This is the staircase that would have confronted René Magritte whenever he entered his Brussels home at 135, rue Esseghem. The Magrittes occupied the ground level rooms and the need to climb the staircase would have been confined to the infrequent occasions when they had cause to visit the attic where they rented storage space. Magritte and his wife, Georgette lived in this house in the unremarkable dormitory suburb of Jette from 1930 to 1954. After 3 years in Paris, navigating, not too successfully, the Surrealist snake-pit presided over by André Breton, it must have been a relief to the Magrittes to sink into the relative anonymity of bourgeois Brussels. Magritte was unmoved by the bohemian charms of a Parisian atelier and preferred to paint in the privacy of his own home. What we are offered here is a curated re-presentation of the Magritte home assembled some 45 years after he had moved out of it. A living room, a tiny bedroom, a studio and a kitchen – all contrived like a set-design to convey an impression of the stuffy middle class conformist lifestyle that the Magrittes preferred.
There is always something odd about prowling around the homes of the famous but long departed. It’s embarrassing to find oneself speculating as to whether those bracers were really responsible for holding Magritte’s trousers up, was that his egg-timer, were those his toe-nail clippers? Authenticity and provenance are all-important in the art world and we struggle in their absence. The two upper floors display a few original artworks and a mass of photographs and memorabilia. The rooms in the apartment give a sense of the claustrophobic conditions in which Magritte lived, worked and entertained. The question that preoccupies so many commentators as to how to resolve the contradiction between the suburban lifestyle and the subversive imagery really seems quite pointless. The contradiction is what defines the artist as much as the pedestrian paint handling by which his vision was realised. Magritte had a parallel career as an unenthusiastic commercial artist and the uncomplicated technique that worked in advertising seemed to work equally well when applied to the bizarre or enigmatic subject matter in his personal artwork. As for painting at the easel while wearing a suit, what better way to express contempt for the absurd Romantic caricature of the picturesquely dishevelled artist immersed in the frantic expression of his genius.
Looking back to the 1960s and those hazy golden days of youth in the ivy-clad quadrangles of the Lycée de Métroland, it was the paintings of Dali and Magritte that captured this schoolboy’s imagination. Cultivating an interest in Surrealism supplied some immunity from the prevailing ethos of militarism exemplified in the strutting and preening of uniformed buffoons, the tin soldiers, cardboard sailors and plastic airmen – decorated heroes of the school Cadet Corps. The last laugh was theirs as they graduated to become merchant bankers and captains of industry. Surrealism as a vital force had by this time expired and was collapsing into the arms of art historians for ritual embalming. The major players were still active – Dali was pioneering the celebrity lifestyle and Magritte, in response to demand from the US, was as productive as ever right up to his death in 1967. In his homeland, the journey to national treasure status had already begun in 1966 when the Belgian airline, Sabena co-opted Magritte’s sky-bird for its publicity. The process of assimilation has gathered pace over the decades up to 2009 when the Musée Magritte opened over three floors in a dedicated wing of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique at Place Royale. The place of the museum on the tourist trail demonstrates the extent to which Magritte is now a vital element in Belgium’s visitor economy – a curious fate for an enigmatic and contrarian personality.