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Belgian Surrealism: More than Magritte

Belgian surrealists

The main man of Belgian Surrealism is considered to be René Magritte, but he’s not the only one – and there are some outstanding Belgian women Surrealist painters too. In this post I look at a few Belgian Surrealists who made an impact – and are continuing to do so, as evidenced by recent sales in auction houses, which I also describe below.

What is Surrealism?

Surrealism is an art movement that started 100 years ago. The leader of Surrealism was André Breton (1896–1966), a Frenchman who wanted to create art that was free from logic and reason. His aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality, or surreality.” In 1924, he was instrumental in founding the Bureau of Surrealist Research, a loosely affiliated group of writers and artists who gathered to discuss “all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind.” Four days after their first meeting in Paris on 11 October 1924, André Breton published the Manifeste du Surréalisme (Surrealist Manifesto).

What is Belgian Surrealism?

Belgian Surrealists were not slow in coming forward to follow Breton’s example and submit their own publication, Correspondance, published the same year. This periodical was printed on different colored fliers and featured critiques of many of the French Surrealists’ writing and philosophies. The Belgians did not follow Breton’s rules; they had their own style and ideas. They preferred to show the strange and mysterious things in everyday life, and were more careful and deliberate. Key participants of the original pack of Belgian Surrealists included E.L.T. Mesens, Paul Nougé, René Magritte, Camille Goemans, Marcel Lecomte and, a bit later, Marcel Mariën.

The first Belgian Surrealists, 1924
The first Belgian Surrealists, 1924

René Magritte

René Magritte (1898-1967) is the most famous Belgian Surrealist. In 1925 he began to make Surrealist works inspired by Max Ernst. He moved to Paris in 1927 but fell out with Breton and in 1931 returned to Belgium. After seeing Magritte’s first exhibition after his return, Paul Nougé said: “The world has been altered. There are no longer ordinary things.” Magritte painted things that looked normal but were not: a pipe “that is not a pipe”; people with apples or clouds on their faces. The beauty of Magritte’s images is that they can be recognized instantly.

His paintings reach astronomical figures at auction. Sotheby’s holds the artist’s auction record for L’Empire des lumières (1961), sold for €71.5 million at Sotheby’s London in March 2022. In October 2023, Sotheby’s Paris sold a fruit painting by Magritte, La valse hésitation (1955), for €11.1 million.

Magritte's La valse hésitation (1955)
Magritte’s La valse hésitation (1955)

Paul Delvaux

Holding closely to Magritte’s coat-tails is Paul Delvaux (1897–1994). He painted ancient buildings, naked women, and mythical creatures; paintings that are very dreamy and beautiful. He is becoming more popular and his paintings are also selling well. In 2017 Le village des sirènes from 1942 sold for £3 million at Christie’s London, while in 2022 the characteristic late work, Le soir tombe (1970) fetched £1.9 million at the same auction house.

Delvaux, a Belgian surrealist
Delvaux’s Le soir tombe (1970)

Marcel Mariën

Marcel Mariën (1920-1993) was only 17 when he started exhibiting his work alongside the other Belgian Surrealists. He later became the chronicler of the Belgian Surrealists’ activities and a publisher of their writings, as well as publishing the first monograph on Magritte. His most surrealistic art appeared in the 1970s, using photos, words, and objects to make funny and surprising combinations. In June 2023 his collage Pompéi, an 79: grand coït de la dernière nuit (1984) sold at Bonhams Brussels for just short of €20,000.

Belgian surrealism
Marien’s Pompéi, an 79: grand coït de la dernière nuit (1984)

Jane Graverol

Women surrealists are also coming more into the picture. One of them is Jane Graverol (1909-1984). She painted people with hats and masks that looked like Magritte’s paintings, as well as flowers and animals. Her paintings are getting more attention and becoming more valuable. The artist’s most sought-after works are her silhouettes of naked women with landscapes filling Magrittean gaps where their bodies should be. At Sotheby’s London in March 2023, a painting called L’Esprit Saint (1965) achieved £508,000. Three months later, La chute de Babylone (1967) reached €508,400 at Bonhams in Brussels.

Jane Graverol
Graverol’s La chute de Babylone (1967)

Rachel Baes

Another Belgian woman surrealist is Rachel Baes (1912–1983). She painted scenes from Greek myths and legends, as well as her own fantasies and desires. They often depict young girls and are rather dark in both content and tone. Her paintings are also getting more recognition and increasing in value. The work of Rachel Baes has yet to reach the heights of Jane Gravenol, but her painting Oedipe et Le Sphinx sold for €16,575 at Bonhams in Paris in March 2023.

Baes a Belgian Surrealist painter
Baes’ Oedipe et Le Sphinx, undated

2024: Celebrating Belgian Surrealism

To celebrate the centenary of Surrealism, quite a few events are taking place in 2024 focusing on Belgian Surrealism. Here are three. I’ll add more as I hear of them:

IMAGINE! 100 Years of International Surrealism

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are inaugurating IMAGINE!, an international touring exhibition conceived in close collaboration with the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It is described as an “immersion in surrealist poetry, dream, the labyrinth, metamorphosis, the unknown and the subconscious, led by some of the great names of surrealism. In Brussels, the RMFAB will explore surrealism from a symbolist perspective, through more than 130 works of art (paintings, works on paper, sculptures, objects, assemblages, and photographs). It takes place 21 February to 21 July 2024. More information here.

Histoire de ne pas rire. Surrealism in Belgium

Bozar is celebrating 100 years of Belgian surrealism. Running from 21 February to 16 June 2024, Histoire de ne pas rire pays extra attention to the artists’ international interactions, the political-historical background of the movement, and focuses on several important women artists. The exhibition includes works by many artists mentioned above, such as Paul Nougé, René Magritte, Jane Graverol, Marcel Mariën, Rachel Baes, Paul Delvaux, and Max Ernst, and many others. More information here.

Delvaux at BRAFA

Taking place 28 January to 4 February 2024 in Brussels Expo, the BRAFA Art Fair is shining the spotlight on the work of Paul Delvaux. A dedicated exhibition space will bring together a group of works from the Paul Delvaux Museum in Saint-Idesbald, which holds the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work. His entire career will be retraced from the 1920s to the end of the 1960s, illustrating Delvaux’s importance in twentieth-century art.

What is the future of Belgian Surrealism?

Belgian Surrealism is not over. It is still alive and growing. More and more people are discovering the different artists and their works, and are finding new ways to appreciate and enjoy them. I hope I have shown you that Belgian Surrealism is certainly more than Magritte; it is a rich and diverse art movement that has a lot to offer. If you are interested in this subject, you might like to follow Discovering Belgium as throughout the year I will be writing biographies of Magritte, Delvaux and other Surrealist artists in my Remarkable Belgians series. I have already featured James Ensor, who had an important impact on surrealism. For new posts, just add your email below:

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