Mariën is one of the most intriguing and elusive figures in the Belgian wing of the Surrealist movement. He was not only an artist, but also a publisher, a bookseller, a sailor, a journalist in China and an elaborate Surrealist prankster.
Marcel Mariën was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1920, a single child of a poor family. His mother wanted him to leave school as soon as possible so that he could start bringing money into the home. Aged 15, Marien became apprentice to a photographer – initially undertaking menial roles, but later setting up a home studio to develop his own projects.
In 1937, he first encountered the surrealist paintings of René Magritte in exhibition and – inspired by André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto - traveled to Brussels to seek out the artist. He soon began corresponding with Magritte, who was 20 years his senior, and was warmly welcomed into the close-knit Belgian Surrealist group. Within a year, he had his own work included in the Surrealist group exhibition, Surrealist Objects and Poems, in London.
Initially, he could not paint or draw, so he instead used a wide variety of media, including collage, decoupage, drawing, painting, toys, household items and even a reproduction of a Michelangelo fresco. With this anarchistic approach, he was acknowledged as the initiator of the Surrealist technique of étrécissements. Throughout his career, he produced hundreds of humorous, puzzling and provocative tableaux that challenge and mock preconceptions and taboos.
In 1939, he enlisted in the Belgian Army to fight in World War II, but was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany. Following his release, he returned to Brussels and, in 1943, wrote and published the very first monograph on Magritte.
Mariën’s early attempts at expressing his ideas in photography were unsuccessful. It was not until 1943 that he produced his first photograph with a distinctive personal vision, “De Sade à Lénine”, an image of a woman cutting a slice of bread, the loaf gripped tightly against her naked torso, the blade pointing at her left breast. Mariën commented, “the knife passes from de Sade to Lenin”.
It was pure Surrealism, marked with the two themes that would characterize his photography: the everyday object stripped of its traditional function and the female body as an instrument of creation.
Despite this and other successful photographs, Mariën would soon abandon photography to concentrate on object making, drawing and writing. Forever a restless spirit, in 1951 he signed on for two years as a sailor on a Danish cargo ship. In 1962, he lived in New York for a year before relocating to Communist China from 1963 until 1965, where he worked as a translator on the French edition of the magazine China Under Construction until his disillusionment with Maoism.
In 1959, in a further attempt to challenge traditional attitudes, he produced and directed the film, L'Imitation du cinema. A combination of sexual and religious imagery, it caused a scandal in Belgium and was banned in France. Even with the support of the Kinsey Institute, it proved impossible to have the film shown in the United States.
Writer, publisher and essayist
Although Marien worked as an artist across many media, some of the most notable achievements throughout his career were as a chronicler of the Belgian Surrealists' activities and a publisher of their writings.
In 1943, Marien had published the very first monograph on Magritte. In 1954 he founded the magazine, Les Lèvres Nues, and directed his review Le Ciel Bleu with Christian Dotremont and Paul Colinet. He published the writings of such Belgian Surrealists as Paul Nougé, Louis Scutenaire and André Souris, as well as Magritte himself, in a series that eventually extended to hundreds of titles.
In 1979, Marien published L'Activité Surréaliste en Belgique, a chronological record of all the documents, manifestos, tracts and articles pertaining to the surrealist movement in Belgium that appeared between 1924 and 1950.
Even as late as 1983, the appearance of his outrageously libelous autobiography in Le Radeau de la Mémoire was able to cause a scandal.
Mariën and his fellow Surrealists loved making jokes. In 1953, Mariën went to the Belgian coast, where he distributed false bank notes printed by René and Paul Magritte. In 1962, the joke was on Magritte when Mariën and Leo Dohmen produced a tract, “La Grande Baisse”, to coincide with a major retrospective of Magritte’s work in Knokke. Presented as written by Magritte himself, it announced drastic discounts on the artist’s major paintings and offered the chance to order them in different sizes.
Even leading Surrealists, amongst them André Breton, failed to grasp the joke and praised Magritte for this undertaking. Magritte was furious when he found out and the 25-year friendship between Magritte and Mariën was over.
Return to photography
Mariën was never a practical man and was helped by his partner Hedwige Benedix in the production of his art work. In 1983, a year after her death, he again took up photography as a quick and immediate way of expressing his ideas. He carried on where he had left off in 1942 and began producing one extraordinary image after another, simple yet elegant surreal images with free associations of imagery and text.
“Don’t pay attention to the photography”, commented Mariën, referring to the technical side of the medium. He wanted to capture his ideas immediately and his images are all the more poetic and powerful for it.
- Marcel Mariën. The Life and Death of La Belle Desiderata, The Printed Head Volume I, Number 11. Translated by Terry Hale, in collaboration with Michael Richardson, Sarah Whitfield & Marcel Mariën. out of print. ISBN 0 947757 42 2. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
- "L'imitation du cinéma". IMDb. 1960.
- Silvaon Levy (2 October 1993). "Obituary: Marcel Marien". The Independent. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
- Andrew Lambith (28 February 1998). "Ceci n'est pas an artist". Retrieved 7 October 2010.
- Marcel Mariën. "Ne faites pas attention à la photographie". iphotocentral.com. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
- Diemar/Noble Photography – London Photography Retrospective, July 2009
- Situationist reference
- Marcel Mariën: Ne faites pas attention à la photographie
- Text Marcel Mariën – France Lejeune Fine Art
- Galerie Pascal Polar: Marcel Mariën
- Le Bordel Imaginable (statement)
- Mariën ou la subversion poétique
- The unfindable