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.