The World Is So Strange. And Can We Ever Know the World? On the Rediscovery of René Magritte’s Selected Writings
Portrait of Magritte in front of his painting The Pilgrim, taken by Lothar Wolleh in 1967
by Kathleen Rooney
Back in July of 2014, I went to the exhibition Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 at the Art Institute of Chicago with my good friend Eric Plattner who happens to have a museum membership. I’ve been an admirer of Magritte’s work for years, so I wasn’t surprised that I loved the show, but I was surprised at how delightful the wall texts were, owing to their having been drawn in large part from the writings of the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte himself.
By the time we were funneled through the gift shop, I had resolved to buy the painter’s collected essays so that I could read them in their entirety. To my shock and dismay, such a book was not available. Magritte bowler hats? Check. Magritte pipes? Check. Magritte postcards and refrigerator magnets and notebooks? Check, check, and check. But no collected writings.
Disappointed, I left the Art Institute thinking that I would get the book from the library or order it online. But when I attempted to do so, I found myself thwarted. No such book seemed to be available, at least not in English.
The French publisher Flammarion had published a French edition, the hefty, 764-page Ecrits Complets, in 1979, and an English translation was under contract by John Calder of the now-defunct Riverrun Press for an edition to appear in 1987, but it was never published.
All I’ve ever really wanted to be is a detective, so through some international internet sleuthing, I was able to contact Alma Books in the UK (which now handles the Calder collection) and track down the manuscript, Selected Writings: René Magritte, at the Calder Archive in Caen, France. Luckily, the entire manuscript turned out to be there, complete and fully translated from the original French into English by the mysterious Jo Levy, a woman about whom little information is available, save that her other translations include Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Ghosts in the Mirror, Hélène Cixous’s Angst, Louis Aragon’s The Libertine, and Arthur Adamov’s Man and Child.
I was flabbergasted that this manuscript of Magritte’s existed—typed up on a manual typewriter and in need of some polishing—yet somehow had not been published, and resolved to remedy that. Since so much of Magritte’s visual art concerns itself with the interstices between image and language, a full assessment of his work ought to take his literary output into account.
And so, almost thirty years after Calder and Levy made their original plan, co-edited by Eric Plattner and myself, here it is, Selected Writings: René Magritte, being published by the University of Minnesota Press here in the United States and by Alma Books in the UK.
Interestingly, the original contract for the project in the 1980s is for the Collected Writings, indicating that Calder may have intended to publish the whole thing before a series of circumstances – a loss of Arts Council funding and a serious medical issue – caused him to reassess his plan. Sadly, because Levy is dead and Calder has no clear recollection of the matter, having discussed it with the translator in person as opposed to in writing, we cannot know for certain the principles by which the two of them made their choices of what to include from the Collected in the Selected.
We can say that they did a good job and that this move from Collected to Selected is arguably a serendipitous one, as the former version edges close to the category of too much of a good thing, risking overwhelming its readers with its sheer bulk and repetition. Levy and Calder appear to have erred on the side of choosing the most self-contained and substantive pieces from the Collected – pieces that are cohesive and not merely ephemeral. Put another way, they seem to have left out pieces that are arguably too slight or redundant to merit inclusion.
In terms of organization, the pieces are arranged primarily chronologically, as is the original Flammarion edition, starting in 1922, when Magritte was twenty-three, and continuing until 1967, the year of his death at the age of sixty-eight. In terms of what the pieces themselves consist of, their range and variety are fairly impressive.
As a painter, the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte gives his audiences occasions to transform their perceptions of the world. As he says in a 1947 interview with Louis Quiévreux, “It is much easier to terrorize than to charm… I live in a very unpleasant world because of its routine ugliness. That’s why my painting is a battle, or rather a counter-offensive.”
His writing, heretofore unavailable as a body in English, seems directed in similar ways towards the same end: giving his readers the chance to see a familiar world in an unfamiliar light should they choose to do so. In a strange, short essay called ‘Another Head at the Back of the Head’, he writes: “What we are doing is valuable to the few people who are capable of liking what they like; the others, who like what they ought, don’t count.”
These writings, like his images, stand to give the audience opportunities to differentiate between what they’ve been told they should admire and what they really do. Many of these pieces, particularly the prose poems, aphorisms and very brief stories, resist explanation or interpretation, both of which are terms and activities Magritte finds suspect, preferring that his viewers try to see for themselves what is there; to take the “presence of mind” he says was required to make the work and to allow it to make their own minds more present.
According to his dear friend and longtime correspondent Henry Torczyner, Magritte “encouraged the reproduction of his paintings in every medium, mechanical or otherwise, as posters or postcards. Magritte disliked the orthodox, conformist notion of the unique exemplum.” It seems appropriate that finally Magritte’s writings can now, too, be reproduced and disseminated in English – and it’s especially apt that many of these writings are themselves brief enough to fit onto postcards.
Anyone who spends time with this selection will see that genres and trends are observable in Magritte’s output, but a chronological presentation encourages and invites readers to venture forth and make their own observations – to note, for instance, how throughout his life Magritte maintained many lively correspondences, treating casually in letters matters he treated more formally in his published writing. Or how he used such polemics as ‘Pure Art: A Defence of the Aesthetic’ in 1922 or his ‘Surrealism in the Sunshine’ series in 1946–47 to justify what he thought his own work was doing and what he thought art more generally ought to do. Or how he continually collaborated with his circle of friends on small magazines and publications, starting with 391 and Période in 1924 and continuing with his friend Paul Colinet’s zine (avant la lettre) Vendredi in the 1950s and his own idiosyncratic publication La Carte d’après Nature in the 1950s and ’60s. But perhaps what is most fascinating is how each of his various types of writing interacts with and overlaps into the others, all of them unified by his unique voice – apparent both on the page and in his numerous live interviews – to create a portrait of a mind that is itself uncontained by genre: funny, serious, angry, satiric, contemplative and argumentative, both by turns and simultaneously.
Magritte was ambivalent about the notion of posterity. He says in an interview with Guy Mertens in 1966: “For me the future is the end of the world. Whether my painting is worth more or less in a hundred years, I don’t mind. It might merely have a historical value. What is important is that in a hundred years’ time, someone finds what I found, but in a different way.”
Half a century after his death in 1967, Magritte’s works have, if anything, only grown even more instantly recognizable to audiences. On the one hand, this familiarity is a testament to how resonant his painting remains with contemporary viewers; on the other, it risks rendering his work dismissible as something we’ve already seen. Now, these writings give both Anglophone scholars and casual fans the opportunity to look again at the person behind the paintings, and at the paintings themselves.
Today, in a world which seems bent on deadening its residents with spectacle, kitsch, materialism, exhaustion and countless empty entanglements that insist on their status as the “real” concerns of life, René Magritte remains – in his painting and in his writing – as relevant as ever, reminding audiences that there are alternatives, there are mysteries, and that things don’t just have to be what they are or have always been. As he reveals the hidden possibilities of the world to us, he reveals himself to be an inimitable detective-magician-painter-writer, offering us the invisible, showing us secrets, and more importantly encouraging us to devise our own ways of searching for these things for ourselves.
Excerpted from René Magritte: Selected Writings, edited by Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner, translated by Jo Levy. Published in the United States by the University of Minnesota Press, 2016. Introduction copyright 2016 by Kathleen Rooney.