Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist

It was really enjoyable, recently, to spend time with Johnny Bull, fleshing out our conversation into an article about his iPad drawings and his inspiration drawn from Rene Magritte.

I knew Magritte’s work having had an early fascination with surrealism but the way Johnny talked about Magritte’s painting technique and his choice of subject provoked me to do a little more research.

Drop Shadow – Johnny Bull 2022

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The delight to be found in Johnny’s iPad drawings derives from his extraordinary capacity to find a certain beauty in the everyday, mundane objects that he saw on his regular trip to and from his studio. Even a dull, newly built housing estate presented a wall, magically transformed into a living canvas of dancing leaf shadows. Magritte had this same propensity, the ability to name the hidden.

Ceci n’est pas un pipe – 1929

We know that his intention was for us to question what we thought we saw by his most famous declaration ‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe’

“Visible things can be invisible. However, our powers of thought grasp both the visible and the invisible – and I make use of painting to render thoughts visible.”

― René Magritte

But the question in my mind is

What was he struggling to say? Was he content, declaring what an object was not?

La clef des songes – 1935

“An object is not so attached to its name that we cannot find another one that would suit it better.”

― René Magritte

Reading more about him I think he suffered a sense of frustration at seeing things that were obviously more than the ‘actual’ that they represented. There was always a desire to overlay some sense of mystery, an appeal to provoke a questioning response.

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

― René Magritte

I think that quote reads as a spiritual statement of sorts – the ‘thing’ to which he refers is what I recognise as wonder; the unidentifiable, the mysterious, the thing that is larger than I.

On a painterly level Magritte used negative space to represent alternatives to what is there … what was there or what might be there. The questioning is persistent and demands the involvement of the viewer.

La Décalcomanie – 1966

What inspired Magritte to pursue such thoughts?

It is known that Magritte had a tragic childhood. He witnessed the recovery of his drowned mother’s body. Those that recovered the body covered her face to spare the young boy the horror and discomfort. The ‘veiled face’ emerged as a recurring motifs in his paintings.

Questions of place and vocation must have rattled his bones from time to time as he went from designing wallpaper and advertising posters to, purportedly, forging works by Picasso and De Chirico. It was only when he met André Breton that he embraced the potential of the Surrealism movement and by the 1930s his work was rewarding him with financial success.

Le Blanc-Seing – 1965

The questioning spirit within all of us is restless for expression and there are some that surrender to its vitality. I think Magritte, in his way, did just that. He pursued wonder and magic in his work.

“As regards the artists themselves, most of them gave up their freedom quite lightly, placing their art at the service of someone or something. As a rule, their concerns and their ambitions are those of any old careerist. I thus acquired a total distrust of art and artists, whether they were officially recognised or were endeavouring to become so, and I felt that I had nothing in common with this guild. I had a point of reference which held me elsewhere, namely that magic within art which I had encountered as a child.”

― René Magritte

By pausing, looking a little closer we might all see something magical and unexpected that inspires that sense of wonder within us.

“If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but of thinking of the question that is raised.”

― René Magritte

And this speaks to me like this

La Grande Famille – 1963

The story of how a piece of art is created is one of fascination and intrigue. The premise and driving force behind the creation of the Wonderbook Magazine is to seek out these stories of wonder; the harnessing of those fantastic journeys and the retelling.

I hope these reminders will help us to rely on our instincts and avoid the trends, fashions and exigencies of the art-world.

I think it requires standing still, quietly, looking hard for that invisible ‘thing’, waiting for the wonder that will inevitably appear … it requires a little faith.

Our recommended books that were incredibly useful in the writing of this post

Magritte: A Life

Alex Danchev
480pp – £16.99

Magritte in 400 images

Julie Waseige
440pp – £16.75

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