Press Centre


  • Episode: 

    3 of 6

  • Title: 

    The Man In The Hat: Rene Magritte with Will Young
  • Transmission (TX): 

    Sun 04 May 2014
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    10.00pm - 11.00pm
  • Week: 

    Week 19 2014 : Sat 03 May - Fri 09 May
  • Channel: 

The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing - in the public domain - until Tuesday 29 April 2014.
The Man In The Hat: Rene Magritte with Will Young
“The way he saw life changed the way I see life. He was a giant of a man.”
Having first discovered Rene Magritte’s art as a teenager, singer Will Young was immediately struck by Magritte’s strange distortions of familiar objects and his subversive humour. So much so that Will opened his last tour donning a bowler hat and raincoat, so synonymous with Magritte.
In this film, Will goes in search of Magritte the artist and Magritte the man, along the way peering through the window that famously appears in his work. Following in the footsteps of this most famous of Belgians, Will visits Magritte’s place of birth, the site of a tragedy that struck the Magritte family, and ends his journey at Magritte's final resting place.
What Will discovers is a superficially conventional man who “lived quietly in a suburb of Brussels, dressed like a banker and married his childhood sweetheart". But appearances can deceive. Magritte’s suit and bowler hat concealed a subversive nature and a deep desire to explore every day, ordinary objects in new and exciting ways. 
Will visits the house, today a museum, where Magritte lived with his beloved wife Georgette for more than 20 years. He travels to Lessines where the young Magritte spent his early years with his two younger brothers and his parents, and then to Chatelet, where Will discovers an unhappy childhood - Magritte’s mother suffered from severe depression and eventually committed suicide by throwing herself in the river when her oldest son was just thirteen years old. The revelation moves Will deeply: “I can’t imagine what effect that would have had on him. I think if I was his age and my mother had left me in such a sad way as well, I don’t know if I would have ever recovered.”
But Magritte wasn’t a man who believed in psychology, despite its significance for the new artistic movement that was beginning to sweep Europe in the 1920s – surrealism. He studied at art school in Brussels but found himself rebelling against traditional art, instead believing passionately in mystery, in the impossibility of explaining things.
Belgian society wasn’t quite ready for Magritte. But his childhood sweetheart Georgette Berger certainly was. Will meets the custodian of the Magritte estate, and hears how the two young people met again by chance in the botanic gardens after the First World War and fell deeply in love. They married in 1922 and settled into a life of suburban bliss, with Magritte declaring to a friend: “I’m producing nothing for the moment. I’m simply in love. As soon as I’ve secured our material future I shall find another to live by, and that will be to make Georgette as happy as possible.”
Magritte’s objective wasn’t easily met. With his first exhibition in Brussels a disaster, Magritte took his wife to Paris and became involved with the French surrealists led by Andre Breton. But the two men fell out and three years later the couple returned to Brussels. Struggling to survive, Magritte made money by setting up an advertising agency with his brother Paul – and the seeds of his influence on modern art were sewn.
The documentary draws heavily on rare archive footage featuring silent films and also Magritte’s own extensive stock of home movies. Trips to London followed – in Mayfair, Will gets measured up for a bowler hat at the famous Lock and Co, the better to emulate his hero. It was here that Magritte first started selling his pictures for significant sums of money. Further exhibitions followed and eventually, in the 1950s, this most unassuming of artists found international fame and wealth. 
Will visits one of his most spectacular later works – a gigantic fresco at the Casino in Knokke Le Zoute. He’s blown away: “It’s unbelievable, it’s completely overwhelming. You know, I feel kind of sick with excitement.”
Will’s excitement is further boosted when he attends a London art auction and watches one of Magritte’s early work sell for £5.8 million. He also meets legendary graphic designer Aubrey Powell, who explains how Magritte’s vision has inspired dozens of album covers including the ones he himself designed for Pink Floyd. 
Will ends by visiting Magritte’s modest grave where he is buried alongside his beloved Georgette. And we’re treated to a rare glimpse of the artist himself summing up his life and work: “Ah yes, we are all mysteries. We are part of the world and the world itself is a mystery.”
Directed by Michael Burke for Blakeway North
Executive Producers: Ruth Pitt and Sarah Murch
Series overview
The Perspectives documentary strand brings together powerful stories and unique insights into the arts from a range of well-known figures. Now in its fourth year, the strand will encompass six films from a rich variety of distinctive individuals offering their take on subjects for which they have a personal enthusiasm and fascination.  
Interview with Will Young
When did you first become aware of Magritte?  Were you a big art fan or was it something about his work?
I first became aware of Magritte when I was 15 and shopping in a charity book shop in Oxford.I came across an old catalogue from an exhibition which had around eight pictures in it including 'the great family'  and  'Ceci n'est pas une pomme'.
I became an instant fan, it was the comedy and questioning in his work that immediately drew me to it. The obvious imagery, almost crude like symbolism and then underneath that the bigger themes that the paintings explore. Overall he turns everything upside and asks the question 'is anything actually real?' The answer is of course…no it is simply ones perception of it."
How does Magritte inspire you?
He inspires me through several things; he is clearly extraordinarily talented in his craft, his approach is to ask the question shrouded in comedy and light heartedness and underneath that there is a 'kidney punch' of a question. The audience is forced to look at one's own life, sense of perception and sense of ones place in a modern growing capitalist society. This is socio- political cabaret at its best, seen in painting form.
Tell us about the hat obsession? 
"My hat intrigue, rather than obsession, came from how quickly a hat could transform ones look and ultimately ones identity. Bowler hats in particular were always seen as 'stiff' and representative of the everyday worker, earning money on the treadmill of life; conformist and certainly not confrontational. What happens if one adorns that type of hat and turns it into a way of infiltrating the bourgeoisie? in a way disguising oneself as every day to then tear apart the very institution the hat stands for."
Do you have a favourite work of Magritte’s? Please describe the painting and tell us why you love it.
"My favourite work has always been 'the great family' it was the first Magritte picture that I saw. It shows a white dove in the middle of a dark cloudy sky. the interesting thing immediately is the whiteness of the dove created 'through' the dark clouds. Its shape is effectively a window through to the bright whiteness and sunshine and infinite possibility behind the clouds. In effect is it a dove at all, rather than a shape of a dove that creates a sense of hope and future possibilities. A dove itself represents peace, the calm after the storm along with religious connotations going back to stories of Noah's ark. A dove will find a resting place. Magritte again takes very simple imagery and moulds it into a painting with depths of pathos and teaching."
In the film you say Magritte appeals to your sense of the absurd. Are there qualities you share with him? 
"I share his subversiveness and his constant questioning of what identity is. Like many people that I admire he took on the establishments desire to label and put into a box. I am not a title defined by various decisions in my life. Ii am a person free and able to do what I like. Magritte represents freeness and I strive to have the same thing, I like to earn money whilst also ensuring my being and true core beliefs are not betrayed. It is a balancing act."
How did it feel learning so much about the man himself? He lead a fascinating life but as with all artists it was up and down...z?
"I see him more as someone who was seemingly normal and certainly normalised his work. He purported to have no desire to teach any lessons or shine a light on anything in particular. Perhaps though this is the best way, he acted solely through instinct without thought at all and therefore really does exist through his work..."
Do you paint?
"My painting is awful!!! I have no technique! I do like to draw birds and don't often get to do it. Magritte has perhaps inspired me to create more lifelike scenes of absurdity and questioning in my work and most importantly FUN!!!!!!"