The Master of Visual Enigmas
In 1924, André Breton wrote a document that would define a dramatic shift in art. Describing an offshoot of Dadaism that turned towards Freudian psychoanalysis and the unconscious as a source of emancipatory expression, the Surrealist Manifesto called for the “resolution of … dream and reality” through surreality, described by Breton as “psychic automatism in its pure state … Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
Several artists, such as Yves Tanguay and Paul Klee, brought mythical elements and automatic techniques to the forefront. But René Magritte’s work, depicting highly naturalistic images in impossible, deadpan juxtapositions, represents another quintessential approach to Surrealism—one that continues to question our understanding of reality and the authority of representation.
René Magritte. The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), 1929. Oil on canvas. 25” x 37”. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Treachery of Images (1929) is a fine example of Magritte’s play on reality versus the image. The painting depicts a realistically portrayed pipe; however, underneath is a didactic, handwritten script that reads, “This is not a pipe.” Fascinated with the slipperiness of representation, Magritte recognizes that his painting is in fact not a pipe in a material, utilitarian sense—and neither is its linguistic counterpart, “pipe.” His painting thus humorously challenges the objectivity and reliability of modes of knowledge, a common theme in his work.
René Magritte. The False Mirror, 1928. Oil on canvas. 21.25” x 31.85”. Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
As such, much of Magritte’s work can be read as self-critical, asking the viewer to challenge both their own sense of reality and the vision purported by Magritte’s brush. The False Mirror (1928) embodies this struggle—the eye appears to reflect the sky, but with an unnatural depth and symmetry; likewise, the disc of the pupil floats eerily in the sky, a black sun balancing the composition. The difference between surface and depth is blurred, defying the agency of sight through artistic illusion. Glaring back at the viewer, the famous Surrealist photographer Man Ray cryptically claimed the painting “sees as much as it itself is seen.”
René Magritte. Time Transfixed, 1938. Oil on canvas. 4’ 10” x 3’ 3”. Art Institute of Chicago Building.
Perhaps the most common theme between Magritte’s works is his ability to estrange the familiar by juxtaposing recognizable yet conflicting objects or figures in the same picture plane. Time Transfixed (1938) confines a steam locomotive in a fireplace mantel topped with a clock and candlesticks, its clouds of smoke disappearing up the chimney. Like many paintings, subjects of the exterior world are trapped in interior spaces or vice-versa. The train is “frozen in its tracks,” its immobility amplified by the stillness of the geometric sterility of the room. The front of the train echoes the circular clock face; time, therefore, is also transfixed, settling in the liminality between motion and staticity, as well as externality and internality.
René Magritte. The Son of Man, 1964. Oil on canvas. 3’ 9” x 2’ 11”. Private Collection.
Certain symbols also repeat in Magritte’s oeuvre, such as the bowler hat in the supposed self-portrait The Son of Man (1964). An apple blocks the man’s vision, his eyes barely peeking out. Behind him is a low wall and a stormy sky, separated by an expanse of ocean blue. Magritte commented on this work, noting: “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.”
Magritte made a unique mark on the Surrealist movement, defying what it meant to paint in this style. Instead of contemplating fantastical dream worlds like his contemporaries did, Magritte recognized that the world we inhabit is just as surreal as the worlds inside our heads.
"Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see." — Rene Magritte
'If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream." — Rene Magritte
"The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown." — Rene Magritte
"Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist." — Rene Magritte
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