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How Belgian surrealist Magritte made us rethink reality

August 14, 2017

His images borrowed simple, everyday objects while questioning the way we see the world. Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, who died 50 years ago, was a philosopher with a paintbrush.


When you look at a painting by Dali, you might feel like you're caught in a dream, but the paintings of René Magritte, who died on August 15, 1967, take a more intellectual approach. That was made clear at "The Treachery of Images," a recent exhibition of 70 of his Surrealist paintings at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. 

For Schirn director Philipp Demandt, René Magritte, "with his distinctive visual imagery, is one of the most popular and influential artists of the 20th century."

Conflict between words and images

The exhibition in Frankfurt dealt with Magritte's examination of philosophy. His pictures touch on the relationship between images and language and the exhibition shares the title of one of his most famous paintings, which bears the words "This is not a pipe."

Setting up a conflict between the image and the text, Magritte expressed his doubts about the possibilities of representing reality, questioning our very perception of it.

Language was always important for the painter, who said, "A title legitimizes a picture by completing it."

Other works by Magritte deal with the invention and definition of painting. The quasi scientific method that Magritte followed in his painting shows that the artist was not a man of simple answers. Indeed, he mistrusted simple realism.

The aim of the Surrealists was to shake up the way people were used to seeing, experiencing and thinking about things. Magritte, who is considered the most important representative of Belgian Surrealism, responded to these expectations of his surrealist colleagues with a good deal of irony.

He wasn't interested in prophesies and visions. And he didn't see himself first and foremost as an artist, but as "a thinking person who paints." Magritte later intensively read the works of German philosophers like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Martin Heidegger and French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Magritte in pop culture

Using objects like a hat, an apple or a curtain, René Magritte's visual language was often rooted in extreme simplicity - which makes his works particularly memorable. Their recognition value has made them beloved elements of pop culture.  

On social media, images that are accessible and easy to reproduce - like Magritte's works - are especially successful. Though the artist died in 1967, long before the advent of social media, reproductions of his works can be found under the hashtag #renemagritte.