|This is not René Magritte|
If in Romanticism, as Bishop Butler put it, “everything is what it is, and not another thing,” 1 then for Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Magritte, “everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”2
Magritte focused in his art on the importance of what cannot be seen or easily identified. He took this to such an extreme, in fact, that what might be considered the most significant aspect of his or any work of art – its meaning – was often the best hidden, even from the artist himself. However, nothing caused to Magritte greater displeasure then when people looked for symbolic meaning in his paintings. “To equate my painting with symbolism, conscious or unconscious, is to ignore its true nature…[people] want something to lean on, so they can be comfortable. They want something secure to hang on to, so they can save themselves from the void…by asking ‘what does this mean?’ they express a wish that everything be understandable” (Gablik 11.) However, as I will argue below, Magritte worked in symbols, and his paintings can only be understood by decoding these images. Here, where semiotics becomes essential “meaning is not something already there in the image, but rather something produced by the decoding of signs by the viewer.” (Hatt 206) While the use of symbolism is as old as art itself, Magritte did not use one everyday object to stand in for another, but, rather, made familiar strange, producing nonsense images as counter-rational representations of the hidden world of the subconscious. He based himself in this on the following principles: magnification of elements (an immense apple as in The Listening Room, 1952 or a red rose filling up the room space as in The Tomb of the Wrestlers, 1960.); the association of transformations (the leaf-bird as in The Companions of Fear, 1942, the mountain-eagle as in The Domain of Arnheim, 1938, or the leaf-tree as in The Quest for the Absolute, 1963); anatomical revelations such as in The Indiscreet Jewels, 1963 where the hand’s wrist reveals woman’s face. Thus, this research paper will analyze the meaning of some of the most famous – and some of the lesser known – symbols in the art of Magritte. In searching for the meaning behind the symbols, it will trace them back to the roots of Surrealism.
|La Chambre d'Écoute (The Listening Room), 1952.|
|The Tomb of the Wrestlers, 1960.|
|The Companions of Fear, 1942.|
|The Domain of Arnheim. 1938.|
|La recherche de l'absolu (The Quest for the Absolute) 1963.|
|The Indiscreet Jewels ( Les bijoux indiscrets) 1963.|
Magritte’s works are among the preeminent examples of the Surrealistic theater of the absurd. They are attempts to puzzle rationality with enigma and to break down the barriers between fantasy and reality, between dreams and waking, and between the conscious and the unconscious, in order to create a sense of an absolutely unbarred universe. Surrealism is usually associated with Juan Miro and Salvador Dali. Conceivably, the two most well known surrealist works are Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, in it, Dali deals with the topic of time flies, and Miro’s Constellation: Awakening in the Early Morning. However, Magritte’s art is much more realistic that these figurative surrealist works. As an artist, he deliberately differs from surrealism at three principal positions:
1. The role of subconscious played an important role in the work of other surrealist artists. However, for Magritte, his involvement with the surrealist group, from 1927-1930, helped him to find his original, pictorial style, which describes his works as philosophically-poetic, or even intellectual; however, he had a low regard for the Freudian psychoanalysis of the subconscious.
2. Driven by brief flashes of enlightenment, Magritte, nonetheless, painted in the real world making the familiar strange. However, as a rule, Magritte evaded the use of the dream or fantasy world, hyperbolic characters, or unclear images.
3. The use of symbolism was typical of many surrealists. However, Magritte avoided in giving any meaning to his work. Two months before his death, Magritte wrote “I conceive of the art of painting as the science of juxtaposing colours in such a way that their actual appearance disappears and lets a poetic image emerge…There are no “subjects”, no “themes, in my painting. It is a matter of imagining images whose poetry restores to what is known that which is absolutely unknown and unknowable” (Alexandrian 7.)
|Constellation: Awakening in the Early Morning, 1941. Joan Miró.|
Magritte transformed ordinary things into mystical, shaping them into enigma. An accomplished technician, his work commonly demonstrates a combination of ordinary objects, or an unusual perspective, giving new implication to familiar things. His images are not exclusively metaphorical, and as Jacobson writes “Magritte is a surrealist in his vision, but a realist in his mimetic rendering of the ordinary objects which he transforms into the marvelous. ” (Dubnik 408) Using only everyday objects and traditional perspective, Magritte randomly and unexpectedly juxtaposes contrasting objects to expose a hidden comparison, and humorously upsets normal contiguity. In any case there is something a little absurd between singularity of his paintings, his artistic credo, and his traditional, simplistic way of living. However, such a paradox must have been necessary for creation philosophical, almost Kantian works of Magritte’s art.
René Magritte was born on the 21st November, 1898 in Hainaut, Belgium. His father was a tailor and a merchant. As his business experienced obstacles, the family had to move frequently. At the age of twelve, René lost his mother tragically. For unclear reasons, Régina Bertinchamp committed suicide by drawing herself in the River Samber. Louis Scutenaire, Magritte’s close friend, talked about the incident “The painter’s mother had thrown herself into the water, and when the body was recovered her face was found to be covered by her nightdress. It was never known whether she had hidden her eyes with it in order not to see the death which she had chosen, or whether the swirling currents had veiled her thus. ” (Sylvester 12.) This tragic event most certainly had a profound influence on the form and style of his paintings. His fantasy about his mother’s suicide, has many reflections in his paintings. There are several which evoke death by water; and there are numerous examples of faces which are obscured.
In 1922, Magritte, saw a reproduction of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, the Song of Love, he felt greatly affected. This has changed his perception of what painting could be, and since that moment, he began his career as a Surrealist painter. Some biographers attribute the event: "Marcel Lecomte showed Magritte a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico's painting The Song of Love (1914), and the image, illustrated in the Roman periodical Valori Plastici, is said to have moved him to tears. The strange juxtaposition of objects in de Chirico's work revealed to Magritte the poetic possibilities of painting, and thereafter he adopted a similar painting style." This has changed his perception of what painting could be, and since that moment, he began his career as a Surrealist painter.
"My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question 'What does that mean'? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable." Rene Magritte.
|Giorgio de Chirico. The Song of Love, 1914.|
|The son of man, 1964.|
|La grande guerre. (The Great War.) 1964.|
|"The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe)," 1929.|
Thus, Magritte uses paradox as the principal method which allows him to communicate his perception to us. This irony, with its combination of ambiguous terms, serves as the perfect way to create the troubling result and to propose mystery. Its purpose is to amaze, and at the same time to upset and displace the mind from the routine ideas of reality and open the mind to the other possibilities. Thus, the artist attempts to depict hidden in what we see in the essence of things.
The film director, Jon McTiernan, used Magritte’s symbolism of images in his film An Affair of Thomas Crown, 1999. The essence of the plot is in antagonism between Thomas Crown, a wealthy businessman and an adventurous playboy, steals a painting San Giorgio Maggiore at dusk by Monet from the art gallery and an ace insurance investigator Catherine Banning who has to return the stolen item to the gallery. And as it often happens in Hollywood films, the rivalry between two intelligent young people transforms into attraction, where attraction leads to love. Crown’s duality of nature is greatly juxtaposition against Magritte’s painting Son of Man which appears in the film several times. Not knowing at all, Magritte’s creative method, the sensation of the visible which is hidden, arises absolutely precisely. Available visible to us is that Thomas Crown is the successful, smart businessman, a connoisseur and an art lover. The hidden visible is the true Crown is an intrepid adventurer for whom social norms and stereotypes of no value. He steals the painting not for its pecuniary benefits but rather amusement. The film director accentuate attention on the painting Son of Man several times because it is the painting that gives the sensation of duality and temptation (an apple.)
It is interesting to note that despite polysemanticism and symbolical characteristics of images of Magritte paintings, the artist objected when his works were identified with symbolism. Indeed, Magritte not only rejected the use of symbolism that was typical of many surrealists, but he persistently refused to apply any meaning to his works.
However, during his late period of creative process, Magritte was rejecting his accessory to surrealism. Instead, he preferred, that his style of painting was related to magic realism. Though, in the beginning of his career, surrealism had much impact on Magritte’s creative path and world outlook.
A number of steady images-symbols pass through all Magritte’s works. While the artist gives his own view on the meaning to these images, the foundation of the majority of them position in the collective unconsciousness of European culture. In other words, the meaning of the images is more or less familiar to the viewer: from myths, legends, or fairy tales. Thus, an apple means temptation or youth; a mirror symbolizes duality or a way to another world. There are often depicted objects that continually recur in Magritte’s visuals such as the pipe, apple, clouds, the trademark bowler hat. Among others, Magritte's favored themes were the "window painting" and the "painting within a painting." For example, the painting titled The Human Condition, 1933 Magritte himself describes it as follows:
|La condition humaine (The Human Condition), 1933.|
The main feature of Magritte works is to evoke world’s mystery. The sensation of a secret, as known, is inherent to the real art. Some art critics such as Herbert Read considered Magritte as an artist of imagined, a master on the same level as Giorgione. This comparison, I link to the poetics of Magritte’s images. For instance, the painting The False Mirror, 1928 that expressed the philosophy of the artist, is an image of an enormous eye. However, instead of an iris of the eye, the spectator sees the summer blue sky with transparent clouds floating on them. The title of the painting explains its idea: the sense organs only reflect the external shape of things, not revealing the latent depth of the world, its mystery. Only the opposite, by Magritte, helps to grasp the sense of life. The image can be born only from approaching of two or more distant realities, like Lautreamont’s “fortuitous meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Breton 275.) These bizarre arrangements, according to Breton, produce a shock “It is…from the fortuitous juxtaposition of the two terms that a particular light has sprung, the light of the image…The value of the image depends depends upon a beauty of the spark obtained; it is, consequently, a function of the difference of potential between the two conductors” (Breton 37.) A spark is created as the connection becomes noticeable. Surrealists practiced infinite and illogical use of the symbols and of controlled similarities. Wallace Fowlie writes in Age of Surrealism “everything is comparable to everything else…In the image everything finds an echo and a resemblance…It contains both resemblances and oppositions, and illustrates what Baudelaire called…the logic of the absurd (la logique de l’Absurde).” (Fowlie 141-142) Despite Magritte’s use of the symbolism, his symbols are more logical then absurd, especially if compared to other surrealist images those of Miro or Dali, as an example. Suzi Gablik, an artist and critic who spent eight months living in the artist’s house in Brussels, wrote that one of Magritte’s involvements to surrealist thoughts is that he not only “juxtaposed dissimilar objects in what had become the classic surrealist manner; he now explored the hidden affinities between objects – the relation of shoes to feet, or of the landscape to the picture, or of the female face to the female body.” (Gablik 100) Thus, Magritte developed a style of his own. The aspect of distress and a spark became more accurate, more intentional, and manipulated than it had ever been in works of De Chirico, the surrealist whom Magritte was so much influenced at first.
|The False Mirror, 1928.|
|Hegel's Holiday , 1958.|
Magritte sharply differs from other surrealists. Unlike Miro or Dali, he uses ordinary elements in bizarre relationship to each other. For instance, Magritte’s painting Personal Values, 1952, in which a magnified comb, matchstick, a wine glass, bar of soap, and shaving brush share the room space with a bed, a chiffonier, and rugs of normal size. The composition and precise realism of the painting is suggestive of a naturmort, a simple genre of artists. However, in Personal Values, ordinary things, such as a comb and a glass were magnified to grotesque sizes, becoming confusing objects rather familiar. The key to its interpretation lies also in the painting’s title. “Personal”, here, hypertrophies to grotesque sizes. Despite the sky with floating clouds instead of walls, the room transforms into micro-space: closed and squeezed. All objects have strangely changed, as almost they were brought to life. However, as always in Magritte’s paintings, the objects did not change its appearances, colours, and texture. They are still perfectly recognizable. The spectator admires the blue color of a wine glass, the wooden texture of the furniture, and the skill of transferring of mirror reflection. Magritte’s objects somewhat received an independent lives and became “persons” leading a conversation between themselves.
|Personal Values, 1952.|
|The Key to the Fields, 1936.|
The method of free associations offered by Freud, along with his theory of mistakes and interpretation of dreams were first of all focused on revealing painful frustration of mentality and its cure. At the same time, the method was focused on interpretation of works of art. However, with such understanding, art is reduced to limited, so to say, “medical” aspect. In this inaccuracy of the approach, the theorists of surrealism were mistaken. Magritte understood it well, and in one of his letters he wrote “Art as I conceive it is resistant to psychoanalysis: it evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist, namely, the mystery that must not be mistaken for some kind of problem, difficult as that problem may be. ” (Torczyner 15)
Any attempts to interpret his art using psychoanalysis, the artist took ironically “they think my picture, The Red Model is a case of castration…No sensible person believes that psychoanalysis can elucidate the mystery of the world. The very nature of mystery obviates curiosity. Nor does psychoanalysis have anything to say about works of art that evoke the mystery of the world. Perhaps psychoanalysis is the best subject for psychoanalytical treatment” (Torczyner 15.) Magritte persistently refused to call himself as a surrealist. He willingly accepted the characteristic of magic realism. Magic realism was typical to the Belgian period of his art – starting since 1930, when the artists left Paris for Brussels.
Magic realism as a version of European Romanticism has national features. Mythos-poetical characteristics which are rooted in the art of Bosch, are typical for Belgian Romanticism, and we can relate Magritte’s art to it. Old Traditions of Dutch art have also influenced his works. For instance, there are some details-symbols that attract our attention in the painting Plagiarism, 1960. Here, to the left, on the table we see the depiction of the nest and three eggs – symbol of Trinity. Like a wizard, the artist materializes the images of his imagination before our eyes. And the images transform into a fine fertile garden – a symbol of a live creative nature. Magritte creates a very fine, spiritual poetic image. Contemplating the image, the only possible thing is to admire its gentle pink, azure, and cream tones – a really fantastic show.
|The Battle of the ArgonneLa bataille de l’Argonne, 1959.|
|The Natural Graces, 1967.|
|Les Fleurs de l’abime (Flowers of the Abyss), 1928.|
|The Song of the Violet, 1951.|
Thus, I have covered just a little over thirty works of art by Magritte; however, the question “what does his art mean” remains unanswered. Magritte is an example of association automatism, a painter focusing on opposing realities. He is an artist of distinct sharp forms and clear vision. His symbolism is pure and transparent, as window glasses that he so much liked to depict. He seems as he warns us about the fragility of the world. The motive of a glass window can be considered as a boarder between other worlds – real and surreal, poetic and ordinary, between conscious and unconscious.
In a picture The Son of Man (1964), a modern person is represented against a wall that separates him from an infinite open spaces of ocean and the sky symbolizing infinity. An image of an apple hanging in the face of the person gives mysteriousness to the painting. This apple can be perceived as a fruit of a tree of knowledge, and as a symbol of the mother nature which the person tries to understand. At the same time, this small detail offers harmony to the prosaic image of the bourgeois.
Next, the picture Golconda (1953) can be considered as a metaphor: people "with weight" became weightless. There is hidden irony in the title of the painting: after all, Golconda is know as a semi legendary city in India famous for its gold and diamonds, and these people on the painting are as though as being drawn by gold. The artist hangs up in endless space tens of accurately dressed men with bowler-hats, ties and fashionable coats keeping an absolute coolness.
|Magritte's "La Trahison des Images" ("The Treachery of Images") (1928-9) or "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe").|
|The Son of Man (1964) by René Magritte (1898-1967).|
|The Ready Made Bouquet, 1957.|
|Primavera, also known as Allegory of Spring by Sandro Botticelli, 1482.|
In one of Magritte’s late paintings, The Ready Made Bouquet (1957), another depiction of a man in a bowler-hat and a dress coat, the spark is in the representation of the Botticelli’s famous painting Spring. How do we suppose to read the image? Does it mean that the art is timeless? Or the person passes, but art remains? Perhaps, the person strolling through the park has a reminiscent of Botticelli’s Spring? The answer is not clear.
Aspiring to comprehend escaping sense of Magritte’s pictures, any attempts to explain them, tmy mind convulsively trying to catch unknown. The artist throws his painting title (as I learnt his titles usually would come to him upon completion of the work), thus making the title of the most importance for perception of the painting. His relatives and friends remember that he would create the titles after having discussed them with his friends-writers. In his own words “I think that the best title for a picture is a poetic title…The titles of [my] paintings were chosen so that they would provoke in the observer an appropriate mistrust toward that unthinking tendency to indulge in easily attained self-satisfaction.” Indeed, his painting titles are emotional and bewitching.
“Having warmed up at a fireplace, — the hero of the story has told further, — I have gone to trellised collars. The path strewed by a red beaten brick, conducted to a porch, has densely grassed. The house was in a condition of the uttermost desolation, almost all windows have been broken up. I, certainly, it did not see it as such. Then I was stroked by the fact that it was Louise’s thirty-eighths birthday, and this fact coincides with the day of death of the last inhabitant of the house. I have returned to a near by restaurant and have gotten drunk ".
That was reaction of an ordinary consciousness. The clear logic continues to ask questions. Will it receive answers or not, is not so important. The most important thing that Magritte's pictures give something exciting to realities, they enhance our imagination, they induce to co-authorship, they make us constantly want to ask questions. Isn’t it the main intention of art?
1: Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), ix.
4: Michael Hatt, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 206.
5: Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 7.
6: Paul Crowther, The Language of Twenties-Century Art: A Conceptual History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 113.
7: Randa Dubnick ,“Visible Poetry: Metaphor and Metonymy in the Paintings of Rene Magritte,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 21, No. 3, Art and Literature (1980): 408.
8: David Sylvester, Magritte: The Silence of the World (New York: The Menil Foundation, 1992), 12.
10: Abraham Marie Hammacher, René Magritte (New York: Abrams, 1995), 1.
11: Fiona Bradley, Surrealism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 41.
12: Pablo Picasso, Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views, ed. Dore Ashton (Cambridge, Mass., Da Capo Press, 1988), 21.
13: Didier T. Jaen, “The Disquieting Art: The Essays of Borges and the Paintings of Magritte,” Chasqui: Revista de Literatura Latinoamericana, vol.2, no. 2 (1973): 15.
15: Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, 37.
16: Wallace Fowlie, Age of Surrealism (New York: Swallow Press, 1950), 141-142.
17: Gablik, Magritte, 100.
18: Gablik, Magritte, 111.
19: Eric Wargo, “Infinite Recess: perspective and play in Magritte's La Condition Humaine,” Art History, vol. 25 no. 1 (2002): 57
20: Magritte, Rene and Harry Torczyner, Letters Between Friends (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1994), 15.
21: Gablik, Magritte, 9.
22: Alain Robbe-Grillet, René Magritte, Ben Stoltzfus, La Belle Captive: a novel (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 195.
23: Carol Lowery Delaney, Investigating Culture: an Experiential Introduction to Anthropology (Boston: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 138.
24: Uwe M. Schneede, Rene Magritte: Life and Work (Barron’s Educational Series, 1982), 13.