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Magritte, Surrealism and the Pipe That Is Not a Pipe

In September 1927, Magritte moved to Paris to acquaint himself with the French Surrealist group. Under their influence, he turned out his most original work, including his so-called “word paintings,” such as the pipe that is not a pipe. (Amazing what a breath of Paris air used to do.) Yet Magritte remained an awkward interloper among the Surrealists. André Breton, the imperious poet who served as the movement’s leader, purchased a few of Magritte’s works for his own collection, but derided him as a clod who spoke French with a Walloon accent. Breton barely mentioned him in his extensive writings.

Danchev recounts an altercation that occurred in 1929, during a small party at Breton’s home. Flaunting his contempt for Catholicism, Breton asked Georgette Magritte why she was wearing a cross. He suggested she remove it. She and Magritte left the party in a huff and soon after departed Paris altogether.

“It could be said that Magritte’s artistic biography ended when he left Paris in 1930,” the critic Suzi Gablik wrote in her eloquent monograph on the artist, the first book on him published in English (in 1970). Gablik, a native New Yorker, lived in Magritte’s attic for eight months starting in 1959 while researching her book, hinting at the fascination he commanded among a new generation of Americans.

Surely Marcel Duchamp had something to do with Magritte’s new prominence in the States. Duchamp, the influential Dadaist, a self-proclaimed ex-Frenchman and ex-painter then residing in Greenwich Village, appreciated Magritte’s philosophical bent and pointed collectors in his direction. Magritte was also admired by various younger artists who were exploring the pathos of commonplace objects, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, all of whom acquired works by Magritte in the early ’60s.

In 1965, honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Magritte flew to New York for the opening. He was accompanied by his wife and their pet dog, Loulou, a fluffy Pomeranian. During his stay, he was introduced to key artists and critics, but Magritte spoke no English and appeared uninterested in the people he met. He no more endeared himself to the New York avant-garde of the ’60s than he had to the French avant-garde of the ’20s.

He died just two years later — in 1967, of pancreatic cancer, at age 68. In the decades since, his reputation has grown exponentially, and his images have been reverently absorbed into high culture and popular culture alike. He is probably the only artist who appeals at once to postmodernists obsessed with the failures of language and rock ’n’ rollers enamored of hallucinatory visions. He himself would no doubt feign indifference to the news, but the rest of us have to be at least slightly impressed that Paul McCartney cited a Magritte painting of a green apple as the source of the name of the Beatles’ Apple Corps.

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