Art

Suburban surrealist René Magritte’s home is a guise of normality. Look beyond face values to find the rich vocabularies he conjured to express his inner thoughts.

Exhibit A’—a memorable exhibit chosen from one exhibition.

Exhibition:
The house in Belgium surrealist René Magritte had lived and worked in from 1930 to 1954, where almost half of his works were created. Reconstructed with original furniture where possible, including custom-made furniture designed by Magritte in the 1920s.
Exhibit A:
Sunlight reflected from a window of the building, onto the next door neighbour’s brick wall.
Sunlight reflected off a second-floor window, creating the illusion of a first-floor window on the brick wall opposite.

Look again. Real-life surrealism in René Margitte’s back garden. An extra first-floor window appears on the brick wall on the right. Photo: Viviane Li

Exhibit’s label:
Not applicable (it’s not strictly an exhibit, but my observation)

Exhibition overview

On a sunny afternoon in the suburban neighbourhood of Jette in Brussels, Belgium, I step out of the back door of a house on a residential street. Standing in a side alley with my back against the building, I survey my new surroundings. What draws the eye first is an unusual find – a large aviary with fake budgies perching on branches. At this point, you are likely to follow the alley around into the welcoming open space of the back garden. But I maintain my observation and raise my head. Wow, I am consciously transfixed by the sight a storey above.

Projected onto the nondescript brick wall opposite, is the glowing reflection of a window from the burning sun. Behind this brilliant illusion is a background of blue sky and drifting white clouds. A moment aptly observed! Because I am standing in the back garden of René Magritte.

The surrealist painter and his wife Georgette lived on the ground floor of 135 rue Esseghem for 24 years. The tour of their apartment comes with a friendly and knowledgeable guide. I point out the temporary phenomenon in front of us. “That is very surrealist,” she remarks. Visual illusions using reflections, windows, brick walls and blue skies are tricks Magritte played with in his paintings. Had he observed this fleeting scene in his own back garden ((Photograph of René and Georgette Magritte with two friends in their garden (around 1937–1938). At the time the photo was taken, the sun was not at the right angle for the reflection to appear.
Photo: Archives of Contemporary Art in Belgium, MRBAB / AACB 112820. © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels)), I wonder? To my surprise, my guide had never noticed it before, because her attention was always drawn to the aviary.

Unusually, Mr. Magritte was a stay-at-home surrealist. Faithfully married, had his routines and didn’t want to get out of this house much except to walk the dog. So normal, in fact, that he loosely reminds me of what they say about serial killers ((“Real-life serial killers… do not appear to be strange or stand out from the public in any meaningful way.” 5 Myths about Serial Killers and Why They Persist [Excerpt], Scientific American, 24 October 2014.)) – they blend into ordinariness (like the faceless, bowler hat-wearing, grey suited men depicted in his paintings), but their outward normality camouflages a head full of subversive thoughts!

Paint was Magritte’s medium for releasing the weird stuff from his head. It’s the ideas that makes his paintings extraordinary, rather than the mastery of paint (compared to the Old Masters’ skillfulness in rendering flesh, textures and tones; or an ability to convey emotion in one expressive brush stroke). That’s why you might glean more insights from observing Margritte’s original surroundings, than from staring his original canvases.

The ordinary setting demands intense observation and contemplation, if you want to get past the disguise (of normality) and try to dig into his thoughts. Walking through the apartment is like being inside a Magritte painting, minus the surrealist twists. The house’s furniture, fixtures and fittings are a part of his vocabulary. The same or similar features appear in many of his paintings: for example, the living room window (in The Human Condition, 1933), the staircase (in La Lecture Défendue, 1936), or the essence of the neighbourhood’s streets extracted to represent generic suburbia (The Empire of Light, II, 1950).

A furnished guest reception/living room with walls painting in a sky-blue colour.

Magritte’s living room resembles the room setting in the painting Personal Values: note the cornice, the wall colour and the rugs on a boarded floor.

The front window and curtains with similar characteristic features to those in Magritte's paintings.

The front window at Magritte’s house inspired a series of paintings, such as The Human Condition.

A room with a window on the left, in front of which is a table, painter's easel and chair.

Magritte painted at home, in this room leading to the kitchen and bathroom. The self-portrait Clairvoyance shows a similar setup. According to the painting, Magritte’s line of sight would have fallen on the birdcage outside the window.

A ground floor hallway with a dark wooden staircase leading to the first floor.

The staircase with a flat-top balustrade in Magreitte’s hallway appears in La Lecture Défendue.

If there is one thing that stands out inside this humble abode, it’s probably the taxidermy in the bedroom. Magritte had no issue with having his beloved pet dog stuffed when it died. Apparently, he adored his wife so much, that if she had passed away, he would even have had her stuffed! It might be a good thing that Georgette outlived ‘him indoors’ by almost 20 years, otherwise there may be something very different lying on the bed now!

Surreal reflection in Magritte’s back garden

Aside

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