• SumoMe

It is a union that suggests the essential mystery of the world. Art for me is not an end in itself, but a means of evoking that mystery.

–René Magritte, on putting seemingly unrelated objects together in juxtaposition

Born in 1898, René Magritte was one of the most well-known surrealist artists ever. His style consisted mostly of simplistic depictions of strange object arrangements and focused around ideas of perception. Magritte’s intrigue was not so much in his mastery and skill, but the backdrop of his images which spawned more philosophical debate over a single image than many other artists create in their entire career.

Magritte was a very quiet person who preferred to stay out of the limelight, unlike his other surrealist publicity-seeking peers. His training as a commercial artist comes out in his realistic surrealism, if you will. Often the greatest surrealists are ulta-real, and this skill to become more real than reality is what takes them from just another painter to the level of surrealist.

Magritte painted three particularly poignant pieces that always stick with me. “The Treachery of Images,” Magritte’s most well-known piece, is directly-related to his interest in perception and metaphysical queries about art qua art. “The Son of Man” focuses on, well, the lack of focus in the the everyday world. Lastly, “Time Transfixed” focuses on the juxtaposition of the familiar and non-familiar.

“The Treachery of Images”

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!

This is not a pipe, it's just pixels on your screen.

Images are representation, and the treachery of saying “This is a pipe” is that the painting is not, in fact, a pipe. Rather, the images is paint smeared on canvas to resemble a pipe. Therefore, when Magritte wrote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” he was actually telling the truth, despite the viewer’s confusion about the statement.

When his francophone audience saw this image, many of them were aghast and I imagine they remarked, “Of course that’s a pipe! What else would it be?” A painting, of course.

This is the prime example of Magritte’s surrealism–where some surrealists painted unbelievable fantasies, Magritte focused on keeping the surrealism within the viewer, rather than the painting. Magritte wanted the viewer to feel surreal, not his paintings.

“The Son of Man”

At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

Everything blocks something else from view.

Look around you. I venture to assert that absolutely everything you see is blocking something else. Your desk is blocking the view to your lamp, your lamp is blocking the view your your wall, your wall is blocking your view to everything on the other side of the wall.

It’s easy to say, “So what?” However, the more you think about it, the more interesting that proposition becomes.

If everything you visually experience is either blocked or blocking something else, what else in your span of experience is blocked or blocking? Goals? Biases? Opinions? Facts? Dreams?

Magritte’s extremely simple apple in front of a man gives rise to a host of not-so-simple questions, not just regarding the visual world.

This is surrealism at its best, and the “conflict…between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present” is heavily applicable in many contexts in the lives of many viewers. How exactly this conflict plays out in your own life is for you to decide.

“Time Transfixed”

I decided to paint the image of a locomotive . . . In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined.

The familiar as unfamiliar.

First of all, I should note that Magritte himself hated the common title “Time Transfixed,” as the original title of the work is translated into English as “Ongoing Time Stabbed by a Dagger.” The painting was for one of Magritte’s patrons, and Magritte stated that he wanted the work to “stab” visitors as they walked up his patron’s staircase.

Now, the “meaning” behind this is really anyone’s guess, as is the case with most modern art. However, this work clearly shows Magritte’s affinity to put two objects together in a strange and unexpected way.

There are all sorts of details that art historians have thought about for years. For instance, why does the right candlestick have no reflection? Why is the fireplace empty and shallow? Why is the room empty? What’s the significance of the “Black Five” locomotive? These are questions that must remain unanswered, unless we can raise Magritte from the dead.

However, even if we could, I don’t think he would answer. This mystery is exactly what Magritte wanted in his work, and perhaps is the very reason he painted the works he did, in the manner he did.

What is your favorite work by Magritte, whether featured or not? Do you have any other favorite surrealists? Let’s talk about art in the comments below.