Have you ever wondered where Paul McCartney got the idea for his record label, Apple? That little green logo was a masterstroke of marketing: simple and yet deeply memorable. You’d be forgiven for thinking it emerged – just as the idea for Sgt. Pepper’s did – as the result of transatlantic jet lag, or perhaps even an acid trip. You’d still be wrong though. In fact, the icon’s origin lies not with The Beatles at all, but with the surrealist artist and all-around mind-bender, René Magritte.
Magritte died a year before McCartney and John Lennon founded Apple records in 1968. The artist, born in 1898, spent his life dedicated to art despite never really thinking of himself as an artist. In his own eyes, he was a philosopher who simply regarded art as the most effective means of communication. His goal was simple: to displace the public’s sense of the familiar and to overthrow the everyday. Perhaps his most famous work is the ‘The Treachery of Images’, which depicts a pipe alongside the inscription “this is not a pipe”. With this work, Magritte interrogated the relationship between perception and reality, pondering the notion that existence itself might just be a jumble of interpretations.
As one of the most important influences on the ’60s counterculture movement, The Beatles knew a thing or two about upsetting normality too. By blending surrealist imagery and compositional styles, including ‘cut up’ – the method by which a writer splices a passage into segments and rearranges them, creating powerful juxtapositions – and experimental recording techniques such as sounds collage, The Beatles completely reimagined the traditional pop song, exploding it into geometric shards and replacing the fragments in all manner of otherworldly configurations. No wonder McCartney felt an affinity to Magritte.
In a 1993 interview, McCartney recalled the moment he saw the artwork that would become the Apple corps logo: “I had this friend called Robert Fraser, who was a gallery owner in London,” he said. “We used to hang out a lot. And I told him I really loved Magritte. We were discovering Magritte in the sixties, just through magazines and things. And we just loved his sense of humour. And when we heard that he was a very ordinary bloke who used to paint from nine to one o’clock, and with his bowler hat, it became even more intriguing”.
“Robert used to look around for pictures for me, because he knew I liked him,” McCartney continued. “It was so cheap then, it’s terrible to think how cheap they were. But anyway, we just loved him … One day he brought this painting to my house. We were out in the garden, it was a summer’s day. And he didn’t want to disturb us, I think we were filming or something. So he left this picture of Magritte.
“It was an apple – and he just left it on the dining room table and he went. It just had written across it “Au revoir”, on this beautiful green apple. And I thought that was like a great thing to do. He knew I’d love it and he knew I’d want it and I’d pay him later. […] So it was like wow! What a great conceptual thing to do, you know. And this big green apple, which I still have now, became the inspiration for the logo. And then we decided to cut it in half for the B-side”.
McCartney’s love of Magritte doesn’t end there. During a 2008 interview, it transpired that he was in fact the proud owner of a pair of the dead artist’s spectacles. “Linda bought me these for my birthday once,” McCartney said, picking up the pair of thin, round glasses. “Georgette, [Magritte’s] wife, was selling the contents of his studio and Linda bought me the easel and his spectacles and some small linen canvases which I didn’t dare paint on. I’m such a huge fan that was just mega. I was intimidated for weeks about painting on the canvases but in the end I just went, ‘Agghhhh!’ and I did. Then I tried on the glasses which are a very powerful prescription; they’ll give you a headache!”
For McCartney, Magritte was essential because he understood the importance of subversion: “What I love about Magritte is he turned the world upside down and inside out in terms of meaning and significance. Science and philosophy and religion are starting to converge on this idea that, whatever hat you put on, you are still you … Magritte’s specs are a reminder: the world is a jungle of crazy interpretations”.