It is easy to regard René Magritte as a much better image-maker and inventor of visual and verbal conundrums than he was a painter. Certainly, many of his works look better in reproduction than they do in the flesh, if flesh it is. (It is an almost Magrittean fact that painters can call paint flesh, coloured mud a face, a few brushstrokes a tree.)
A plodding and sometimes self-regarding technical dreariness blights several of the surrealists: Dalí, Ernst and the awful, slithery Yves Tanguy. Actual encounters with their paintings are often a letdown. The startling image is the thing. In surrealism, radical and upsetting images go hand-in-hand with pictorial conservatism.
Magritte's paint does its job, no more, no less. It records and describes, whether it is a windowsill, a view, a room and the people and things in it, a steam train emerging from a fireplace and the clock on the mantelpiece stuck at twenty to one. It must be lunchtime, unless it's gone midnight. Sometimes in Magritte it is hard to tell. The lamps are lit in the darkened suburbs, but there is broad daylight in the sky above.
With Magritte, even the bland Belgian sky becomes something other: a sky dreaming of itself in the plainest blue, in his favourite greys and white. One painting of an inoffensive sky is called The Curse. Magritte is asking us not what is in the sky, but what unseen thing is impending. He coaxes it in to the viewer's mind.
His decision to paint in an utterly conventional, inexpressive, even illustrational manner was as conscious and deliberate as his dress and habits: the bowler hat, the overcoat, his affectation of the suburban lifestyle of the French-speaking Belgian petit bourgeois. In fact he was always a political rebel, an anti-fascist (and there were plenty of fascists about in Belgium, even before the war). After the second world war he joined the Belgian communist party. Magritte's best disguise was being himself.
Sometimes something unexpected – even for a surrealist – slipped out, particularly during and just after the war. It was then he embarked on a kind of sickly pseudo-impressionism, with depictions of women licking and fondling themselves (these images may have owed something to Francis Picabia), followed by his repulsive and wonderfully coarse "Vache" (cow) paintings. These were a joke about the Fauve painters, who thought of themselves as "wild beasts". They were a retort to the snooty Parisian art world and to surrealism itself, from whose ranks Magritte felt he had been excommunicated.
The Vache paintings erupt from Magritte's oeuvre, as they do from Tate Liverpool's exhibition, like a fart in church. Daft, cartoonish and lumpen, they have a particular Belgian humour. They also allow Magritte to laugh at himself. In Ellipsis, a green-headed man wearing a Magritte bowler (with an eye in its crown) has a rifle for a nose, ping-pong eyeballs and one hand that seems to be disembodied. Somehow, this is not surrealism. The Vache paintings, long out of fashion, as well as beyond the pale, have been admired by younger artists for years. Meanwhile, while the Magritte everyone knows remains untouchable, an influence only on advertisers, philosophers such as Michel Foucault, and essay-writing psychoanalysts keen to unravel his mysteries.
Myth and his mother's suicide
There is a lot of unpleasantness and goings-on of one sort or another in Magritte's art. It's not all giant apples filling the attic, wine bottles turning into carrots, or pictures of a pipe that is not a pipe. There is more to him than skies raining bowler-hatted gents over Brussels streets. There is, for instance, the bloodied, murdered woman in The Menaced Assassin; and the corseted woman wearing the peculiar surgical mask and standing in the cupboard, in the corner of The Secret Player, with its men playing baseball and a decapitated turtle swimming through the garden. There is the philosopher whose phallic nose delves into the pipe he's smoking; and the lovers with swaddled heads, kissing through the silk (a memory, perhaps, of the artist's mother, who drowned herself when Magritte was 14, her body bought ashore with her nightdress tangled around her head, her corpse exposed).
Whether Magritte ever saw her body, or heard secondhand how she had been found, or just invented the scene (I know from experience what can go on in the mind of an adolescent who has suddenly lost his mother), the shocking image of his mother's suicide – she had tried before – became an enduring myth in his art. It is also the sort of thing critics use to explain the inexplicable in an artist's work.
Magritte had real imagination, turbo-charged in flight from childhood trauma. But Magritte can be boring, too, the surreal and uncanny becoming no more than a stock-in-trade. He painted continually – more than 200 paintings in a few years during the late 1920s – and inevitably some of them are duds: a recycling of motifs rather than repetitions born of obsession. Other repetitions – of faces, types, the shuffling of things and the names we give them – seem products of genuine anxiety.
Surrealism's shock value has now almost gone, diluted by advertising and the movies, by literature and poems and pop, let alone the nightly assaults of our dreams. The everyday of modern living is itself absurd. Magritte, like Dalí, has become one of surrealism's poster boys. With a few notable exceptions – Méret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington and the wonderful Claude Cahun – the surrealists were almost all boys, kinky boys though they sometimes were. Magritte himself shied away from the shrink, but used Freudian terminology – The Pleasure Principle, The Interpretation of Dreams – in his titles.
He loved a trashy thriller
Tate Liverpool's show is not nearly so complete as the 1998 Brussels exhibition that marked the centenary of the artist's birth; but smaller, tighter exhibitions are often better. Magritte generally needs a good cull. He was sometimes slight, occasionally toe-curling. Over-exposure kills certain images. Who needs to see the poor Mona Lisa, or that man with the apple in front of his face?
Then there are the real surprises. In The Eye, a woman peers through a circular aperture surrounded by blackness. Is it a through-the-keyhole view? Is she catching us at it? It could be a movie still from a thriller (Magritte loved a good trashy thriller, and designed posters for several). I also think of the jailer's eye looking through the prison spy-hole in Jean Genet's 1950 Un Chant d'Amour, one of the greatest surrealist films. At any event, Magritte's voyeur is unfazed by whatever she sees.
Another surprise is Magritte's commercial work, his 1950s film posters and cigarette adverts, as well as the home movies he shot. His wife eats a banana backwards, until the banana is whole again, and feeds it to her husband. It's a gag as old as the silent comedies but, like all Magritte's films, touching in its domestic playfulness and affection. How strange Magritte was, even when we think we know him.
• This article was amended on 22 June 2011. A sentence in the original said, "'In fact he was always a political rebel, an anti-fascist (and there were plenty of them about in Belgium, even before the war)". The wording has been clarified.
The question of when the right time is for a child to leave home is asked over and over again in Tanguy. It is first established that seventeen is too young – and when a child decides to leave this early, he leaves a gap behind him, sadness and hurt. However, when a 28 year-old man who earns more than his parents, who is in a serious relationship and who has a busy life filled with parties, work and travelling, keeps putting off leaving home to start a life of his own, then there’s a whole different issue to deal with. Having your child around for too long, cleaning up for him, cooking for him, hearing him having sex next door and having him hang out with your friends, will eventually get to you. And when it does, you’re left with no other choice than to make his life a living hell…
French director Étienne Chatiliez delivers a very clever black comedy that hilariously describes the Mediterranean sociological phenomenon of grown-up adults still living with their parents even after their mid-twenties — a generation problem which involves intelligent, talented, studious, hard working, big earning, capable men and women who have been given numerous opportunities by both their parents and society and who have developed impressive skills, but who still need their parents’ protection and approval in order to carry on living. The screenplay sign Étienne Chatiliez and Laurent Chouchan, filling it with brutally honest, admittedly mean, although never mean-spirited, confessions. The whole film from beginning to end is a guilty pleasure. You watch it knowing that none of the characters should be doing what they’re doing or saying what they’re saying. Yet you’re glad they do, you like that they take all pressure and guilt off their audience and you thank them for being strong enough to take full blame.
Sabine Azéma and André Dussollier are great as Edith and Paul Guetz, Tanguy’s parents. They’re tired, fed-up and desperate for their lives back, but at the same time they love their son, want him to be happy and to feel loved by them. They are the exaggerated version of every couple torn between wanting their grown-up son to be in their lives but also to get up and get a life of his own. Éric Berger plays Tanguy Guetz so brilliantly that he manages to make every single viewer hate him right from the get go. The parents are no doubt very convincing and you can totally sympathise with what they’re going through, but with a character or an actor any less annoying, their extreme actions would come across malicious and very much over-the-top. In other words, Berger’s Tanguy is so irritating, that nothing that the parents can do to him will ever be drastic enough.
In fact the story and Tanguy himself are so well-presented, that in all Mediterranean countries, and especially France, the word Tanguy has become the term to describe an adult man who still lives at home with his parents at quite the late age. Although all these countries are known to enjoy a special family closeness that many English-speaking territories might envy, some satire on the matter was long time coming and needed and with Chatiliez is finally put into hilarious words: I hate our son… He makes me sick. His good manners, his never-ending smile… His damned thesis… Edith Guetz, portrayed bySabine Azéma.
There is no question about the fact that Étienne Chatiliez’sTanguy is an all-around Mediterranean film. Any other couple of parents, from any English-speaking country, would have kicked the child out of the house long before they needed to start feeding him expired yogurts or hoover outside his room at 5am in order to make him want to leave. But for the Mediterranean audiences, Tanguy is describing a well-known problem. And it is mocking it in such a dark and sharp way that it removes all guilt of considering it a problem in the first place off of you.
Tanguy at IMDb
Tanguy at Rotten Tomatoes
Tanguy at Wikipedia
Tanguy (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
– Tanguy [DVD]