Brussels: a surreal weekend with Magritte

by Mike.Martin

Brussels has always had plenty to interest the art historian and art lover. Now, it has the most exciting opening in a long time – a new museum dedicated to the famous Belgian surrealist René Magritte

The Magritte Museum, which opened in early June, is an elegantly revamped wing of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Brussels, a 10-minute walk from the Magritte-themed Hotel Amigo – of which more later. Previously, the Magritte collection was housed in just one room of the Fine Arts museum, but its 250 works are now displayed in a completely renovated building with a brand-new ticket hall, shop and café, plus three floors dedicated to Magritte’s long journey from young, confused artist to one of the world’s most famous surrealists. We are so familiar now with his iconic images – the bowler-hatted men raining down on a town, the apples, the horse-bells, the perfect blue skies, the pipe – it is fascinating to see his earlier work when he was finding his feet.

The museum features clouds projected out of its windows (almost unnoticeable during the day, alarming by night) and a dark interior laid out over three storeys. Appropriately enough for a surrealist, the collection and the Magritte story begin on the third floor. A word of caution, though: the really famous Magritte images – the Daring Sleeper, The Central Story, The Lovers, This Is Not A Pipe – are still in their various museums in America and Paris. This is a more personal collection, but still features dozens of recognisable images plus some really wonderful designs, photographs, letters and film clips – some 250 pieces in all.

The key to understanding Magritte, as a weekend in Brussels will show, is not to think of him as a painter but as a cross between a graphic artists and an ideas man. His paintings have little in terms of depth – he was not interested in painting as such – but they are visual ideas or conundrums in the surrealist tradition. This becomes apparent as you walk around floor three. After a flirtation with futurism and constructivism – both pretty impressive – you come face-to-face with his designs for cigarette adverts and posters. These are all about maximum effect from simple images, something at which he became brilliant. There is also a quite lovely sketch of Georgette, his wife.

Then, in 1923, Magritte saw his first painting by de Chirico – and the effect was profound. His Man From The Sea (1927) has the same empty landscape and eerie feeling, and from here on he became a fully-fledged surrealist, combining everyday objects in strange juxtapositions. The museum then takes you through a strange journey, with Magritte ultimately thrown out of the surrealist movement because of Georgette’s religious beliefs. Of course, being a surrealist at heart, sex is never far from his mind – his Black Magic (1945) is a nude of Georgette in which her naked body becomes Magritte blue halfway up. The museum ends with one of his most famous images, The Empire Of Lights (1954), a house apparently in darkness but actually featuring daylight.

Magritte’s work is a kind of puzzle, and Brussels can offer more clues with a visit to Magritte’s House in the suburb of Jette. From the Magritte Museum, simply hop on a 94 tram (the Brussels card covers all transport links, the Magritte Museum and his house). Here, at 135 rue Esseghemstraat (+32 02 428 26 26), you can see the house where Magritte lived and painted for 24 years from 1930 after returning from Paris.

It’s instructive, as it shows how grindingly ordinary Magritte’s life was; it’s a world of lower middle-class bowler hats and teas in front of the fire, but look closely. The front room is painted that particular blue, the bedroom has the fireplace that features in so many pictures, particularly La Reproduction Interdite, and the small parlour has Magritte’s one work of art on display – a photo by Man Ray. Upstairs there are some lovely personal belongings, plus a couple of rarities – pornographic sketches. Georgette destroyed most of them through embarrassment, but two survive – and they are pretty explicit. Other artefacts to end up on the fire were letters to Magritte from André Breton and Max Ernst, huge figures from the Surrealist movement.

To get more of a picture of Magritte’s daily life, you can visit two cafés in Brussels. Rue des Alexiens has La Feuille en Papier Doré, a den covered in Magritte aphorisms such as “No-one is more unhappy than oneself” – but you can cheer yourself up with 25 per cent off a beer with your Brussels card. The Greenwich Café in rue des Chartreux is where Magritte played chess – badly. One punter, constantly taking Magritte’s money, was asked why he didn’t take a picture as payment. The answer was: “If he paints like he plays chess, I would rather have his cash.”

If you are planning a Magritte-themed visit to Brussels, the Hotel Amigo has packages that include tickets to the museum, a catalogue and even a Magritte-themed dinner where the food looks like his paintings – great fun. It’s a lovely hotel, with reproductions of Magritte paintings on the walls. Just around the corner is Brasserie Roue d’Or, a classic moules-et-frites bar with Magritte-style decor on the walls.

As you leave Brussels for London on the Eurostar, the landscape may look repetitive and bland – but after a weekend of Magritte, your mind will imagine bowler-hatted men raining down and giant apples floating in the sky. You may not solve the mystery of Magritte, but your mind will never be the same again.