The Contradictory World of René Magritte

This is an essay about René Magritte, or is it?

“Everything we see hides another thing; we always wish to see what is hidden by what we see” (Magritte, 1979). This is what René Magritte said about his painting The Son of Man. A lot of Magritte’s work seems to focus on this idea. The idea that there are complexities to everything that most people never see because they are obscured by the apparent situation, and the expectations and tunnel vision of others.

Using books, artworks, and translated writings, this essay will look at Magritte and his contradictory nature. This mysterious figure who has a very bourgeois appearance and yet spent his life undermining and subverting bourgeois principles. This person who paints and writes to deliberately force the audience to think for themselves.

Magritte was born in 1898 in Lessines, Belgium, a very cosmopolitan area of Belgium.His family moved to Châtelet when he was 12 when he began to draw and paint for the first time. After meeting an artist in an abandoned cemetery where he used to play, he said that painting for him was a ‘magical activity’ (Gablik, 1985, p. 18). Magritte began his formal career after his family moved to Brussels in 1917.

Figure 1. René Magritte, Three Women, 1922, oil on canvas. dimensions unknown. (Lacma, 2017)

He exhibited his first canvas entitled Three Women, which was reminiscent of early cubist paintings by Picasso. There appears to be some confusion as to the date of this work as both Gablick’s book (Gablik, 1985, p. 19) and Zeri’s book (Zeri, 2001, p. 14) state that it was exhibited in 1919 however, Gablick’s book and Meister’s book (Meister, 1971, p. 163) gives the date of completion of the painting as 1922. It is possible that this was exhibited in 1919 as an uncompleted work, which was then completed in 1922. It is beyond the scope of this essay to resolve this point however, this is a subject which might be interesting to do further research into. As seen in most of his works from this period such as, Girl and Youth, he was mostly influenced by cubism and futurism, although his futurism was unorthodox at the time due to his use of eroticism. It is therefore no great surprise that Magritte’s work was a big influence on 60s pop art and influenced artists such as Andy Warhol, whose film work often plays on the erotic (Gablik, 1985, pp. 19–21).

Figure 2. Pablo Picasso, Dryad, 1908, oil on canvas, 185cm x 108cm. (Museum, 2017)

Ironically, Magritte felt that Pop artists were not truly avant-garde due to their commercial success and wasn’t sure whether he liked being considered a precedent for pop art. He once said “I notice that real avant-garde art has always been badly received, whereas fake avant-garde art is enormously successful. Pop art lacks the authenticity that would give it the power to be provocative.” He also did not recognise its social critique of consumption. It was, however, the emergence of pop art and the influence of his work on it that he gained the international recognition that he wanted (Magritte, 2016, p. xiv).

Perhaps appropriately, Magritte was a man of contradictions. He was famed for having a bourgeois appearance and yet, spent most of his life undermining and subverting the bourgeois. “He used to call himself a secret agent”, one of his friends recalled in a New York times obituary, “By that I suppose he meant to allude to the contrast between his appearance and his reality. He looked like a small-town banker, but under the banker’s innocent allures Magritte was a very revolutionary personality” (Magritte, 2016, p. xi).

In a letter to the Communist party of Belgium, which he joined after the second world war, Magritte said, “The only way that poets and painters can fight against the bourgeois economy is to give their works precisely that content which challenges the bourgeois ideological values propping up the bourgeois economy.” (Magritte, 2016, p. xiv). Essentially, Magritte wanted to dismantle the bourgeois economy from the inside by appearing to be one of them, yet produce work that showed the lunacy of the bourgeois rationalism, which insists that everything must be taken at face value.

In the light of the previous statement, it is quite ironic that since his passing, his work has acquired great monitory value, thereby becoming another vehicle of investment and thus, his legacy is assisting the very same bourgeois economy that it was seeking to challenge. In many ways, this is a case of the well-known saying by the French critic, journalist and novelist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ This translates as, the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.

Figure 3. René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929, oil on canvas, 23 3/4”x31 15/16”. (Lacma, 2017)

Magritte is interesting because of his intention of subverting people’s prejudices and preconceived ideas. Suzi Gablik comments in her book that “Magritte’s paintings are intended as an attack upon society’s preconceived ideas and predetermined good sense” (Gablik, 1985, pp. 9–10). People only see a superficial layer of others’ lives and influenced by their personal beliefs and the apparent context of the situation, misread them and use their misunderstandings and ignorance to justify their own Prejudice. Magritte challenges this phenomenon by producing work that requires free thought to understand. He reminds his audience “not to resort to habit or prescribed emotions but instead interrogate things and think and feel for themselves” (Magritte, 2016, p. xviii).

Magritte’s artworks often deliberately hide or obscure things from us, forcing us to question and think for ourselves about the world. His famous artwork, The Treachery of Images (Figure 2), features a pipe with the caption ‘This is not a pipe’. This could be reminding the audience that they are looking at a painting rather than looking directly at the object it represents. This raises a number of philosophical issues because the audience are looking at an image of the object, rather than the object itself. If this is the case, he is making a comment on iconographic representation which the philosopher Wittgenstein further probed in his work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

In this work, Wittgenstein states “the thought is the significant proposition”, which draws attention to the fact that in using words to communicate our innermost insights there is always a degree of imprecision due to a mismatch between the words and that which they represent. (Wittgenstein, 2013). It is possible that Magritte is trying to deceive the audience, as the pipe may not be a pipe at all, but another object that has been distorted to resemble or represented to look like a pipe. Magritte once said “any old shape can replace the image of an object (Magritte, 2016, p. 34)”. All of these ideas boil down to the problems with associating an image with an object, a word with an object, or an object with it’s purpose. He talks at great length about this in his work La Révolution Surréaliste no. 12. It is ideas like this that he believed would help dismantle the bourgeois economy by subverting their rationalism.

Figure 4. René Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, oil on canvas, 45 2/3”x35”. (ArtPaintingArtist, 2014)

The Son of Man (Figure 3) is quite possibly Magritte’s most well-known painting. The opening quotation of this essay refers to this painting. The apple in front of the man’s face symbolises how everything we see obscures something else. As he mentioned once, “an object hints at other objects behind it (Magritte, 2016, p. 33)”. In much the same way as he did in works like The Human Condition (Figure 5), he deliberately covers part of the image with an object in order to raise questions as to what is really behind it.

Although this was a lesser known work of Magritte’s, it is a most interesting reflection of Magritte’s character. Three Pamphlets were written by him in the 1946, these included: Idiot, Silly Bugger and Fucker. These are interesting as they are writings, as opposed to paintings. In Idiot Magritte says, “Good patriots are idiots; Good patriots muck up the country. All the time, every day, at least one patriot has no qualms about shitting on the sacred soil of his native land…” This essentially implies bigotry and hypocrisy of Patriots. He goes on to say “priests are idiots; they don’t know a thing about religion”. He does not really explain why these people are idiots but he implies that they are hypocrites. He gives other similar examples of Idiots before saying “Reader, you are an idiot (Magritte, 2016, p. 76).”

In Silly Bugger he says, “Politicians have buggered up the world with their wars. Now they are preparing a famine.”. Then as before he finishes by saying, “Reader, you are a perfect bugger. You should be put down.”. It is possible that by ‘Reader’, he means everyone including himself, as anyone could read his work including himself, otherwise he is directing his words specifically at the reader. This again adds to his contradictory nature, as if he is indeed referring to himself as the ‘reader’ along with the audience, he is being a hypocrite in pamphlets about hypocrisy, otherwise he is simply exposing hypocrisy and bigotry. This also more evidence of him mocking the bourgeois and being true to his Marxist values.

Figure 5. René Magritte, The Human Condition, 1933, oil on canvas, 39”x32”. (renemagritte.org, 2017)

The Human Condition (Figure 5), is one of a series of works that Magritte produced featuring an easel holding a canvas on which there is a painting of the scene behind it. It is difficult to see where the landscape behind the canvas meets the image on the canvas, as there is only a fine line separating the two which represents the outline of the canvas. This series of paintings question where the border lies between reality and its representation. It also makes one wonder whether the painting on the canvas is a correct representation of what is going on behind it. If the canvas were to be moved to show the scene behind, would it be different? There may be something that Magritte is trying to conceal with the canvas, for example a large factory or some other disfigurement of or disruption to the landscape. In this painting (Figure 5), there is only a white line on one side of the canvas, while on the other side the canvas in covering part of the curtains which determines where the canvas starts and ends. This painting contains the foundations for a recursion image, in which a painting contains itself and is often ongoing to the point at which the resolution of the painting prohibits it. While this painting does not contain recursion in the proper sense, it is a potential basis for it.

Magritte was different to some of the other surrealists of the time. Salvador Dali, who was arguably more famous that Magritte, had a style that was more aesthetically complex and yet, had quite simple symbology and didn’t leave much to the imagination. Magritte’s style tends not to reveal too much to the audience and leaves them time to absorb and analyse the symbology of the image. In this respect, Dali is not an influence of Magritte’s or vice versa.

With regard to Max Ernst, he again is different in his approach. Ernst, like Dali, tended to paint more aesthetically complex and yet devoid of the illusions and puzzle-like nature of Magritte’s work. According to art critic Adrian Searle, Magritte painted in an “utterly conventional, inexpressive, even illustrational manner”. He also says that “It is easy to regard René Magritte as a much better image-maker and inventor of visual and verbal conundrums than he was a painter (Searle, 2011).” This sums up Magritte quite nicely. A master of visual conundrums but not a painter of aesthetically pleasing work.

Figure 6 M. C. Escher, Relativity, 1953, Lithograph, 29.4cm x 28.2cm. (Escher, 2017)

Magritte was a ‘realist’ surrealist in the words of Mariana Borges Veras FYSE. In this respect he was unique in the world of surrealists as “he maintained a Realist quality in his paintings, something that did not interest most Surrealist artists. Instead of applying the Surrealist notions of distorting reality to the actual physical appearance of familiar objects in his work, Magritte chose to give these objects the familiar physical permanence they have in real life, and tampered with other factors we often take for granted: gravity, scale, and the relationships of inside and outside (Veras, 2009).” In addition to this, his work can be compared with that of Alfred Stevens, a Belgian artist who was one of Magritte’s contemporaries. There is a high degree of realistic detail in Stevens’ work which is present in Magritte’s work to a lesser degree.

Figure 7 René Magritte, Not to Be Reproduced, 1937, oil on canvas, 32”x26”. (renemagritte.org, 2017)

Branching out beyond other surrealists, M. C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist may have been an influence on Magritte and vice versa. Patrick Elliott, senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art says that Escher “has a lot in common with the surrealists […] but he didn’t have anything to do with any of them. (Mansfield, 2015)”. His work does however draw some parallels. For example, there is a Mobius strip like element to a lot of Escher’s work (Figure 6) which is also featured in some of Magritte’s paintings (Figure 7). A lot of Escher’s work features interesting puzzles and paradoxes, in a more mathematical and technical way, but nevertheless similar to Magritte’s work. In Not to Be Reproduced (Figure 7), there is a man shown from behind staring into a mirror which reflects the back of the man as opposed to the front, and yet it reflects correctly everything else in the image. This is a limited form of recursion, an image within itself. This is similar to the cyclic nature of the staircase in Esher’s work, Relativity (Figure 6), the stairs form an impossible staircase, a Mobius strip where the inside is the outside and vice versa.

Figure 8 Giorgio De Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914, oil on canvas, 73cm x 59.1cm. (MoMA, 2017)

In 1922, Magritte met Marcel Lecomte who showed Magritte a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico’s painting The Song of Love (Figure 8). He had difficulty fighting back the tears. He once said in an interview, “it was one of the most moving moments of my life: my eyes saw thought for the first time (Magritte, 2016, p. 230).” Some paintings by Magritte such as The Man of the Open Sea and Flying Statue are reminiscent of De Chricio’s work in that they contain mannequins. Also, The Rights of Man could be inspired by De Chricio as the anthropomorphic bilboquets are similar to various pencil drawings by De Chirico from 1917. “The Midnight Marriage is highly suggestive of De Chirico’s The Two Sisters, in which a dummy skull is adorned with a wig. (Gablik, 1985, p. 33)”

It is apparent that he influenced Andy Warhol and other pop artists. In many respects, artists like Warhol took the concepts of Magritte’s and rendered them in a simplified way that made them accessible to a new audience. Despite Magritte’s dislike of being considered a precedent for them due to their commercial nature, his own paintings gained commercial success in his latter years and an article in Christie’s mentions, “he never abandoned the commercial world (Christie’s, 2017).” He has influenced many people over the years, and even many years after his death, his legacy lives on. He ran an advertising agency called Studio Dongo with his brother in the 1930s. In a shack in his garden, Magritte created posters, music covers and advertisements right up until the 1950s, long after he had become internationally acknowledged as an artist.”

Figure 8 DDB, Volkswagon Print Advert — Magritte, 2008, digital art, unkown dimensions. (World, 2008)

Many of his works would become icons for big business; his sky-bird, for instance, became the emblem of Sabena, the Belgian airline. His artwork has continued to fuel advertising even 50 years after his death. Some of the advertising campaigns influenced by Magritte include adverts for French State Railways, sixties Volkswagen adverts by Doyle Dane Bernbach; a series of Allianz adverts which appropriated the Ceci n’est pas un Pipe motif, and adverts for Absolut Vodka. He influenced the 1970 promotional film for the song Astral Traveller by progressive rock band Yes. He influenced the album cover for Paul McCartney & Wings’ Mull of Kintyre, the apple that was used by the Beatles’ label Apple Records and even, somewhat indirectly, the monochrome apple with a bite taken out of it used by Apple as their logo.

The 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan leaned heavily on Magritte imagery and technique. It features the theft of an artwork from a museum using a very Magritte like trick of hiding an item in plain sight. The painting has apparently been stolen from the gallery but is in fact still present but hidden behind an expert forgery of another painting painted over the top, and is only revealed when the sprinkler system is activated and the forgery is washed off. This trick is reminiscent of the easel paintings that were mentioned earlier. Bowler hats are used as part of a disguise in the film and The Son of Man painting is featured several times. (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1999)

In some cases, directly and in others indirectly, Magritte has influenced a lot of imagery used in popular culture for most of the 20th century and continues to influence popular culture to this day. He was an antifascist political rebel, and a member of the Belgian Communist party, to which he wrote many letters. His work tactically undermined bourgeois rationalism and at a time when other artists were painting fantastical imagery, he was presenting visual conundrums using realist imagery. The irony of all of this lies in the fact that his success affectively established him as the new bourgeois, a position which later in life he appeared quite resigned to inhabit. In recent years, Christie’s have sold Magritte paintings for as much as much as 14 million pounds. Merely in running an advertising agency, an activity which, of necessity helped to prop up the bourgeois economy that he was allegedly seeking to undermine, we reveal yet another layer of contradiction in this complex artist.

This leads us back to our opening question, is this essay about the real René Magritte, or was he himself one of his own paradoxical artistic creations?

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