A few months after it opened its doors last June at the Place Royale in Brussels, the New Magritte Museum came to the center of attention of many local and foreign visitors. I remember I went there with my youngest offspring the weekend of the opening, but it was packed so badly that we didn't even bother to enter the museum building. Besides, ticket sales had stopped by the time we arrived. Never mind, it was still fun to be in the middle of the opening celebrations anyways. Click the slide-show here to see shots from that visit... as a fait divers, the last shot on this show is a picture of the toilets at the Greenwich café, about a mile down the road, around the Brussels Stock Exchange area, which Magritte regularly attended for coffee, drinks and few games of chess, especially during the late part of his life in Brussels. The café itself is a very old establishment, an authentic Brussels-style art nouveau pearl beauty. Anyways... this morning, having no other concrete plans to waste our Saturday on, we decided to go and visit the museum, me and my wife Rita.
The New Magritte Museum building is quite a peculiar venue with two huge doors. One sez 'visitors exit', ok fine, I understand that; the other one is split in two pathways, one showing 'entrance with tickets' and the next 'entrance for visitor groups'. So, what happens if you got not ticket? Jump through the brick wall like Harry Potter? Maybe so... who knows? It is a surrealist museum after all. Everything is possible... C'mon, then! Where are the darn tickets? I had actually heard of that little 'detail' at the opening weekend and couldn't believe it. Until I saw it with me own goggles this morning! So, where do we go buy those tickets then? No worries, sez one smiling museum attendant in broken Flemish (those morons can only speak French, dammit), tickets are at the ticket selling desks in the following building(!), the Fine Arts Museum! Holy Moses! Just 100 meters down the road, he continues and smiles again...You must be kiddin' me! Why the hell is that? Didn't they have enough room for tickets in the same building? I betsa this is gonna be launching a fresh Belgian joke to have our neighbors, the Dutch and the French, laughing their fat ass off! Anyways...
Another interesting detail: During our queuing to buy tickets in the 'other building', an African-Belgian attendant shows up, well mannered and all, but who could also only speak French (jee, here's another one... et pour les Flamands la même chose), to tell us that although we would buy our tickets in a few minutes, we couldn't enter the museum until an hour later! What for, dammit? Well, yes, they closed the building entrance because it was packed with visitors, so we had to wait for another hour. A Yankee tourist, ahead of us in the waiting line, emailing in his BB all this time, turned to us in panic for translation help. He didn't grasp a single word of what the attendant was telling him (in French), and in despair he turned to us for help! As Rita is an pure-blood Flemish las, fluent in three languages, Flemish, English and French, plus some broken Greek and German, God bless her, she loves to help single-language-handicapped dudes (especially Yanks) and therefore she promptly volunteered the explaining role that made her proud for the rest of the day! In the meantime, I got a bit tired and some back-aching from the waiting (hernia, you see) and I went to sit on a sofa down the hallway. By the time Rita came back with the tickets, she told me she had started a conversation in the waiting line with another tourist, a Greek student this time, who came to Belgium to learn French (really?). That's my gal... as social as can possibly be. Me? I wouldn't have spoken to anyone on that queue even if you paid me real money... That's how I sadly am. A social monk.
Ok, to waste that hour we went down the road for a quick lunch near a popular Brussels Square with antique shops, known as the Sablon. At the restaurant, a dude next table has been playing with his iPhone all the time. His woman opposite him looked very much like a desperate iPhone widow. I felt empathy for her. I lean over the table towards Rita and quietly sez "Look at the poor girl... he's been playing with his toy all this time... like she's not there". Rita's all over me... she's like, "What do you think YOU have been doing all these years? I feel exactly the same!" I cut the discussion short, point taken. Bill paid and we are soon on our way back to the museum. As we reached the building this next time, another huge queue of phenomenal proportions was waiting to enter as well. OMG there we go again... Fortunately, we soon realized we were wrongly standing at the 'guided tour groups' pathway, at which point we saw the "entrance with tickets" right next to it, no waiting line at all (thank God for that), and promptly entered the building from that side.
The surrealist museum is a rather unusual place. Another Belgian joke is coming up, mind you. You first follow directions and descend to the -2 level. Then you pass ticket control and arrive at an elevator operated by a bored young woman doing elevator transports up and down all day long. OMG! What a way to earn a living. Anyways, you enter the elevator and she brings you to the 3rd floor (!), so, -2 to +3, that's six levels in Europe! Belgians are proud of their elevators and they love to show them off, you see! Duh?
So, the expo starts at the 3rd floor (with Magritte's early period works) and it continues to -1 where it ends at the traditional museum shop, to have them squeeze some more dough out of your wallet with memorabilia. Then, you climb the stairs to the ground floor and eventually breath again outside the building... And please, hurry-up because doors close at 5pm! In the tourist season during a 'hot' Belgian summer! Belgian joke number 5! Oh, please!
You know, there's something about musea visits during busy days that really gives me the creeps. Musea should be like public libraries. Visitors should be silent, or whispering, at best. You need to be able to look and enjoy each artwork in the show like it was only you and the piece you are facing, left in this space entirely alone and undisturbed, without sensing a living soul around you. Like reading a book in a public library, innit? OK, you see me coming... what do you do with those guided tours made of a bunch of senile, culturally primitive humanoids, who are pushed around by a screaming 'certified' Guide like herds? I hate them too those Guide hacks. They scream like ducks in a pond and all the tales they shout about the artwork are nothing else than anecdotal tabloid material that could only interest culturally retarded morons. There was one group like this behind us today. I sez to Rita, let's move on faster or I swear, I'll kick her!
Ok then, here are my general impressions: Only a very small collection really of Magritte's famous paintings can be found in this place. Among his worldwide known works, you can just count a few on the fingers of your right hand (left is ok too). You certainly seen somewhere the famous Magritte 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe', right? I saw the original in New York (either MOMA or the Met, I forgot which one). Here, they only had a pen drawing of the original instead that was like "ceci continue de ne pas être une pipe" (another Belgian joke!). On the other hand, they had plenty of graphic design works for posters, layouts, ads, etc... He did those to earn a living in his early years when he couldn't sell enough paintings yet. Also they had plenty of other Magritte related objects and artifacts, like letters he wrote, photographs, etc... Big deal. If I wanted to see those I'd go Google him!
The shop wasn't too bad, nonetheless; I eventually ended up buying the show catalog as there was the picture of one painting in that book that I particularly liked... of his wife and muse Georgette (see here). Beautiful woman, by the way! Very beautiful! A real Muse! Charleston style curly chestnut hair, and blue eyes! Sweet!
I've got the impression that our painter tried quite a few painting styles and techniques in his life, starting as a cubist or impressionist. Some abstract works too. Before becoming a surrealist. I loved his technique on this portrait of Georgette (shown here), that proves the man knew exactly how to use his brushes and what color luminance to pick from his pallet in order to create particular lighting and volume effects. There was a portrait he made of a man too (Harry Torczyner) that was equally extremely well done. Actually, Dali was an even better master in detail painting... it is the surrealist stuff they both painted that I am not sure I like so much... I find some quite childish (actually that is what surrealism is all about, duh?). You either like it or hate it. I am in between. Very few I like... especially those with good detail (almost photographic). Like Flemish primitives did half a millennium ago. That's one of the reasons I actually love some of Dali's work (Christ on the Cross is one of those)!
There was that other painting too with few thousand leaves that Magritte painted in three dark green tones. He seemed to have meticulously worked separately on every single one of these leaves with a few brush strokes each. Monumental effort! Among them, the leaves that he had to put against the background of a light blue sky with some white clouds, he actually painted first and only then he created the background; in fact, this seems to me the other way around than a painter typically does, that is to say, one actually starts with the background layers first, followed by the foreground layers moving forward, usually darker to lighter. In order to do his trick though, Magritte had to use rather liquid paint, diluted in plenty of painting oil, to smoothly go over the small sized contours of those leaves. By doing that, he eventually created a lovely effect that made the leaves look as natural and sharp from a short distance as like on a photograph. This technique is actually obvious to anyone with elementary oil painting skills (apparently, I am one of those...). I saw other painters in the past using this technique; I actually own half a dozen or so paintings by a contemporary Greek painter, Papaioannou is his name, who applies this particular technique masterfully (shown here one example of a Greek male sitting on a chair). These folks have an excellent perception of the luminance of each color they mix on their pallet before they place it on canvas. The grade of shade they select is quite critical in achieving the effect they wanted! I so envy the bastards! I really, really like this effect a lot! A lot! Other than it takes smelly oil thinned paint much longer to dry, it creates a superb effect! Super cool! Trust me...
Magritte seems to have been a painter who started painting early and had a solid training at the art academy... his early drawings and other works, as well as his painting technique on most of his famous works, are a testimony to the argument that the man could paint like a natural pro (way better than this Tuymans character). Add to this his fantastic and surrealist visions that he created in his shrewd mind, and you got a few pieces of art (actually he painted over a thousand in his lifetime) that are auctioned nowadays, hands down, in the millions (#,€,$...).
Is it worth the visit? I don't know... maybe... well, yeah... why not? If you happen to be around and got nothing else to do?! Paying good transport and accommodation money just for this? Definitely Nay! Go to the Metropolitan instead (at least there's this Apple Mega Store to visit too, 5th Avn down the road, opposite the NY Plaza), or there's another great collection of his in Houston, they say... I betsa his best works are in private US and Japanese collections. We only got the leftovers in Belgium...