The scatalogical subversive

Magritte’s work is no more socially potent than dog-mess on a doorstep


This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Surrealism and coprophilia went together. Joan Miró painted a picture called Man And Woman In Front Of A Pile Of Excrement (1935). “Even shit,” Picasso once counselled Michel Leiris, “is pretty.” Just ask Salvador Dalí. His work is covered in the stuff. Only think of his Lugubrious Game (1929), that dreamy blue vision of onanistic joy and shame that’s finished off, in its lower right corner, by the sight of a chap who’s defecated down his leg in excitement.

Magritte: A Life by Alex Danchev (Profile, £30)

No such scatological horrors attended the career of René Magritte. Unchangingly dressed in dark suit and tie and bowler hat, he looked like painting’s answer to T.S. Eliot — the insurrectionary aesthete dressed as a bank manager. Little wonder Magritte never really got on with his fellow surrealists, whose railing against Catholicism this instinctive agnostic regarded as adolescent nonsense.

And yet, one learns from Alex Danchev’s prosaic but thoroughgoing biography, Magritte wasn’t averse to a spot of tomfoolery in what we might call the other trouser department. As a boy in the Belgian town of Lessines, Magritte would rub Vaseline on his piles — while standing in full public view on the balcony of the family home.

Out and about he was ruder still, hurling excrement over the rooftops at innocent passers-by. Another favourite trick was to run down the street shouting “Fire! Fire!” A resident would open his front door to find a burning newspaper on the stoop. Stamping it out he’d discover that the paper had concealed the dollop of turd that now adorned his carpet slipper.

But Magritte was already away on his toes down to the cinema. There, he liked to put half kilos of yeast down the loo, and then watch as “a frothy, noxious slime oozed across the auditorium and lapped at the feet of the elderly pianist”.

Not that he didn’t watch the film too — sometimes staying for more than one performance. Magritte loved the movies. “Few things in life gave him as much pleasure,” Danchev notes, “as the discovery that John Wayne was a Magritte fan.” It was a compliment Magritte was happy to return.

Many of Magritte’s images could be stills from one of those expressionistic tales of death foretold

He also worshipped Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx brothers. Why he should have titled his painting of a woman’s nightdress that has somehow developed a pair of luminescent breasts Homage To Mack Sennett remains a mystery. Still, one knows what Danchev means when he argues that so much of Magritte’s work “share[s] the deadpan of silent films”.

And the feel of film noir. Many of Magritte’s images could be stills from one of those expressionistic tales of death foretold. The Lovers, in which two anonymous heads essay a kiss through the veils that envelop them, speaks to the blocked desires that motor so many noir plots.

The framing and composition of The Menaced Assassin is a direct lift from one of Feuillade’s Fantômas movies — to which Magritte (and Juan Gris, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, and so many other of the early twentieth century modernists) was addicted. Danchev has a point when he calls The Menaced Assassin “inimitable Magritte”. But that hasn’t stopped people trying to imitate him. The whole of early Pinter can be deduced from that single image.

But it was on television and at the movies where Magritte’s influence really counted. Danchev believes he “feeds The Simpsons”, and I’ve long thought that the only way to get your head around what Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee were up against in The Avengers is to realise that they were trapped inside a Magritte. And you can see his dabs all over the work of Fritz Lang and David Lynch. As for Hitchcock, Magritte might have called him an “imbecile”, but he worshipped at the altar of all things Magritte.

True, Danchev is wide of the mark when he says that Vertigo borrows from Magritte. But Magritte would have killed to come up with the denouement of North By Northwest, in which Cary Grant climbs down the faces of Mount Rushmore’s various presidents. Spellbound (whose dream sequence was actually designed by Dalí) is as close as mainstream cinema ever got to evoking the surrealist impulse. Even The Lady Vanishes’s nun in high heels, says Danchev, is a steal from Magritte.

Less convincing is Danchev’s attempt to parallel the day-for-night shooting technique with Magritte’s most famous image, Empire of Light, a night-time street scene whose background is a burning blue midday sky. In cinematic terms, day-for-night is merely a photographic technique for shooting nocturnal scenes in daylight. Magritte’s painting, on the other hand, is a disquieting enquiry into the metaphysics of time and space. It might be night where you are, but it’s sure as hell daytime somewhere else.

Magritte was fascinated by philosophy. Danchev calls his art “a cross between Wittgenstein’s thought and Alice In Wonderland”, and though there is no reason to believe that Magritte ever read a word of Wittgenstein (though he did know his Pascal), his child-like obsession with meaning, with the slipperiness of signification, made him a kind of pre-conscious semiotician.

Certainly, there is no better introduction to post-structuralist notions of language than Magritte’s The Treachery of Images. This is a beautifully rendered painting of a pipe, captioned with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”.

Nor of course is it. It is a painting, a picture, two sets of signs (image and word) that relate only by arbitrary convention to the object they stand in for. Little wonder both Foucault and Derrida wrote books about Magritte. Best of luck if you want to try reading them — but however rococo and obfuscatory their arguments, Foucault and Derrida were right to see that Magritte was, like them, out to destabilise our relationship with and to language.

But if Magritte was painting’s answer to the linguistic turn in philosophy, he was also one of art history’s great jokers. To talk of him only as a poet of deconstructive dread is to be deaf to his laughter.

Yes, there is something disquieting about, say, Not to be Reproduced, a study of the back of a man’s head in front of a mirror in which he sees … the back of his head. But it is impossible not to giggle, too, at this image of the divided self.

Which is handy for Danchev because while his suety arrythmic prose drags lumpenly along his publishers have aerated it with dozens of mini monochrome repros. The pictures are uncaptioned, and it’s not always easy to work out how they relate to the block of text they’re breaking up, but these visual oases are still welcome. After one particularly heavy-going section, I guffawed loudly as I turned the page to see a painting of a curtained casement window floating in a cloudy sky.

No less amusing is Danchev’s account of the rainy night Magritte and his wife, Georgette, hailed a taxi. “I don’t want your dog dirtying my seat,” growled the cabbie. At which Magritte walked the dog in the gutter so as to get her especially filthy and deposited her on Georgette’s lap. He then lay recumbent at their feet, whimpering like a beaten hound.

It has to be said that this is a rare moment of action in the book. Part of the problem for Danchev — the author of excellent lives of Cezanne and Braque — is that Magritte’s life just wasn’t that interesting. The odd sexual obsession aside, he was one of nature’s happily married men.

Danchev, who died while writing the book (its final chapter was put together by the art historian Sarah Whitfield) does his best, bigging-up Magritte’s falling out with his fellow surrealists over Georgette’s refusal to remove her crucifix. But the book is more than halfway over and we know for sure by now that Magritte was such an unclubbable chap that his walking away from any group wasn’t going to affect him or his work.

If Magritte was painting’s answer to the linguistic turn in philosophy, he was also one of art history’s great jokers

At one point Danchev gets so desperate that he tries to relate Magritte’s work to Marx. To be sure, Magritte was a life-long leftist who couldn’t wait for the revolution. But Danchev, who was Professor of International Relations at St Andrews, is clutching at straws when he claims that Magritte must have read “at least book one, chapter one, part four of … Capital” simply because that’s the bit that contains Marx’s discourse on “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret”.

And anyway, even if Magritte did have hopes that his work would foment social tumult, his most enduring influence hasn’t been felt in the body politic. It’s been felt in advertising, where shocking imagery and jumpy juxtapositions are par for the course — all in the service of capital.

“If even a fraction of the tributes being paid to him and his influence were true,” Alan Bennett diarised after the death of David Bowie, “we would never have had a Conservative government.”

One of Magritte’s most famous pictures is called The Threshold of Liberty. It’s a magnificent, eternally discombobulating painting. But it leaves you on the threshold nonetheless. For all its subversive joys, Magritte’s work is no more socially potent than dog-mess on a doorstep.

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