René Magritte, the most influential Belgian artist of the 20th century, never explained a thing. Nor did he choose to analyze.
He adhered to Julio Cortázar’s belief that “Explanation is a well-dressed mistake.”
Maintaining a staunch silence about his art, Magritte was convinced his thought-provocative work spoke for itself.
The Fine Arts Museum in Brussels spent four years assembling a massive, three-hundred-plus-piece retrospective. This exhibition commemorated, in 1998, the hundredth anniversary of Magritte’s birth.
An event I was determined to see –absolutely not to be missed. At the time, Elizabeth and I had known each other a little over a year.
It was decided. I catch a flight from Los Angeles. Elizabeth boards a TGV fast train from Milan. Our meeting point, the platform where her train arrives at Gare de Lyon, Paris. Gateway to the south.
Wide awake on the plane. I barely slept. Couldn’t shut down my thoughts. They kept churning. After a ten-hour red-eye, I was still wide awake.
Being in love is equally wonderful and strange. Hyper-charged adrenalin races through my veins. Nevertheless, once we land, I feel thoroughly refreshed. Ready to go.
At the station, I pace the platform impatiently as Elizabeth’s train approaches. While waiting, I debate the concept of time transfixed –literally “ongoing time stabbed by a dagger” from the French: La Durée poignardé – and envision Magritte’s masterpiece with the very same name.
An earth-shattering sound rattles the tunnel in front of me. When I blink twice, all is instantly transformed. I find myself staring into Magritte’s surreal image of a giant fireplace.
A beige paper veneer masks the mantle. Near the upper right corner, a model locomotive displays perfect balance. Levitating at eye-level, it passes through the beige. Paper poses no obstacle. Trailing puffs of steam provide a firm forward thrust.
A fresh roar follows to announce the real train’s arrival. Seconds later, Elizabeth and I sprint toward each other, madly crashing into each other’s arms.
LE TRAIN BLEU
For an endless minute, we kiss and embrace before heading hand in hand all the way upstairs to grab a couple of glasses of Sancerre Blanc and a platter of fruits de mer, fresh shellfish at Le Train Bleu, the iconic restaurant above the station.
This historic brasserie dating back to 1901 when the Grand Exposition at the start of the 20th century dominated the Parisian cultural scene. The stunning paintings and frescoes on its walls and ceilings are representative works selected by the exhibiting galleries at the time.
First thing the next morning, after a few brief hours rest, we’re at Gare du Nord, boarding a train for Brussels and the exhibition. Elizabeth brought fresh croissants from Terminus Nord across the street.
We accelerate sitting still. Careening north. The visual image levitates. Our model locomotive transcends the fireplace. We emerge from the mantle. Green landscape flies by, traveling in the opposite direction.
Elizabeth and I sit there puzzled. Both afraid to ask. Should we consider getting together? For the long term. Our current arrangement is a comfortable one. We enjoy commuting across two continents. No problem to stay in love when half-a-world apart.
Trying to hold onto both worlds. Unwilling to let go of either. Time ticks menacingly away. In “The Dominion of Light” (L’Empire des lumières), Magritte invites time, a primary player. It intrudes so beautifully as day intersects the night. And conversely so.
Rebellion challenges convention. Convention fights back. Neither concedes. They must realize coexistence is their strength. Patience is everything and nothing without a specific purpose.
Elizabeth and I are opposites. Common ground is scarce. We do find some. It increases with Magritte. The exhibit completely overwhelms. Imagination awakens. It beckons. As does Magritte’s famous pipe. Not a pipe. Merely an image of one.
Brussels is consumed by the exhibition. Alan Riding wrote in the NY Times “Belgians have found that to celebrate his art of the unlikely juxtaposition is to celebrate a nation in contradiction with itself. To accept the artist’s refusal to explain his paintings is to be relieved of the need to explain Belgium.”
“Magritte as the quintessential Belgian, the respectable pipe-smoking bourgeois in the bowler hat whose surrealist paintings mirrored the absurdity of existence.”
“It was a style,” observes Riding, “marked more by his eye and mind than by his hand, more by its content than by its technique, more by his desire to disturb than to give pleasure.”
Magritte, often credited with creating pop, completely transcends the very images he brought to life.
the artist within
On the train to Brussels, I ask Elizabeth what she sees in me. She replies: “someone with whom I can share my life.”
“But do you know me? Are you sure of who I am?”
“Does it matter? I’ll find out… Maybe.”
THIS TRAIN IS REAL
With virtual scenery. Cows. Hundreds of cows. They dot the pastures outside the window with its half-drawn shade. Black and whites. Roaming. Grazing. Contentedly digesting grass and hay.
They fragment. In numbers. Then individuals break apart. Front and hind. Shoulders and thighs.
Heads float free. Tails swish away an invisible swarm of flies. Legs gallop. Bodies levitate and glide. Firmly toned muscles push off. Some proud. Some lazy. No difference.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique is packed. Without reservations, chaos would reign.
“To meet again at the end of a long journey, and to be able to say once again to each other all that we think about one another: this is a testimony to luck, perhaps to the genius of René Magritte, most certainly,” wrote his close friend, Harry Torczyner in a poignant introduction to a magnificent souvenir book. A book that, every few months, I religiously pull out.
To revisit Magritte’s paintings is to revisit old friends who only improve with age.
We walk slowly to view and digest. One must be thoughtful to gain necessary perspective. The stationary bird soars through the clouds.
My mind empties the room of people and voices other than the two us. Clarity and focus. The most important companions are granted free rein.
They cleanse the air. Allow it to circulate. My lungs suck it in. Breathing enables cerebral digestion. Ideas and inspirations.
a single currency
1998 looks to be a landmark year for Brussels. Capital of the European Union. Open borders and a unified currency. Both coming soon. Moves to change the continent.
This, a giant leap forward. The concept of liberal democracy grows ever more achievable. Naïvely, we hope nationalism can soon be retired. The time has arrived for nations to finally live together in peace.
Magritte is Belgian. Not Flemish or Walloons. His art unites the nation. Art can similarly unite a continent. Even the world. A question of timing. The right timing. Recognizing the absolute right moment to act.
an animated dream
It’s not having to explain. A well-dressed mistake indeed. Far better to share our thoughts. Having the right to express our own opinion. Letting such opinions grow and mature. And even be abandoned when need be.
To accept the surreal allows us to accept alternative realities. It gives us the possibility for life to change. No longer on a fixed track. It evolves. Remember. We experience art and culture not as they are. But, rather, as we are… that very moment.
Similarly, tomorrow’s choices will always vary greatly from the ones we face today. What presently appears absurd, given a little time, may well gain a certain respectability. Imagine being able to grasp a newfound insight. One that enables us to reflect and view within.
In four hours, we saw much. So many images appeared and disappeared. My subconscious juggled. Randomly.
As we each sip a Café Latté, our senses race ahead. Our faces shrouded. The cloths tearing loose with the breeze.
I feel Elizabeth’s hand. It firmly squeezes mine. My eyes open a crack. Then a touch more before they focus. Her head, rests so peacefully on my shoulder, speaking to me. No further words are necessary.
About the Article
Visiting Brussels in 1998 for the centennial anniversary of René Magritte’s birth.