The moment I set eyes on the room I realised I’d been there before: a bare chamber, filled from floor to ceiling with an enormous green apple. The apple is smooth, without blemish, an apple from the dreams – or perhaps the nightmares – of the Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte.
The image of the apple is one of the most frequently recurring in Magritte’s art: apples wearing carnival masks, apples ossified into stone outcrops, apples that declare they are not apples, or a single very large apple floating above the head of a man looking out over a mountain landscape. Magritte’s apples are almost always the same smooth, matt green. And in one of his most famous works, The Son of Man, an apple floats in front of the face of an anonymous bowler-hatted figure, believed to be a self-portrait. The reason I instantly recognise the apple in the room, why I feel I know this image under my skin, is because I first saw it when I was still a teenager, just starting to find out about art. And I didn’t see it in a gallery or a book, but on an album cover: the Jeff Beck Group’s 1969 outing Beck-Ola.
Magritte was born at the height of La Belle Epoque, in 1898. He died in the middle of the 1967 Summer of Love, by which time his Surrealist heyday had long since past and he should, by any normal reckoning, have been a forgotten figure. But the non-committal cool of his paintings, their endless rearrangement of the same few emblematic elements – not least those apples – perfectly suited the Pop Art era. Their appropriation by Sixties and Seventies designers and illustrators turned paintings such as The Lovers (a couple kissing with their faces covered in cloth) and Time Transfixed (a train coming out of a fireplace) into some of the most famous in the world. Paul McCartney, a Magritte enthusiast and collector, insisted on the use of the apple as name and logo for the Beatles’ record label, and its subsequent adoption by Steve Jobs for his Apple computer empire turned Magritte’s apple into the most widely reproduced piece of fruit in history.
In Magritte’s art there are no superfluous details. Everything is stripped back to a haunting illustrative essence. His images reflect his background working variously as a wallpaper painter (which gave him a feel for flatness and repetition), a commercial artist (which helped him evolve that even, impassive style, which barely changed over decades) and as a forger of other artists’ paintings (which means that nothing in his work is quite what it seems).
There’s a tendency to denigrate Belgium as a small, insignificant country without famous people; though where art is concerned there are large numbers of incredibly famous Belgians: Rubens, van Dyck and Tuymans, to name just a few. And perhaps much of the country’s life goes on, willfully even, beneath the radar of the rest of the world. It is this tension between appearance and what it conceals that is at the heart of Magritte’s art.
In Magritte’s painting there are no figures, nothing to distract from the fact that this not-quite-wholesome reality belongs to the viewer as much as to the artist. Magritte projected himself as an archetypal inhabitant of a conventional bourgeois world: painting himself in the funereal business suit he wore while painting, and, of course, in the black bowler hat, which echoes the shape of the primal idea of the apple.
This image was of course a consciously adopted pose. A rather big man, Magritte looks back at us from photographs with a faint enigmatic smile: a Surrealist and a Communist, devoted to undermining bourgeois stability, interested not in images, but in what images conceal. In The Son of Man, the eyes of the man in the bowler hat peer at us from between the leaves of the apple that all but blots out his face. The apple, Magritte claimed, obscured “the visible, but hidden: the face of the person. Everything we see hides something else. There is a fascination with that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This can take the form of a conflict between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”
The term the “son of man,” refers to Christ, while the apple is a symbol in Christian mythology of knowledge, immortality, temptation, the fall of man and of sin, an emphasis echoed in fairy tales – such as when Snow White is offered a poisonous apple by her evil stepmother. Magritte wants to evoke these resonances, while simultaneously confusing them – and us. His work is permeated by a tradition that pervades Belgian art from the sixteenth-century painter Pieter Bruegel onwards: carnival. The state in which, for short periods in the religious calendar, there is conflict between order and anarchy, when the conventional world assumes a mask, and the figure behind it may be your bank manager or local councillor. In Magritte’s paintings a pair of apples wear masks; the apple becomes a mask for the artist himself. Everything in Magritte is concealing something, and nothing.
"My paintings,” he claimed, “evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself, 'What does that mean?' It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing, it is unknowable."
While Belgium may enjoy some very fine food, Magritte’s most notable painterly essay into gastronomy is hardly mouth-watering. The Portrait shows a table laid with a bottle of wine and a plate of ham from the middle of which a single eye looks back at us. The eye, which turns the painting into a being that is scrutinising us, is a symbol of power and of anxiety – the eating of a human eye occurs several times in Georges Bataille’s Surrealist anti-classic The Story of the Eye. But even without that repulsive association, the treatment of this frugal repast is deliberately literal, wooden, un-sensual.
One of the traditional tests of the marvel of painting is that the viewer will confuse image and reality. Seeing a crisp, succulent apple, he or she will try to put their hand into the painting to take and eat it. Magritte’s paintings have the reverse effect. If you managed to remove an apple from one of them, you’d break your teeth on it: it looks like a wooden model of the thing it resembles, but doesn’t represent. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe,”) as Magritte wrote on one of his most famous paintings. And on another, “Ceci n’est pas une pomme” (“This is not an apple.”). Or as he put it in perhaps his simplest verbal statement, painted onto an apple in a picture owned by Paul McCartney: “Au revoir.” Goodbye.