Today is the birthday of the man responsible for my beloved bowler hat. Rene Magritte, Belgium surrealist artist, was born today, November 21st, 1898. It is he, and he alone, who inspired me to take the bowler. (I have even dressed as one of his bowler hat men with obligatory apple.) His work has been monumental to me in my development. It is a good day when I encounter his paintings.
I remember the first work that really made an impact on me. At the Tate (back when there was one unified Tate), I remember seeing a sculpture of the Healer, a cloaked man with a hat and cane whose body was a bird cage. It floored me. It was delightfully recognizable but new and strange. It really opened up an entire world for me.
I love his conception of the mystery of the ordinary. He takes everyday items, items we even take for granted, like curtains, mirrors, shoes, leaves, etc, and plays with them. He pivots their meaning in language, space, the visual realm itself. He plays with perspective, especially with those paintings of paintings that are continuations of their landscapes like “The Human Condition.”
The viewer will see this familiar vocabulary of images but have to reassess, reconsider them in his work. One of my favorite paintings “Personal Values” shows a room with oversized comb, brush and other cosmetic tools. He has taken the items we take for granted, the items we need for everyday and magnified them to the size of furniture. He emphasizes their importance by changing their scale. Also, I think that we need to be reminded of how wonderful everyday life is. Sometimes it is easy to get bogged down by the day to day. But Rene Magritte tries to make us realize that everything, the smallest things, can be full of mystery and possibly adventure.
I also love how he makes one rethink language. One of his better known paintings is “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or “This is not a pipe.” There is the easy interpretation: of course, it is a painting of a pipe or a painting of that phrase. But he also could refer to the fact that the pipe is a word, not the object of the pipe. Or even, why is it that we call this thing that we recognize as a pipe, a pipe. One quotation attributed to him is “An object is not so attached to its name that we cannot find another one that would suit it better.” I love it.
And I think THomas Crown Affair’s homage to Rene Magritte and his bowler hat men is one of the best scenes in cinematic history. I don’t think there was a better way to celebrate this artist. (Also, that movie is just great).
So happy birthday Rene Magritte. May your bowler hatted men be causing surrealist mischief wherever you are.