“Our secret desire,” wrote René Magritte, “is for a change in the order of things.”
The Belgian painter was a subversive communicator. He presented an entirely respectable bourgeois front, yet his whole life was spent subverting the bourgeoisie and its values.
This Tate Liverpool exhibition includes over a hundred paintings alongside drawings, examples of commercial posters, home movies and photographs.
All his best known images are here in one form or another. He produced more than one version of several—including two almost identical copies of The Flavour of Tears (both 1948).
Pictures are composed to confuse and disorientate, but there is a directness to Magritte.
A view of a landscape through a window in La Condition Humaine (1933) is partially obscured by a painted canvas of exactly the same view hidden behind it. The landscape is both within and outside the room.
“Visible things always hide other visible things,” as Magritte put it—endlessly playing with reality and illusion to break assumptions.
Tentative de l’impossible (1928) shows Magritte painting the missing left arm of a woman as she stands naked before him. Included among the photographs in the exhibition is Magritte recreating the pose of the picture with his fully clothed wife.
A host of bowler-hatted men in Golconda (1953) hang in space or fall across a streetscape, as if they were rain (see main picture). A train comes out of a fireplace beneath a clock and mirror in Time Transfixed (1938). The train is going nowhere and the mirror is largely blank.
A couple kiss in The Lovers (1928), with their heads covered in sheets. In another painting, a perfectly painted pipe has “This is not a pipe” written beneath it.
The images can become nothing more than kitsch tropes, instantly recognisable reference points. But there is more going on.
The exhibition is named after The Pleasure Principle, a 1937 portrait of the collector Edward James. The picture shows a suited man whose head is replaced by a glowing light bulb.
Magritte disliked symbols, so this is neither thought or inspiration but more an attempt to obliterate and obscure.
As Magritte put it, “If the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of ‘common sense’, he realises something obvious. For me, the world is a defiance of common sense.”
It is usual to look more to psychology than politics when talking about Surrealism. But, for Magritte, as for the whole movement, this is to only look at half the story. “My art is valid only insofar as it opposed the bourgeois ideal in whose name life is being extinguished,” he wrote.
When Belgium was occupied during the Second World War, Magritte began to paint impressionism pastiches. He claimed he wanted to do something cheerful in grim times.
In the postwar years he painted a number of garish works. He was having a go at the snobbery of the French world in an exhibition in France. They are kind of fun.
He was a communist sympathiser most of his life and joined the Belgian Communist Party in 1945 for 18 months.
He broke with other surrealists over snobbery, their moves to Trotskyism and because leading surrealist Andre Breton was rude to Magritte’s wife.
Magritte’s portrayal of women is problematic. All his painted women are based on his wife, Georgette Berger. The attempts to fragment and question desire cross uneasily from getting us to examine and question the objectification of women to merely objectifying them.
A further consequence of Surrealism unveiling the eroticism of everyday objects was to make them more desirable to those with money. So instead of undermining bourgeois society, Surrealism is at the heart of consumer culture.
In The Dominion of Light (1953) there’s a night scene, but the sky is day. Magritte painted this numerous times in different sizes and with minor alterations, because as he once put it, “We must not fear daylight just because it almost always illuminates a miserable world.”
René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle is on at Tate Liverpool, until 16 October. Go to www.tate.org.uk/liverpool