We are surrounded by curtains. — René Magritte, 1929
They had just returned from Paris, where things did not go well. There was the spider, yes, but the end came at a party when the host confronted Magritte’s wife about her cross. The host was a painter too, with a larger and more vocal following than Magritte.
Georgette had gotten the cross for her twelfth birthday; the host suggested she remove it. The cross was small, 18 karat, smoothed from twenty years of wear. Magritte knew it as well as he knew the shade of Georgette’s nipples and the twin moles on her back. He was not a religious man, but he was steadfast. He got up and she got up, and they left the table. Three days later they boarded the train for Belgium.
The spider: early in their stay they’d gone for aperitifs with artists Magritte had met. The atmosphere felt both unrestrained and postured, and he wondered, not for the first time, whether so many outward gestures came at the expense of inner calm. He was in Paris to paint and to sell his work, and if his Belgian-Walloon accent embarrassed him, it did so only mildly. His mind was sifting through this when the man beside him reached into a pocket, pulled out a box, and placed a spider in his mouth. Chewed, swallowed. The expression on Georgette’s face didn’t change. She simply pushed her Kir to the center of the table and left it there.
Things had not gone well in Paris and still weren’t good. It was July, 1930. At first Magritte had felt relieved to be home — the plain uncrowded streets, their apartment, summer warmth. It had rained almost every day in Paris. Georgette unpacked their belongings. She set about restocking the larder. Magritte sat at his easel in a corner of the dining room, the dog at his feet. He was having trouble painting. Each day he told Georgette about it, and each day she listened.
The host’s name was Frédéric, and Georgette had been capable of her own defense. Magritte knew this but got up from the table even so. He and Georgette had stayed with Frédéric when they first arrived in Paris. They’d brought their dog, a Pomeranian named Louis, with them. Frédéric sometimes bought bones for Louis from the boucherie around the corner.
Magritte’s painting had gone well enough in Paris, but he had sold only a few pieces.
At home, Georgette was not herself; the clatter from the kitchen seemed intentional. Their third day back she gathered Louis and went to market, red hair caught atop her head. Her father taught maths, her mother kept house. Georgette was not fond of psychological theories or fanciness of any sort. On weekends she worked as a night nurse. From the start she’d called him by his last name, and he liked that she did. At the end of the War, he’d returned from conscription knowing that he wanted to marry her.
The silence made Magritte uneasy. He left his easel and put Satie on the gramophone, and when that induced nothing in him replaced it with Ravel, still to no effect. He stared out the window at the brick apartment building next door. He was working on a painting of a man but could not paint the face. When he was fourteen, his mother had drowned herself.
Georgette came home. She set out lunch. Five hours later she set out dinner. They talked some, but there wasn’t much to it. Two more days passed this way. Only Louis was himself, jumping off the bed at dawn and rushing to the door that opened onto the garden. Every morning Magritte got up and let him out. Then he made coffee in their small kitchen, brought two cups back to bed. He and Georgette sat against their pillows and drank, uneasiness between them.
“Do you see me differently?” he asked, not sure what he meant.
She said, “Don’t be silly.”
“I’m having trouble painting.”
“I know you are. You’ll find your way.”
“Are you still upset about the cross?”
She opened her book of puzzles — she did one every morning. Magritte looked over her shoulder. He thought he might help.
“Where were you yesterday in the afternoon?”
“At Veronique’s. I brought her some cuttings.”
He liked her friend Veronique, but not tremendously.
Georgette said, “I’m getting up.”
As she did, her legs flashed like scissors, and Magritte felt himself get hard. He thought of them fucking and leaving the sheets in shreds.
At night he had dreams, and in the mornings he wrote them down. Some were about Georgette and sex but many weren’t. He hadn’t told anyone in Paris that he kept a journal. In it he mostly noted objects: oranges and locomotives, clouds and rocks, umbrellas. His father, a tailor, had taught him the importance of a well-made suit. Their fifth night back home, Magritte dreamed he was in a room with a birdcage. But instead of a bird, the cage held a large egg. Writing this down in the morning, he felt even more unsettled. Why the egg? And why had it seemed natural? He got up but could not work. The man’s face would not be painted. Georgette retrieved her shopping basket and whistled to Louis.
“We’re off,” she said. Her tone was pleasant. Magritte asked whether she might pick up meat pie for dinner.
In the dining room he finished a third cup of the coffee he’d made after letting Louis out — the good, chocolaty coffee they always bought. He’d missed it those months they were away. He selected a tube of white paint. Uncorked the turpentine and sniffed. He stared at the faceless man, and the faceless man stared back.
On the train home from Paris, they passed fields yellow-wet in the rain. There were thousand-year-old villages and younger ones with factories. Beside him Georgette dozed, eyes scrolling behind lids, as intent in sleep as when she was awake. A nursing manual lay open in her lap. In a clearing, men stood around the hood of a car, their backs to the train. Everything was backwards to the train — backyards, back doors, the backsides of women bending over vegetables. On their itinerary Magritte wrote: rooster, automobile, tomato. Doing so might prime his dreams, or it might not. He put a hand on Georgette’s knee. The train pushed onward. He’d found Paris reassuringly recovered from the War but so sure of itself, externalized, the artists there expending their energies on eccentricity. Yet le mouvement surréaliste felt conformist, even orthodox.
The telephone rang, startling him. The mail — it came, mostly welcome, they read it when they wanted. The telephone intruded. Magritte hadn’t wanted one, but Georgette did. He went into the kitchen and lifted the receiver.
“You’re home.” Bernard, his dealer.
“Since Sunday, yes,” Magritte said.
Bernard got to it quickly — Magritte knew he would. “Your last series didn’t sell as we’d hoped. Those figures in the forest. Too post-war grim.”
Magritte twisted his wedding band. He did not remind Bernard that three of the paintings had sold to a well-off buyer from Greece, enough to pay six months’ rent. He said, “I’ve got oils open, Bernard. I can’t really talk. But you’ll have the piece I’ve been working on soon.”
After he hung up, he broke and buttered a baguette. His temples thrummed — the call or too much coffee or both. Maybe the bread would help. At his easel, he considered setting aside the faceless man and painting something he’d done before. Replicating it. The False Mirror? The Adulation of Space? Both were easily reproducible. He liked making copies of his earlier works, the feeling constant from one piece to the next. There was liberation in it — similar to the relief in an encore, the pressure of performance gone, only the music left. But Bernard did not approve of reproductions. And Bernard would call back soon.
This came to Magritte about his dream: the egg had looked so natural because the cage paired with the bird, and the bird with the egg. And so, the egg with the cage. He went back and forth between disliking and liking products of the mind, including his own. He painted from his dreams, but a dream was indissectible. Understanding the egg and the cage belonged together was enough. He could paint that after he finished the man. But what should he do here?
Think with your eyes, he reminded himself. Eventually he set out dabs of white, blended in red until he had a half-dozen tints of pink. He began. A rounded shape appeared, scalloped on the edges. He started filling the interior. The brush felt good in his hand. He hummed a little. After a while the door clicked open and Louis trotted over. Magritte petted the dog’s ears but kept painting. The object was developing. It was not a face.
Georgette set down the shopping basket. “Too hot out,” she said. She leaned over him. He smelled lily eau fraiche and underarms. “What is that?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “A flower maybe.”
She peered at it. “It looks a little strange. It looks — what did you paint when you worked in the wallpaper factory?”
“Yes, like one of those,” she said.
Magritte had painted cabbage roses as a draughtsman at the factory, when they were first married. The wallpaper had been hand-drawn before it went to print.
“That doesn’t really look like you,” Georgette said again.
Magritte shrugged. His chest felt a little tight. He said, “I’m working here.”
She straightened, “I hope it goes well.” A pause. “We can have lunch in the garden.”
“Alright,” he said.
He blended cadmium yellow into one of the pinks and a coral hue came up. Petals took form. It was indeed a rose, and he was painting for the first time in days. Georgette was right, though. The rose was detailed — fine-stroked and three-dimensional — in a way that didn’t look like him. He could practically smell the heavy scent. So be it.
“You are always who you are,” his father told him the fourth or fifth time they moved houses after his mother was gone.
Wallpaper had helped put food on their table for those two years. He hadn’t disliked painting cabbage roses. There was something in it. Sweat beaded his upper lip. He ran his tongue over it. Salt. He did not dream of his mother but thought someday he might.
Georgette called him to lunch. Magritte was glad to lay down his brush. Ordinarily his shapes were clean and crisp, thin on the canvas, but with every stroke the rose grew more ornate. In the garden she’d set out tuna nicoise. He felt too warm to eat. He poured a glass of water.
He said, “I can’t say why I’m having so much trouble with that piece. I’ve looked for something from my journal, but nothing feels right. Maybe I’m not writing down enough in the mornings.”
“I know you’ll figure it out,” she said.
They argued — Georgette complained that Louis was digging up the delphiniums and irises, and Magritte told her to fence them off. She said he should put up the fence, and after that he should separate the dictamnus. She said he’d told her he would do it last fall, before they left for Paris, and he never did. Magritte raised his voice: “I’m busy.” Georgette smacked the table, hard enough to make the dishes jump, and Louis ran out from under it. She said, “We’re both busy, Magritte. I need to sort the upstairs and iron my uniform for tomorrow. The boulangerie was out of your meat pie. What do you want to do for dinner?”
Magritte didn’t know. Shame flared inside him, as though Georgette working on the weekends indicted him, and he should be draughting wallpaper instead of painting. Was she funding an indulgence? He got up and cleared the table. Fear now, alongside the shame. He couldn’t stand disharmony between them. Every time it came, he took her discontent as final. Inside the house he felt something close to frantic, and a need for motion. He yanked the shopping basket from its hook. He called, “I’m going out.” Passing the easel, he was seized by an impulse. He pulled a palette knife and rag from his bin and scraped at the paint. In seconds the rose was gone. He wadded the rag and dropped it. He’d paint over the smear that remained when he got back.
On the street the heat pressed up against him. Magritte’s steps were slow and hard. Good. By the time he reached the square, his shirt was wet.
At the boulangerie, still no meat pie — he settled for a quiche. The fig tarts looked okay so he got four, and a liter of mineral water. Outside, crows squabbled in the hemlock that overhung the park. He drank the water while nearby two tourists photographed each other by the War memorial. The man posed first, then soberly they traded places. Afterwards the woman lit a cigarette. Magritte reached into the basket and pulled out a tart. It was good. He ate another and left two. He considered offering to take a photo of the tourists together but did not. Watching them was cinema.
Two more stops: lettuce from the vegetable stall and a box of chocolates. He and Georgette could eat them and drink wine while they read in bed that night. They couldn’t be unhappy with each other. He could not let that happen. All order and quietude in his life was due to Georgette.
It was cooler now, less humid. Magritte took the long way home, around the duck pond and across the vacant schoolyard. The basket rubbed against his thigh. He didn’t shop often, but he liked it when he did. The feeling of bounty, of taking care of things. Georgette might tell him he’d done well, or she might not. It would be all right.
It came to him as he turned down their street. The man in the painting did not have a face — no human face, no rose, no apple, no object Magritte had ever written in his journal. There was nothing above the shoulders except sky and possibly a bowler hat. The piece would be different enough from the others he’d done. A title: “Man and Sky in Daytime.” Magritte felt lighter. He’d finish it by Monday, and Bernard would have it by the end of the month. Georgette was in the dining room when he got home. He went to her and offered up the basket.
He said, “I understand what to do with the painting now.”
She glanced at what he’d brought. She said, “I’m happy you’ve figured it out.”
Magritte sat at his easel, frowned at the smear. “I was trying too hard,” he said. “Everything we see hides another thing. And what does it even mean, when finally all is mystery. Why try for explication?”
He continued, “So you search for images and invent. The idea doesn’t matter. Just what’s on the canvas, and the mystery. That’s the only way to paint.”
“Well,” she said, “it’s good you know what you want to do.” She picked up the basket, paused. “Does any of this need to go in the ice box?”
“I try to find a solution to the problem every object poses,” he told her. “Be it any object whatsoever—”
“Magritte, you’re going on. You’ve been like this since Paris.”
He stared at her.
“It’s true,” she said. “It happens every time your work stalls.”
In Paris, Georgette had called Frédéric and the others your friends. She’d said Magritte wanted to be like them. But actually — he didn’t know. He hadn’t felt natural around them. Yet on rainy afternoons he’d liked to paint with the others under the café awning, and the spider hadn’t upset him the way it did Georgette. Magritte understood this much: he and his work were the reason they’d been in Paris all those months. He wasn’t sure he was very good, but it was what he did.
His eyes watered. He said, “While I was out, I thought how fortunate I am to have you.”
His cheeks were horrifyingly wet, and her gray eyes were on him. Georgette put the basket down. She came close and ran her hand up the back of his neck beneath his hair. Magritte felt her fingers. His scalp electrified.
“Look at you,” she said. “Your work, your dream life. It’s always you. But here’s what I’ve realized. You suffer.”
She wrapped her arms around his head and held it. He leaned in, rested.
After a while she said, “The quiche smells good, the ham. I’ll go make a salad.”
She carried the basket into the kitchen.
His mother had been a milliner. The hats she’d made were beautiful. She had disappeared for the last time on a March night.
Fifty years later, after Georgette and Magritte were gone, after his paintings began to sell for large sums and those who’d mocked him were hastening to reverse themselves, biographers would make much of his not talking about his mother. But Magritte talked. Sometimes in bed at night he spoke frangible bits into the top of Georgette’s head. He didn’t have a final memory, just the swiftness of his mother’s leaving and the cold, and nothing after that.
Magritte had saved many of the hats his mother made. He ached with joy and terror when Georgette wore any one of them.
My fiction seems to fall into two categories: proximate to my life or very far from it. The latter stories need backgrounding, and I often wind up in online rabbit holes for a long time before I write. That was the case here. And that was the fun part, before the actual work began (yes to the Gene Fowler quote about drops of blood on your forehead!) During the exploration, I became interested in reimagining (1) Magritte’s relationship with other artists and with the art world, (2) the grief he must have carried after losing his mother and (3) his marriage to Georgette Berger. The marriage had its challenges over 45 years but seemed fundamental to Magritte’s overall stability. I wanted to try for a narrative that braided these elements — and also touched on what Georgette’s experience of Magritte might have been like.