I have been fortunate in the amount of artwork that I have seen, and still one of the most inspirational galleries that I have toured was one that exhibited the work of Rene Magritte, Belgian surrealist painter, photographer, and perhaps poet. I say poet for though Magritte is most well known as a painter, his pieces hold such an extraordinary amount of creativity yet reality, complexity yet simplicity, and concreteness yet abstraction that I attribute him an expert in capturing his emotions and thoughts onto paper. Before I speak to his life and his inspirations, here is an example of his work – a piece of his that first captured my (and many others’) interest:
René Magritte, 1929
La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images)
Oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
It’s a pipe, right? But the caption says clearly in French: “This is not a pipe.” The first time I saw this painting in the Los Angelos County Museum of Art (I was on vacation), I said to myself: “Even I could draw that; what’s it doing up hanging up here? And why is this not a pipe?” As it turns out, many art critics have speculated on this piece titled La trahison des images, or The Treachery of Images. The main object in the piece appears to a simple pipe – a near perfect, but still simple, pipe. It looks as it if it could go on a twentieth century tobacco advertisement, yet it was here hanging in a famous museum. I didn’t get a chance to Google search Magritte that afternoon, but the artist’s name stuck in mind. This one piece was too interesting in that the childish French cursive clearly contradicts what we see in the image. (I will say here that at the time in the LA museum, I lingered here a little longer because the French script intrigued me. At the time that I was touring the museum, I was a rising Duke freshman who had taken French for four, going on five, years. I had visited the Louvre in the past, and I absolutely loved anything artsy and related to Paris and France. Perhaps it’s my fascination with both art and French that leads me reinforce the mass stereotype of French artsy-ness, but I couldn’t help loving Magritte’s work at first sight.) When I finally did get the chance to research Rene Magritte’s La trahison des images, I found this quote by the one and only:
“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I'd have been lying!”
- Rene Magritte (Matteson 1)
It is very true – the image of the pipe is not a real pipe; it is merely an image of a pipe. Magritte made his point even more clear with a sister piece titled Les deux mysteres or The Two Mysteries:
René Magritte, 1966
Les deux mysteres (The Two Mysteries)
Oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Above, we see that Magritte has captured the same pipe as in La trahison des images on a chalkboard – something that we can wipe away in an instant, as if it was drawn for teaching purposes and not for an exhibition or a tobacco advertisement. Perhaps Magritte was stating that in art, we can try to capture reality on paper and teach these techniques to others, and sometimes we will exceed. However, we can never truly capture the object; an image of a pipe is not a real pipe, and now that Magritte has framed the image to make it ever more clear: a drawing is a drawing, and a pipe is a pipe. Here in the Lilly Library I have found one artists confusion:
“'There are two pipes. Or rather must we not say, two drawings of the same pipe? Or yet a pipe and the drawing of that pipe, or yet again two drawings each representing a different pipe? Or two drawings, one representing a pipe and the other not, or two more drawings yet, of which neither the one nor the other are representing pipes? Or yet again, a drawing representing not a pipe at all but another drawing, itself representing a pipe so well that I must ask myself: To what does the sentence written in the painting relate?’”
- Michel Foucault (Foucault 16)
Thus are the questions and ambiguities that the works of Magritte revoke in everyone from amateur art students like myself to the great art critics. Thus is the reason why he is so famous – his works are full of irony, juxtaposition, and non sequitur. Who is this man, and how had he come to realize his unique style?
According to art critic Michel Foucault’s in his book This Is Not a Pipe, Magritte (1898 – 1967) was born in Lessines in the province of Hainaut – one of three in Belgium (3). His work makes him one of the most influential Belgian surrealist painters, one who had relatively strong support and encouragement from the public community during his lifetime. His mother and father were not artists by any means, and it was well known that Magritte’s early life was tainted by his mother’s suicide in the River Sambre. A few of his pieces shown below lead us to believe that Magritte witnessed his mother being pulled out of the river with her dress drawn over her head:
René Magritte, 1928
L’histoire central (The Central Story)
Oil on canvas, Musee Magritte Museum
It is worth noting here that Rene had infatuations with certain objects such as the tuba and the suitcase that appear in many of his later works, just like the pipe (which I will shall give examples of later in this post). Notice that Rene triangulates his piece with three realtively mundane “objects”, leading us to question what the central story is – are there three critical components to the central story of what appears to be murder? One of the reasons why I enjoy looking at Magritte’s artwork is that it leads me to think about the meaning. We discussedin class the art of choosing interesting objects to draw in our still life – and I agree that when we draw many objects in a pile, it makes the observer look – but Magritte has managed to do that without having many objects. There are not many objects; he likes to just just a few simple objects; this is an aspect of his art that I much admire. In L’Histoire centrale, for example, he has managed to capture some story that we can’t quite figure out. Historians explain that Rene Magritte was fascinated by mysteries and other crime tales, and it was rumored that Magritte once wrote to David Sylvester, author of the adventures of Nick Carter Les initiales mysterieuses (The Mysterious Initials), expressing his adoration for Carter’s novels. Perhaps this explains Magritte’s other pieces, such as L’Assassin Meance (The Menaced Assasin) shown below. We see Magritte’s same interest in crime scenes. I noticed not a tuba but a similar shiny musical interest – a trumpet horn turntable – and another suitcase in the middle of the floor. Perhaps The Central Story and The Menaced Assasin are related? Maybe Rene Magritte tried to place the same objects in different pieces with differing emphases, orientations, lighting, meaning?
René Magritte, 1927
L’assassin menace (The Menaced Assassin)
Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, NY
Below are another two examples of pieces depicting veiled-heads theorized to relate with his mother’s suicide. Here instead of death and murder, Magritte chose to depict love and romance, perhaps as a tribute to his wife Georgette?
René Magritte, 1928
Les amants (The Lovers)
Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Australia
To elaborate on Magritte’s life – after the death of his mother, he attended the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels where he was trained under Constant Montald between 1916 to 1918 (Allmer 112). During this period, his main works were of nude women, and we can see that his early works influence some later pieces he created such as Le Viol (The Rape) completed in 1934 (Scutenaire 10). Once again, we see a powerful image that is simplistic yet strong, bold, and almost threatening. To me, the image screams: what does a rapist see? One does he see versus what he should see? What does the observer see and what should the observer see? Again we see Magritte’s style of smooth color gradients, use of oil, and depiction of simple objects to portray abstract ideas.
René Magritte, 1934
Le viol (The Rape)
Oil on canvas, Musee Critique de la Sorbonne
At the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Magritte felt uninspired, and the start of his career as a surrealist painter didn’t begin until 1925 when he met Giorgio de Chirico. Chirico was an Italian surrealist painter whose work “surpassed realism”, or in other words, his work often went beyond what we see at first sight. Magritte was very much inspired by Chirico’s style and began adding Chirico’s signature objects—spheres, trains, and plaster—into his own pieces. Magritte didn’t exactly wish to create art to serve the industry; he wanted his pieces to inspire wonder in his observer. From 1927 – 1930, Magritte spent some time in Paris making connections with French surrealist painters such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dali (Allmer 18). Below is one of Ernst’s famous works, something to give us an idea of where Magritte’s own inspiration and style stemmed from:
Max Ernst, 1923
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
The above is one of Max Ernst’s famous political piece, subtitled The Triumph of Surrealism. Ernst was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet (I suppose Surrealists really fancy the creative art of writing as well!)—a true leader of Surrealism. The above piece depicts a bird-like creature—symbolic of fascism taking over Europe.
It was likely in Paris when Magritte began experimenting with the use of words in his artwork. The famous pipe piece was created while Magritte was in Paris, and we see that even after he left Paris in 1930, he continued to incorporate words to enhance his pieces. To present some of those works, below are Le Palais de rideaux (The Palace of the Curtains), and the Le Sens propre.
Le sens propre (The Literal Meaning)
Oil on canvas
Le Palais de rideau (The Palace of the Curtains)
Oil on canvas
Femme triste means “sad woman”; rideau means curtains, and cheval means horse. Magritte names these pieces The Literal Meaning – but what do these images mean, literally? To me, nothing about the circular piece is a sad woman, yet if we label it as a sad woman, couldn’t we picture a sad woman? Isn’t an image just a capture of a real object, and if we can’t capture the real object anyway, why can’t a disk be a sad woman? Same goes with the curtain, and the horse. What do observers think this piece? In my opinion, by writing “curtain” or “horse” on seemingly ordinary objects, Magritte has inspired us to think about curtains and horses in abstract ways, perhaps in ways surpassing reality. This again shows the reason why I am inspired by Magritte’s work – the objects that he draws are not extremely complex. The pipe, Femme Triste, and even the triangular L’histoire centrale with the veiled man, the tuba, and the suitcase are not complicated pieces. However, the pieces inspire much thought, and it is his show of making mundane objects come alive that inspires me to continue doing artwork and drawing seemingly random objects in my sketchbook. A piece does not necessarily have to contain many complex objects to hold deep meaning. Humans have the incredible ability to imagine what’s not there by making more of what is there. I leave everyone with one final series of Magritte paintings that I really, really love. Magritte liked to hide things with certain objects, and two examples are shown below. He sets a canvas in the middle of his scene, and paints the exact behind on the canvas onto that canvas.
René Magritte, 1933 and 1935
The Human Condition Series
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (1933 painting, at top)
Simon Spierer Collection, Geneva, Switzerland (1935 painting, at bottom)
And again we can hear Magritte saying: “It's just a representation, is it not?” It’s amazing that he can turn a simple landscape – something many artists could draw – into something much more. With a few more lines, Magritte has made us reflect about our own perception of nature; he has inspired us to question what reality is and what just might surpass it.
Allmer, Patricia. René Magritte: Beyond Painting. New York City: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.
Foucault, Michel. This is Not a Pipe. Los Angeles: The Regents of the University of California, 1982. Print.
Gohr, Siegfried. Magritte. New York City: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2000. Print.
Hunter, Sam. Museum of Modern Art, New York. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984. Print.
Matteson, Richard L. “The Treachery of Images.” Matteson Art. Your Company, Inc., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2012.
Scutenaire. Magritte. Antwerp-Belgium: Ministry of Education and De Sikkel, 1948. Print.
Sylvester, David. Magritte. Mercatorfonds, Brussels: Menil Foundation, Inc., 2009. Print.
Taylor, Joshua. Magritte. Chicago: William and Noma Copley Foundation. Print.