Rene Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium, in 1898. He was 14 years old when his mother committed suicide, a "horrific experience" (Gohr, 2000), "though it also had the effect of attracting attention for 'the son of suicide', as [Rene Magritte] was known to the people of Chatelet, the small town where the family lived at the time." Regina Magritte had made a number of attempts to kill herself - but had not succeeded until a night in February, 1912, when she disappeared from her home (albeit her husband had been keeping her locked in the house). She was found drowned seventeen days later.
Rene enrolled in high school in 1913, leaving in 1916 to attend Academie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, according to Gohr's biographical information on Magritte. During WWI, Rene formed close alliances with writers, artists, intellectuals and musicians in Brussels, and though he experimented with Synthetic Cubism, he was also part of the Belgian Surrealist movement. Rene moved to Paris (with his wife of five years, Georgette) in 1927, began to carve out a name for himself in the art community, and was greatly influenced by the work of Giorgio de Chirico.
Rene began to climb the ladder to the top of the world of Paris Surrealism when, in 1929, along with other respected Magritte works, his renowned painting, La Femme cache ("The Hidden Woman"), was published in the 12th issue of the prestigious La Revolution surrealiste. From his original success in the Surrealistic movement, Rene began to move into a genre that was "a reflection on the feminine, and the issue of the relationship between image and text" (Gohr, 13).
On the subject of the "feminine," some paintings that Magritte is noted for are clearly very erotic - and yet "eroticism" was a word "...Magritte hardly every used, perhaps out of discretion or out of some unexpected reserve or modesty, though it was one of the key impulses behind Surrealism." The fact that Magritte rarely used "eroticism" cannot conceal that fact that his provocative paintings of women (provocative only in the sense that a general, non-artistically savvy audience may be taken aback by the images) are indeed extremely erotic.
For example, his "The Origin of the World" (a realistic painting which could be misconstrued as a photograph) depicts a nude woman - from thighs up to breasts - with her legs spread, and a substantial mound of black pubic hair. In his painting Le Viol ("The Rape"), viewers witness the transformation of a woman's face into a feminine torso, with breasts replacing eyes and where the mouth would normally be, instead there is a public triangle. It could be that Magritte is suggesting - although this is purely speculation - that when a man sees a woman's face, he also envisions and imagines what her body must also look like. This is very typical of Magritte's artistic style of linking an object - though not always human - with the perception that minds create upon seeing that object. Another similar depiction of a woman's face turned into breasts, belly button and pubic region is Magritte's work entitled Rape - painted in 1935.
The artist's work, The Eternal Facts, shows a woman's nude body in five sections: the head (smiling), the breasts, the stomach and pubic area, the thighs and knees and the feet and ankles. Although each section is framed as though its only painting, there is nothing painful depicted on the woman's face, so any suggestion of the woman having been harmed is a moot point.
Another erotic painting by Magritte is called Philosophy in the Boudoir; it is an article of night clothing hanging in a closet with two perfectly symmetrical breasts with large nipples, and a patch of pubic hair where there would be expected to be one if it were a woman.
Still another very erotic work by Magritte is The Ocean, a black and white painting of a nude man by the seashore, and where there might have been a penis, instead there is an erect tiny nude woman, about the size of an erection that man that big would be expected to have. And yet another provocative erotic work is The titanic days, painted in 1928, showing the main nude body of a strong woman, who is pushing (it seems) a man away from her. The man is only about one-quarter complete, but his hand is on her right thigh, just inches from her public region.
Meantime, continuing a look at his career: Magritte's first exhibition of his work in New York - at the Julien Levy Gallery - took place in 1936, and his first exhibition in London was shown in the London Gallery in 1937. He was controversial in the political work, and caused a bit of a scandal in 1936 and in 1945 when he published articles in communist newspapers - under his father-in-law's name, Florent Berger.
The world of Rene Magritte is indeed a wondrous place where surrealism is the norm and images take on dimensions hitherto undreamed of by other artists. Magritte's is a world where things are hidden in paintings, and what may look like a three-dimensional object is actually just a painted, flat surface with two dimensions - which is part of Magritte's "over-reality" themes ("over-reality" is one definition of "surrealism"). Magritte's own detailed description of surrealism can be found on the Virginia Tech English Department's Web page ("Rene Magritte: A Gallery of the Surreal"):
The term surrealism gives rise to confusion, ant the term Realism is not suitable for the direct apprehension of reality," Magritte is quoted as saying. "Surrealism is the direct knowledge of reality: reality is absolute, and unrelated to the various ways of interpreting it... If I repeat [others' definitions] I am no more than a parrot. One must come up with an equivalent, such as: Surrealism is the knowledge of absolute thought."
How does Magritte describe his paintings? "Magritte resented any tendency to read his images as symbols" (Sylvester, 1969); "If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that has been raised'," Sylvester quotes Magritte as saying.
Magritte presents dreamlike images as experiences not messages," Sylvester continues. "He evokes extreme or impossible physiological states of events which have an intense affective import - being crowded, being trapped, being immobilized, and defying gravity - with great immediacy but no sensuous correlative, just as in dreams the action is all in one's head."
An example of this "defying gravity" style of Magritte is found in several of his works, including The familiar objects, where a lemon, seashell, picture and sponge float in the air around the heads of five men. In the painting, The golden legend, several loaves of French bread float in the air, with mountains in the distance. A female torso with no legs and no arms, a tuba, and a chair float above the ocean in Threatening weather.
Another spin on why Magritte painted the way he did is presented on the Virginia Tech English Department's Web site (alluded to earlier). Professor Brown writes that "...The surrealist is not concerned with the fantastic as an outside presence," rather, there is something "inherent to reality that can be exposed to us through art." As for what Magritte believed in, Brown says that Magritte "believed that a viewer could be released from the banality of her perceived reality by viewing that reality in a disrupted context." It is apparent even to the non-artistically-inclined person that Magritte's work was very often painted realistically, with "crisp lines and sharp edges," Brown adds. But those realistic objects are "jarring for their juxtaposition of common…