Never mind Tracey Emin’s drunkenness, Damien Hirst’s diamond skulls or Grayson Perry’s skirts: if you want a magnificent example of artistic perversity, take a look at Magritte. Or rather, at his work: René Magritte himself looked just like a good bourgeois and acted like one, which may be how he initially discovered the layered lies a plain appearance can tell. He wore suits and bowler hats, stayed married for 45 scandal-free years (and promised his wife, Georgette, “the calm of a nice steady bourgeois life”) and came from Belgium. His favourite subjects were as unimpeachably ordinary as he was – pipes, bowler-hatted men, balustrades, musical instruments – although Magritte, that mild-looking gentleman, might have asked what, precisely, you meant by ordinary. His paintings certainly force us to wonder what we mean by a pipe.
“This is not a pipe”: the phrase has mostly been taken as a Surrealist joke, since we can see perfectly well that what’s painted above it is, in fact, a pipe. Yet one of the image’s titles (it was part of Magritte’s perversity to make many pictures of the same things, and give them very different names) is The Treachery of Images. This is not a pipe: you can’t hold it and you certainly can’t smoke it. And if Magritte were to paint a similar image (in a painted frame, with smoke wisping from the pipe) and call it “The Air and the Song”, then where are you?
Fittingly, Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition, René Magritte:The Pleasure Principle, has a fair few meanings of its own. Magritte was a joyous connoisseur of Freudian pleasures, on canvas if not in life, and this exhibition includes some decidedly erotic works which may startle those expecting nothing more phallic than a pipe. But it’s not all sex and psychoanalysis. Part of the pleasure of Magritte is simple: unlike so many artists, he had a fully functioning sense of humour, and entering into his mind games is fun.
Take the painting he actually called The Pleasure Principle, a 1937 portrait of the collector Edward James – if you can refer to a picture of a suited man in which his head is replaced by a shining light bulb as a portrait. Is this about thought or inspiration, or might it be an attempt to foil precisely that kind of interpretation? Magritte hated symbols. In fact, Magritte hated a lot of things, including his own past and anyone else’s “resignation, patience, professional heroism and obligatory beautiful feelings. I also detest the decorative arts… Boy Scouts, the smell of mothballs, events of the moment and drunken people.” (Sorry, Tracey.)
He claimed to want to put the real world on trial. “If the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of ‘common sense’, he realises something obvious,” he said. “For me, the world is a defiance of common sense.” Which surely goes as far as anything can to explaining the painting titled Pleasure, in which a young woman gnaws on a bird while its living fellows look on.
Was all this defiant oddity, the irascibility and wilful provocation enclosed in a suit and tie, the result of his mother’s suicide in 1912, when he was 14? Certainly, living with that kind of ominous uncertainty (she was depressive, and had tried to kill herself several times before) must have been hard for the three Magritte boys. Apparently, young Magritte witnessed her retrieval from the river, with her nightgown wrapped around her head; some critics have drawn parallels with the sheeted faces of the couple in The Lovers.
The artist’s own love was clear-sighted. He met Georgette at a fairground the year after his mother’s death, and married her in 1922. All his painted women are based on her, physically at least. The wild-thinking man was a creature of habit in other ways, too: after 10 years discovering Futurism and Surrealism, during which he sometimes completed a canvas a day despite having to make a living as a commercial artist, Magritte settled fully into the style of deceptive clarity that he was to keep throughout his life. One departure showed Magritte at his most perverse. In 1943, he began daubing like an Impressionist, albeit with the lunatic colour scheme – a nude with one green arm and one red, and a yellow leg – of a bedlam Renoir. His stated aim was to counter the greyness and depression of the German occupation. The Renoir Period lasted four years, despite a notable lack of enthusiasm from the public and Magritte’s dealer, Alexandre Iolas. Another person’s disapproval had more effect: Georgette disliked the new style, so Magritte went back to the old one.
And quite right, too: it is the best of all Magrittian paradoxes that he managed to evolve while staying so very much the same. His preoccupations – with memory, love, death, logic and the impossibility of painting any of those things – did not change, yet he never grew stale. The problem with this exhibition won’t be boredom but mental overload: look at enough Magrittes in quick succession and you start to feel as though you will never think again. He makes it impossible to judge his work by appearances – no mean feat, for an artist.
Magritte died aged 69, in 1967, leaving many admirers but few direct followers: the man in the dark suit and bowler hat is, pretty much, inimitable. As he maintained to his dying day, “I think as though no one had ever thought before me.”