Rene Magritte the familiar and unfamiliar

Rene Magritte, the Belgian artist who lived from 1898 to 1967, is one of those painters whose images are always finding their way onto book jackets, album covers, and the like. Among those used by popular culture are; the giant apple that fills a room, the tuba that mysteriously bursts into flame, the men with bowler hats raining down from the sky, or the embracing lovers with hoods over their heads.

The Lovers II by Rene Magritte
The Lovers II by Rene Magritte

Perhaps the best example of this kind of appropriation is the CBS television logo, which owes much of its inspiration to "The False Mirror," a 1929 oil by Magritte. In the history of art, Magritte belongs to the surrealist movement, which flourished in the 20s and 30s and sought to "subvert" rational thought through disturbing and fantastic imagery. And, of course, it is one of the ironies of art history movement that defined itself as the fashion and advertising industries so easily absorbed revolutionary. This paradox tends to dominate consideration of Magritte's body of work.

Some seem lighthearted. These include the bread loaves floating cloudlike in the sky ("The Golden Legend"), the boulder sitting on a terrace ("Le Monde Invisible"), the tree whose foliage is one enormous leaf ("The Plain of the Air"), and the giant egg that fills a birdcage ("Elective Affinities"). Any of these images might work perfectly as a New Yorker Magazine cover. Then, some paintings call into question the relationship between art and reality. The best known of these, "The Human Condition," shows a window with a painting partially in front of it. The painting represents precisely that part of the landscape that is hidden from view by the painting. In "Attempting the Impossible," a painting with a Pygmalion theme, an artist is seen painting a nude woman into existence. Surrealism depends upon the juxtaposition of ordinary objects in unexpected ways for its dramatic effect. Magritte's paintings were hard-edged and precise. He took utterly familiar, even banal, objects and scenes and painted them with meticulous attention to naturalistic detail, then placed them in situations where their very familiarity caused a mental jolt. Magritte believed that painting was a tool that challenged perception and sought to engage the viewer's mind. Magritte's art evokes a world where the familiar and the fantastic coexist. Ordinary objects confront each other in unexpected ways forcing the viewer to reevaluate the usual.

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