Sunday, March 31, 2013

Venice - From Canaletto and Turner to Monet

Canaletto, The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco, 1733/34. Oil on canvas, 48.5 x 80.5 cm. Collection Juan Abelló, Madrid.

From 28 March - 4 August, 2002, Fondation Beyeler (Basel) presented Venice - From Canaletto and Turner to Monet.

Beginning with the views painted by Canaletto and Guardi in the eighteenth century, the exhibition tracesd a grand arc to the series of canvases Monet painted in Venice in 1908. Based on the work of twelve European and American artists, an unprecedented panorama emerges of the forms of visual representation developed in Venice by forerunners and early representatives of modern art in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is a panorama that does almost without Venetian artists.

The epochal Venice pictures of the period were created by artists from northern Europe and the United States. Canaletto and Guardi in the eighteenth century were the last great Venetian painters of views, whose cheerful and festive works, a few fine examples of which were on view in the exhibition, continued to shape the popular image of Venice long after the Serenissima’s demise.

Already likely the most frequently depicted city at Canaletto and Guardi’s period, Venice advanced in the nineteenth century to cult status, a place that fueled the imagination of some of the greatest and most significant artists and intellectuals, including painters and photographers, authors (George Sand, Marcel Proust, Henry James, Thomas Mann) and poets (Lord Byron, Rainer Maria Rilke), composers (Richard Wagner, Peter Ilich Tchaikowsky, Frédéric Chopin), and philosophers (Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel).

The depictions and descriptions of artists and intellectuals were a key reason why Venice, more than any other city, became a “pre-established” experience in the public mind. In the nineteenth century, the image of Venice developed into a palimpsest in which diverse and very ambivalent pictures were superimposed: images of power and demise, love and death, beauty and transitoriness, joie de vivre and melancholy.

The foundation for this new image of Venice was laid in the early nineteenth century by Lord Byron and his poems and dramas. His enthusiastic devotion to the city, understood as an allegory of decline and fall, was shared by his countryman, the English artist William Turner. As the magnificent loans from the Tate show, the painter’s transcendent visual inventions are no less compelling than the poet’s evocative imagery.

Edouard Manet, The Grand Canal, Venice, 1874. Oil on canvas, 58.7 x 71.4 cm. Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.

In 1874, Edouard Manet became the first early modern artist to paint in Venice. This is all the more surprising for the fact that Manet and his Impressionist confreres, advocates of a self-reflexive, “pure” painting, tended to avoid genres and subjects that were all-too freighted with sentimental and literary meaning. This sort of thing was the domain of academic artists who showed regularly at the official Paris and London salons. Still, some of the most important representatives of early modernism could not remain immune to the unique atmosphere and beauty of Venice.

For Manet and James McNeill Whistler, Odilon Redon and Paul Signac, painting in Venice meant confronting clichéd visual stereotypes with new and original imagery. Each of the artists represented here developed his own approach to this end, based on his previous oeuvre.

The exhibition brought together outstanding works by prominent representatives of the French and Anglo-American avant garde who were active in Venice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In addition, with John Singer Sargent and Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Whistler, artists who maintained friendly ties from early on are shown here together for the first time.

The Swedish artist Anders Zorn, an internationally acclaimed painter in his day, stands in the exhibition for the magnetism exerted by cosmopolitan, fin-de-siècle Venice on a growing number of moderately progressive artists.

The city’s attractiveness for these juste milieu artists was increased by the Biennale d’Arte, which opened its doors for the first time in 1895. This new forum also had an inspiring effect on local artists, as seen in the painting by Pietro Fragiacomo on view here.

A new chapter in the media dissemination of the image of the City on the Lagoon, which did not remain without effect on contemporary painting, had already begun around 1850, with the continually growing influence of photography in Venice. Crowds of tourists stimulated a demand for photographs of the city’s main landmarks and its popular life, especially around 1900, when Venice found its true raison d’être in tourism.

Anonymous photographer, Canal Grande, Rialtobridge, c. 1860. Albumen photograph, 26.8 x 34.4 cm. Sammlung Herzog, Basel. © Ruedi Habegger.

Carlo Naya, The Dodges Palace and the Campanile, c. 1875. Albumen photograph, 27 x 35.5 cm. Sammlung Herzog, Basel © Ruedi Habegger.

The exhibition included a representative selection of early Venice photographs from the Herzog Collection, Basel.

Claude Monet, San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk, 1908. Oil on canvas, 65.2 x 92.4 cm. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

Claude Monet, The Grand Canal, 1908. Oil on canvas, 73,7 x 92,4 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Alexander Cochrane Bequest.

Claude Monet, The Palazzo Contarini, 1908. Oil on canvas, 92 x 81 cm. Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, acquired from the Ernst Schürpf Foundation, 1950.

Claude Monet avoided going to Venice for many years. When he traveled there for the first (and last) time with his wife, Alice, in 1908, he was sixty-eight years old. After hesitant beginnings, even Monet succumbed to the mysterious fascination of what Paul Morand called “the water-lily city.” In the course of two months, he blocked in paintings at several locations, which he would finish in his Giverny studio in the years to come. These works were exhibited in spring 1912 at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. One hundred years after their emergence, this exhibition attempted to reconstruct Monet’s Venice series, which has never been on view in its entirety since its first Paris showing. In retrospect, this elegiac series of paintings has the effect of a farewell to the image of Venice held by an epoch that would come irrevocably to an end two years later, with the outbreak of the First World War.

The exhibition unites about 150 works, including 80 paintings, 50 works on paper, and 20 historical photographs. Leitmotifs are the famous views of Venice, such as the Piazza San Marco, the Canal Grande, Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore Church, and Santa Maria della Salute Church.


More works included in the exhibition:

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco, 1723/24. The Piazza San Marco. Oil on canvas, 141.5 x 204.5 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Francesco Guardi, The Torre dell'Orologio in Piazza San Marco, 1775. Oil on canvas, 44 x 70.5 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, München, Dauerleihgabe der HVB-Group.

John Singer Sargent, Gondoliers' Siesta, c. 1904. Watercolor, 35.6 x 50.8 cm. Private collection, courtesy of Adelson Galleries, New York.

Paul Signac, The Grand Canal (Venice), 1905. Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.1 cm. Toledo Museum of Art, purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, gift of Edward Drummond Libbey.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Venice (The Doge's Palace), 1881. Oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

With a commitment far beyond the ordinary, over 70 institutional and private lenders in Europe, the U.S., and Japan have agreed to make available their often rarely shown masterworks, without which the exhibition would never have been possible in this form. The most important institutional lenders include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; the Tate, London; the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the Zornsamlingarna, Mora, Sweden; the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte and Neue Pinakothek, Munich; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Pola Museum of Art, Japan; the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont; the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin; the Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro, Venice; the National Gallery of Art and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna; the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts; and the E.G. Bürhle Collection, Zurich.

Guest curator of the exhibition, which was shown only at the Fondation Beyeler, was Martin Schwander.

Impressionism on Paper

The Impressionism on Paperexhibition at the Albertina (Vienna)- 10 February 2012 – 13 May 2012 - presented up to 200 drawings, watercolors and pastels by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Active in France during the second half of the nineteenth century and closely associated with avant-garde movements, artists such as Manet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Seurat, Gauguin, Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec created works on paper that may be less well-known than their paintings but which are just as significant. This was the first international exhibition devoted exclusively to drawings by these artists.

The starting point for Impressionism on Paper was the fact that a large proportion (40%) of all the items shown in the eight Impressionist exhibitions held in Paris between 1874 and 1886 were works on paper. Many of these can be identified and were included on the selection list. To this core were added numerous other examples by these artists and others that provided an overview of their drawing skills at this critical stage in the development of a widely appreciated moment in the development of French art.

The aim was to demonstrate the different types of drawing pursued by the Impressionists and Post- Impressionists and to demonstrate the various purposes to which their works on paper were put.

Drawing is not an activity with which the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists have so far been closely associated. The exhibition, however, will illustrate unequivocally and for the first time that for these artists drawing was a primary function and not a secondary activity. Although drawings were used as part of the preparatory process towards a painting, more and more they came to be regarded by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as finished works of art in their own right. Many of the pastels by Degas, the watercolors by Cézanne or the works in mixed media by Toulouse-Lautrec were made on a large scale specifically for exhibition.

The exhibition, therefore,showed that far from ignoring the art of drawing the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists chose to emphasize its primacy thereby ceasing to uphold or even recognize the traditional distinction between drawing and painting. Instead, they elevated the status of drawing to the level of painting itself regarding both practices as part of a single aesthetic. The result was that the traditional hierarchy separating painting from drawing established during the Renaissance ceased with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

This, in turn, had considerable consequences for the development of modern art in so far as the fusion of line and colur resulting from a series of multiple gestural acts, which characterizes the best examples of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist drawings, paved the way for such artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly and Bridget Riley.

Artist in the exhibition:

Eugène Boudin Honfleur 1824 – 1898 Deauville

Boudin is considered one of the most significant precursors of Impressionism. His atmosphere- laden pictures created outdoors and his sketch-like and vividly coloured watercolours and pastels were groundbreaking for the next generation of artists, especially Monet. Boudin came from a seafaring family and grew up in Honfleur and Le Havre, which gave him a familiarity with the sea, the shore, and ships from an early age. He began working as a cabin boy, but then decided to learn the printing trade. Beginning in 1844, he ran an art supply shop, where he met such artists as Troyon, Millet, and Couture. Only relatively late did he himself begin to paint. Boudin’s preferred themes were seascapes and beach scenes, and he consistently drew and painted outdoors. As one of the first to raise the “impression” to the level of a full-fledged work of art, he maintained, “What one paints in the open air always demonstrates a power and vividness of the brushstroke that cannot be attained in the studio.” Boudin was particularly fascinated by the changes in atmosphere of the sky and water, the lively goings-on in ports and fishing villages, the depiction of sailboats, and above all, high society life at the seaside. As a rule, diaphanous cloudscapes dominate the pictorial narrative. In order to capture the diverse visual attractions, Boudin primarily made use of the watercolour technique. But he also worked with pastels, taking advantage of their intensive colours and soft consistency to achieve the desired ephemeral impression.

Camille Pissarro
Peasants Working in the Fields, Pontoise, 1881
Collection Triton Foundation, The Netherlands

Camille Pissarro Charlotte-Amalie, Saint-Thomas (Lesser Antilles) 1830 – 1903 Paris

Besides Monet, Pissarro was the most important pioneer and most consistent exponent of Impressionism. Having briefly worked for his father’s trading company in the Lesser Antilles, Pissarro moved to Paris in 1855 in order to become an artist. Following the advice of the Barbizon painters, he took up painting outdoors, directly in front of his motifs. In the 1860s, Pissarro’s relationship with Monet and Renoir intensified. In 1874, Pissarro was one of the initiators of the first Impressionist exhibition and the only one to take part in all of their eight group exhibitions.

In terms of scope and experimentation, Pissarro’s drawn œuvre can only be compared to that of Edgar Degas. For Pissarro, drawing was “the most intelligent and most delightful artistic activity”. In addition to pen and ink, pencil, chalk, and charcoal, the artist employed pastel, watercolour, and tempera. Landscapes were the focus of his interest, with the human figure embedded in them, engaged in everyday rustic life. Pissarro’s drawings made outdoors served as a repertory of motifs to which the artist referred for both paintings and large drawings.

Edouard Manet
Dame in Fur, ca. 1880
Pastel on canvas
Belvedere, Vienna © Belvedere, Vienna

Édouard Manet Paris 1832– 1883 Paris

With his provocative renderings of contemporary life and his swift, sketchy manner of painting, Manet provided the Impressionists with decisive impulses. He became the movement’s much- admired model and actual trailblazer. Born into a wealthy family, Manet only received permission to become a painter from his father when his career in the navy was doomed to fail. He studied under the history painter Thomas Couture, yet taught himself primarily by copying the Old Masters, above all Velázquez, Titian, and Rubens.

Manet is considered one of the most idiosyncratic draughtsmen of his generation. From the outset he cherished rapid sketches of instantaneous impressions and copies of works by other artists in order to train “the eye and the hand”. He drew in the streets, in museums, or cafés, capturing “a trifle, a profile, a hat”. Except for his pastel portraits, his drawings rarely appear to be finished works of art. Rather, they resemble a first spontaneous idea for a picture and were frequently developed further on another sheet and in another medium. He also liberally switched back and forth between techniques, which range from pure outline to ink wash drawings.

Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge, London, 1901
Collection Triton Foundation, The Netherlands © Collection Triton Foundation, The Netherlands

Claude Monet Paris 1840 – 1926 Giverny

Monet is considered the actual founder of Impressionism. With his painting Impression – Soleil levant he also provoked the movement’s name, which initially was used with a mocking undertone. Like no other Impressionist artist, he adhered to the style’s principle of working outdoors throughout his life, so as to be able to capture his visual impressions as faithfully as possible.

Monet grew up in Le Havre, where Eugène Boudin, his senior by several years, encouraged him to paint en plein air. Plein air painting – the spontaneous rendering of an instantaneous impression gained outdoors as the result of the interplay of light and colour – was his primary pursuit. The depiction of water in constantly changing weather and light conditions, ranging from his Seine and Thames landscapes to his late water lily paintings, was particularly popular with Monet, as it was among the Impressionists in general: in these pictures, the tangible world is dissolved into light reflections.

“I had a passion for drawing,” Monet, who in his youth had earned his first money making caricatures, wrote in retrospect. Throughout his future career as an artist, he concentrated on the landscape, which also holds true for his drawings. He used black chalk for his coastal sceneries set in Normandy and in the 1860s did his first pastels. The pastel technique was to remain Monet’s preferred means of drawing: the soft, powdery substance of the pastel crayons was ideally suitable to achieve a maximum of atmosphere through rich nuances and wiped colour fields, so that the motif became almost completely abstract. In the first Impressionist exhibition, Monet already presented as many as seven pastels. He primarily worked in this technique in the 1860s and 1880s, as well as in 1901, during his third stay in London.

Edgar Degas
Woman in a Tub, c. 1883
Tate, Bequeathed by Mrs. A.F. Kessler 1983

Edgar Degas
Woman Drying her Feet after Bathing, ca. 1893
Pastell auf Papier
Collection Jan Krugier

Edgar Degas
The Curtain, ca. 1880
Pastel over monotype on laid paper mounted on board
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 2006 © Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Edgar Degas Paris 1834 – 1917 Paris

Degas holds a special position among the Impressionists. He was scarcely interested in plein air painting at all. On the other hand, his interpretations of modern everyday life were an absolute novelty, in terms of both subject matter and style. Degas concentrated on the human figure, particularly the female body. His pictures show dancers on and behind the stage, people in entertainment establishments or at the races, and women engaged in such daily routines as their toilette. He composed extreme views meant to suggest real life and the impression of immediate observation. For the first time, the spectator’s subjective vantage point – his perspective and limited field of vision – became the starting point of the composition. Yet what appeared to be happenstance was ultimately the result of a carefully staged scene.

In drawing, Degas had found the medium that best suited his artistic intentions, whereas painting, printmaking, and sculpture remained restricted to individual phases of his work. Swift drawing allowed him to rapidly capture a motif from different angles and with great immediacy and to clarify a pictorial idea step by step. He preferred the pastel technique, which he frequently combined in an unconventional way with gouache, tempera, and oil in order to produce new effects of light and texture.

The World of Ballet

Around 1870, Degas discovered the world of dance. For decades his art revolved around ballet, regardless of the medium he employed. Yet he preferred the pastel in order to capture the dancers’ graceful movements, their gauzy costumes, and the magical atmosphere of the stage. A regular visitor to the Paris opera, Degas had unhindered access to the Foyer de la Danse, the dancers’ training room. In the first place, he obsessively drew not so much the prima ballerinas or the corps de ballet on- and backstage, but rather the young ballet pupils, the petits rats, performing their exercises. Degas was fascinated by the stylized art form of dance, the artificiality of its movements. He observed the young girls during their strenuous rehearsals, when they practised at the barre, but also during their breaks or as they were merely adjusting their costumes. Again and again Degas drew certain postures and gestures: “One must draw the same motif over and over again, ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must be left to chance, not even movement.”

Women at Their Toilette

A focus of Degas’ late work is women at their toilette: stepping out of the bathtub, drying themselves, or combing their hair. More than 280 drawings, principally pastels, were created on the subject. Degas had washbasins and zinc bathtubs set up in his studio so that he could uncompromisingly draw his models in natural, if at times extreme, poses, mostly as they attended to their bodies. The public was shocked by Degas’ intimate and realistic portrayals because they contradicted the current concept of beauty. The profane physicality depicted stood in stark contrast to the classical, mythological, idealized view of a woman. Degas no longer offered the viewer “the well-proportioned, smooth, and invariably nude body of a goddess, but unadorned real live flesh”. In his pictorial creations, regarded as an “affront” by the critics, Degas saw “the animal in man which is self-absorbed, a cat licking itself. Hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses that presuppose an audience. But my women are simple, honest creatures who are concerned with nothing beyond their physical occupations.” Yet Degas’ keyhole perspective has nothing to do with
voyeurism: it does not seek indiscretion, but an unusual motif. The unenhanced, even thickset, women seem to be the antithesis of the slender, graceful ballet dancers. Just as unconventional as the subject of the woman at her toilette are those compositions with unusually bold and extreme cropped views.

Horse Races

Besides ballet dancers, horses and jockeys belonged to Degas’ favourite themes. His interest in horses already reveals itself in early copies based on famous works in the history of art. From the 1860s on, he increasingly devoted himself to the subject of equestrianism. Degas’ stay at a friend’s estate in autumn 1861 in the vicinity of Haras-le-Pin, one of the leading stud farms in France, played a decisive role in his adoption of the theme. Shortly afterwards, he did his first equestrian portraits, primarily scenes from the races at Longchamps, a subject to which he was constantly to return over the next four decades. In numerous sketches executed in watercolour, black chalk, red chalk, charcoal, pastel, pencil, and coloured pencil, Degas captured the horse’s individual stages of movement and depicted the animal from various perspectives. He studied the horses before, during, and after races, which also applies to the postures of the jockeys, so as to comprehend the interaction between horse and rider.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Nude Bathers Playing with a Crab, ca. 1897-1900
Pastel on laid paper
Collection Jean Bonna, Geneva © Patrick Goetelen, Geneva

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Portrait of a Young Girl (Elisabeth Maître), 1879
Albertina, Vienna - Collection Batliner © Albertina, Vienna, Peter Ertl

Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1841 Limoges – Cagnes-sur-Mer 1919

Because of his lighthearted depictions of a blissful and harmonious world, Renoir, together with Monet and Renoir, numbers among the most popular exponents of Impressionism. In 1862, after his beginnings as a porcelain and decorative painter, Renoir met Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro, his future friends and companions, in the studio of Charles Gleyre. Throughout his life, studying the art treasures at the Louvre was to remain an indispensable habit of the artist, who had a preference for Rubens and French Rococo painting.

Renoir confessed that he resorted to the pen or pencil every day, because otherwise “you get out of practice too easily”. With pen and pencil he mostly drew smaller sketches, while he used red or black chalk for figure studies and watercolour for landscapes. In terms of size, finish, and ambition, his pastel portraits are on an equal footing with his paintings. For Renoir, drawing became particularly important during the 1880s, when he was in search of an artistic reorientation. He primarily used a pencil in order to reach a new, almost classical and anti-Impressionist clarity through distinctive lines.

In his late period, Renoir increasingly returned to black and red chalk. The soft, porous material, which produces a generous and coarse result, ideally lent itself to both achieving a new harmony of line and colour and emphasizing a refined interplay of light and shade.

Jean-Louis Forain
The Client, 1878
Watercolour and gouache
Collection of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee; Museum purchase with funds provided by Brenda and Lester Crain, Hyde Family Foundations, Irene and Joe Orgill and the Rose Family Foundation, 1993.

Jean-Louis Forain Reims 1852 – 1931 Paris

Forain enjoyed immense popularity as a caricaturist during his own lifetime. His subjects were principally drawn from Parisian life in the salons, at the theatre, and in the ballrooms, restaurants, nightclubs, and brothels. With unrelenting perspicacity, he held up a mirror to a complacent society and exposed its innermost weaknesses.

Socially critical genre depictions also dominate his less-known painted and drawn œuvre. In his artistic language, Forain displayed considerable commitment to the intentions of the Impressionists, with whom he remained in close contact during the 1870s and 1880s. Cropped compositions, a rejection of the illusion of depth, a free and easy brushstroke, strong and contrasting colours, and a transparency bathed in light are among the most notable attributes of his art. At the invitation of Degas, Forain took part in four of the total of eight Impressionist exhibitions.

Forain’s art reached a large audience due to the large number of his illustrations that appeared in various journals. Among his greatest admirers was Toulouse-Lautrec, who, like the young Picasso, regarded Forain and Degas as his true mentors.

Paul Cézanne
Still Life with cut Watermelon, ca. 1900
Watercolour and pencil
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel

Paul Cézanne
Group of Trees, ca. 1877-80
Private Collection © Robert Lorenzson

Paul Cézanne Aix-en-Provence 1839 – 1906 Aix-en-Provence

Cézanne’s achievements are mainly the result of his aesthetic principle of lending a picture a timeless exemplarity through formal organization, a well-thought-out composition, and an order of small painted form. Initially starting out from the Impressionism and a keen observation of nature, Cézanne, in his landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and figural scenes, gradually sought not to render the precise image of his motif, but to analyze its structures and translate them visually. His essential artistic device is the reduction to such basic geometric shapes as the cylinder, sphere, or cone. Cézanne’s primary interest in the “geometry” of reality not only makes him a trailblazer of Cubism, but – in the radical consistency of his artistic approach – a father of Modernism, alongside Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Cézanne, the son of a wealthy banker, went to Paris in 1861, having abandoned his law studies. He enrolled at the Académie Suisse, where he met Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Manet. At the Louvre he studied the Old Masters, primarily Veronese, Tintoretto, and Rubens. He delved particularly intensively into the art of Delacroix and the latter’s virtuoso handling of colour. Joining the Impressionists at first, he was encouraged by Pissarro, with whom he worked together several times, to take up plein air painting. From the mid-1870s on, Cézanne started to disengage himself from Impressionist ideals: he wanted to “make of Impressionism something solid and lasting”. His interest lay not in the ephemeral quality of light phenomena, but the objectification of nature: a composition built architectonically from colour and form. In his art, linear patterns are reduced to a minimum. The pictorial structure is governed by both a clear system of small-sized colour fields and the white tone of the paper ground. Such illusionistic elements as the sharp distinction between foreground and background, linear perspective, and the depiction of volume and three-dimensional space give way to a unique pictorial organization of the flat surface.

Georges Seurat Paris 1859 – 1891 Paris

Seurat is one of the most influential pioneers of modern art. His paintings, governed by a set of laws and a rigid order, anticipated such constructivist movements as Cubism or Futurism. Similarly, his innovative painterly drawing style can be considered a precursor of abstract tendencies in twentieth-century art.

Initially showing a penchant for Impressionism, he soon found this movement overly subjective and dependent on the contingency of light and atmosphere. Relying on studies in physics, optics, and colour theory, Seurat went in search of an authoritative method of colouring and visual conception. He countered the instantaneous moment captured by the Impressionists with a pictorial world organized according to scientific criteria. His approach was to become known as Pointillism. Seurat no longer painted outdoors, in front of the motif, but in the studio.

Besides his paintings, Seurat has left a huge drawn œuvre of landscapes and figures executed in Conté crayon, named after its inventor, Nicolas-Jacques Conté. The artist worked on rough Ingres paper with this greasy chalk, which was available in different degrees of hardness, thereby achieving irregular nuances of grey. Seurat strove for a simplification of form in general, and his compositions are primarily based on almost abstract black and white contrasts. Seurat attached great importance to these sheets and in several exhibitions showed exclusively his drawings.

Paul Signac
View of Montauban in the Rain, ca. 1922
Black chalk, watercolour
Albertina, Vienna © Albertina, Vienna, Peter Ertl

Paul Signac Paris 1863 – 1935 Paris

Early in his career, Signac was influenced by Impressionism and stood primarily under the spell of Claude Monet. In 1885 he met Georges Seurat, whom he followed in his ambition to bring about a renewal in the visual arts by endowing the subjects with a final and absolute appearance through a systematically organized application of the paint in dots. After Seurat’s early death, Signac developed a new method dominated by broad strokes instead of dots. Signac’s paintings are characteristic examples of the calm pictorial worlds of Neo-Impressionism composed in the studio.

By contrast, his watercolours done outdoors during his journeys show a high degree of briskness and immediacy. Even before the First World War, Signac developed the habit of travelling more and more frequently. In his last two decades, he almost exclusively resorted to watercolour painting, tirelessly capturing townscapes, landscapes, and ports. They were no longer regarded as study material, but as autonomous works spontaneously painted from nature.

Paul Gauguin
"Nègreries Martinique", 1890
Gouache, watercolour, black ink, gold paint and collage
Collection Jan Krugier © Galerie Krugier & Cie, Geneva

Paul Gauguin Paris 1848 – 1903 Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands

At the age of thirty-five, Gauguin abandoned his career as a stockbroker in order to take up painting as a self-taught artist. Joining the Impressionists at first, he regularly participated in their exhibitions between 1879 and 1886. He did not aim at an imitation of reality, but at its complex

interpretation. In 1891, Gauguin undertook his first journey to Tahiti. The exotic, outlandish culture was to correspond with his ideal of an earthly paradise far away from Western civilization. There he sought to translate the primitiveness of simple, unspoiled people into his art. Due to health and financial problems he returned to Paris in 1893. When his exotic pictures did not turn out to be as successful in terms of financial gain as he had hoped for, he settled in the South Seas for good in 1895.

Although Gauguin said of himself that he “actually was never able to draw”, his idiosyncratic works on paper reveal the opposite. When still in Pont-Aven, he had resorted to the medium of drawing more and more often, motivated by his enthusiasm for native Breton costumes. Drawing became particularly important in the South Seas, where he was above all fascinated by the natives’ exotic appearance. During the last years of his life, which were dominated by illness and crises of creativity, his productivity increasingly concentrated on drawing and printmaking. Their stimulating effect on Gauguin’s imagination and sense of experimentation manifests itself in pictorial solutions characterized by complex draughtsmanship and unconventional compositions.

Odilon Redon
Limnanthes, ca. 1884/85
Private Collection

Odilon Redon
The Crying Spider, 1881
Private Collection

Odilon Redon Bordeaux 1840 – 1916 Paris

In his day Redon, due to his eccentric compositions, remained an outsider. Unlike the Impressionist painters, he sought to give shape to an inner world of dreams. Although Redon held the Impressionists and particularly Degas in high regard and also participated in their last exhibition in 1886, were he presented a charcoal drawing, he did not seek to render a visible reality, but man’s unfathomable anxieties and dreams. Nonetheless, nature was always the inspiration that sparked his imagination.

Like hardly another artist of his generation, Redon considered autonomous and highly finished painterly drawing the ideal genre to realize his visionary pictures in terms of both theme and form. Redon’s œuvre can be divided into two work groups: the black phase and the late colour period. Starting with gloomy visions in black and white, chimaeras, and bizarre and melancholic fabulous creatures, the artist’s development led to dreamily floating objects in brilliant colours. Towards the end of Redon’s career, the early “noirs”, with their dark, mysterious fantasies, gave way to brightly coloured pastels emanating a phosphorescent magic.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Woman Putting on her Stockings, 1894
Essence on cardboard
Paris, Musée d'Orsay, donation André Berthellemy, 1950 © RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Albi 1864 – 1901 Château de Malromé, Gironde

Drawing had been of eminent importance to Toulouse-Lautrec since his early youth. A convalescent for years after two fractures of the femur, he took to drawing animals and portraits of his family. In 1882 he moved to Paris in order to become a painter. For his further development as an artist, the Impressionists represented a decisive influence, particularly Pissarro and Degas, but also Gauguin’s art of flat, coloured forms and the decorative aspect of Japanese colour woodcuts.

The offspring of one of the oldest aristocratic families in France, he could have led a carefree life thanks to his elite background. His personal fate – his major physical handicap – and his urge for independence prompted him to make a different choice: Lautrec decided for the life of a Bohemian in the demimonde of Montmartre, with its notorious entertainment establishments. He was a regular visitor to concert pubs, cabarets, revues, and dance halls like the famous Moulin Rouge. For him, they were places of ecstatic distraction, but also a source of inspiration and a workplace. He observed the hustle and bustle and obsessively drew his surroundings. Lautrec described his fellow humans without prejudice, but with equal amounts of acrimony and understanding, with wit and irony. Apart from prostitutes, profiteers, and bons vivants, his protagonists included vaudeville and cabaret stars. He translated reality sharply into a provocative visual language: with a minimum of distinctive lines, frequently exaggerating and on the verge of caricature, he reached the highest degree of relentless characterization. His unexpected views, bold perspectives, expressive line, and intensely bright colours provided important impulses to Art Nouveau and modern poster design.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Claude Lorrain—The Painter as Draftsman: Drawings from the British Museum

Claude Lorrain, Coast View with Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl, 1673.
Pen and brown ink with gray and gray-brown wash and white heightening on blue paper. Courtesy of The British Museum, London

The art of one of France's greatest landscape draftsmen and painters, Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), traveled to the National Gallery of Art, when Claude Lorrain—The Painter as Draftsman: Drawings from the British Museum went on view in the West Building, May 27 through August 12, 2007. The exhibition included 80 drawings from the extensive and important holdings at the British Museum. In addition, a selection of paintings and etchings broadened the representation of Claude's achievement as an artist. Many of the works had never before been seen in the United States.

Claude was renowned for exquisitely balanced and composed landscapes that present a serene, timeless vision of nature. He laid the groundwork for the development of ideal landscape painting in Europe—and later in America—influencing artists as great as J.M.W. Turner in 19th-century England.

Previous venues for this exhibition include the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, October 14, 2006 through January 14, 2007, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, February 4 through April 29, 2007. The last major exhibition of Claude's art in the United States was presented nearly 25 years ago at the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition Organization and Support

This exhibition at the National Gallery of Art was organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in association with the British Museum.

The Artist

Claude Gellée became known early on as Claude Lorrain, for the region in France where he was born. He traveled to Italy, where he studied in Naples and Rome, notably with the landscape and perspective painter Agostino Tassi (1578–1644). Claude soon developed his own reputation as a painter of landscapes and seaports, which were celebrated for their strong impression of nature and their exquisite sensitivity to effects of light. Claude's naturalism derives from his almost daily excursions into the countryside around Rome, where he contemplated the light and made numerous drawings from nature; such drawings are richly represented in the exhibition. This close study of nature laid the basis for his oil paintings, executed back in his studio.

Claude's success reputedly led other artists to imitate his work, which may be why he began his Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth), an album of drawings that record his oil paintings and in many cases the names of their buyers. The album could also have functioned as a catalogue of models to show future patrons. It was so carefully assembled that it clearly took on a greater meaning for Claude than as a mere catalogue of his works. Some of the greatest drawings from the album are in this exhibition.

The Exhibition

The exhibition is divided into six rooms, each featuring a particular theme. Visitors will first encounter drawings taken from nature, followed by seaports and shipwrecks, views of Tivoli and the Roman countryside, pastoral landscapes and Roman landmarks, biblical and mythological subjects, and late heroic landscapes.

The selection includes many of Claude's most beautiful drawings in a rich variety of media. The exhibition explores all aspects of his style and subject matter, from informal outdoor sketches of trees, rivers, and ruins, to formal presentation drawings and elaborate compositional designs for paintings.

Among the highlights were

A Study of an Oak Tree
(c. 1638),

the surprisingly abstract view of

The Tiber from Monte Mario Looking Southeast (c. 1640/1641),

A Grove of Pine Trees with a Ruined Tower (1638/1639),

and the many drawings from the Liber Veritatis, including the luminous Coast View with Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl (1673), (above) which is drawn on rich blue paper.

The exhibition curators were Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European paintings and curator of French paintings, and Margaret Morgan Grasselli, curator and head of old master drawings.

Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibition catalogue, Claude Lorrain—The Painter as Draftsman: Drawings from the British Museum, written by Richard Rand, senior curator, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, is published in association with Yale University Press. It includes a foreword by Michael Conforti, director, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; a preface by Antony Griffiths, keeper, department of prints and drawings, The British Museum; a biographical outline of Claude's life; an extensive bibliography; and a map of Rome during the time that Claude was in the region. The 228-page publication has 137 illustrations.


The Albertina (Vienna) presented an exhibition 9 November 2011 – 26 February 2012, an extensive tribute to René Magritte, one of the most renowned and popular artists of the 20th century. Some 250 exhibits from all over the world, including 150 important paintings and works on paper, covered every creative phase of the Belgian Surrealist’s career. More than 90 lenders contributed to this great retrospective, thus enabling the Albertina to present every single one of Magritte’s masterpieces.

Works such as

The Menaced Assassin,

The Secret Player,

The Gigantic Days,

Time Transfixed,

The Eternal Evidence,


and The Empire of Light

represent Magritte as a main exponent of Surrealism – undoubtedly the most prominent and memorable one next to Dalí. Magritte’s works are not only popular but also have a great intellectual appeal and continue to fascinate present-day viewers due to their enigmatic and mysterious nature.

Magritte was primarily a painter of ideas, an artist of visible thoughts rather than of subject matter. His anti-modernist objectivity, juxtaposed to the avant-garde, may not have enriched art history in terms of form, but did all the more so in terms of motif. In his almost anti-formalist oeuvre he dealt with the material world in a provocative and confusingly open manner. All the objects he painted were clearly recognizable, belonging to the banal, everyday sphere. But when Magritte presented them according to his poetic logic, in an order that cast a completely different light on them and gave them an entirely new power, their meaning began to waver. The recognition of the motifs collided with the mystery of the combination: Magritte brought together things that did not belong together. The artist exposed the viewer’s perception and usual way of seeing as tacit consent and convention, turning the causality of our world view upside down with the depiction of inexplicable metamorphoses, the reversal of the world, the transformation of proportions and surrealistic combinations.

Interior and exterior spaces are connected in a deceptive manner, day and night collide, objects and human bodies merge into one another, and the more distinctly we recognize each object, the more enigmatic the mystery of reality becomes.

Magritte’s paintings draw their generally gloomy atmosphere from the cold and unemotionally staged aesthetics of the depicted subject. Bourgeois orderliness and an ambience of old-fashioned cleanliness turn each space into an eerie crime scene, regardless of whether a murder actually took place or not.

In his extensive oeuvre, comprising paintings, drawings, objects, photographs and short films, Magritte employed a limited number of carefully chosen motifs, reusing them in ever-new combinations to create a complex, surreal world of images. The green apple, the pipe, the man with the bowler hat, the egg, the rock, the curtain, and the sea are some of the elements Magritte repeatedly took up again. They stand for continuity in his creative work and have become the artist’s trademark.

Reflected in almost all of his works, Magritte’s exceptionally eloquent wit is legendary. He pits the symbol against the symbolic, while the occupation with language and parlance generally occupy a prominent position. In his paintings Magritte was influenced by the philosophical theories of the early 20th century, dealing with issues regarding the concurrence of our perceptions, their verbal description and the actual appearance of reality. He was also striving for analogies of an idea, its image and its actual existence, such as in his famous painting

The Treachery of Images where he wrote beneath the depiction of a pipe: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).

Magritte’s paintings not only influenced the abstract artistic tendencies of the early 20th century but also Conceptual art and Pop art of the 1960s as well as the analytical approach in contemporary art. In addition, advertising and video clips have been based for decades on the formal principles characteristic of Magritte.

With the additional presentation of the artist’s early commercial art, his photographic experiments and his late, bizarrely absurd short films, the exhibition in the Albertina covers all aspects and phases of Magritte’s creative activity, thus drawing the first comprehensive picture of his complex Surrealist method as well as the continuity of recurring motif groups. As yet another highlight the exhibition provides a profound look into Magritte’s life and working method with extensive photo and film footage as well as original documents.

In thirteen chapters, the exhibition retraced the chronological and content-related developments in his art: starting with the classical Surrealist paintings from the 1920s and 1930s, based on the principle of film and collage, and the autobiographically tinted works in which he dealt, among other things, with his mother’s suicide, to the experimental phases of the post-war period, defined by Magritte as “Surrealism in full sunlight” and his période vache (“cow period”), and concluding with his late work, featuring the mysterious day-and-night paintings of the famous

Empire of Light series

and the “anonymous portraits” of men wearing bowler hats.

The exhibition in the Albertina was not the first presentation of the great Belgian Surrealist’s work in Vienna. The wealth of ideas and omnipresent mystery of his works, however, almost call for a repeated examination of his artistic activity to discover hitherto neglected aspects and thus sharpen our view of his work and our reality. This is made possible thanks to the generous loan of artworks from the most important museums of modern art, including the Kunsthaus Zürich, the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (Magritte Museum), Brussels, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, The Menil Collection, Houston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, as well as from prestigious private collections from all over the world. With

The Enchanted Spot (1953) the Albertina is in the possession of a major work from the artist’s late period. The René Magritte retrospective is part of a current special focus program on Surrealist art, introduced by the Albertina in 2008 with an exhibition dedicated to Max Ernst’s Surrealistic novel in collage Une semaine de bonté (“A Week of Kindness”), and will be continued with a Max Ernst retrospective scheduled for 2013 as well as with the presentation of Surrealist graphic art from the renowned Gilbert and Lena Kaplan Collection, New York, shown parallel to the René Magritte retrospective.

Wall Texts


“The peculiar encounter of things may become a revelation: the certainty that there are facts we cannot see.” René Magritte

Magritte was systematically in search of an “overwhelmingly poetical effect” to reveal the world’s mystery. In 1925 he met the writer and philosopher Paul Nougé, who, from 1926 on, headed the “Belgian Surrealists”. In the years to come, Magritte based his investigations on Nougé’s recognition “that certain objects, when taken by themselves, are robbed of an unusual emotional meaning, whereas they retain this very meaning in a context of distortion.” Accordingly, Magritte expanded his method of generating the experience of shock through the juxtaposition of opposites, but also through the unexpected encounter of things similar. At the same time he took up his play with man's anonymity. He painted faceless figures or such rendered as rigid dolls, or reduced them to torsos deprived of identity.


Between 1925 and 1927, Magritte, under the impact of Max Ernst’s collages, produced some thirty papiers collés, using newspaper clippings and sheet music. The representation of reality by means of “found materials” was a preferred “method” of the Surrealists when working along the principle of free association.

In an attempt to leave all tradition behind, art was freed from its common materials, such as brushes and paints: collages, photomontages, and found objects resulted in new pictorial realities conveying ambiguous messages.

Through the fragmentation, juxtaposition, and overlapping of objects, Magritte, in his painted œuvre, created compositions that Max Ernst once referred to as “collages painted by hand”. Before his move to Paris in October 1927, gigantic patterns simulating cut paper and hovering in staged scenarios started to appear in Magritte’s paintings. Simultaneously, he employed irritating trompe- l’œil effects.


“Everything tends to make one think that there is little relation between an object and that which represents it.” René Magritte

When in Paris between 1928 and 1930, Magritte frequented the circles around the Surrealists André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró. Under the spell of their genre-crossing art and the amalgamation of painting and poetry, he did some forty “text-image paintings” in which he analyzed the relationship between a real object, its image, and its name. Magritte challenged the common idea that a realistically painted object is equal to the object as such: each and every image is only an abstraction of reality. It is simply a sign, just as words and language concepts.

In 1929 Magritte conceived his famous pictorial idea of The Treachery of Images or Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This Is Not a Pipe): this pipe, however realistically rendered it may be, cannot be smoked. So what intrinsic relationship is there between the real object and its pictorial representation?

In his treatise Les Mots et les images (Words and Images) Magritte comments on the relationship between the two. The artist undermines the conventional relations between words, images, and objects, looking for new associations between image and text, thus unmasking our standard labels as mere conventions.


“Scissors, paste, images, and genius in effect superseded brushes, paints, models, style, sensibility, and that famous sincerity demanded of artists.” René Magritte

This room assembles works that served Magritte to develop his pictorial inventions: collages, drawings, letters, and postcards. Magritte, who had first intensively dealt with collage during his early Surrealist phase, returned to it once more in 1959. In his lecture La Ligne de vie (The Line of Life, 1938) he writes, under the influence of the collages by Max Ernst, “that one can easily dispense with everything that gave traditional painting its prestige”. The technique of collage enables an artist to create visual worlds fathoming the fine line between the realism of photography or illustration and the free invention of a pictorial idea. Magritte rejected the Surrealist concept of drawing as an automatic and unconscious process: “I cannot paint until I have the complete picture in my mind.”

Magritte also outlined new pictorial ideas, short stories, or film scripts in his letters to friends, colleagues, thinkers, and collectors, discussing with them possible titles for his works. The collection of postcards attests to his interest in reproducible works. Time and again he appropriated extant images for his works: illustrations from encyclopaedias, novels, and comic books, as well as photographs and films.


Magritte’s fascination for detective stories like the Fantômas pulp fiction series, which appeared between 1911 and 1913, corresponded with the Surrealists’ interest in psychological abysses and in everything that contradicted civic order: crimes were regarded as anarchical acts, and the deeds of villains were celebrated as free of rules and constraints.

Fantômas is an unscrupulous criminal and at the same time a gentleman: a phantom whose cunning inventiveness confounds his opponents with unsolvable problems. As a master of disguise, he takes on various identities and commits crimes purely for the delight he takes in violating the law. Magritte’s interest in Fantômas becomes most distinctly evident in his making reference to the first book cover of the series. As is typical of the repertoire of crime literature, lifeless bodies, terrified gazes and postures, as well as covered or masked faces, populate his works.

In 1913/14, Louis Feuillade adapted the novels for the cinema. Magritte, who had been fascinated by film even as a child, referred to a shot from the silent movie Le Mort qui tue for his composition of the painting The Menaced Assassin (1927). In a scene that is both charged with tension and completely paralyzed, he retains a narrative aspect. Even the pale corpse does not interfere with the magical, dreamlike silence.

Magritte shared his enthusiasm for the possibilities of film with the Surrealists: in its illusionary portrayal of the real and the coexistence of the familiar and the fantastic, the logic of film connects to the logic of dreams.


AAfter realizing that it was impossible for him to grasp the mystery of reality through feelings, Magritte dealt with the visible world. He painted realistically, renouncing individual painterly expression and constructing traditional perspectival compositions in order to raise his absurd pictorial inventions to a seemingly objective level.

The veiling and unveiling of things hidden is a recurring leitmotif in his œuvre. Curtains, picture frames, window openings, and easels are elements which he employed to stage his “picture-within- the-picture” compositions. His ideas of “invisible visibility” and of the picture as “thought made visible” formed the basis of such works.

“We are surrounded by curtains”, Magritte writes. “We only perceive the world behind a curtain of semblance. At the same time, an object needs to be covered in order to be recognized at all.” Magritte painted clouds superimposed on such unlikely objects as a flag or Napoleon’s death mask. He painted pictures as windows or incorporated canvases into his paintings that function as vistas of the real world. Through this overlapping of inside and outside and of reality and illusion, he questions our concept of reality, thus joining the age-old debate on the idea of the picture as a window to reality.

In such works as The Human Condition, the artist devoted himself to this problem by covering parts of the painted image – the view out of a window – with an easel and simultaneously rendering the concealed part on a canvas placed on this easel: “This is how we see the world. We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only an idea that we experience inside ourselves.”


In the 1930s Magritte painted pictures of fragmented bodies or body parts. By assigning the human body to the level of an object, he addressed the issue of a picture’s reality and the relationship between reality and visual representation. In his shaped canvases (toiles découpés), the pictorial world suddenly takes on a reality of its own as an object.

Surrealism pursued the cult of the object. The transfer of fragments of reality into a new setting stimulates our imagination and subconscious. To Magritte, the combination of things that seemingly cannot be brought together, subsequently forming a new and surprising union, was a manifestation of reality as an absolute entity. It was above all the woman as a symbol of the origins of the world that sparked the Surrealists’ fantasies of transformation and distortion.

An obsessive fascination for the female body runs through Magritte’s entire œuvre. In contrast to the male figure, which he always depicted fully dressed and well adjusted to society’s conventions, he mostly rendered women in the nude: as puppet-like figures or fragmented. The figure becomes a substitute for the human individual. Variably exchangeable and combinable, it reflects the ambiguity of the manifestations of reality.

METAMORPHOSIS In paintings like The Red Model Magritte experiments with metamorphosis, the transformation of one object into another: “I have found a new potential inherent in things – their ability to gradually become something else. This seems to me to be something quite different from a composite object, since there is no break between the two substances.” With this method of gradual transformation, Magritte sought to find an answer to the question of what gives shape and meaning to our existence.


LLike many students and young artists, Magritte earned his living with commercial commissions. In 1921 he designed ornamental patterns for a wallpaper manufacturer: “I bear the factory just as badly as the barracks,” he wrote later on. “After one year as an employee I gave up and maintained myself by doing idiotic jobs: commercial posters and drawings.” He designed advertisements for a fashion house and covers for music scores that were marketed by his brother, a music publisher. He also conceived stage settings for the theatre.

In 1931, after his return from Paris, Magritte and his brother founded the Studio Dongo, a two-man workshop producing window decorations, advertising signs, photomontages, and advertising copy. The artist worked in advertising for more than fifty years (1918–1966). Like his paintings, his designs were based on a reorganization of “real” objects and contained, starting as early as 1926, such motifs as curtain, fan, baluster, and bell.


“I leave to others the business of causing anxiety and terror and mixing everything up.” René Magritte

During World War II, Magritte’s style changed radically. In 1943 he suddenly took to painting Impressionist pictures in bright colours. He chose appealing subjects, such as bathers, female nudes, and flower still lifes in the manner of Rubens and Renoir. In contrast to his earlier visual language, which had by no means been devoid of violence, he was now celebrating, if ironically, “the beautiful side of life” and “a feast for the eyes and the mind”. Magritte devised his “Sun Period” as a subversive response to the tendency of Parisian Surrealism towards an obscure, “magical-esoteric ideology”. In his hedonistically tinged treatise Sunlit Surrealism (1946), he pleads for the “predominance of pleasure”. This conscious separation from the Parisian Surrealists marked a deep crisis between Breton and Magritte that led to fierce polemics. In the Paris exhibition Le Surréalisme en 1947, Breton condemned Magritte’s concept of a new Surrealism, relegating his works to a room entitled “former Surrealists”. Magritte was ultimately excluded from the circle of Surrealists.


“The ‘vache’ period unites works of a sparkling liberty: in them, boorishness mingles with wit, indignation with amazement, violence with tenderness, and wisdom with hoax.” Louis Scutenaire

In 1948 Magritte received his first and long-awaited solo exhibition in Paris, the hub of the art world and Surrealism. Disappointed about the late recognition and estranged from Breton, he used the show as a revenge directed at the elitist intellectuals of the Paris art scene. Within the short period of five weeks, he had painted thirty-nine pictures and once again created a shock with the new and radical style of tastelessness that marked his Vache Period: furiously painted works, inspired by popular culture, comics, and caricature, and in crass opposition to the rest of his carefully conceived and thoroughly reflected pictorial inventions. The coarse painting style and the gaudy colours that were an offence to good taste were in line with the provocative, obscene, kitschy, and grotesque subject matter. By challenging his own identity as an artist, the civilized rules of the art business, and the validity of aesthetic standards, he responded to the reactionary attitude of Breton’s rigid Surrealist movement. The Parisian audience, many friends, and particularly Breton’s group regarded this experiment as an insult. They did not understand that Magritte had actually staged a truly Surrealist display of blasphemy.


NNot only did Magritte paint enigmatic scenarios, but he also used them as a basis for his photographs and short films. He started taking pictures in the 1920s. While many photographs are snapshots and record absurd Surrealist activities or simply document everyday life, others provide glimpses of his work as an artist. Although Magritte dealt with photography throughout his life, he was critical of the medium. In his opinion, the deceptive objectivity with which the photographed objects presented themselves went hand in hand with a lack of imagination. For him, photography was primarily a method of experimentation. His amateur pictures give the impression of “staged snapshots” containing typical features of his work as a painter: odd activities, the weird encounter of disparate objects, and the play with veiling and revelation.

MAGRITTE'S HOME MOVIES Between 1956 and 1960, Magritte shot some forty short films in which he appeared together with his wife and friends. He had been a film enthusiast even as a child and particularly loved slapstick comedies by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy or Charlie Chaplin. In their sudden interruption of events, their bizarre sense of humour, their taste for the unexpected, and their staging of absurdities, his amateur films follow in this cinematographic genre.


“This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power poetry.” René Magritte

Leaving the episodes of experiment behind him, Magritte returned to his well-tested methods and earlier manner of painting. From 1949 to the late 1960s, he painted the series L’Empire des lumières (The Dominion of Light). While the pictures may vary in terms of format and size, the subject is always the same: a blue cloudy sky in daylight appears above a row of houses rendered in nocturnal darkness, only lit by a street lantern. Through this reconciliation of opposites, a system of contextual paradox, day and night are inexplicably brought together.

THE VOICE OF MYSTERY “The Surreal is but reality that has not been disconnected from its mystery.” René Magritte

“Mystery” is at the core of Magritte’s art, the focus of all his pictorial inventions. Unlike the Surrealists in Paris, he did not equate the unknown with the unconscious: “The mystery is not one of the possibilities of the real. The mystery is that which is absolutely necessary for there to be a real.”

After the war, Magritte no longer felt like solving puzzles, but painted objects encouraging us to experience the world anew. In the 1950s his paintings became increasingly monumental: they deal with the reversal of scale and feature oversized objects within narrow rooms or petrified scenarios. Magritte invalidates spatial proportions and the laws of gravity by enlarging stones and apples to gigantic dimensions or causing them to float in space.

In his writings and lectures, Magritte pleads for the liberty of thought and unrestrained thinking, independent of habit and experience. He calls for an unbiased visual perception that is freed from reflection and interpretation and is unintentionally directed exclusively at what is being perceived. His pictures of petrified living creatures, fabulous beasts, still lifes, and landscapes play with the idea of metamorphosis. Here the transformation has already been concluded. It is the visual

expression of the “standstill of thought” Magritte was striving for: “One cannot speak about mystery, one must be seized by it.”


“The indifference of stones is undoubtedly the same as the indifference of nothingness.” René Magritte

In the 1950s and 1960s, Magritte conceived compositions in which stones hover weightlessly in space. The stone’s heaviness cannot be logically associated with its lightness in the picture. Magritte took the liberty of determining the phenomena of the world at his own discretion and assigning a logic to it that contradicts the laws of nature and our habitual perception. With this deviation from visible reality, he advances into the realm of the surreal.

Magritte distinguishes between the dream as sous-réalité and his painting, which passes into the surreal through poetry. His pictures are “self-willed dreams” that have nothing vague about them.


“I, for my part, have come to grips with the fact that I will lead a rather unglamorous existence to the very end.” René Magritte

From the very outset, Magritte developed a tendency towards dissolution and deconstruction, towards abstraction and anonymity. A distinct revival of this can be seen in his figural paintings of the 1960s. The mysterious man in a black suit and bowler hat relates to a protagonist of his early works. Magritte understood the late bowler-hat portraits as “anonymous self-portraits”.

Magritte lived in a discrepancy between his anarchist self and his inconspicuous look. The desire to attract attention, which the artist achieved by disrupting the familiar order of things, was contradicted by his appearance in public as an ordinary citizen. Donning a suit and a bowler hat, he consciously disguised himself as “one among many”. Together with his frequently emphasized indifference to his origins and past and his rejection of everything considered to shape one’s character, this attitude is reflected in his art through objects deprived of their meaning and the lack of emotion characterizing his painting style.

HEADLESS FACES In his so-called “failed portraits” (portraits manqués), Magritte further elaborated on the concept of anonymity by displaying figures viewed from behind, or by covering their faces and heads or replacing them by banal objects: his protagonists are void of any individuality and of an unapproachable aloofness, without any relation to their surroundings and caught in mysterious pictorial worlds like spectres. Such works subsist on a dual sense oscillating between the forlornness of existence in reality and the ego’s dissolution.


1898–1924: Childhood, Youth, and Artistic Beginnings

René Magritte is born on 21 November 1898 in Lessines, Belgium. His mother is a milliner, his father a merchant tailor and travelling businessman. After his mother’s suicide in 1912 – one night she jumps off a bridge into a river – Magritte and his two younger brothers are entrusted to the care of governesses. The memory of the sight of his dead mother, a cloth covering her face, recurs in Magritte’s œuvre in the form of shrouded heads.

At seventeen Magritte enters the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. He earns his living as a pattern designer in a wallpaper factory and later works as a commercial artist; it is only from the 1950s on that he can make a living with his art.

In 1922, Magritte marries Georgette Berger (1901–1986), who sells art supplies and pictures at an art dealer’s shop in Brussels. The encounter with Giorgio de Chirico’s work comes as a revelation to Magritte and paves his way to Surrealism.

1924–1930: Magritte and Surrealism in Paris and Brussels

In 1924, André Breton publishes the First Manifesto of Surrealism, in which the free flow of consciousness stimulated by the method of automatic writing (écriture automatique) is declared the basis of all Surrealist art. In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929), Breton assigns a prominent place to the paradoxes of dreams, the enigmatic realism of unfathomable pictorial worlds, and narration. This programme pushes the art of Magritte, Dalí, and Max Ernst to the fore.

In 1927, Magritte has his first solo exhibition. Within a short period of time, he paints 280 pictures – one quarter of his entire œuvre – including such major and famous works as The Menaced Assassin and The Secret Player. That same year Magritte and his wife move to Paris. He meets the French Surrealists grouped around André Breton, Jean Arp, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Míro.

He paints his first text-image pictures. His seminal text Words and Images is published in the Parisian Surrealists’ magazine La Révolution surréaliste. In 1930, following a quarrel with Breton, who dislikes the cross necklace Georgette wears, Magritte and his wife return to Brussels. The artist distances himself from Breton’s group.

1930–1954: First Success, Escape, and a New Beginning Because of the German invasion of Belgium, Magritte seeks refuge in Carcassonne in the South of France for a period of three months. For lack of canvas, he starts painting on bottles.

After the end of the war, the Belgian Surrealists take to shocking the public with blasphemous and antipatriotic publications. Magritte illustrates books dealing with emotional, sexual, and moral abysses. At the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris in 1947, Breton condemns Magritte’s new anti- aesthetic approach, which combines slapstick, pornography, religious blasphemy, kitsch, comics, and deliberately bad painting. For this group of works, which essentially amounts to a Surrealist mission, the artist coins the name “Vache Period”: it is the phase of vulgarity in his œuvre. Magritte is ultimately excluded from the Surrealist circle.

1954–1967: The Breakthrough to Success

Magritte has his first one-man show in New York already in 1936. Yet the artist’s actual triumph in the United States only begins with his exhibitions held there from 1954 on. In the years to come, numerous retrospectives take place in the USA.

Magritte shoots experimental short films and Surrealist home movies.

In 1965, Magritte’s health deteriorates. In the last years of his life, the artist engages in a lively exchange of ideas with the French philosopher Michel Foucault. These discussions inspire Foucault to write his essay Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Magritte dies of pancreatic cancer on 15 August 1967, at the age of sixty-eight.

This book explores the full scope of Magritte’s work through the format of an A to Z, fully illustrated in color, with entries written by a range of international scholars. The entries under the letter A alone—Absence, Abstraction, Appropriation, Anonymity, Artifice, Automatism, and Automatic Writing—show how this approach reveals and explores the themes and motivations in this most enigmatic artist’s work.