When I was 15, I walked into a bookshop in Oxford with my mum and there it was sitting in a basket – an old catalogue for a Magritte exhibition. On the front cover was an outline of a dove in a dark, cloudy sky. This was his painting The Great Family, and it just spoke to me. I loved it so much that I stuck it up on my wall at boarding school, when all the other boys seemed to have FHM cover girls.
I prefer this smartly dressed Belgian’s quiet surrealism to Dalí’s. It’s very everyday, very normative, which suits this ordinary-looking man who lived and worked in a quiet suburb of Brussels. I already had a passion for bowler hats: I’d been collecting them since I was 12. They represented stiffness, structure, monotony – and I liked the idea of subverting that, which is exactly what Magritte did when he painted faceless men wearing them. He was taking on the establishment.
Magritte’s works feature subjects that are not necessarily interesting: an apple, a pipe, a window, a bowler hat, a fireplace. But the minute he adds a title, everything changes. One of his most famous works is a drawing of a pipe. Underneath it are the words: “This is not a pipe.” Now, that gets you thinking. Actually, it isn’t a pipe – it’s his drawing of a pipe. But he’s lifted the drawing from an encyclopaedia. So he’s saying: “This isn’t even my drawing of a pipe – it’s a drawing of a drawing of a pipe.” Then he’s saying: “What is a pipe?” It could be a deliverer of cancer, or five minutes of peace; a way of keeping out of an argument, or of hiding your feelings. There are so many other things a pipe is.
He ran an advertising agency, Studio Dongo, with his brother, and brought the idea of language and titles into painting, saying he wanted ordinary objects to “utter a kind of scream”. I love this approach. It’s subtle yet weirdly obvious and echoes what I love in life – looking at things and going: “OK, I didn’t think about that.”
My passion for Magritte has manifested itself subconsciously in a lot of my work. In my videos, I often play characters who seem humorous at first, yet there’s something else behind all that. In the video for Friday’s Child, I’m swimming in a pool, topless, with ripped abs. But I’m not like Usher, dancing around with babes in a car. I’m learning how to swim. With four-year-olds. And that’s subversive.
Magritte was smart on the outside, rebellious on the inside, and that is kind of me. I’m a very well-to-do guy, very well meaning. I don’t shake anything up. I’m not rock’n’roll. But I like to think that, if you look at the levels in my work, there’s a lot to see.
There is some debate over whether Magritte was a chauvinist or pro-women. Having just made a programme about him for ITV, I now think he had a love of women. He’s more about female empowerment, particularly when you see him in paintings as a tiny figure, alongside enormous women. That’s very telling and chimes with what I think: all men are babies. We are, aren’t we? Women are hard as nails. They run the show.
I say in the film that I wanted to find out “what lies underneath the hat”. But to be honest, I didn’t like finding out about the man. It brings a sense of disillusionment. At one stage, he said: “The thing about my paintings is they don’t really mean anything.” I don’t believe that. I don’t want to hear that.
René François Ghislain Magritte, November 1898-August 1967
Way in: The Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”).
In three words: Surreal. Belgian. Bowler.
Soundbite: “Humans hide their secrets too well.”
• The Man In The Hat: Rene Magritte with Will Young is on ITV on Sunday at 10pm.
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