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By Andrew Jack

Brussels, 28 June 1998 - Rarely in the recent history of Belgium have so many people been lured by so many works of one artist to one place at any one time.

There were no long queues to get into the René Magritte retrospective at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. Through a well organised system of advance reservations with timed entry, there was no monstrous wait to buy tickets and no need to crane over other visitors' heads or behave like a contortionist in order to see the paintings on display.

Given the enormous popularity of the exhibition, which has been sponsored by all the most prestigious companies, including Eurostar and Société Générale de Belgique (albeit which is ultimately owned by the French company Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux), the principal problem has been the need to turn many potential visitors away.

Those who were turned away could at least be consoled by the effect that the exhibition has had on the Belgian capital, with Magritte-inspired art in evidence on advertising posters on the underground, and on show in other aspects of the contemporary visual culture.

For the lucky ones who made it through the front door of the museum, perhaps the most striking characteristic of the exhibition is its comprehensiveness. Almost every inch of wall, even reaching into the alcoves by the windows, is crammed with the paintings of the country's favourite artist. Some 300 works in all.

Yet the quantity is not excessive, and serves instead within a manageable number of rooms to capture the evolution and the talents of the man who goes down in visual history for such works as Golconde (1953) - of a drab sky raining drab men in bowler-hats into a drab terraced street.

It also shows the artist's less well-known commercial art on posters, his experiments with film and photography, and his apparent fetish for such bizarre objects as the old German spiked military helmuts in which he plays around.

Visitors see Magritte's early experiments with near-impressionist and abstract styles rapidly abandoned by the mid 1920s for subjects and techniques that would remain characteristically his for the rest of his artistic life. Nocturne, for example, painted in 1925, already plays with conventions with a bird flying out of a canvass within the canvass, while his long-standing fascination with light and fire is portrayed by a house vividly burning.

The nearest comparison with another artist must be with Salvador Dali, who was clearly an influence. Both portray haunting images with an astonishing near-photographic quality. But Magritte somehow often manages - with compositions linked more closely to everyday life - to create pictures that are even more haunting while less grotesque.

Beginning with Les Amants (1925) - the striking hooded faces of a couple of lovers - he takes what could be a commonplace, touching scene and turns it into a statement about the ambiguities and uncertainties of relationships, or how love can make individuals blind.

But Magritte also makes use of words as well as images, resorting periodically to humour such as in his Le bouchon d'épouvante (1966), a bowler hat bearing the label "usage externe", or - playing on the enormous fame of one of best-known original versions, he portrays in a sketch pipe above the phrase "ceci continue de ne pas etre une pipe".

He also, incidentally, demonstrated a rare ability among artists to be able to write about his work in accessible, unpretentious language that elucidates rather than obscures the nature of his paintings and his inspiration. The exhibition includes a number of well chosen extracts.

Some images are entertaining, such as his famous Time Transfixed (1938) of a speeding steam train coming out of a living-room fireplace, The Anger of the Gods (1960) with a race horse apparently galloping on top of a chauffeur-driving car, or Le blanc-seing (1965), with impossible intersections of segments of a woman on horseback and trees in a forest, reminiscent of the constructions of the never-ending staircases of Escher.

Others are more grotesque, including his still-life Portrait (1935) with a bottle, glass, knife, fork and plate on a table - with the plate containing a slice of ham with an eye in the middle. Yet he steers clear of inspiring outright revulsion - at least to a contemporary eye - while stimulating and provoking by placing ordinary objects in extraordinary situations.

Indeed, some of his most virulent work was a reaction to that neighbouring country to the south of Belgium. For not only was Magritte not French, but - much to his own chagrin - he was not even invited to exhibit his works in Paris until 1948, when he took his own form of revenge by producing the virulent, slap-dash works for his "pieds dans le plat" show - none of which sold.

One can understand why, although - judging by the number of French who have been coming to the exhibition - he has long been forgiven.

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