Magritte: This is Not a Biography is a rare thing: an adventure story, told in graphic novel form, that captures an artist’s life while also playfully commenting on the futility of reducing an artist to biographical details.
The book, by Vincent Zabus and Thomas Campi and published by SelfMadeHero, has an unusual hook. On a whim, ordinary Charles Singulier buys a bowler hat — the kind pictured in several paintings by Surrealist painter René Magritte. This innocent-seeming garment sends Singulier’s life topsy-turvy, as characters from Magritte’s paintings come to life all around him. These characters give him a fateful mission: uncover the painter’s secrets, or else be forced to wear the bowler hat forever.
The journey Singulier embarks upon takes him past key places in Magritte’s life and past key works in his oeuvre, guided by experts. Like any viewer of Magritte’s paintings, Singulier comes to question basic perceptions: that a window is actually a window, if it’s labelled something else; whether a painting is actually a painting of a painting, if you see the easel around the edges.
Fittingly for a book about a prankster painter who resisted boundaries between words and images, This is Not a Biography plays with comic book conventions. Characters slide into the spaces between panels, the text on the page itself becomes part of the story, and photographs morph into paintings. We even see Magritte himself painting one of the comic panels. It’s all deliberately disorienting.
The book is endlessly inventive in using Magritte’s works as inspirations, and often as settings as well. For instance, Singulier wanders among Magritte’s peculiar landscapes, where giant orbs are suspended in the air and veiled lovers are embracing. A number of Magritte’s most famous paintings are pictured on these pages, giving the book a kind of gallery feel.
Like the writing, the art is whimsically charming. Campi’s illustrations have a romantic watercolor style, with gentle lighting and brushstrokes. There’s a faded, nostalgic quality to the art, which evokes both an earlier era of bohemian pretensions and the way in which that era has become mythologized by later generations.
The plot is paper-thin, of course. The premise is an excuse for a whistle-stop tour through Magritte’s life, which means that major events, such as the suicide of Magritte’s mother at a young age, are quickly touched upon before the hapless protagonist gets whisked away to the next stage. So readers looking for in-depth explorations of the artist’s life and works are likely to be frustrated by the quick pace and the scarcity of detail.
But, as the title suggests, this isn’t intended to be a conventional biography. It’s more interested in tensions between the desire to know an artist and the dangers of over-romanticizing them. Also to its credit, the novel doesn’t praise its subject wholeheartedly. In a courtroom scene, one lawyer accuses former adman Magritte of selling out, producing formulaic work in exchange for consistent money and fame.
The book could have gone further in portraying the man’s flaws, however. In one scene, Magritte hovers over a silent, nude female model he’s been painting. After Magritte gleefully exclaims “The artist will now fuck his model!”, Singulier teasingly calls Magritte a scoundrel. Yet this casual dismissal, of an artist’s assumption that a woman would be a compliant vehicle for both his artistic and sexual appetites, is too easy. It’s also awkward given Surrealism’s fixation with dismembered female bodies, and all the questions that recent events have raised about gendered power relations and consent.
In this scene and in others, This is Not a Biography feels abrupt. This is partly by design, as the book is a trim and action-packed 72 pages. Allowing more space to breathe and reflect on Magritte’s ideas would have made the book useful to readers looking for more insight into one of Surrealism’s most famous figures. But as an entry point to Magritte for people who perhaps know less about the artist already, this “non-biography” is a charmingly conceived and drawn look at his continued influence.