René Magritte’s well known ‘The treachery of images’ (1928–29) is a painting that subverts traditional modes of visual and linguistic representation in an attempt to undermine the social semiotic relationship between words and image. Specifically, it attempts to correct structuralist modes of perceiving textual and visual associations that rely upon linear and sometimes false logic.
This enquiry and analysis of structuralist thought was aided by a set of written correspondences between Magritte and Michel Foucault. It was Foucault who called the painting a double ciphered calligram (Foucault, 1983, p. 20). Foucault asserted that the words ‘this is not a pipe’ can be seen less as rhetorical instruction and more as a subverted visual representation designed to disguise a message: that words and language can be ‘arbitrary, conventional and circumstantial’ and thus can be dysfunctional and misleading (Foucault, 1983, p. 5). This flew in the face of the structuralist movement that relied upon Plato’s metaphysical connection between word and image to present coherent multimodal representations of meaning in the world.
Foucault’s analysis asserts that the disorientation affect within Magritte’s painting is not the contradiction between the image (the pipe) and the text (‘this is not a pipe’), but our natural human instinct to ‘read’ associations between text and image (Foucault, 1983, p. 21). For Foucault, contradiction is inherently rhetorical, and more broadly exists within a single mode of communication. Multimodal analysis requires the viewer/reader to interpret within a multiplicity of modes, in this case, two visual modes. Crucially, one of the modes (the text) is actually visual, disguised as textual. Thus, the ‘secretly constructed and carefully unraveled’ double-ciphered calligram emerges (Foucault, 1983, p. 20).
In this case the ‘text’ intentionally contradicts the image. The words themselves act as a legend not to the image, but of course, to the painting as a whole, and the conceptual framework in which it exists. This strategy allows the uncomfortable opening of a conversation with the viewer about narrative connections and their often unquestioned truth(s). As Foucault wrote, ‘Magritte allows the old space of representation to rule, but only the surface, no more than a polished stone, bearing words and shapes: beneath, nothing. It is a gravestone’ (Foucault, 1983, p. 41). As a result, a seemingly anchored and narrow space for interpretation quickly reveals itself as complete sorcery. What Magritte wanted us to know was that the obstruction to our desires is not the object in our field of view, but is vision, thought and perception itself.
Magritte and Foucault aligned with Swiss semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure’s assertion that a thing and its name have a totally arbitrary relationship. Thus, Magritte’s painting cautions us against making overly facile connections between art (or language) and the physical realm. For many years, humans had — and often still do — suppose that language and reality have an organic relationship. Magritte uses a multimodal calligram to help us understand that this supposition is based upon a secret visual dependency and as a result, we often go about our days assuming that what we see and what we say are two realities that overlap seamlessly. This is a false logic that the treachery of images bursts open at once.
Foucault, M. 1983, This is not a pipe, trans. J. Harkness, University of California Press, Oakland, California.