Lately my husband David and I have been recalling how as children we’d stretch out on our backs and search the clouds and name the images we discovered. We’re doing this still though mostly when we’re riding upright behind a windshield, and we don’t try to identify shapes quite so much as we once did; rather we simply enjoy the shared pleasure of witnessing the ethereal beauty we see—fluffy clouds, puffy clouds, big and small and the wee little ones, too.
Watching the clouds put on their show, I’m often transported into the paintings of my all-time favorite artist, the Belgium surrealist, René François Ghislain Magritte. Many of his canvases depict clouds painted in surprising settings—clouds surrounding the pupil of a single eye, clouds on the interior walls of a room, clouds within the outlines of a flying dove or a man’s head and torso beneath his bowler hat.
Viewing Magritte’s 1992 retrospective exhibition in the vast galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, though I was enchanted by his “Time Transfixed” with his finely wrought steam locomotive dramatically puffing smoke and racing from an empty, sterile fireplace, his cloud paintings were what captivated my attention and kept calling to my heart again and again. They still do today.
René Magritte, (1898-1967) made witty, thought-provoking paintings. Using simple graphics he gave new meaning to seemingly unrelated everyday images and familiar, mundane objects. Over his lifetime he experimented in various styles and became a primary influence on the pop art movement of the sixties.
Magritte was born the eldest of three sons. His father’s manufacturing business sometimes afforded comfort for the family. At other times they knew financial difficulties. When Magritte was thirteen, after his mother took her life by drowning herself in the Sambre River, he found escape and comfort in films and novels and painting. Magritte’s constant play with reality and illusion in the paintings of his mature years has been attributed to the early death of his mother.
Leaving home at eighteen Magritte attended the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts for two years, where he was exposed to cubism and futurism and was greatly influenced by the work of Pablo Picasso. After his compulsory year of military service he married Georgette Berger whom he’d known since childhood. Georgette became his model and muse. They remained married until his death.
In the early years of marriage, Magritte held various jobs to provide support. He worked briefly as a draughtsman designing cabbage roses in a wallpaper factory, then found employment as a freelance poster and advertisement designer. Continuing to paint as his time allowed, he was inspired by “The Song of Love” by the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico and his unusual amalgam of images—a small wall on which is mounted a Greek sculpted head and a surgeon's glove with a green ball beneath and the outline of a locomotive on the horizon.
Magritte became increasingly popular as his paintings incorporated clouds, rocks, pipes and bowler hats in curious juxtapositions and contexts, hence invoking both mystery and a madness of orientation. In spite of his popularity, his first solo exhibition in 1927 in Brussels was scorned by critics. Bitterly disheartened, Magritte felt compelled to leave his homeland for Paris where he landed in the center of the surrealist movement that included writer André Breton, poet Paul Éluard and artist Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Joan Miró.
In the late 1930’s Magritte had exhibitions in New York City and London. The onset of World War II found him back in Belgium where he remained during the Nazi occupation. Afterwards, the suffering and violence caused by the war moved him to change his palette to brighter colors. He adopted more impressionistic techniques that lead him away from the frequent dark and chaotic moods of surrealism. “Against widespread pessimism,” he said, “I now propose a search for joy and pleasure.” I wholeheartedly advocate his admonition in our modern time of confusion and discord. Seek joy and pleasure!
Among the many pleasures of my married life is David’s preference for doing all the driving when we go places together around town or on roads to more distant destinations. I’m delighted with every opportunity this affords me to look up get in some good cloud gazing that reminds me of Magritte. Somehow David manages to cloud gaze and converse about Magritte and safely drive simultaneously. Together we agree, “Our cloudscapes are spectacular!”