Magritte: The False Mirror

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Another short film about René Magritte’s paintings, The False Mirror was made three years after the artist’s death in 1970, a time when his work had started to receive widespread international attention. Prior to the 1960s Magritte wasn’t exactly unknown but it wasn’t until the arrival of Pop Art that his paintings began to be reappraised. The production credits for The False Mirror are surprising for such a short piece, the film being directed by art critic David Sylvester (whose book of interviews with Francis Bacon is essential), and photographed by Bruce Beresford, later to become a well-regarded film director. Among the voices reading from the artist’s statements is ELT Mesens, another Belgian artist and friend of Magritte’s whose presence in the later incarnation of the British Surrealist Group gave that small society some authentic gravitas. (George Melly talks about Mesens and the British Surrealists in this film.) The commentary runs over familiar ground: descriptions of the artist’s childhood encounter with a painter in a cemetery (also referred to in Magritte, ou la lecon de chose), and the details of his mother’s suicide (dramatised in David Wheatley’s film). I’d been wondering recently what Magritte might have made of the increasingly excessive prices being paid for his artworks. One of the comments here provides a possible answer when he says he’d be happy if people destroyed his paintings.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Magritte, ou la lecon de chose
René Magritte album covers
Monsieur René Magritte, a film by Adrian Maben
George Melly’s Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist
The Secret Life of Edward James
René Magritte by David Wheatley

René Magritte album covers

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Beck-Ola (1969) by The Jeff Beck Group. Painting: The Listening Room (second version, 1958).

An inevitable post considering the shape of the week, and also a continuation of an occasional series about paintings used as album cover art. Given Magritte’s continuing popularity I’m sure these can’t be the only examples, especially when his work had such an effect on the cover designs of the 1970s. In addition to the Magritte-like covers created by Hipgnosis for Pink Floyd and others you can find the artist’s influence in the cover by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse for The Grand Illusion (1977) by Styx, a hugely successful album whose painting is derived from Magritte’s The Blank Cheque (1965). There are many more examples.

Magritte died in 1967 so he missed out on this explosion of interest which also spread into the advertising world. When it comes to influence, Magritte has probably had more of an effect on the general culture than any of the other Surrealists, Dalí included.

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See (1969) by The Rascals. Painting: The Big Family (1963).

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Pipedream (1973) by Alan Hull. Painting: Philosopher’s Lamp (1936).

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Vienne La Pluie (1975) by Daniel Balavoine. Painting: Hegel’s Holiday (1958).

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Monsieur René Magritte, a film by Adrian Maben

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Until the end of his life, [Magritte] preferred to take the tram.

Now there’s an attitude I approve of. George Melly in his BBC film about Surrealism mentions visiting Magritte at his home in Brussels, and we see Magritte’s house at the beginning of Adrian Maben’s 50-minute film about the artist’s life and work. Maben’s film was made in 1978 as an Franco-German TV production but the narration, by Maben himself, is in English. Surrealism seemed to be back in vogue in 1978: as mentioned yesterday, the Hayward Gallery in London staged an exhibition of Surrealist art that year, the BBC commissioned George Melly’s film as a result of this, while over on rival network ITV there was the marvellous documentary about Surrealist patron Edward James who modelled for one of Magritte’s most famous paintings, La reproduction interdite (1937).

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Adrian Maben’s name will be familiar to Pink Floyd obsessives as the director of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972), and if you’re familiar with that film you can recognise the same shooting style in his Magritte film which deploys similar slow zooms, tracking shots and images sliding in and out of the frame. The music is credited to a surprising combination of Béla Bartók (mostly piano) and Roger Waters, although some of the pieces from the latter are actually by Pink Floyd, there’s even some of the opening of Obscured By Clouds. In style and content the film is as good as anything the BBC were producing at the time, with extracts from a TV interview with the artist, and also some of Magritte’s high-spirited home movies made with his wife and friends.

Magritte and Pink Floyd are a fitting match, some of the Floyd’s album covers could be Magritte paintings rendered photographically: two men shaking hands, one of whom is on fire; a giant pig adrift over a power station. Storm Thorgerson always acknowledged the debt that Hipgnosis owed Magritte’s example, it’s there in the title of the first Hipgnosis book, Walk Away René, and in this short Tate interview from 2011 where he mentions the Wish You Were Here album as being a very conscious Magritte homage.

Previously on { feuilleton }
George Melly’s Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist
The Secret Life of Edward James
René Magritte by David Wheatley

George Melly’s Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist

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It’s a short step from Dada to Surrealism, and George Melly provides a brief skate through the philosophies of both in this 25-minute BBC film from 1978. Melly, like JG Ballard, was struck by Surrealism at an impressionable age, and the love affair was a lasting one. Both Melly and Ballard championed Surrealism during periods when it was deeply unfashionable, an oppositional stance that Ballard at least often seemed to relish.

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Melly’s enthusiasm was so well-known that he was often called upon as a token advocate of Surrealism whenever one was required by the TV channels, hence this film whose title implies an admission of something disreputable. A major exhibition of Surrealist art was taking place 1978 at the Hayward Gallery in London, and it’s to this exhibition that Melly journeys, explaining (and demonstrating) what it means to be a Surrealist along the way. I saw this when it was first broadcast, and the absurd phone calls to strangers inspired myself and a few school-friends to similar activities; teenage pranks seemed less frivolous with an artistic justification. There’s a slight connection to yesterday’s post in Melly’s recounting of an anecdote from the 1950s when he was spared a night-time beating by his reciting of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate to a group of belligerent youths. Elsewhere you get to see punk band The Stranglers scowling at the camera—Melly suggests that the punks might be inheritors of the Dadaist attitude—and director Alan Yentob standing at a urinal.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Secret Life of Edward James
René Magritte by David Wheatley

Walter Crane’s Household Stories

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The ideal follow-up to yesterday’s post would have been David Wheatley’s 1979 film for the BBC’s Omnibus series dramatising the life and works of the Brothers Grimm. This week was the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales; I’ve never seen Wheatley’s Grimm film which—for the moment—remains unavailable.

There are, of course, plenty of illustrated editions of the Grimm’s collections although the dark tenor of the stories means these have never been as popular as Hans Christian Andersen’s tales. The Internet Archive has editions by Arthur Rackham, Robert Anning Bell and Rie Cramer, as well as a later, more stylised edition by German illustrator Albert Weisgerber whose plates can be seen at 50 Watts. Weisgerber brings some of the darkness to the fore, as in the drawing which shows Gretel about to push the wicked old woman into the oven.

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Walter Crane’s edition of Household Stories was first published in 1881. I’ve always liked the Pre-Raphaelite quality of Crane’s drawings so I favour this book over some of the other British editions. I love the house-shaped title page, and the way he embellishes the borders with details from the stories. The vignettes are as varied and inventive as you’d expect from a man who wrote a study of decorative art.

As for the stories, they can seem surprising today when the more popular Andersen fairy tales have become the versions most people know, and those mainly from anodyne film and TV adaptations. Looking at the Grimm books is like hearing older recordings of familiar folk songs (and the Perrault versions are older still): Cinderella is Aschenputtel, Little Red Riding-Hood is Little Red Cap, Snow White is Snow Drop, and so on. Walter Crane’s edition, translated by his sister, Lucy, contains 52 stories, just less than a quarter of the number in the final Grimm collection. William Morris admired Crane’s drawing of the Goose Girl enough to have it enlarged for a tapestry design. The scanned book can be browsed here or downloaded here.

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