Given the ubiquity of René Magritte’s images in our culture it is a shock to learn that no one was interested in the Belgian surrealist until it was almost too late. All those bowler-hatted men with occluded faces, the pipe that isn’t a pipe, the giant apples and the looming clouds were hard to like and difficult to sell until 1965, when a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York put him explosively on the map. Suddenly everyone from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to a young Ed Ruscha couldn’t get enough of Magritte’s visual teases, linguistic puzzles and deadpan affect, which made banal objects – combs, matchsticks, bird cages – at once uncanny and irresistible. And still his reign continues: we are all Magrittians now, whether we know it or not, automatically decoding puzzles of space and scale presented to us in the countless advertisements and other commercial art that remains saturated by his hi-lo sensibility.
Magritte only had two years left to live by the time of the MoMA show, dying in Brussels in 1967 in the “villa” he had commissioned from an architect using his late-burgeoning fortune. He and his wife Georgette were very particular about having wall-to-wall carpeting. These dull, bourgeois touches are important, since the received narrative about Magritte’s life has always been that, in contrast to his shocking and sometimes pornographic imagination (one of his most famous works shows a woman’s naked body cut into pieces), his life was one of almost parodic respectability. He stayed married to the woman he had met when he was 14, invariably wore a suit like one of the men in his pictures, and took the dog (which was always called Loulou) for its walk at the same time every day. Alex Danchev suggests that Magritte’s rigid scheduling and besuited self-presentation may have provided a model for our own Gilbert and George.
Danchev, who died suddenly and far too young in 2016, has produced surely the definitive full-length biography of an artist whose life has too often been considered too dull to bother with. The final chapter of this book was completed by the Magritte scholar Sarah Whitfield. But everything else is pure Danchev – immaculately researched, deeply felt and with a knowledge of the wider political and economic pressures at play in the 20th century that came from his day job as a professor of international relations at St Andrews University. Danchev can talk about Magritte’s fractured home life – his father was a bully and a bore, his mother killed herself when he was 13 – with as much insight as he brings to the artist’s move from abstract to figurative art in 1926, or the appearance of Nazi soldiers stamping down the Brussels streets in May 1940.
The shift to figurative art came at around the time that Magritte decamped to Paris, in an attempt to consort with the reigning stars of surrealism – André Breton, the poet Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and the rest. Inevitably it was an edgy time. Magritte was truculent, clinging to his outsider status (he took a flat far out in the suburbs) while wanting to show the French citizens that he could give them a run for their money. They, in return, mocked his Walloon accent and cloddishness (his suit read as petit bourgeois bank clerk rather than ironic disguise).
Still, it was a hugely prolific and productive time. It was then that Magritte started experimenting with his word pictures, which remain his best known works. In these he set out to sunder the stale connections between text and a particular image. The big breakthrough came with La Clef des Songes (The Interpretation of Dreams), a painting divided into four panels. In the upper left is a holdall labelled “Le ciel” (“the sky”); in the upper right, a penknife, labelled “L’oiseau” (“the bird”); in the lower left, a leaf, labelled “La table” (“the table”); in the lower right, a sponge, labelled “L’éponge” (“the sponge”). It was a format that he would repeat many times, each iteration further driving home the arbitrary and treacherous nature of language. No surprise, then, that decades later post-structuralists including Derrida and Foucault couldn’t get enough of Magritte’s images, which on the surface pass as gags, but which actually comprised a profound meditation on the instability of meaning in the modern world.
• Magritte: A Life is published by Profile (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.