Walk into the Magritte gallery in New York's Museum of Modern Art, and you slip into one painter's grotto of dreams, crisply pictorial and yet dislocating in the worlds they capture, the dreads we can't identify in our waking lives. From his famous "The Treachery of Images" ("This is not a pipe") to "Time Transfixed," which depicts a train emerging from a fireplace, to "The False Mirror," an eye with cloud-puffed blue sky as its iris, René Magritte (1898-1967) was drawn to illusions that coexist with reality; none of Dalí's dripping watches and blotchy figures for him. We see ourselves in his compositions, and we are unnerved.
The author of acclaimed biographies of Cézanne and Braque, the Oxford-educated Alex Danchev (1955-2016) was finishing his lavish, authoritative "Magritte" when he died suddenly. (Art historian Sarah Whitfield has admirably completed the task.)
Danchev seasons his book with reams of research and critique and not a little gossip, evoking a titan of the 20th-century European avant-garde. Raised in a modest Belgian family, Magritte suffered a tragic shock during adolescence; his mother drowned herself in the River Sambre. When her body was recovered, her nightgown veiled her face, a motif that flits across her son's later canvases.
Idiosyncratic and undisciplined, Magritte enrolled at Brussels' Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, and found, almost by chance, his calling. His craft took shape, inspired not only by the Impressionists and Cubists, but also by street forms, such as pulp fiction, theater posters, and pornography.
Erotic titillation and the menace of mortality underpin "Magritte." Danchev cycles through the painter's oeuvre more or less chronologically, with the occasional leap forward or backward in time, mapping an uncanny cosmology. Tubas, clouds, bowler hats, shrouded faces, naked, marmoreal women: All are totems in Magritte's personal myth, arranged in classical poses and often in clear light, evoking the foreboding in de Chirico's work.
The book also entertains: Squint hard, and you just might spy an Andalusian dog. Magritte married a childhood acquaintance, Georgette, and decamped for Jazz Age Paris, where he fell in with a faction that included André Breton and Paul Éluard. Revolution was in the air; these Surrealists, many of whom had witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Great War, were committed to the upending of convention.
"Magritte was a maverick," Danchev observes. "His weapon of choice was the paintbrush. If bourgeois order was nothing but disorder, then it could be subverted, that is, reimagined."
The couple eventually returned to Belgium, where the painter and his brother founded an advertising firm. As his international reputation grew, he exhibited across continents, collectors clamoring for canvases. The last third of "Magritte" thins out — Danchev was writing this section when he died — but in part the painter's to blame: He succumbed to the trappings of success, much like the conformists he satirized.
Despite this quibble, "Magritte" is a superb account of one enigmatic, enduring artist, a gratifying addition to our cultural literature, and an ode to modernity's contradictions.
Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.
Magritte: A Life
By: Alex Danchev.
Publisher: Pantheon, 480 pages, $45.