Ceci n’est pas une graphic novel – Magritte

Magritte: This is not a Biography,

Vincent Zabus, Thomas Campi,

SelfMadeHero

SelfMadeHero’s exellent Art Masters series continues with this look at one of the great kings of Surrealism, Rene Magritte, and appropriately enough this does not take the regular biographical format. Which is, I think, quite the correct approach – an artist with a body of work like Magritte is not best served by the traditional biographical means, this is more a voyage through his life and his work, and an acknowldgement that the two can’t really be separated, and also that the experience of the viewer is vital, even if we can’t always explain quite why a piece touches us so.

Rather than following a chronological narrative of Magritte’s life and work we meet a very ordinary man, Charles Singulier. Charles seems very mundane, boring even, perhaps, with little or no knowledge of Magritte or art, almost a mirror image of Magritte himself, who often looked like the most ordinary of suburbanites – the suit, the bowler hat, the house in the burbs rather than a city centre studio in the hurly-burly of the capital’s cultural life, he looked like a bank manager or accountant, yet within this Surrealist artistic genius was boiling away. Charles, who really is a boring suburbanite is just what he seems, but when he celebrates a promotion by splashing out on a second hand bowler hat – an uncharacteristic move – his inner life is about to be changed. The hat belonged to Magritte, and once donned Charles may look rather dapper, but he starts to see odd things. And he can’t take the hat off.

This is the start of any odyssey through Magritte’s career, from Charles’ perspective – with this hat stuck on his head, his perspective starts to change, his life becomes like a reality version of one of those short movies the Surrealists liked to play with. His visions take the form of Magritte’s paintings, both famous and the less well-known, starting off small (getting home, admiring his new hat in the mirror but seeing only the back of his head reflected in the looking glass), or exploring a gallery of Margitte’s work, affording some comedic relief as one painting begs him to spend more time regarding it, as it isn’t as famous as his other works and visitors normally walk past it quickly. This quickly escalates until Charles is essentially walking through Magritte’s works, his entire world is becoming that of the Surrealist genius.

He’s told the only way to remove the hat and end this is to reach an understanding of Magritte and his work, to fathom some the secrets from his often bizarre imagery. Fortunately he has help – the unnamed Mademoiselle, a gallery curator and expert in Magritte who advises him, the artist’s official biographer, who arrives on a locomotive driving out of a fireplace (affording more comedy – the train is the size of a child’s model railway, so when the biographer speaks from his tiny-scaled body his speech bubble is minute and Charles cannot hear him). Charles finds himself moving through different artworks from different phases of Magritte’s life, attempting to form some understanding, but this is an artist who was never fond of easy explanations, his work, frequently using everyday items but in peculiar ways, challenges perceptions, that even the mundane may conceal weird wonders, depending on how we see it, or how we can learn to see it from different perspectives. And dull, ordinary Charles is having his perspectives challenged in a pretty radical way…

This is an approach that wouldn’t really work in a prose biography, but the comics medium can do beautifully; the Ninth Art exploring the world of the fine arts visually, as Charles literally finds himself in the artist’s work. Yes, perhaps cinema could do this visually too, but in comics form we can pause, a still image, just like the paintings, lingering over some panels, allowing ideas and notions to spark against one another in our head as we take it in. This is the sort of work which the comics medium can do better than any other, and here Zabus and Campi clearly understand that, and use it to wonderful effect to explore Magritte’s ouevre.

As with the likes of the recent Reinhard Kleist graphic biography on Nick Cave (also published SelfMadeHero – reviewed here), this avoids the normal life story of a standard biography and instead mixes that real life with the artist’s work, more interested in giving us a flavour of that work than a mere repetition of facts and dates and happenings, and it is all the better for it. A gorgeous, delightful walk through the mind and work of one of the great artists of the 20th century, laced with gentle humour and observations, it will leave you wanting to spend more time in galleries, which is never a bad thing.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog