth grade student being sent to the principal’s office. Throughout the visit, I could not stop myself from holding onto an embarrassed silence. It wasn’t only that my French was just as bad as his English, there was also an expression of awed respect, the expression of someone who is delighted to be there and who fears breaking their dream.

With age, I understand a little better: I now know that in the course of our lives there are a handful of people whose impact is immense, and that aren’t only masters in the usual sense of the term. They open our lives to the massive ocean, they give without thought of compensation, and we receive their freedom. They do this without knowledge of their impact, through the example of their lives and the power of their art. This is the force and the integrity of the vision that brought me to Magritte in order to thank him.

Magritte’s work seduced me through its ability to confuse me. In his universe, I couldn’t be sure of anything. Giant flowers invaded the rooms, the moon lit the night sky in the middle of the day, and nightgowns swelled up and turned into breasts. Fun yet serious, this sort of thinking animated his paintings. It was enough for me to look at them to be liberated by them.

No one would have thought that this place was in fact that of the empire of lights. I was especially curious to see Magritte’s workshop, but the first time that I stepped inside, I barely even realized what it was. A small room that was attached to the bedroom, it was furnished with simply a green sofa, a cozy chair, and a few shelves filled with books. Everything was carefully arranged, only the silent presence of the easel and palette gave any indication of our location. We could say that the “artistic” touches were that of a bad designer. Although I never saw him paint, I suspect I would have seen Magritte in front of his easel dressed comfortably in a suit and tie. This image was typically a character in his paintings.

The afternoon I took leave of Georgette and René Magritte, the feeling of something wonderful ended and I was filled with melancholy. A year and a half later, Magritte was dead.

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