What if you were writing a biography, and the (deceased) subject of your work was trying to stop you? No wait, that’s too simple. What if you didn’t want to biographise this person, they (still deceased) didn’t want you to, but you had to, because this hat wanted you to. This one bowler hat. And a mysterious girl you fancy. Sounds legit.
The latest in SelfMadeHero’s series of artist biographies takes on the subject of René Magritte in really the only way one could properly take on the subject; obtusely. So far SMH have covered Rembrandt, Vincent, Pablo, Munch, Gauguin and Dali, all pleasingly approached in a different fashion appropriate to the subject. No artists from outside of the dead white male canonical category as of yet, though I guess that’s kind of the point. If they do want someone to develop some comics about female artists I am available (sorry, you know how it is, starving feminist and all that, let’s not go on about it). I loved the obtuseness of this book, tackling an artist that really engaged with the impossibility of truth both humorously and seriously, though it’s not always clear to his audience which is which. Campi (artist) and Zabus (writer) embrace this and lead both the protagonist and the audience on a merry, semi-serious dance.
The story unfolds thusly: Charles Singulier is a mild-mannered (Belgian?) gentleman about to be promoted at his boring day job when an impulsive purchase of a second-hand bowler hat unexpectedly (unless you read the back of the book) traps him in a research quest about the life of René Magritte. Visions of the artist’s paintings begin to beset him at every turn and figures from both the artist’s life and his work follow him around a landscape carved from both reality and fantasy. Every time the characters come close to explaining Magritte’s ideas or motivations, surreal imagery manifests itself within the scene to baffle and rebuke. As one sullen bowler-hatted everyman scolds “stop it with your stupid psychology! Magritte hated psychology. It tries to explain away mystery – the exact opposite of his approach.”
Should hapless school children, tasked with researching the surrealist, aim to use this book to answer their questions, they might be as frustrated as they were when their art teacher asked them whether or not that pipe was a pipe in the first place. Probably it would be inappropriate for children to be reading this book anyway, since the sexual appetites clear from certain of Matisse’s paintings are not shied away from. And rightly so, as the vast vistas of strangeness that poor Charles Singulier is prompted to open up within himself most likely include his repressed sexuality.
He doesn’t even know where to look when his (of course) charming and attractive female guide’s face turns into a full-frontal nude. If you remember that painting, you probably know a few others and let me reassure you that your favourites are all here; trains, apples, doves, leaf trees, lots of skies and breasts and bowler hats. But whether you’re a fan of the oeuvre or have never encountered the treachery of images, Thomas Campi’s vividly realised painterly panels and Vincent Zabus’ engagingly straightforward strangeness should entertain you thoroughly, tied up in an ending that feels poetically inevitable.
Get this for Christmas for: teenage art students, fans of the surreal on any level, your aunt that enjoyed it that time she went to the Dali museum but hasn’t bothered to find out about the other guy, your cousin that made you watch Inception, Walter Benjamin, friends with strong hat game, pipe smokers, non-pipe smokers.
Don’t get this for: young children, the sexually repressed, anyone who is going to complain that it is a biography after all.
Vincent Zabus (W), Thomas Campi (A) • SelfMadeHero, £9.99