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Sunday, June 12, 2011

An Ordinary Man

We are use to stories about the colorful, or tragic, or explosive lives various artist have led and the colorful, tragic, or explosive paintings those artist have created as a result. It's refreshing then to relate the story of one artist who was so ordinary in every way he almost defies belief. He was born in 1898, a hundred years ago, in a small Belgian town. He was the son of a merchant and the oldest of three boys. When he was sixteen, he met the girl whom he later married. A few years later he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, then worked as a wallpaper designer until he was nearly forty when he quit to paint full-time. He lived most of his life with his wife in a  modest Belgian suburb. When he went out, he dressed in a gray topcoat and bowler hat. He lived an average lifespan.  He died in 1967 at the age of 69.       

The Treachery of Images, 1928-29, Rene Magritte
(The words read, "This is not a pipe.")
 Magritte presents an image representing a pipe.
About the only thing tragic in his entire life happened when he was a mere fourteen years old. His mother killed herself by drowning. Her body was recovered in the boy's presence, her nightgown covering her face. As a result, often in his paintings, faces are turned away or shrouded. He was a surrealist, but his work and life were about as opposite of that "other" surrealist, Salvadore Dali, as one could imagine. His name was Rene' Magritte. His style is not as "real" as Dali's, his paintings nowhere near as large, his palette, downright dull in comparison. There is absolutely nothing "glorious" about his work, yet one comes away with the feeling that there may be more "depth" in his ordinary, yet sinister visions than anything Dali ever "nightmared" of.   

The Human Condition, 1935,
Rene Magritte
Magritte's work is cold--calculated. Dali's is hot--emotional. Magritte's nightmares are like ours, set in ordinary rooms, inside normal houses, on conventional streets. Yet they slip up on you and stab you in the back. The instant when you think you understand what you see, you're clobbered by the unexpected as in his 1933 painting, The Human Condition. In it, Magritte displays an ordinary window, through which is seen an ordinary landscape except that suddenly we're aware that most of what we're seeing is a painting of that landscape propped upon an easel, the landscape so accurately painted that the entire canvas seems transparent, all but disappearing right before our eyes. We're left pondering which is more real, the landscape or the painting of the landscape. It's an ageless question for artists. Which is more real, their art or their life?

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