Magritte and Photography

Photography, we might say, is a fly in the Magrittean ointment. The core of Magritte’s creative production was of course painting and he engaged with the particularities of the medium on many levels. But is it possible that we are by now just a little too familiar with the main body of his work? Perhaps it is when we turn to some of his more peripheral productions – his scratchy drawings, his deadpan texts, the slapstick of the home movies and, not least, the photographs – that we get a fresher sense of Magritte’s true subversiveness.

Magritte’s photographs were unseen in his lifetime. It was only in 1978 that a small, elegant volume containing 62 photos was published with the title La fidelité des images; each photo was titled by Magritte’s old companion Louis Scutenaire in the same way that he had previously titled many of the paintings. Yet already the status of the photographs was ambiguous.

When I visited Georgette Magritte that same year to look at the photos that she still kept in her possession, I found that she kept them in a cardboard shoebox and I looked through them sitting at her kitchen table. The next evening, I went to visit Louis Scutenaire and Irène Hamoir in their apartment and they showed me their own copies of the photographs, carefully mounted year by year in a large album. As Scutenaire noted with a gentle irony, the publication of these modest and private images was entirely due to Magritte’s fame, but in fact many of the photos were not ‘by’ Magritte, but rather made collectively by the Belgian Surrealist group, with scenarios suggested and the camera operated by whoever happened to be there.

In fact, there seems to be a wide range of reasons why these photographs were made. Many do indeed seem to be snapshots, recording a group of friends out for a walk or playing around at the beach or gathered in a back garden. They enact some provocative ‘surrealist’ rituals – eating bricks or climbing up on a plinth – but then these are situations in which most people might enjoy setting up and playing out such bizarre scenarios.

At the other end of the spectrum are the photographs that lie closest to Magritte’s paintings. Sometimes, he was simply using the photograph as a visual aid for the painting, but more interesting are those images where he makes a photographic variation of a painting; sometimes it’s hard to tell which comes first, the painting or the photo. The painting ‘Attempting the Impossible’ of 1928 shows a painter in suit and tie standing before a nude women who he is bringing to life through his paint brush; he is just finishing the arm. In a photo of the same year, which Scutenaire titled ‘Love’, René stands before Georgette making the same gesture, but she is wearing a bathing suit and he is in shirtsleeves and wearing his slippers.

These referential images in turn shade over into another sort of photograph, where Magritte seems to be investigating the properties of photography much as he investigated the properties of painting. The most extraordinary of these images is ‘The Shadow and its Shadow’ of 1932, where René and Georgette stare into the camera; he is standing behind her so that only one of his eyes is visible next to her ear. It is an image that says much about the intimacy of their relationship, but it is also a highly photographic effect. If this were real life, one could step sideways to see the other eye; if it were a painting, one would know that there was no other eye. But a photograph is both a slice of reality and a fixed, two dimensional image and we are caught between what we see and what we know.

This is also an ambiguous image in terms of authorship. Christine De Naeyer, in her study of Paul Nougé and photography, suggested that ‘The Shadow and Its Shadow’ was made jointly by Magritte and Nougé. Since the two men worked very closely together during this period, this is quite possible; perhaps it was Nougé who was holding the camera and getting the picture just right. And indeed the rigorousness of the image is close to the sequence of photographs that Nougé made in 1929-30 with the title Subversion des Images. (Perhaps Scutenaire was himself referencing Nougé’s title when he gave that first collection of Magritte’s photos the ironic title La fidelité des images.)

Finally, this play with the simultaneous faithfulness and faithlessness of photography was also a major feature of the many later situations where Magritte worked in collaboration, actively or passively, with other photographers.

In a book like Duane Michals’ A Visit with Magritte (the visit was in 1965, the book published in 1981), an elegant series of variations are played on Magrittean themes, Magritte lending himself to the project with (one suspects) an amused and appreciative fortitude.

Magritte’s photographs remain enigmatic, uncertain in their status, sometimes nudging at profundity but often very silly and trivial and really all the better for that.

H Photography photo