The Surreal Charm Of The Belgian Bourgeoisie

The Surreal Charm Of The Belgian Bourgeoisie

Whilst the Parisian Surrealists of the 1920s argued for performative acts of anarchy, wild statements of intent and lively absinthe-fuelled argument, their counterparts in Brussels, revolving around the benign figure of René Magritte, sought Surrealism by subverting the quotidien, in search of quietly unsettling imagery.

Ahead of Sotheby's sales of Surrealist masterpieces in London and Paris in March 2022, Dr An Paenhuysen explores the characteristics of the French and Belgian Surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s and the lively - and occasionally combative - dynamic which flourished between them.
Whilst the Parisian Surrealists of the 1920s argued for performative acts of anarchy, wild statements of intent and lively absinthe-fuelled argument, their counterparts in Brussels, revolving around the benign figure of René Magritte, sought Surrealism by subverting the quotidien, in search of quietly unsettling imagery.

Ahead of Sotheby's sales of Surrealist masterpieces in London and Paris in March 2022, Dr An Paenhuysen explores the characteristics of the French and Belgian Surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s and the lively - and occasionally combative - dynamic which flourished between them.

B elgium is a surreal place. Politically, nobody really understands what is going on - the country seems to magically function without a government; the national hobby consists of building illegal ‘koterijen’ on one's house, and then there is the small peeing man [the Mannekin Pis], who functions as the national symbol. In short, ‘c’est du belge.’

But the natural chaos that Belgium seems to produce so effortlessly has had some positive side-effects. For instance, it’s only in Belgium that a mind could come up with the idea of putting day and night together on one canvas.

However, whilst in general, Belgian art movements tended to follow in the wake of the Parisians there was one which proved to be the exception: the Surrealists. And, one can argue that the Brussels Surrealist movement was the only avant-garde movement that turned the country's innate provincialism into an advantage.

Think of René Magritte. Born in 1898 in Lessines, he travelled in 1916 to Brussels to enrol at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Thereafter, apart from an escapade to Paris at the end of the 1920s, he didn’t move much outside his homeland. Instead, he pursued a very conventional existence, in a traditional middle-class household indistinguishable from his neighbours' homes. His suits were ordinary, his wife wore a necklace with a cross, and his dog was a toy keeshond. According to his life-long friend, and fellow leading light of the Belgian Surrealism movement Jean Louis Scutenaire, Magritte even eschewed a studio, preferring to make his paintings in the corner of the living room, in between the table, the door and the stove.

Rene Magritte and Le Barbare, 1938. Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images) Heritage Images/Getty Images

Unlike André Breton, who was the linchpin of the Parisian Surrealist group, Magritte was not a dynamic, pivotal figurehead, around whom the Belgian Surrealists orbited. Nor did he meet up with his friends in a Brussels equivalent of the Cafe Certa, the Parisian hotbed of Surrealism, where that city's art elite would gather to jot down their dreams, argue lustily, drink copiously and play all manner of jeux surréalistes. Instead of searching, like their French counterparts did, for ‘outdoor anti-entertainment’, the Bruxellois preferred to stay at home - a highly un-avant-garde place to be. But then, isn’t Modernity the ultimate experience of all that is solid melting into air?

La Galerie Surréaliste, Paris, 1926

By keeping their private and public lives separate, unlike the core cohort of French Surrealists, the Brussels Surrealists regularly recharged their collective creative batteries by absorbing ideas and influences from the everyday world, allowing themselves time off from the rather tiring business having to be constantly surreal. Poet and author, Paul Nougé, the theoretician of the group, was a chemist in a Brussels laboratory by day. Scutenaire was a lawyer and from 1941, worked in the Belgian Civil Service. During the 1930s, Magritte worked in marketing and E.L.T. Mesens was a secretary in a cultural centre. On Saturday or Sunday nights, they tended to meet up at Magritte’s place in the suburban neighbourhood of Jette - described by one of the group rather witheringly, as bein ‘in the middle of a petit-bourgeois street and cornered by a monastery, a gas meter, and clouds.’

André Breton Portrait d'André Breton aux lunettes, (between 1924 and 1929)

Respectful friendships had been at the heart of the Brussels Surrealists group, ever since they came together in the mid-1920s. The magazine Correspondance, first published in 1925 and featuring the work of Paul Nougé and accomplices Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte, acted as their manifesto. This colourful pamphlet did not contain 'original' material, but was based on the concept of rewriting great literature. Texts by Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Marcel Proust, André Gide and Jean Paulhan were reinterpreted, put into another context and in this way recontextualised. Contact with the Parisian group was already established when Breton and Éluard travelled to Brussels in 1925 and approved Correspondance as a Surrealist magazine.

At this time, E.L.T. Mesens and Magritte were occupied with publishing Dada-ist magazines Oesophange and Marie. The composer Erik Satie had taken Mesens to Paris in 1921 where he had introduced him to the Dadaist movement. In the summer of 1923, Mesens started corresponding with poet and author Tristan Tzara and a year later he met Francis Picabia, after which he was invited to participate in the magazine 391. He sent a poem and some of the aphorisms of Magritte that were published in 1924. And in 1926, with a final isse entitled Adieu à Marie, both Magritte and Mesens joined Nougé's Surrealist group. Later on, the poet-writer Scutenaire and musicians Paul Hooreman and André Souris joined too.

A family portrait of the Brussel Surrealists, entitled Le rendezvous de chasse and published in the special issue “Intervention surréaliste” of the magazine Documents 34. Jean Scutenaire stands in the middle and on his left are René Magritte and E.L.T. Mesens and on his right André Souris and Paul Nougé. Sitting at the table from left to right: Irène Hamoir, Marthe Nougé and Georgette Magritte

Universal Images Group Editorial/Getty Images

Of course, friends fight. Souris was ‘excommunicated’. Lecomte ‘retired’ from Surrealism in the 1920s and Goemans did the same in the 1930s. But the big fights were with opponents of Surrealism, and, on occasion, with their Parisian colleagues. In 1926, Nougé wrote to French Surrealist poet Louis Aragon that he disgusted him, to which Aragon responded calling him an ‘emmerdeur’ - roughly translating to, 'a pain in the ass'. A year before, Mesens received a letter from Paul Éluard with the beautiful message: ‘At the first opportunity I will stick your grand piano in your ass.’

'For the Brussels group, it was not the dream or the subconscious that had subversive potential but rather the objects and situations that made up the everyday'

Menace was an intrinsic part of the Surrealist method. For the Brussels group, it was not the dream or the subconscious that had subversive potential, but rather the objects and situations that made up the everyday. Their potential was best experienced in the suburbs, the marginal zones between city and countryside, where the ruins of capitalism could be observed in unfinished streets and barren pastures. In this setting, the strategies of the Brussels Surrealists were discreet or to go back to the metaphor of home: they saw their activities as being disruptive to the ground floor, in the hope that one day the whole house would collapse.

In the dictionary of the Brussels Surrealists, ‘warning’ was a favourite word. For a Magritte exhibition in 1931, Nougé wrote an Avertissement instead of an introduction, stating that ‘some paintings equal, by means of the regular routes of the medium, in intensity the most ardent calls for revolution.' While the Parisian Surrealists scolded priests on the street or, as in Luis Bunuêl’s provocative L’age d’ôr, threw bishops out of the window, the Brussels Surrealists thought such actions wouldn’t achieve the desired effect. Instead, they favoured the simple act of isolating an object from its environment, creating a loss of familiarity and a disorienting feeling of uncertainty in the spectator. ‘The universe has changed,’ Nougé announced at the Magritte opening in 1931, ‘There are no longer ordinary things.’

"What looks like a spectator from the outside, hides an actor on the inside”
Paul Nougé

The subtle and discrete approach had its purpose. Big provocative actions would have a reverse effect and merely confirm the complacent values of the spectators. Yet, the right doses of subversion turned spectators into protagonists, something Paul Nougé described as being “What looks like a spectator from the outside, hides an actor on the inside”.

This belief mounted to nothing less than murder. ‘We killed the audience while searching for accomplices.’ By this token, Magritte’s paintings were not limited to being works of art but rather ‘instruments’ or ‘tools’. Nor could he be said to be just an artist - rather a subversive thinker who, by means of paint, ruptured the very order of things.

Fraudsters, murderers, crooks and thieves crowded their anti-canon, together with others who found themselves at the margins of society. These anti-heroes were preferred over the ‘grand hommes’, seen by the Surrealists as fossils of history. It comes then as no surprise that, away from Paris, the Brussels Surrealists felt at ease in provincial Belgium, which in its way was even more avant-garde than the centre could ever be. While being very much Belgian, they had access to, as Mesens put it, ‘a universal attitude to life - not an ‘art style - it could be said, I’m not a painter but a Surrealist.’

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