Exhibition: La Belle Société - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The guest work


2011-07-05 • 2011-09-25

La Belle Société

Room 32

The Guest Work Programme that started in 2001 brings works of art temporarily loaned by other institutions closer to the general public. When displayed as single works within the context of the Museum’s Permanent Collection, all these works of art acquire new relevance. In 2004, the Banco Santander Foundation joined this initiative as patron and sponsor by lending the Museum several works of art from its own collection, thus presenting the Museum with the opportunity of giving several annual exhibitions, some of which were accompanied with conferences given by prestigious art specialists. To date, the Programme has organised 34 of these events, including the work that is currently on exhibition, that have allowed visitors to contemplate works of art in this somewhat singular fashion. Artists whose works of art were exhibited in the past are Berruguete, Morales, Zurbarán, Van Dyck, Tintoretto, Artemisia Gentileschi, Canaletto, Fortuny, Monet, Sorolla, Picasso, Chillida, Hockney, Freud, Rubens, Arellano and, more recently, Turner. 

In 1927, René Magritte (Lessines, Hainaut, 1898-Brussels, 1967) moved to Paris where he made friends with André Bretón and became one of the most outstanding members of the French Surrealist group. His paintings are characterised by his juxtaposition of elegantly-painted everyday objects in clear colours against flat backgrounds. This particular work of art represents one of the artist’s more celebrated themes: that of a man with no face wearing a bowler hat. This painting has often been thought to represent Magritte’s own alter ego. Here, the figure is duplicated and silhouetted against luxuriant foliage and a landscape with a sky in which clouds are the main protagonists. This unusual combination of reality and fiction results in a disconcerting image characteristic of the Belgian maestro.

A Belgian artist born in 1898, Magritte studied at the Brussels Fine Art Academy. There the budding artist experimented with Constructivism and created his first works of art for the field of publicity that was incipient back then. In the ‘20’s, Magritte showed interest in photomontage and collage, two techniques at the service of play and the irrational. These were the years of splendour for Surrealism and this one solitary painter among a group of writers became a member of the Belgian Surrealist group along with Camille Goemans, Mesens and Paul Nougé. In 1927, he moved to Paris and came into contact with André Breton, Paul Éluard and the French Surrealist group. It was the Italian painter, Giorgio de Chirico, however, who most influenced the way the artist was to look at painting: unreal spaces in which objects acquired the mysterious presence of the metaphysical, a movement that was so close to the school of Surrealism.

His relationship with Surrealism grew stronger in the ‘30’s and he discovered metamorphosis as a visual pley as disturbing as it is poetic as a tool for transforming objects. His interest for language also led him to explore the relationship between the content of a word and its meaning and visual reference: Magritte questions conventional associations, thus causing a sense of oddity where none normally exists. He questions logical common sense and breathes new content into shapes since objects no longer represent what they previously represented. A clear example of this is his well-known work of 1928-1929 La trahison des images (“The Treachery of Images”) in which the painting depicts a now-famous pipe together with the phrase: “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”(“This is not a pipe”) written below it. Magritte appeals to the imagination of the spectator to discover the game that is being played. He also changes the relationship of objects between themselves, the names by which they are known, the space in which they find themselves and the perspective and size of the chosen subject matter.

In La Belle Société, painted by the artist shortly before his death, Magritte superimposes two silhouettes of the same person, but replaces the image of a man with surroundings containing natural and landscaped subjects: we see one profile of luxuriant vegetation in front of which we see another, identical profile of beach and horizon. Far from immersing himself in the automatism of the unshackled movement of Surrealism, without abandoning his taste for the oneiric and the psychoanalytic, Magritte traces simple shapes in his quest for freedom and free-spirited expression with a firm, uncluttered, almost simple hand.

Magritte explained his concept of painting as follows: "A painted image is, on one hand, the description of a visible world that has been modified by a way of thinking. On the other hand, a painted image is the description of a visible world understood in a spontaneous fashion”. (The Telefónica Foundation)

Text: Fundación Telefónica

René Magritte
La Belle Société, 1965-1966
Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm Telefónica Collection, Madrid.