This Is Not An Essay: René Magritte's Restructuring of Reality
You are probably most familiar with Magritte for his myriad of faceless bowler-hatted men descending from the sky. Magritte's mannequin figures are, though iconic, just one of many "objects" he used to present a fathomless vision of the waking world.
What lies beyond the veil of mystery?
qu'est-ce que c'est?
The blank white canvas must have been invigorating for Magritte. A spectacular Ganzfeld display of burning colour pools and shapes rippling across the canvas, his mind’s eye filled with hallucinations of the familiar and unfamiliar; shadows and silhouettes of figures he’d not yet met. It's the tongue-tied sunlit surrealism of a man who has seen the unravelling sketch lines of the universe, the scaffolding of an unfinished creation, an unsettling waking déjà vu. And in the white noise of his studio, he must have heard the sound of crashing waves, of a family laughing and of children playing, he must have heard birds chirping and conversations carried by the wind, like a whisper in his ear: a truth only for him.
I look at his paintings and wonder what he was thinking. His fetishism of the transcendental logic or mercurial nature of language manifests in doubles, divisions and doppelgängers as the sense of duality grips his work, saying, "everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see." Just as we can't really know another person, only the parts that we directly interact with. A face is a face, not a person, and not the multitude of complexities hidden from us, yet always visible in plain sight. Looking is not seeing. Seeing is not understanding. We see nothing and understand even less. That is life, that is the absurd world we live in. That is reality.
In his double-portrait, The Lovers II (1928), the ineffable alienness beneath the surface world becomes the suffocating idea that you can't really know another person, not truly. Heads are locked in an embrace but are unknowable to each other, enshrouded in fabric. It brings to mind the portraits of his wife, Georgette. He is painting his idea of her, not the real her which only she could know. There is a canyon between the two: the model longing to become the art, blaming him for not doing the impossible. Under Magritte’s brush, bodies are just objects, just one of many he used to forge new relationships with reality. You wouldn’t read a dictionary cover-to-cover and claim you have experienced life, browse an atlas and say you've travelled the world, or read a cookbook and say you feel full. Magritte’s blunt realism depicts our existence in a starkly literal way: one concerned with the absence of meaning. As if to say: "Stop making sense. Don't bother. You couldn't if you tried."
“Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest; Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilised stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.” (G. F. Watts, 1904)
Extinguishing the embers of meaning and stoking the fires of the coming cultural apocalypse (Hiroshima, the Holocaust, broadcast television), this anarchic world Magritte proposes in his paintings crosses into a space that is no longer real, but is instead a liquidation of all things recognisable. A man who, expecting a surprise on the way home, is surprised precisely because there is no surprise: written down, this is the paradox of poetic potentialities. Ordinary language sets imaginary boundaries to a boundless imagination. Magritte paints a post-modern malaise where the real is gone and we are left only with the representation, a reality sacrificing itself to artifice, where the distilling down of densely complex problems into a single image and sentence is maddeningly ingenious. He put the thinking of eminent philosophers into the format of a children's book, rubbing elbows with the Big Questions about reality itself.
The egg like the cage contains the bird.
Magritte is not interested in what came first, the chicken or the egg. He asks: what if instead of a chicken, it was an egg in the cage? To move beyond the obvious and to the very reason of being and existence in the first place: he tasked the image with revealing this. Surreality became actuality, "an actuality that even our consciousness assures," forcing the commonplace into the new "non-place" of his own creation. It's this transformation of objects that is so interesting. Unlike the arbitrary juxtaposition of some other surrealist imagery (more concerned with the liberating logic of dreams and the subconscious), Magritte finds links — such as a train and a chimney — bringing about a metamorphosis of meaning. Because the often oxymoronic links make some strange semblance of sense, the image becomes both perfectly natural while also perfectly unnatural.
Imagine all of the fantastical things we're missing out on or all of the things that would only seem fantastic because they are not familiar. If you woke up tomorrow and the sky was lime-green, you would be struck by how unnatural it looks, but anyone born after that point would find a blue sky difficult to even imagine. Magritte's paintings are this foreign feeling. Like relearning to read. As evanescent as a Rorschach test — or a shadow in your room seen half-asleep at 3 am that looks like a man until you turn on your light and see nothing but a pile of laundry. A trick of the mind. Because of this, I am comfortable saying that anything seen in a Magritte painting is as real as anything outside of it.
Before he was an artist, Magritte painted advertising posters and made forgeries of Chirico, Braque, and Picasso (even going to such lengths as printing fake money to survive in desperate financial times). Maybe in this artificiality is where the "Magrittean logic" was born: this irreality so present in his paintings. His canvases carry a playful scepticism when it comes to "finding meaning" in art and beyond – that the obviousness of the signs surrounding us is in fact an illusion. This breach of reality in his work personifies the unknowable, shatter-glass reality; objects not separated from, "the mystery to which nothing can be compared, and without which no thought or world would be possible." Highlighting the human mind’s limits and blind spots, Magritte’s Morphean visions put all traditional, rational signs and symbols on trial; to make "everyday objects shriek out loud" and "challenge the real world", destabilising our sense of self and the links between representation and reality. To defamiliarise the familiar. I think the world needed Magritte to truly introduce surrealism. As poet Paul Nougé once said after seeing an early Magritte exhibition: "The world has been altered. There are no longer any ordinary things."
In the beginning was the Word… (John 1:1)
It sometimes feels impossible to describe how powerful a painting can be, to try and spell out the effect of an image in words. Here at The Big Ship we dig ourselves into this same ditch with every piece. Magritte’s work has been especially difficult. His imagery is so singular – a space no longer real. The animate brought abruptly to a halt. The fixed explosive. Canvases continuously overflow one into another. Words can be so inarticulate. Yet Magritte, a painter, used words better than most writers.
John Berger opens and closes his defining work Ways of Seeing with two paintings by the Belgian surrealist commenting that, "seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak... we explain the world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled." We only perceive objects in terms of their purposes. A tower is a tower when it is free-standing. A tower is concrete, steel and glass. The tower falls. All the pieces are still there: the concrete, the steel, the glass. But it is no longer standing. It no longer serves its purpose. If someone pointed at it and asked you what it was, would you still answer "a tower" or would you say "it was a tower, now it’s a pile of rubble"? Our reality is defined by text in a dictionary, written by God-knows-who. There are 6402364363415443600995503674052849007 possible combinations of letters that can be expressed out of the 26-letters in the English alphabet, most of which have no meaning whatsoever. This number confronts what the human mind can comprehend, a number that is hypnotic in its scale. A number so titanic, it makes our current worldview feel so microscopically limited. A tower is only a tower until it falls. A clock is only a clock until it stops. Water is only water until it’s steam. Perceptions are only perceptions until they become reality. Where is the line? Is there one — or is that also just "perceived"?
A pipe is a pipe until it can’t be smoked.
This painting is not a pipe.
"Ceci n’est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe"). If you define a pipe as "an object used to smoke" then you have to accept that this is not, in fact, a pipe. It is one of Magritte's "word-paintings" called The Treachery of Images (1929). A dual-critique of our use of imagery and speech, it contains one of Magritte’s "doubles" in an insidiously subtle way, the image and the word "pipe" unfolding and folding back in on themselves, a reflection of a refraction; refracting fact fractions facting refact. They are images out of sync with reality. Magritte’s word-image paintings are no more a silhouette of the object than it is the object itself. A shadow is not a man but does suggest the presence of him. When asked about the painting, Magritte himself said: "Of course it’s not a pipe. Just try to fill it with tobacco."
It's like breaking the fourth wall in a film. Magritte’s paintings are works that could have only been created post-photography, where painting became the invisible made visible, thought made physical, and chaos collapsing into order, creating a new Utopia of their own; one without defined logic or scientific laws. He understood that these images of men aren't men and pipes aren’t pipes, just pictures of them: so they don't have to follow any rules. And our conditioned monkey brains, still attached to the story of the work and accepting that "this is reality" or that "this is a pipe", are jolted awake when suddenly we are told "no". Painting is not reality. This is, in fact, not a pipe. His mirror again proves to be a reflection of nothing.
It is no longer apples and oranges, but apples transforming into oranges and oranges that are actually green and red. It is Magritte playing in the common ground between perception and reality. The words "this is not a pipe" become a manifesto of all the ways reality is distorted day-to-day; a minuscule, pedantic microcosm of the old question (and perhaps the only question that matters): how do I know my blue is the same as your blue? Siamese twins, who wake up at the same second, see everything the other saw, and go to sleep at the same time, couldn’t answer that question. They will still grow to have different personalities, different interests, different relationships, and different identities. They are literally conjoined; for all intents and purposes they are "duplicates" — yet entirely separate "selves". So, if they don't have the same perception as one another, what chance do I and a stranger I have just met have of successfully communicating? How can I even be sure that what I write here is read and understood the way I intended it? If a tree falls in the woods…
It’s a disturbing thought. Magritte's images are disturbing, tugging at the foundations of all that we consider real and sacred, while his work sets out to restructure reality, I don't think it sets out to replace it. But people come at it with the same fear that deep down even God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum, nothing more than a series of integral symbols: a cross, a dove, a stained-glass window. There is a reason that Muslims don't want Prophet Muhammad depicted in visuals. God is not dead, just as this is not a pipe.
I think great (or interesting) art is beyond what’s articulable, on the frontier of the open imagination, springing forth from the unknown to reveal the mystery behind the banality of everyday existence, providing intimations of eternity – reality deconstructed, reality dissected, reality disrupted – whereas here the text intrudes into the image. The pipe is painted, just sitting there, innocent, pretending to be a pipe when the text interrupts and announces "THIS IS NOT A PIPE. DO NOT BE FOOLED." Though the painting of a pipe cannot talk, as it is just a painting, it cannot defend itself. If it could, it might say: "I am not pretending to be a pipe. I am clearly just a painting of a pipe. Who would be fooled?" Academic artists spend a lifetime trying to master light and form, to as perfectly as possible replicate the likeness of real-world objects in painting. Here, the strokes are ordered and structured in a way that it looks like a pipe. Or, close enough. But, blinded by our own perceptions, just as the text is divorced from the image, the image is divorced from the reality – even within this unanchored existence, the text and image are bound together: the pipe, the text, the background; it is all "the painting of the pipe." It is not text at all, but a drawing of a written text. The image may be treacherous. But the words have outright lied. You can't light up the words "this is a pipe". A rose is a rose is a rose. And just as sweet by any other name.
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. It is nothing at all.