"The work that really struck me that
day was ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’".
Terry Gilliam, film director and former member of Monty Python, on the dry joke-telling of the surrealist painter Rene Magritte:
It wasn’t until I’d seen Magritte’s work collected together in an exhibition at the Tate, at the end of the 1960s I think, that I realised just how incredibly funny his stuff was. People walk around these exhibitions in a religious state of awe and I just walked round this one laughing uncontrollably. Until then, I’d always thought of Magritte as having an interesting and intriguing mind – the way he would turn things inside out or make that which was solid suddenly not solid. But suddenly here he was, this wonderfully dry joke teller. The work that really struck me that day was The Man in the Bowler Hat . He’d spent months painting a guy in a bowler hat and then, for his last brush strokes, paints a dove flying in front of the man’s face. What’s happened there could happen only in a photograph and he’s done a painting of it. What a comedian! I thought he was so clever. If it wasn’t for the ideas I wouldn’t say he was a great painter because others have a better technique. But he does what he needs to do and does it so well.
The Dominion of Light
All of the surrealists got into my head, but Magritte was so direct. I liked how immediate his work was, whereas the others were more abstract. His work can be complex but in a sense he takes cliche images and puts them together in ways that surprise you. There’s a night scene, but the sky is day [The Dominion of Light, 1953], there’s a pair of shoes that are actually feet [The Red Model, 1934]. His work has an initial gag, but the stuff sticks with you because it’s in some ways profound.
The Red Model
He is so firmly lodged in my brain that frequently I’ll see something and think, "Oh, that’s a bit Magrittean". I’ll look out of my window at dusk and see the house across the street catching the last bit of sunlight, except the sky behind it is already night. He captures moments of light in the day that are just odd. I used to think it was a fantasy of his, but I now find it happening all the time. Like every good artist, he makes us see the everyday differently but he does it without the pretension of so many other artists. That’s another thing I like about him, that he didn’t have this serious "I am an artist" approach. He went to work with a suit and a briefcase, everything about him was taking the piss out of art yet at the same time he was a wonderful artist.
A Microsoft Windows desktop
In my work, I can never find a direct line between what I’ve done and where it’s come from, but I do know where the influences are and they all end up in a kind of Irish stew in my brain. I would never want to say: "I nicked that from Magritte", because that’s criminal investigation time! But it would be fair to say that with the landscapes and blue skies in the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus I could’ve been stealing from either Magritte or Microsoft Windows. What Microsoft did was a direct steal from Magritte! Other people paint more elaborate skies, but it’s the clarity of his painting – the perfect blue sky with the perfect clouds floating in it – that’s just so appealing.
The thermostat at the Pinakothek Museum
Were the other Pythons influenced by Magritte? No. I’m not sure what the word is for being illiterate at art. Maybe blind. That’s what they were. Years ago, we were in a hotel in Munich and John [Cleese] called me and said: "I’m going over to the Pinakothek. Do you want to come and explain art to me?" So I went along and I didn’t explain art to him because that’s not what I do, but I did get him looking at a thermostat on the wall and discussing it in great detail. We managed to gather quite a crowd.
I suppose with my work I’m always trying to get people to see what the world is capable of, to show how it can be seen in a very different way and Magritte did that all the time. When you start thinking differently like that, reality becomes a kind of game. In the 60s, people took drugs to achieve that state, but for a lot of people it was enough to go and look at a Magritte painting.
Rene Magritte: enigmatic master of the impossible dream. On the eve of a major Magritte exhibition, artists with an eye for the peculiar reveal why they love the witty Belgian surrealist. The Guardian / The Observer>>