Nothing is as it seems

The new Magritte Museum gives William Cook a fresh perspective on Brussels, the capital of surrealis

The Place Royale is full of men in bowler hats. A huge boulder floats above them, defying gravity and good taste. From a distance it looks unfathomable, but when you come closer you realise the boulder is a hot-air balloon and the bowler hats are plastic.

This cobbled square is full of surreal knick-knacks (white pianos, wrapped-up statues) but most people don’t take much notice. They are too busy queuing to get into the new Magritte Museum in Brussels. The idea of a Magritte Museum in Magritte’s home town has been growing slowly since the artist’s death in 1967. It started in a single room in the Museum of Modern Art, Brussels. Swelled by substantial donations (most notably from the artist’s widow, Georgette), this display soon spilled over several floors, becoming the world’s biggest Magritte collection. Yet there was still only room to show a fraction of these works, and so, a year ago, Belgium’s Royal Museums of Fine Art began converting the old Hotel Altenloh in Brussels into a custom-built Magritte Museum, which opened last month. The result is not just a splendid showcase for René Magritte’s dreamlike art, but a twilit space that evokes the subtle magic of Belgium’s greatest modern artist.

The museum’s exterior is neoclassical but the interior is modern, a fitting stage for Magritte’s fascination with hidden treasures and false façades. The display is not only large, but also comprehensive, ranging from the posters he made to pay his way in the hungry 1920s to his last completed painting, and even the unfinished canvas that was on his easel when he died. There are lots of greatest hits (The Empire of Lights, The Unexpected Answer) but also plenty of surprises, such as the impressionistic pictures he painted during the First World War. There are 150 works on show, ranging from commercial art to home movies.

The Royal Museums of Fine Art hope that the Magritte Museum will do for Brussels what the Van Gogh Museum has done for Amsterdam, providing a focal point and a gateway to the city’s other galleries. It would be especially pleasing if this happened because, unlike Paris, Brussels is an unassuming city. It does not advertise its attractions. It displays them modestly, discreetly – rather like Magritte, in fact.

As you come out of the museum, everything looks surreal. This is a surrealistic city, but in an oblique and elusive way, a world away from the flamboyance of Gaudí’s Barcelona. Magritte embodies Belgium’s enigmatic national character: superficially conventional, but far weirder than appears at first glance. Ostensibly bureaucratic and businesslike, it is actually a peculiar, chaotic place. “Carefully balanced on the edge of a hole in time,” reads a sign outside a bookshop. Murals of cartoon characters decorate the gable ends. In a city with several languages and governments, nothing is entirely as it seems.

Unlike most surrealists, Magritte lived a life of quiet conformity, shunning the spotlight, saving his creativity for his art. This monastic devotion to his muse is encapsulated in the nondescript house where he lived from 1930 to 1954, and painted half his life’s work. The house is in Jette, an anonymous suburb a half-hour tram ride from the city centre. The brick façade is completely blank; from the outside it looks like just another ordinary terraced house. But when you knock tentatively on the door, feeling sure you must have come to the wrong place, you are ushered into a museum that preserves the humdrum atmosphere of the artist’s daily life.

This narrow house is spread over three storeys, but the Magrittes rented only the ground floor. Two other families lived between them and the attic where Magritte stashed hundreds of unsold paintings. He didn’t make much money; he had to sell his books to survive. Apart from a tiny bathroom and kitchenette, there were only three small rooms in his apartment: a living room, a bedroom and the dining room where he worked. He can’t have had much privacy, but in this plain suburban hinterland, Magritte conjured up another world. With a start, you recognise the settings of some of his most famous paintings – the stove and fireplace, which he transformed into a steam train rushing out of a tunnel.

Despite his workaday routine Magritte was a sociable man, and the two city-centre cafes where he used to meet his friends are virtually unchanged. The Greenwich, where he played chess, is still a sleepy place, full of old men huddled over chessboards. La Fleur en Papier Doré is still adorned with slogans written by Magritte and his surrealist pals: “Every man has the right to 24 hours’ liberty a day”; “Nobody is stranger to me than myself”.

I wind up my surrealist tour in the Royal Museums of Fine Art, where the city’s Magritte collection grew – and grew – like one of the outsized objects in his paintings. There are other-worldly artworks here by Belgian artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, but, wandering through this great gallery, you realise that Belgium’s surrealist tradition stretches far further back. Here is a Hieronymus Bosch, full of pig-faced men riding rats the size of horses. Here is The Fall of Icarus by Bruegel, a medieval Magritte, “white legs disappearing into the green water” (as W H Auden put it) in the corner of the frame.

Bruegel is buried in a church just down the road, opposite a train station festooned with Day-Glo graffiti. The local Métro boasts an enormous mural by Magritte’s surrealist peer Paul Delvaux. Invaded and colonised countless times, Brussels is nowhere and everywhere, part metropolis, part provincial town. Maybe that’s why it’s the capital of surrealism. Or maybe it stems from something even deeper. Like those floating boulders in Magritte’s paintings, Brussels is unfathomable, and that is what makes it so intriguing. “The common ordinariness of all things is a mystery,” said Magritte. As I board the Eurostar back to London, his words are still ringing in my ears.

Musée Magritte, 3 rue de la Régence, 1000 Brussels. For more information visit: http://musee-magritte-museum.be