It is no surprise that recent Parisian scholars have argued that René Magritte is the greatest artist-philosopher of the 20th century. On November 21, 1898 in Belgium, René François Ghislain Magritte was born into a financially successful family. His father, a tailor and clothing manufacturer, had the reputation of being an irreverent and aggressive social climber. As such, the family moved throughout Belgium attempting to outrun their soiled reputation. Tragedy struck in Magritte’s family in 1912, when his mother ended her life after a long battle with depression; she was found in the river Sambre with her nightdress over her head. It is rumored that 14-year-old Magritte found her in the river. Although this is likely an apocryphal story, Magritte was undeniably haunted by the image of his deceased mother’s face covered by cloth. This motif, a woman with her face obscured, appears throughout Magritte’s oeuvre.
Magritte’s burgeoning art career was interrupted by WWI where he served in the Belgian army as a cartographer. Following the war, Magritte took a job as a wallpaper designer. In this design role, Magritte explored his interest in Analytical Cubism and in 1923, Magritte began designing exhibition posters. This role gave him more artistic freedom and he ultimately created his first Surrealist painting, Lost Jockey, in 1926. His first one-man show in 1927 was well received by the critics; they appreciated unique dead-pan narrative style. Although he received attention, Magritte was frustrated by the Belgian surrealists and found solace with the Parisian surrealists, whom Magritte felt were more honest and inventive.
WWII Era work: “Renoir Era”
When Magritte, a native Belgian, remained in his home country amidst German occupation during World War II, he experienced the horrors and heartbreak of a war-torn state. Perhaps surprisingly, these years, 1943-1948, are known as Magritte’s Renoir phase, during which he departed from his previous pessimism and began depicting powerful, colorful, and charming images. Not alone in his desperation for optimism and beauty, Magritte joined several other Belgian artists in signing the manifesto Surrealism in Full Sunlight. The suggestion of drastic change to the genre offended Parisian Surrealists and neither the manifesto nor its related exhibit received commercial success. Magritte then returned to his pre-war themes of dark and disquieting imagery. As such, the paintings during Magritte’s short “Renoir” phase are now rare relics of genre innovation.
Throughout the 1950s, Magritte continued challenging peoples preconceived ideas of reality through the visual arts and film. Although his artwork was often symbolic, Magritte was adamant that his work was not a problem to be “solved.” He famously described his paintings as "visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable."