Marcel Mariën

The bad boy of Surrealism

Marcel Mariën is one of the most intriguing, prolific and representative figures of the Belgian surrealist movement. Born in Antwerp in 1920, he joined the surrealist group in Brussels after meeting René Magritte in 1937. The same year, he made and exhibited his very first surrealist object and his most famous work :  L’introuvable, a single-lens glasses.

Far from limiting himself to a specific technique, he declines his talents in the practice of object-assemblage, collage, photography, cinema, drawing, painting and printing techniques. His artistic production is very wide, original and most of all, challenging. Through his works, he tries to raise awareness by playing and distorting the standards. Also poet and writer, he creates bridges between the language, the image and the objects playing with the mind like no other.

From the beginning, Mariën has particularly distinguished himself as a writer and a theorist. Although he is the youngest member of the group, he remains the first historian of the Belgian Surrealism. Very quickly, he expresses the will to collect, safeguard and promote the group’s literary and artistic productions through publications. Of particular note is Mariën’s commitment to preserving and spreading the precious writings of Paul Nougé, leader and theorist of the Brussels surrealist group, which Mariën published from 1954 in his magazine Les Lèvres Nues.

Mariën is also the author of the first monograph devoted to René Magritte (1943) and the first reference book on surrealism in Belgium bringing together documents and historical facts under the title L’activité surréaliste en Belgique (1924-1950), published in 1979.

Recognized during his lifetime, Mariën has been exposed many times, both in collective and personal exhibitions. He is now in the collections of the world’s greatest museums, such as the Tate Modern in London, The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the MoMa in New-York, The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, The Museum of Photography in Charleroi, the art collection of Province de Hainaut and many others.

From left to right : Marcel Mariën, Camille Goemans, Gérard Van Bruaene (seated), Irène Hamoir, Georgette Magritte, E.L.T. Mesens, Louis Scutenaire, René Magritte, Paul Colinet. 

Biography

Marcel Mariën was born in Antwerp on 29 April 1920, of a Flemish father and a Walloon mother, “and vice versa”, as he liked to say. As a child, he had great difficulties at school. As a French-speaker, he suffered the law prohibiting the use of French at school in Flanders and was left behind during his schooling at the Athénée of Antwerp.  In secret, he devours books and discovers, among others, the works of Werther, Maupassant, Corneille, Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Zola or Rousseau, beginning a self-taught instruction without knowing it. At the age of 15, he is sent to a photographer’s training where he learns manual works of development and prints. Isolated from the outside world, Mariën writes his first poems and makes his first photographs. At the same time, he takes evening classes in music, literature and criminology at High Popular School for workers.

It was in 1935, during a contemporary art exhibition organized at the Antwerp community centre, that Mariën discovered surrealism thanks to two paintings by Magritte. This discovery is experienced by him as a revelation. Passionate about surrealism, Mariën buys surrealist books at the Clarté bookshop in Antwerp and reads, among others, Le manifeste du surréalisme and Nadja by André Breton. In July 1937, he contacts René Magritte and goes to meet him in Brussels. He soon meets Paul Colinet, Louis Scutenaire, Irène Hamoir and Paul Nougé. This is how he joins the group and takes part for the first time, at the age of 17, in a surrealist group exhibition where he presents his first object: L’introuvable. In 1938, he gives the introduction to the lecture La Ligne de vie by René Magritte at the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He also writes La chaise de sable, an essay on surrealism that largely defends the work of René Magritte.

In 1939, after his military service, Mariën is called for duty and becomes a nurse at the Antwerp Military Hospital. On 17 May 1940, he is evacuated to Dunkirk and then to Berck-Sur-Mer where he is caught by the German army. He is then sent to Görlitz camp for three months before being transferred to Spindermühle in Czechoslovakia where he is assigned to earthworks until 1941.

Freed in 1941, Mariën meets up with his friends René Magritte, Paul Nougé and Louis Scutenaire and regularly takes part in meetings aimed at finding titles for Magritte’s paintings. Mariën is particularly gifted. In 1941, Mariën also meets Christian Dotremont, Gilbert Sénécaut and his future companion, Elisabeth Altenloh. That year, he founds the publishing house L’Aiguille aimantée and publishes several works including Malgré la nuit and Moralité du sommeil by Paul Eluard. He also writes L’oiseau qui n’a qu’une aile, published by Ça ira in Antwerp. In 1942, he moves with Elisabeth to the countryside near Antwerp. He makes his first trip to Paris where he meets Paul Eluard, Pablo Picasso, Jean Paulhan, Oscar Dominguez and Georges Hugnet. He makes numerous round trips between Paris and Brussels on behalf of René Gaffé, a collector and publisher, and takes advantage of his travels to sell the merchandise of fake paintings made by Magritte.

In 1943, Mariën writes and publishes the first monograph devoted to Magritte and participates in conferences on surrealism. In 1945, he publishes La Terre n’est pas une vallée de larmes published by Editions La Boétie. This collective brought together, among others, texts by Noël Arnaud, Paul Nougé, René Char, Paul Colinet, Paul Eluard and Pablo Picasso. Mariën is also co-editor of the periodical Le Ciel bleu with Paul Colinet and Christian Dotremont. On 22 December 1945, he gives a lecture on “Surrealism in 1945” as part of the important exhibition Surrealism organized by Magritte at the Galerie des Editions La Boétie in Brussels, in which he took part.

In 1946, he writes Les corrections naturelles and founds with Magritte the publishing house Le Miroir infidèle. He publishes several subversive tracts with him and accompanies him to Paris where they meet André Breton. In December, he gathers the collaborations for the special issue of the New York magazine View devoted to surrealism in Belgium.

In 1948, Mariën leaves his job as a proofreader and set up as a bookseller in Brussels. On Nougé’s advice, he entitles his shop “Au Miroir d’Elisabeth”, an allusion to the location of his bookshop “Place de la Reine”, as well as to his companion. Magritte makes the business cards.

Two years later, he gives up his business and separates from Elisabeth. After a few months spent working as a typist at the Etablissements Wasterlain, he embarks in December 1951 as “garçon de mess” on the Silver Ocean, a cargo ship sailing between Normandy and the French West Indies.

On his return to Belgium in 1953, he works briefly as a documentalist at the Soviet embassy. He then joins forces with the Magritte brothers and sells on the Belgian coast counterfeit banknotes printed by them. The criminal enterprise only lasted about ten days, before an article appeared in the press urging shopkeepers to be vigilant because counterfeit notes in circulation had been spotted. In 1953, Mariën sets sail again on a Norwegian cargo ship, the Makefjell, for a round trip from Brussels to London. He takes advantage of this trip to visit his friend E.L.T. Mesens. Back in Brussels, he decides to leave the company and settles down at Nougé’s place. He finds a position as a temporary typist in an oil refinery. That year, Mariën meets his new partner, Jane Graverol, at the opening of a Magritte exhibition. In 1954, together with Graverol and Nougé, he founds the magazine Les Lèvres nues, which will be published until 1975.

In 1955, Mariën finds a job as a typist at Papeteries de Genval. At the same time, he creates the “Prix de la Bêtise Humaine”, whose laureates are André Malraux for his complete work and King Baudouin for his trip to the Congo.

In 1956, the meeting between Mariën and Guy Debord in Brussels marks the beginning of a collaboration with the French Lettrists. Mariën edits Histoire de ne pas rire, which includes the essential texts by Paul Nougé. He also publishes the leaflet “Toutes ces dames au Salon !” which protests against a group of painters who had produced propaganda paintings for the Shell Company.

In 1957, he publishes his essay Quand l’acier fut rompu at odds with the contemporary trend, defending Stalin at the time of De-Stalinization. He said: “I decided to write Quand l’acier fut rompu only because I was outraged and chocked to see his most zealous partisans to turn against him overnight”. That year he meets Leo Dohmen.

In 1958, Mariën and Graverol separates. He publishes his essay Théorie de la revolution immédiate in which he details how to overthrow capitalism in one year. Mariën always had a series of odd jobs. He finds a temporary job in an advertising agency and, with a few accomplices, embezzles the winnings of a competition launched in the press. He thus finances the making of his film L’imitation du cinéma. The screenplay, written in 1959, depicts the story of a young man so impressed by the reading of L’imitation de Jésus-Christ that he decides to be crucified by imitation. The film is shot over five weekends and involves a dozen actors and half a dozen extras. Tom Gutt gets the lead role of the young man. When it is released in 1960, the film causes a scandal. Dispraised at each of its screenings in Brussels, Liege and Antwerp, it is even censored in France. Despite the controversies of the time, the movie is nevertheless a part of the anthology of surrealist cinema, alongside Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali.

In 1961, Mariën is asked to write the screenplay for a new movie. For the realization of this project, he moves to Vitry near Paris. The shooting of this film, Tout est possible, does not take place, just like the following scenario, On aura tout vu, also aborted.

In 1962, Mariën and Dohmen launch the leaflet “La Grande Baisse” on the occasion of a major Magritte retrospective organized at the Casino of Knokke. Presented as emanating from Magritte himself, the authors deride the commercial success of the artist by detailing a series of his most famous paintings offered at a discount. The success of the leaflet is immediate. Magritte is congratulated by André Breton and the press gets excited. Of course, Mariën does not say that he is the real author of the leaflet. The truth will be discovered because the collage used to illustrate the leaflet is a reproduction of a banknote; but instead of Leopold I, it is Magritte’s head that is reproduced. However, it is forbidden to reproduce banknotes, even for advertising purposes. During the investigation made by the police, Mariën is forced to confess the scam.

In October 1962, Mariën leaves for New York. He works there as a clerk in a bookstore, then as a typist and a nurse. In 1963, he visits Philadelphia, Chicago, Salt Lake City and San Francisco and leaves the United States for a trip to Yokohama, Singapore and Hong Kong. From October, he moves to Beijing where he works for eighteen months as a proofreader for the French propaganda newspaper La Chine en construction. Disappointed by his “pseudo-communist” experience under Mao’s regime, he returns to Brussels in March 1965. In the summer of 1966, he publishes his impressions of China in several international newspapers in an article entitled “La Chine aux abois” denouncing, among other things, the massive deportation of intellectuals to the countryside.

In April 1967, his first solo exhibition takes place at the Galerie Defacqz in Brussels. In November of the same year, he meets his future wife, Gudrun Steinmann, whom he marries on August 13, 1969, but from whom he separates in 1971.

In 1968, he launches the collection Le Fait accompli publishing many surrealist texts and documents. This edition will have 135 issues until 1975.

In 1970, Mariën denounces an exhibition of false gouaches attributed to René Magritte at the New Smith Gallery in Brussels.

In 1973, Mariën is the subject of a lawsuit because of his preface to Manifestes et autres écrits of René Magritte where he recalled the actions of Marc Eemans during war time. But he will soon be exonerated.

In 1979, Mariën publishes the first reference book on the history of surrealism in Belgium, L’activité surréaliste en Belgique (1924-1950).

In March 1983, he published his memoirs under the title Le radeau de la mémoire. The revelation of Magritte as a forger and a counterfeiter causes a scandal. The book, banned at the request of Georgette Magritte, gives rise to legal proceedings in Brussels and Paris, and to a lawsuit that Marcel Mariën will win.

In 1984, he meets Sarah Whitfield. Several important publications appear at this time, including Le sentiment photographique (1984), La femme entrouverte (1985), la Licorne à cinq pattes (1986), La coupeuse de souffle (1987).

In 1989, Mariën is the subject of an exhibition, Rétrospective des rétrospectives, at the Galerie Isy Brachot in Brussels.

He dies on 19 September 1993 at the César Depaepe Clinic in Brussels and is buried in the Schaerbeek cemetery on 22 September. On his grave, his epitaph states that “Il n’y a aucun mérite à être quoi que ce soit” (there is no merit in being anything).”