Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Rene Magritte and Rex Stout

I always love making unexpected discoveries in regard to crime and mystery fiction.  I made one just the other day, and to be honest, I can't believe I didn't know this before.

Rene Magritte, the Belgian surrealist, is one of my very favorite painters, an artist I've loved since I became enamored of the surrealists -- Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Leonara Carrington, and many others -- when I was in college. I remember with great fondness when, in 1992, The Metropolitian Museum in Manhattan had a huge Magritte retrospective. It was the first Magritte retrospective in New York City in 25 years.  I got there on the very last day, and though the museum was crowded with people there to see the Magritte works, I still loved wandering around and taking in the faceless men in bowler hats, the eyes called mirrors, the lovers kissing with shrouded faces, the mysterious assassins in suits.


What I just found out, while reading something, is that Magritte was a mystery fiction fan and liked Rex Stout in particular.  It's not a shock that Magritte liked mysteries -- he also read Dashiell Hammett and Georges Simenon -- but that he liked Stout so much, or at least liked the titles of Stout's books so much, that he used Stout titles to give titles to some of his paintings.  His attorney and friend, a man named Harry Torczyner, wrote that Magritte named a number of his paintings after Stout titles.  So far I've only found one Stout title of which I know this is definitely true, the second Nero Wolfe novel, The League of Frightened Men.

A painting Magritte did in 1942, Les compagnons de la peur ("The Companions of Fear"), takes the title The League of Frightened Men had in France when published there a few years earlier by Gallimard.

It's this painting:

What does this painting have to do with the novel, or how does this portrait of plants turned to owls reflect this specific Stout title?  I doubt the painting has anything to do with Stout but suspect that Maigrette, as a Stout reader, simply loved the title and decided he could use it for one of his typical paintings in which the nature of perception and how we look at art is questioned.  He's an artist who has a lot of titles that seem to have no direct connection to what's seen on the canvas.

I don't know the other titles that Magritte supposedly took from Stout, but I'm looking into this. I'm looking simply because I'm curious and never would have suspected a connection between these two formidable creators who make such entirely different types of art.

Did Stout know Magritte read him and liked his books?  Did he know Magritte cribbed titles from him?  Learned as Stout was, I'd suspect he knew all of this, and I wonder whether he was pleased. Tickled.  I don't see any reason why he wouldn't have been.  It would have been funny if Stout had put a Magritte or two on 35th Street in Manahattan, in Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin's flat. 

Or did he?  I haven't read enough of Stout's books to know,  but if anyone does, please fill me in.

A famous Magritte quote says this: "Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see."

These are ideas Magritte applied when creating a painting, and when you think about it, they also describe how a detective views the world.  You have to see beneath the surface; you have to see what's hidden.

Through Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout did that, and so, through his paintings, did Rene Magritte.

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