The true function of art, H. L. Mencken felt, was to edit nature and make it coherent, to “blue-pencil the bad spelling of God.” He, as others before and since, felt that by removing the superfluous, the essence would become clear. But this view of realism does not deal with the possibility of surrealism, and it is likely that had René Magritte been aware of the above statement he would have totally rejected it.René François Ghislain Magritte, the “Master of the Art of Resemblance,” has long been accepted as one of the leading masters of Surrealism. He begins with a premise of realism but seeks to confound us with deliberate contradiction in terms. He mixes relative reality (or what we think to be true) with absolute reality (or what we know to be true) and in the end causes us to reappraise our own view of a world grown too familiar.Born in Lessines, Belgium, on November 21, 1898, Magritte was the eldest of three brothers born to a minor Belgian industrialist. In 1912 his mother drowned herself and shortly thereafter, seeking to escape the rather dismal remnants of family life, Magritte turned to art. From 1924 he was seriously working in the surrealist vein and was the avowed, if not direct, student of de Chirico. In 1927 he began a three-year sojourn in Paris but returned to Brussels where he had taken up residence and where, for the most part, he remained for the rest of his life. He was sixty-eight when he died on August 15, 1967, and in the course of his life he had developed a vast oeuvre
devoted to the purest tenets of surrealism.There are many who maintain that he is the only true master of surrealism, for other artists, as Dali, Ernst, and Miro, distort realism and resort to fantasy rather than attempt to extend the visual and logical world. Magritte on the other hand sought only to use an established visual language and mold it to his own purposes; his was the approach of the poet who does not develop new words but prefers to juxtapose those that exist and thereby develop new, alchemistic meanings.Magritte was an artist who dealt with mysteries. He understood that the artist is unable to “create” reality but only the resemblance of reality. The difference between the two becomes both challenging and mysterious. In one of his early yet basic paintings he drew a pipe underneath which he wrote, “This is not a pipe.” This, in the Platonic sense, is true but it tends to undermine all that over which artists have for centuries labored. It was in this vein, for the most part, that Magritte continued for the rest of his life, and the theme of mystery and the “evocation of the unknown” is one to which he returned over and over again.Les promenades d'Euclide
done in 1955 and recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is not only an example of one of the masterworks of Magritte but of one of the recurring themes in the production of the artist.1
We have here a basically simple theme. We are looking out the window of an artist's studio onto a street and landscape beyond. On the easel is a canvas depicting the view from the window. But is it all that simple? Magritte is a master of making the ordinary extraordinary. We are looking at a painting of a painting of a landscape. Or is it that the canvas on the easel is merely transparent? If it is not, do we know that the scene behind it is exactly the same as the version painted on it? Are the two men still there, in the street, talking? The work, we must admit, is a visual pun, designed more to stimulate the mind than delight the eye. Indeed, “seeing” is not always “believing.”Historically the artist's task has been to clarify an idea, not to obscure it; Magritte's mental exercises are a new departure. His precise technique with its abundance of detail relates to the Flemish masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries who were, after all, Magritte's ancestors. But their intention was to present an idea with the utmost directness while the surrealist master intends only to give the appearance of directness and thereby to catch us off-guard when we realize that the world he shows us is somehow slightly out-of-phase with the one we know.The beginnings of this visual-mental exercise were to be found some twenty years earlier. In a painting titled The Human Condition, I
of 1933, Magritte employed the same window, the same drapes, and the same “idea” for the first time. Only the easel and the canvas are different. He wrote of this work:
In front of a window seen from inside a room I placed a picture representing exactly that part of a landscape which was masked by the picture. In this way a tree represented in this picture hid the tree standing behind it, outside the room. For the spectator the tree was at one and the same time in the room—in the picture—and, by interference, outside the room—in the real landscape. This is how we see the world: we see it outside ourselves and yet we have only a representation of it inside ourselves. In the same way, we sometimes situate in the past a thing which is happening in the present. So time and space are freed from the crude meaning which is the only one allowed to them in everyday experience.2
Perhaps more mysterious in some ways is a work of two years later titles La Belle Captive.
The artist has indeed “captured” a scene, and it is the nature of the artist's function that is at issue here. We are both convinced and unconvinced that the scene exists in reality. The bleak landscape, here not captured in the studio interior, is animated only by the scene that appears on the canvas. If the easel were to be removed, would the building in fact be there behind it or are we again dealing with a transparent canvas? Is the artist's duty to depict reality or to improve upon it? Has he added a pleasant genre scene to a barren vista or has he slavishly reproduced that which actually exists, exerting upon the scene only his powers of selection by editing it our of its dull surroundings?Seven years later we find Magritte still occupied with same basic visual paradox in his L'Appel des Cimes
and in yet another seven years, now back in the studio interior, The Domain of Arnheim.
Both paintings are obvious variations on the same theme—a theme which Magritte found to be endlessly variable. They share not only a visual similarity but both appear to relate to the same literary work, Edgar Allen Poe's 1847 descriptive tale of idealistic landscape gardening The Domain of Arnheim.
The concern in painting and tale alike is for appearances: Poe for the appearance of perfection in Nature and its meaning, if any, and Magritte for the appearance of reality and the injection of mystery which causes us to question that reality. The mountain which has the form and the dove is an idea which would have appealed to Poe who projected the idea that all Nature was, originally, perfectly created by the creator and that ensuing geologic upheavals have created what we today see.Magritte plays with the idea first from the point of view that perhaps the dove shape exists only in our mind; then he seems to adopt the premise that perhaps not only does it exist, but so much so that it can flap its stone wings and break our windows. The window itself, however, is the reversal of the “transparent” canvas theme, for we see that it is perhaps made out of plaster, not glass, and has had the image painted upon it. Or is it possible that the image we see and that sticks in our memory can also somehow stick to the glass through which we have seen it? It is these mysteries with which Magritte so fondly plays; he said, “One can not speak about mystery, one must be seized by it.”3
It is the sense of having been “seized” that gives Magritte his power over the viewer.It is then after many years of toying with the idea and many preparatory steps along the way that Magritte prepared his “summa” of visual mysteries. Les Promenades d'Euclide
has its initial reference in literature by suggesting its link with the father of geometry. Euclid's dictum to Ptolemy that there was no “royal road” to geometry perhaps has some bearing here, for the parallel lines of Magritte's road, while not meeting in Nature, do indeed meet at the summit of his tower which so closely resembles to the road itself. It is the visual similarities which are so familiar that we do not see them any longer that intrigue the artist. He hides in realism thoughts and ideas that are not directly associated with the images he employs and thus evokes the unknown and unseen. His is an art of the mind as well as the eye; his window has, then, caused us to question what we know or think we know, what we see or think we see. In doing so, and with the simplest of means, he has created a work of startling beauty and force.Endnotes
Referenced Works of Art
- Oil on canvas, 63, 3/4” x 51 1/4”. William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 68.3; Ex Coll: Galeriie Alexandre Iolas, Paris.
- René Magritte (London: Tate Gallery, 1969), p. 54.
- Suzi Gablik, “A Conversation with René Magritte.” Studio International, CLXXIII, 887 (1967) 129.
- René Magritte. Belgian, 1898-1967. Les Promenades d'Euclide, 1955. Oil on canvas, 63 3/4” x 51 1/4”. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 68.3.
- René Magritte. The Human Condition, I, 1933. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2” x 32”. Claude Spaak, Choisel, France.
- René Magritte. La Belle Captive, II, 1935. Oil on canvass, 25 1/2” x 18”. Robert Strauss, London.
- René Magritte. L'Appel des Cimes, 1942. Oil on canvas, 66” x 56”. Leon Stynen, Antwerp.
- René Magritte. The Domain of Arnheim, 1949. Oil on canvas, 39 1/8” x 32”. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Young, Philadelphia.