To my shame, after all these years of considering Brussels to be my home town, I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the cultural side of life.
What better place to start than with the museum dedicated to René Magritte, Belgium’s most famous surrealist artist (more information at the links at the bottom of this post). Going into the museum, which is accessible via the Palais des Beaux-Arts/Bozar, it occurred to me that I knew absolutely nothing about the man, his life, his background or his art. I developed an intimate relationship with the lady at security, who disapproved of everything in my bag and had me trotting back and forth between the lockers and her turnstile, before I disposed of everything bar a notebook and pen. And you know what? It was very refreshing, even with my limited attention span.
The contents of the museum are not the most famous of Magritte’s works, but the largest collection of his original work, left by his widow, Georgette. They were married from 1923 until his death in 1967 and you can see her role as his muse throughout the museum. There is another Magritte museum in Brussels, based in their former home in Jette, which is still on my list. I love the story of a 2009 burglary of a nude painting of Georgette from this museum, when the thieves eventually had to return the painting because it was too famous to sell on the black market.
I’ll admit something: I didn’t even know that Magritte was a surrealist before my visit. Once I grasped that much, I was on track. I’ve got surrealist credentials, you know, I’ve been to Dali and Man Ray exhibitions and read Peggy Guggenheim’s autobiography last year. Ahem… I just had a look at Peggy G’s book for any reference to Magritte. His paintings were in her collection (of course, the wily art collecting fox) and at the onset of WWII, she asked the Louvre if they would include her private collection in their hidden cache of priceless works of art before the Nazis hit Paris. They were willing to give her a cubic metre of space in their underground hiding place, but upon examining her paintings and sculptures, decided against their inclusion. They were far too modern and not worth saving. So she hid them in a farm shed instead.
What I liked most about Magritte was that he didn’t want his work to be analysed, he was all about the artistic freedom. He was continuously playing with reality and illusion, forcing the uneasy spectator to accept that life is a mystery and cannot be explained. He wasn’t even responsible for titling his paintings, leaving this up to his friends. After a while, I stopped reading the titles entirely. The museum walls, when not occupied by his work, have some of his quotations painted on them. I wrote a few down when they applied to myself and my experience of the exhibition:
I don’t know why I paint, just as I don’t know the reasons for living or dying
It is in our nature to try to make sense of the world around us. I always related painting to poetry, thinking of English classes in school where we would go through each line of a poem. Each person would have a different interpretation and the subsequent discussions were fascinating, but I wondered what the poet would think if they heard us. The same applies to artists, whose work is full of symbolism and meaning. Not so Magritte. It seems that if he found a class of art historians examining his work in such detail, he would laugh at them.
Another quotation is just for me:
Freedom is the possibility of being and not the obligation to be.
Towards the end of the museum, I sat in front of this painting for a minute.
It is called La Poitrine or The Breast. I was laughing quietly to myself, remembering the time when I worked in De Valera’s and got it into my head that the French for “pumpkin” was “poitrine” (it is potiron). For the whole day, the soup of the day on the specials board was Breast Soup. An older Belgian couple also stopped in front of this painting and cracked up loudly at the name. I was tempted to tell them my soup story, but thought it would be too much for one day. So I ventured back into the cold and went to Cafe Arcadi for lemon meringue and coffee. René and Georgette would have approved.
Magritte Museum (Bozar)