Magritte by Alex Danchev, review: the surrealist’s life is an unsolved riddle

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All this is acknowledged by Danchev, author of well-received biographies of Braque and Cezanne, and a professor of international relations at St Andrews until his death in 2016, leaving this new book unfinished. (The final chapter, covering the last two decades of Magritte’s life, is written in a plainer style by the co-editor of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, Sarah Whitfield.) The fact, then, that Danchev could produce something so enjoyable is akin to a conjuror’s feat.

His account of Magritte’s ungovernable childhood when, with his tearaway brothers, he terrorised the local neighbourhood by stringing up cats on doorbells and pouring yeast into the local cinema’s toilets, so that a noxious froth would ooze from the septic tank, is as memorable as a bad smell.

There are similarly vivid passages describing Magritte’s sojourn in London in the 1930s as a guest of the eccentric poet and aesthete Edward James, and the tense, chaotic days following Germany’s occupation of Belgium, when, leaving behind Georgette (who was, by then, conducting an affair with one of the artist’s friends, to whom, Danchev informs us, Magritte sent a letter containing “detailed instructions on how to pleasure his wife”), he fled for France by truck, taxi and train, gulping down raw eggs as he went.

Danchev’s analysis of the impact upon his paintings of Magritte’s lifelong love of cinema is exemplary, too. Although he had mixed feelings about Alfred Hitchcock (“an imbecile of great talent”), Magritte was a fan of John Wayne (apparently, the admiration was mutual), and, after the war, loved larking about with friends shooting home movies on an 8mm ciné camera.

Today, Danchev says, Magritte remains underestimated as somehow “lightweight”, a purveyor of ubiquitous one-liners; really, he argues, we should consider this artist whose friends were generally literary types, not painters, and who depicted words decades before the likes of Jasper Johns and Ed Ruscha, as a “thinker in paint”, among the most extraordinary brains of the 20th century.

Fair enough – yet, perhaps inevitably, the book also proves somewhat frustrating. Because swathes of Magritte’s life are so featureless, Danchev plays fast and loose with chronology. In one sentence, his subject is 46; a paragraph later, he’s 64. It’s confusing. There are stylistic niggles, too. Danchev is fond of arcane language (“episteme”, “excogitations”, “harlequinade”), which feels odd, given the accessibility of Magritte’s flat, seemingly straightforward deadpan style.

The fundamental problem, though, is the lack of clear evidence about the interior life of an artist who had a thing for concealment: one of Magritte’s “portraits” of James, for instance, presents a man seen from behind before a looking glass, contemplating an impossible reflection of the back of his own head. Consequently, Danchev resorts, time and again, to (admittedly intelligent) conjecture. Question marks pockmark the text like bullet holes. Paragraphs, bereft of hard facts, conclude with apposite quotations. Citing Baudelaire, Beckett and Kafka may sound elegant, but it’s literary legerdemain.

The curious thing is that Magritte turns out to have been a prodigious letter-writer – although, as Danchev explains, his “cryptic” and “fragmentary” correspondence, which runs to thousands of pages, has “never been collected, or selected”, and “is not easy to parse or decode”. Still, one can’t help thinking that there’s an opportunity for future researchers to fill in the gaps. For now, though, Magritte remains a riddle. Which, I suppose, is fitting, given that “mystery” was one of his favourite words.


Magritte: A Life by Alex Danchev is published by Profile at £30. To order your copy for £25 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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