This is not a museum

BRUSSELS — Rene Magritte, Belgium’s master Surrealist, discovered home movies when he was in his 60s. But when he did get his hands on a camera there was no holding him and his fellow Surrealists back, as they filmed themselves cavorting around the small Brussels town garden with a Prussian helmet, sea shells and a tuba. A cache of these films is among the treasures at Belgium’s new Magritte Museum, which opens in Brussels June 2.

“We own 40 Super 8 films,” said project manager Virginie Devillez. “Magritte had given them to someone to edit, who made a mess of it. We painstakingly restored them to their original condition and digitized them.” Only eight films are on show in the museum, Devillez explained, because many include vacation footage — “three minutes of a gondola bobbing up and down."

Die-hard Magritte fans curious to see the bobbing gondola can view all the films (among other things) on a website that offers access to the entire Magritte archive and more. The website’s powerful search engine is one of the many items contributed in lieu of cash by the utilities giant GDF-Suez, adding up to 6.5 million euros ($9.1 million). The company also contributed expertise in such areas as photovoltaic energy, LED modules and “green” electricity.

The Magritte Museum is the realization of the long-held dream of Michel Draguet, the curator of Brussels’ Museum of Fine Arts, who handed over a 19th century building attached to his vast museum complex. The main problem for interior designer Winston Spriet was that the building was studded with windows. His solution was to create a double-skin to separate the rooms from the facade, with all the technical infrastructure inside it.

Displayed chronologically in the dimly lit dark coffee, sea green and Magritte blue rooms are such masterpieces as two versions of Magritte's "Empire of Lights," "The Return" and "The Domain of Arnheim" inspired by the story by Edgar Alan Poe, and a fine selection of works from his controversial Vache period, despised at the time but now loved by young artists. Outside, on the facade, by day and night, luminous Magritte-style clouds appear to drift inside the windows.

Magritte (1898-1967) acquired in the years following his death the dubious fame of being the artist most used in advertising, and that has clearly contributed to the health of the Magritte Foundation. Charlie Herscovici, a Belgian who befriended Magritte’s widow when he was just 17, now owns the world reproduction rights on the artist and runs the foundation. He worked with Draguet in setting up the museum under the auspices of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

Herscovici ensured that a number of private collectors loaned major pieces. Those pieces on loan, along with the Museum of Fine Arts' own holdings, now make up the world’s largest collection of Magrittes, including the statues of his later years, photographs, letters and films.

On the surface, Magritte and the love of his life, blue-eyed Georgette, lived unobtrusively in a home furnished in heavy Belgian style — velvet couches, oak tables. They had no children, although they were very attached to a succession of Pomeranian dogs. Unlike the militantly vociferous French Surrealists, led by Andre Breton, they followed a quiet routine with their poet and musician Surrealist friends.

The Belgians viewed Surrrealism as an underground revolution that would change by stealth the way people saw the world around them. Magritte was the group’s only painter and he worked with his friends on ideas and titles for his paintings that were aimed to shock, rattle and provoke people out of conventional thinking.

“I strive never to be conventional when I paint,” Magritte declared, “and when I am not painting, I appear to be playing a conventional game: painting, for example, or living in a house, eating meals at the proper time, and so on.”

Magritte said his principal activitity was thinking and then producing images that contained the mystery he had first encountered in the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. He liked to be perplexed by his own work years after it had been completed, comparing his feelings to those of a parent who doesn’t quite understand his grown children.

Magritte said he suffered from a profound existential ennui, and among his tongue-in-cheek declarations claimed that he preferred postcard reproductions of paintings to the originals. He might be amused to find so many of his own works now for sale in that humble medium at the museum bearing his name.

The new Magritte Museum opens June 2.

Belgium's other new museum:

Tintin: The boy who never grows old gets bigger

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