Surrealism in Belgium

Surrealism in Belgium

Surrealism is an artistic movement born in the concrete context of the aftermath of the First World War. The war symbolised the failure of two ideals that had marked the societal debate before 1914: internationalism and positivism. Due to the commitment of the various socialist parties to a war of nations, the hope that the international workers' movement would defeat nationalism evaporated. The use of scientific knowledge for the purposes of the most atrocious war in history also dispelled the hope that a better world would emerge from the victory of knowledge over obscurantism (enlightenment over darkness, knowledge over superstition).

Surrealism was born at the point where these two failures converged. Several Belgian protagonists of the movement joined various revolutionary socialist tendencies that arose in response to the "betrayal of social democracy" (Communists, Trotskyists, Maoists). Paul Nougé was one of the founders of the Belgian Communist Party. Rene Magritte joined this party three times, but also left it. Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens joined the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art, founded by Leon Trotsky, André Breton and Diego Rivera. Marcel Mariën worked in Peking for the magazine "China under Construction".

But the artistic commitment of the surrealists was the antithesis of the socialist realism that Andrei Zhdanov was championing in the Soviet Union. What they were looking for was the union of the real and the imaginary (dream and reality). This paradox can be explained only by the quest for a response to the failure of positivism.

The Belgian surrealist movement was the second-largest after the French movement. Its two main centres were Brussels and the province of Hainaut. Its principal representative was Brussels painter René Magritte. But Brussels surrealism was much more than just the works of Magritte. Mesens was a writer and collagist, Nougé was a poet, like Mariën and many others (including Camille Goemans, Marcel Lecomte, Paul Colinet, Louis Scutenaire and André Souris). The only woman member of the group was the author Irène Hamoir, Scutenaire's wife. Gerard Van Bruaene, who ran the café "La Fleur en Papier Doré", was a highly-appreciated companion of the Surrealists, whom he made welcome to his establishment. Although Paul Delvaux is also regarded as a surrealist, he was never part of the group.

After 1945, the success of Magritte and the insistence of his wife made him opt for a career as an internationally-renowned painter. Mariën saw this as a betrayal and turned against him, unlike Scutenaire and Hamoir, who remained his best friends.