René Magritte (1898–1967) is easily the most famous of Belgium’s modern artists, his disconcerting, strangely haunting images a familiar part of popular culture. Born in a small town just outside Charleroi, he entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1915, and was a student there until 1920. His appearances were, however, few and far between as he preferred the company of a group of artists and friends fascinated with the Surrealist movement of the 1920s. Their antics were supposed to incorporate a serious intent – the undermining of bourgeois convention – but the surviving home movies of Magritte and his chums fooling around don’t appear very revolutionary today.

Initially, Magritte worked in a broadly Cubist manner, but in 1925, influenced by the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, he switched over to Surrealism and almost immediately stumbled upon the themes and images that would preoccupy him for decades to come. His work incorporated startling comparisons between the ordinary and the extraordinary, with the occasional erotic element thrown in. Favourite images included men in bowler hats, metamorphic figures, enormous rocks floating in the sky, tubas, fishes with human legs, bilboquets (the cup and ball game), and juxtapositions of night and day – one part of the canvas lit by artificial light, the other basking in full sunlight. He also dabbled in word paintings, mislabelling familiar forms to illustrate (or expose) the arbitrariness of linguistic signs. His canvases were devoid of emotion, deadpan images that were easy to recognize but perplexing because of their setting – perhaps most famously, the man in the suit with a bowler hat and an apple for a face.

He broke with this characteristic style on two occasions, once during the war – in despair over the Nazi occupation – and again in 1948, to revenge long years of neglect by the French artistic establishment. Hundreds had turned up to see Magritte’s first Paris exhibition, but were confronted with crass and crude paintings of childlike simplicity. These so-called Vache paintings created a furore, and Magritte beat a hasty artistic retreat behind a smokescreen of self-justification. These two experiments alienated Magritte from most of the other Surrealists, but this was of little consequence as he was picked up and popularized by an American art dealer, Alexander Iolas, who made him very rich and very famous.

Magritte and his family lived in Jette, a suburb of Brussels, until the late 1950s, and the house is now the Musée René Magritte. He died in 1967, shortly after a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York confirmed his reputation as one of the great artists of the twentieth century.

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