Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rene Magritte- The man behind the hat

Magritte in front of his painting ‘The pilgrim,’ photo by Lothar Wolleh, 1967



Part 1
The threatening weather
The lost jockey
The difficult crossing
The invention of life
The discovery of fire

Part 2
The familiar objects
The promised land
Natural graces
The rape
Imp of the perverse
On the threshold of liberty

1st Intermission
The pleasure principle

Part 3
The treachery of images
The key to dreams
The art of conversation

Part 4
Attempting the impossible
The perfect image
The flood
Black magic
The future of statues
The mask of the lightning

Part 5
The forbidden world
Applied dialectics
Not to be reproduced
The return of the flame

Part 6
The false mirror
The unexpected answer
The beautiful world
The blow to the heart
The human condition
The white race
A little of the bandit’s soul
The seducer
The collective invention

2nd Intermission
The voice of space
The voice of blood
Time transfixed

Part 7
The enchanted realm
The domain of Arnheim
The empire of lights
The son of man
Memories of a journey

Ceci continu de ne pas être une pipe


Self- portrait, 1923

“During my childhood, I liked to play with a little girl in an abandoned old cemetery of a country town, where I spent my vacations. We used to lift up the iron gates and go down into the underground passageways. Once, after climbing back up to the light of day, I noticed an artist painting in an avenue of the cemetery, which was very picturesque with its broken columns of stone and its heaped-up leaves. He had come from the capital; his art seemed to me to be magic, and he himself endowed with powers from above.

Youth (Jeunesse), 1924

In 1915 when I began to paint, the memory of that enchanting encounter with the painter turned my steps in a direction having little to do with common sense. A singular fate willed that someone, probably to have fun at my expense, should send me the illustrated catalogue of an exposition of futurist paintings. As a result of that joke I came to know a new way of painting. In a state of intoxication I set about creating busy scenes of stations, festivities or cities in which the little girl bound up in my discovery of the world of painting lived out an exceptional adventure. I cannot doubt that a pure and powerful sentiment, namely eroticism, saved me from slipping to the traditional chase after formal perfection. My interest lies entirely in provoking an emotional shock.

The window, 1925

This painting as search for pleasure was followed next by a curious experience. Thinking it possible to possess the world I loved at my own great pleasure, once I should succeed upon fixing its essence upon canvas, I undertook to find out what it’s plastic equivalents were. The result was a series of highly evocative, but abstract and inert images that were in the final analysis, interesting only to the intelligence of the eye. This experience made it possible for me to view the world of the real in the same abstract manner. Despite the shifting richness of natural detail and shade I grew able to look at a landscape as if though it were but a curtain hanging in front of me. I became skeptical of the dimension and depth of a countryside scene, of the remoteness of the line of the horizon...

Dawn in cayenne (L’aube à cayenne), 1926

In 1925 I made up my mind to break from so passive an attitude. The decision was the outcome of an intolerable interval of contemplation I went through in a working-class Brussels beer hall: I found the door moldings endowed with a mysterious life and I remained a long time in contact with their reality. A feeling bordering upon terror was the point of departure for a will to action upon the real, for a transformation of life itself…

One night museum (Le musée d’une nuit), 1927

I painted pictures in which objects were represented with the appearance they have in reality, in a style objective enough to ensure their upsetting effect- which they would reveal themselves capable of provoking owing to certain means utilized- would be experience in the real world whence the object had been borrowed. This happened by a perfect natural transposition.

The garment of adventure 1926

In my paintings I show objects situated where we never find them. They represented the realization of the real, if unconscious desire, existing in most people. The lizards we usually see on our houses or on our fences, I found more eloquent in a sky habitat. Turned wooden table legs lost the innocent existence ordinarily lent to them, when they appeared to dominate a forest. A woman’s body floating above a city was an opportunity for me to discover some of love's secrets. I found it very instructive to show the Virgin Mary as an undressed lover. The iron bells hanging from the necks of our splendid horses, I painted to sprout like dangerous plants from the edge of a chasm.

The silver gap (Le gouffre argenté), 1926

The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects, the change of matter of certain other objects, the association of words with images, using ideas suggested by friends, using scenes from half-waking or dream states, were other ways of establishing a connection between consciousness and the real world. The titles of my paintings were chosen in such a way to arouse mistrust in the viewer…

Elective affinities, 1933

One night in 1936 I awoke in a room where a cage and the bird sleeping in it had been placed. A distortion of vision caused me to see an egg, instead of the bird, in the cage. I had just discovered a new and astonishing poetic secret, for the shock experienced had been provoked by the affinity of two objects (the cage and the egg), whereas before I had provoked this shock by bringing together two unrelated objects. From the moment of that revelation I sought to find out whether other objects might not likewise show the same evident poetry as the cage and the egg had produced by their coming together. In the course of my investigations I came to a conviction that I had always known beforehand that element to be discovered; only this knowledge had always lain as though hidden in the more inaccessible zones of my mind.

The light of coincidence (La lumière des coincidences), 1933

Since this research could yield only one exact tag for each object, my investigations came to be a search for the solution of the problem for which I had three data: the object, the thing attached to it in the shadow of my consciousness, and the light under which that thing would become apparent…

Midnight marriage (Le mariage du minuit), 1926

When, moreover, I found that same will allied to a superior method and doctrine in the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and became acquainted about that time with the surrealists, who were then violently demonstrating their loathing for all the bourgeois values, social and ideological, that have kept the world in its present ignorable state, it was then that i became convinced that i must thenceforward live with danger, that life and the world might thereby come up in some measure to the level of thought and the affections…

Study for ‘The infinite chain’ (La chaîne sans fin), 1938

A problem to the solution of which I applied myself over a long period was that of a horse. It was the idea of a horse carrying three figures. Their significance became clear only after a long series of trials and experiments. First I painted a jar and a label bearing the figure of a horse and the letters: ‘Confiture de Cheval’ (Horse Jam). I next thought of a horse whose head was replaced by a hand, with its index finger pointing forward. But I realized that was the equivalent if a unicorn…

The fine idea (La belle idée), 1964

I lingered long over an intriguing combination. What finally put me on the right track was a horseman in the position assumed while riding a galloping horse. From the sleave of the arm thrust forward emerged the head of a noble character, and the other arm, thrown back, held a riding whip. Beside the horseman I placed an American Indian in an identical posture, and I suddenly divined the meaning of the three shapeless figures I had placed on the horse at the beginning of my experiment.

The infinite chain (La chaîne sans fin, 1939)

I knew they were horsemen and I then put the finishing touches to ‘The infinite chain.’ In a setting of desert land and dark sky, a plunging horse is mounted by a modern horseman, a knight of the dying Middle Ages, and a horseman of antiquity.

The prepared bouquet, 1957

Nietzsche was of the opinion that without a burning sexual system Raphael could not have painted such a throng of Madonnas. This is a striking variance with motives usually attributed to that venerated painter: priestly influences, ardent Christianity piety, esthetic ideals, serach for pure beauty, etc. But Nietzsche’s view of the matter makes possible a more sane interpretation of pictorial phenomena, and the violence with which that opinion was expressed is directly proportional to the clarity of the thought underlying it. Only the same mental freedom can make possible a salutary renewal in all the domains of human activity.

Pandora’s box (La boîte de Pandore), 1951

This disorderly world which is our world, swarming with contradictions, still hangs more or less together through explanations, by turns complex and ingenious, but apparently justifying t and excusing those who meanly take advantage of it. Such explanations are based on a certain experience, true. But it is to be remarked that what is invoked is ‘ready-made’ experience, and that if it does give rise to brilliant analysis, such experience is not itself an outcome of an analysis of its own real conditions.

High society (Le beau monde), 1962

Future society will develop an experience which will be the fruit of a profound analysis whose perspectives are being outlined under our very eyes. And it is under the favor of such a rigorous preliminary analysis that pictorial experience such as I understand it may be instituted. That pictorial experience which puts the real world on trial inspired my belief in infinity of possibilities now unknown to life. I am not affirming that their conquest is the only valid end and reason for the existence of man.

(From Magritte’s autobiographical text ‘Lifeline’ (Le Ligne de Vie), published in the magazine ‘L’ Invention Collective,’ 1940).

The threatening weather

Threatening weather, 1929

Space is like an empty room. It is defined by the walls and filled by the various objects. Space doesn’t have meaning without its describing limits, its occupying things. On the other hand, things cannot exist without space. Space is the background for objects to appear and support themselves, even if they seem to float.

Even empty space is an object. It is a notion which bares an intrinsic value, and can be represented by many different symbols. A chair, for example, is equivalent to an empty seat. At any time, one sitting on a chair may leave, one leaving behind the vacuum. The empty chairs in our home always remind us of people who left and may never come back. When we leave, the vacuum stays. When we return, disposing emptiness is our major achievement. Our absence has always been more important than our presence.

I would dare say that musical instruments contain harmony. Music then unfolds in the hands of the good musician. A musical instrument is a tool by which the artist discovers new melodies. Our bodies are like musical instruments too. They breathe and vibrate, they make their soul move. And as musical instruments vanish, so do our bodies. They become motionless and empty.

A statue doesn’t need limbs or a head. It is there to express what is implied, just like the half-naked body of a woman. As the vacuum needs its defining limits, so does pleasure need a pocket to be contained in. Within our bodies there is a small capsule filled with pleasure, always ready to break open. In this sense, our bodies are like the torsos of ancient statues, naked and blind, while somebody escapes from within the torso. We then chase our own image, with its multiple expressions, in the real world.

Therefore the vacuum stands both for emptiness and fullness, like the landscape of our loneliness. It is our own presence searching for the missing time and the favorite things gathered in our memories. It was a hole hospitable enough to accommodate life with all its possible arrangements. But someday, when our life ends, we will have to surrender all the precious artifacts back to the vacuum where they belong… It was summertime, by the seaside, as we listened to the storm, approaching the horizon… The sky was clear, the sea was calm, but it is always the growing threat, growing and coming, carrying the sound of silence itself.

Magritte painted the ‘Threatening weather’ in Cadaqués, near Barcelona, staying with Dali, and you see the bay there- Mediterranean landscape. The painting invites us to see the three objects floating in the sky as cloud forms that may turn into a tempest, or something…Magritte never explained his pictures, he always claimed that they did not come from dreams. But they are dream-like in that the relationship between the objects is irrational and inexplicable and it would require Freudian analysis perhaps to make some kind of story out of them; make some sort of sense out of the relationships. But he always leaves it to the spectator to put some kind of story themselves onto the objects that have been put together in this irrational way. (VideoID: YT/CN-aHwALB-A)

The tempest, 1931

The tempest, 1932

‘The tempest’ looks as ‘threatening’ as the ‘Threatening weather.’ Instead of the inconsistency of objects, here the threatening element is denoted by the clouds between the ‘skyscrapers.’ The buildings in the first ‘Tempest’ are found inside a room, therefore intensifying the illusion.

The curse (La malédiction), 1931

The curse, 1960

“The sky... Analysis of this considerable object has still not advanced very far. A human history of the sky should be written, to untangle over the course of time this curious labyrinth of impressions, provocations and naive insights, more or less exact physics, slender religious constructions. Here, revelations by painters are rare; and banal if you look through an encyclopedia of painting. Magritte, however, is an exception,” wrote the poet and first owner of ‘The Curse,’ Paul Nougé, in 1947.

From this canvas, full of sky, emanates a discreet absurdity. The world surrounding the sky desperately lacks any system of reference. Although the sky, an ongoing theme in the history of art, has been painted often by many artists, on ceilings for example, and as part of a larger composition, Magritte questions how the sky is represented in seascapes and landscapes. Intrigued, the spectator strives in vain to imagine what there is to be seen in this manifestly empty sky. Here, the painting's meaning lies less its resolution of the enigma, as in the mental exercise it sets the spectator. This mental exercise cannot be an exclusively visual experience, but will also involve the grey matter, our desire to comprehend. From this perspective, isn’t ‘The curse’ a reference to what condemns our gaze to perpetually seek what lies beyond the surface of things?

I would say that the 'Curse' represents the shadows of our own thoughts. As the clouds on the sky cast their shadows on a bright day, so our thoughts cast their own shadows on a clear mind. But at the same time the mind cannot exist without thoughts, in the same sense that the clouds define the landscape of the sky. Therefore, there is no reason 'beyond any reasonable doubt.' Doubts are inescapable because they define our own thoughts. Thus the 'Curse.'

The lost jockey

The lost jockey, 1926

One of Magritte’s favorite themes was ‘The lost jockey.’ In the previous painting, the horse and the rider are stuck in a forest of bilboquet-trees. The horse is galloping, and the jockey leans forward to maintain the speed. Motion takes place in a virtual space, and the spectator seems to be entering a world of new dimensions. The bilboquet-tree on the right is in front of the curtain. Therefore the world of the lost jockey is also part of reality.

Magritte designed theatre sets in Brussels in the early 1920s for ‘Theatre du Groupe Libre.’ The ‘Lost jockey’ is one of many theatre settings with a curtain that Magritte produced in his early works. It also uses bilboquets with musical notation as bark, possibly as a tribute to Mesens, the pianist and composer and his brother Paul, a musician who studied with Mesens. The bilboquet on the right is an impossible object, existing behind and in front of the right curtain.

The ‘lost jockey’ inaugurated Magritte’s surrealist period, and will appear in more paintings:

The lost jockey, 1942

The lost jockey, 1948

The lost jockey, 1962

The anger of gods, 1960

There is a certain element concerning the impossibility of motion in these paintings. The jockey in ‘The anger of gods’ is on a galloping horse, but at the same time he is not moving in relation to the moving car. The painter challenges the viewer to consider the aspect of motion as an illusion produced in the viewer’s mind through the distortion of dimensions and the interchange between background and foreground.

The hunt in the forest, Paolo Uccello, 1470

According to David Sylvester, a Magritte scholar, this painting by early Renaissance painter Uccello, is the basis for the ‘Lost jockey.’

Another of Magritte’s influences was Giorgio de Chirico. Magritte became familiar with de Chirico’s art in about 1925.

Magritte admired de Chirico’s use of dislocation, a combination of incompatible elements of reality, such as a cannon and a clock, within the same picture frame. De Chirico’s smooth, simplified brushwork and pronounced outlines also attracted Magritte who termed this style “the painter’s version of a collage.” Furthermore, Magritte was fascinated by the double illusions de Chirico produced through the depiction of pictures within pictures. These motifs, such as an oil painting within a painted room or an interior space with a window view of another world, interested Magritte because they complicated the relationship between reality and the illusionistic world of art. The close-up frontality of objects in de Chirico's paintings also appealed to Magritte because of its directness and gravity.

Love song, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

It is a tribute to the importance of this theme that Magritte himself would write, with reference to his original oil of the subject, that “‘The lost jockey’ is the first canvas I really painted with the feeling I had found my way, if one can use that term.” Magritte’s own revelation had occurred when he had seen a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. Presenting the viewer with an eccentric assortment of seemingly unassociated objects, de Chirico’s ‘Love song’ introduced the viewer to a realm in which another hidden logic appeared dominant. While the mysticism of de Chirico did not influence Magritte, the break with perceived reality and the use of juxtapositions did. For this reason, Magritte denied the open influence of de Chirico, making specific reference to his first version of ‘The lost jockey:’

“If one takes into consideration what I’ve painted since 1926 (‘The lost jockey,’ for example, and what followed), I don’t think one can talk about ‘de Chirico’s influence.’ I was ‘struck’ about 1925 when I saw a picture by Chirico, ‘Love song.’ If there is any influence it’s quite possible there’s no resemblance to Chirico’s pictures in ‘The lost jockey.’ In sum, the influence in question is limited to a great emotion, to a marvelous revelation when for the first time in my life I saw truly poetic painting. With time, I began to renounce researches into pictures in which the manner of painting was uppermost. Now, I know that since 1926 this became clear only sometime after having ‘instinctively’ sought what should be painted.”

The blank signature (Le blanc-seing), 1965

In ‘The blanc signature,’ the jockey is lost in the forest. But she is ‘partially’ lost. The front and the rear parts of the horse appear normally inbetween the tree trunks, but the central part of the horse and the jockey are fused. The thin trunk and the vertical stripe of forest on both sides of the jockey create the background- foreground illusion. This is related to the notions of closure and occlusion.

Closure with the horse and woman

Closure is what happens when our brains take a few separate parts of a picture and, because they’re lined up just right, interprets them as a single object. If we black out everything except the horse, it’s easy for closure to do its job and give us a single object.

Occlusion is simply the name for when something overlaps something else. It’s in the perspective toolbox- Object A appears to be in front of Object B if it overlaps it, like so: When Circle A’s outline interrupts Circle B’s, A occludes B.

Our brains constantly use both occlusion and closure to create what we see. Almost always the occlusion and closure information reinforce each other and we get an even stronger impression of space and objects. That impression of what we see, though- it’s not the same thing as what’s really there. It’s just a model. It leaves out all sorts of things and gets other things wrong. Reminding us of this fact was a theme Magritte came back to over and over again.

Background occludes the foreground

A: A tree that should be in the background passes in front of the horse’s leg and body.
B: That same skinny tree appears to occlude the woman’s arm and back. The foliage that comes in around her head means that Magritte can let the larger tree on the right occlude the skinny tree without showing an explicit T intersection.
C: The vertical stripe of background foliage occludes the horse’s body at the shoulder.

Occlusion and closure almost always support each other, but not in this painting. Magritte deliberately sets them against each other to see what will happen. What’s the result? An impossible image that somehow looks right for that split second when we first glance it. By the time our conscious mind is getting around to saying, “Wait a minute…” the perceptual model has already been set up. We’ve already seen a woman on a horse riding through the woods.

It is this interplay between the foreground and the background what creates the illusion. But is it an ‘illusion’ or just an aspect of vision? Perhaps this is what happens when we perceive two different things simultaneously. In physics objects have a double reality, both material and wave-like. Each time we have to decide which of the two ‘realities’ we want to measure. Objects are also composed of wave-functions. In ‘The blanc signature’ two different objects, the jockey and the tree-trunks of the forest, are superimposed against each other. Both objects are states of the same system which constitutes the painting. Normally we would choose the state to be expressed by bringing either the jockey or the trees on the foreground. But the painter in this case has somehow managed to paint both states at the same time, while it seems impossible for the viewer to decide which of the two states should be expressed.

The difficult crossing

Cup-and-ball (bilboquet)

During the 1850’s in Europe, bilbo catchers or bilboquets became quite the rage for entertainment. The one shown here is of similar design and the principle is like the ball and cup. On one end of the shaft, the ball is caught in a shallow depression, requiring considerably more practice than in the ball and cup shown above. On the other end of the shaft, the hole in the ball is stuck on the pointed ‘spike’ of the shaft. For those that thing the action cannot be done, we watched an interpreter at a historic site succeeding about 60 percent of the time on the cup end and about one out of three times on the spike end.

Pleiades, Max Ernst, 1920

Bather between light and darkness, 1935

The balusters- or ‘bilboquets’ as Magritte called them- a kind of piece not unlike the bishop of a chess set, constitute a recurrent prop in the artist’s pictures. Max Ernst called them ‘phallustrades,’ thereby indicating their sexual allusion.

Untitled collage, 1925

Aquis submersus, Max Ernst, 1919

Magritte was inspired by the collages of Max Ernst. According to David Sylvester, Magritte made over two dozen collages from 1925 until he left for Paris in 1927. Note the umbrella pattern (or spider-web) design Magritte began using in some of his early paintings and collages. Here the bilboquet/ pawn has clearly taken on human characteristics. What appears to be an image of Sigmund Freud is pointing the way... but which way?

Nocture, 1925

Master of the revels (Le maitre du plaisir), 1926

Nocturne is one of Magritte’s important early paintings. It established many of Magritte’s icons: the bilboquet, the spider- web design on the floor, and the curtain. It’s also the first painting within a painting. In the ‘Master of the revels’ the picture world is connected, literally, to the real world with a piece of black string. The ‘Master’ walks the tightrope between the painting’s reality and outside world.

The encounter (La rencontre), 1926

In ‘The encounter’ the bilboquets have taken human form with one eye. Clearly the ‘encounter’ is the group of three bilboquets meeting the other group. Again this is a stage setting with curtains found in many of Magritte’s work.

The difficult crossing (La traversée difficile), 1926

Another common feature of Magritte’s works seen here is the ambiguity between windows and paintings. The back of the room shows a boat in a thunderstorm, but the viewer is left to wonder if the depiction is a painting or the view out a window. Magritte elevated the idea to another level in series of works where ‘outdoor’ paintings and windows both appear and even overlap. Note also that the front right leg of the table resembles a human leg and the hand resembles a mannequin hand.

The difficult crossing, 1963

In the 1963 version, a number of elements have changed or disappeared. Instead of taking place in a room, the action has moved outside. There is no table or hand clutching a bird and the scene of the rough sea in the ambiguous window/painting at the rear becomes the entire new background. Near the front a low brick wall is seen with a bilboquet behind and a suited figure with an eyeball for a head in front.

Metaphysical interior with biscuits, Giorgio de Chirico, 1916

The birth of the idol, 1926

Both versions of ‘The difficult crossing’ show a strong similarity to Magritte’s painting ‘The birth of the idol,’ also from 1926. The scene is outside and depicts a rough sea in the background (this time without a ship). Objects which appear include a bilboquet (the non-anthropomorphic variety), a mannequin arm (similar to the hand which clutches the bird) and a wooden board with window-like holes cut out, which is nearly identical to those flanking both sides of the room in earlier version.

All three paintings may have been inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘Metaphysical interior,’ which features a room with a number of strange objects and an ambiguous window/painting showing a boat. Magritte was certainly aware of De Chirico’s work and was emotionally moved by his first viewing of a reproduction of ‘Love song.’

‘The birth of the idol’ may be considered the culmination of the painter’s effort to overpass the ‘difficult crossing’ from purism to a higher level of artistic expression, with the use of surrealistic objects. There is an element of danger is such paintings which is based not on a real threat but on the juxtaposition of unrelated objects and the strange emotions it evokes. The fierce storm, surprisingly though, is counterbalanced by a feeling of security which is produced by the pose of the bilboquet-figurine, standing on another unfinished figurine lying on the table. The latter figurine’s sharp edge points to the rough sea as if it were going to stab the storm. Despite the storm, inside the ‘room’ there is a strange calmness, reflected on the mirror which lies against the wall, as if it formed a protective shield against the wind and the waves. The room again is to be found in the virtual space of our mind, as the room’s windows are lying on the wall, while the stairs are leading nowhere. Also the direction of the idol’s arm opposite to the storm implies the real aspect of an emergency exit. Therefore ‘The birth of the idol’ may represent the figure of the artist’s stance against all odds.

The invention of life

Magritte with his mother, 1899

Magritte with his wife Georgette

One night in 1912, Magritte's mother Régine Bertinchamp, who suffered from depression, left the house while the rest of the family was asleep and she threw herself over a bridge, into the river Sambre. Magritte (then only 13) was reportedly present when her dead body was retrieved from the water. According to one of the many legends associated with Magritte, the image of his mother floating, her nightgown obscuring her face, influenced a 1927- 1928 series of paintings of people with cloth obscuring their faces.

The lovers (Les amants), 1928

The incident was described much later by Louis Scutenaire, poet and Magritte’s friend, in words which, according to Georgette, stylized the whole episode into a legend. The only recollection which Magritte himself admitted to having of the affair was that of a feeling of pride at suddenly finding himself the focal point of interest and sympathy both in the neighborhood and among his fellow pupils at the Charleroi grammar school. It is certain that he never saw his mother’s corpse, “its face covered with a nightdress.”

The lovers, 1928

According to Marcel Paquet, “the psychological interpretations of Magritte’s work by David Sylvester and others that the death of Rene’s mother influenced a series of paintings of people with cloth obscuring their faces, including ‘The lovers’ and ‘The heart of the matter’ are unfounded.” This view is supported by the fact in the previous two paintings the hoods are lifted and real faces are revealed (although the body of the man is invisible).

David Sylvester proposes that Magritte might have also copied the idea from a Nick Carter detective magazine (similar to comic book) where the dying heroine mysteriously has her head covered with a sheet. Magritte, a big fan of detective novels, wrote an article about Nick Carter.

The musings of a solitary walker, 1926

The painting that perhaps deals directly with his mother's death is the previous one. Magritte used many iconic images to obscure people and objects. The reason for this had to do little or nothing to do with his mother’s death. He obscured faces with sheets, then birds, pipes and finally apples. Perhaps the real reason for obscuring images besides adding mystery to the person was: the reclusive Magritte was hiding, not wanting to be recognized.

According to Fred Halper, “From the psychoanalytic perspective, the unconscious wishes, needs, and unresolved psychosexual conflicts of childhood development is the route to understanding Magritte’s creative work. What better candidate for such an approach than the pubescent Rene Magritte insecurely attached to a mother who throws herself in a nearby river, and whose nude body he sees retrieved many days later, with wet nightgown pulled up over her head. The headless body is made visible to him. This, the focus of his Oedipal desire is now uncovered. The occluded is unoccluded, but lifeless…”

David Sylvester, the most prominent historian of Magritte, has called into serious question whether Magritte could have possibly witnessed the retrieval of his mother’s body, as he reportedly told his biographer Louis Scutenaire. Doesn’t this deal a devastating blow to a psychoanalytic understanding of the essential trauma experienced by the thirteen year old Magritte and its influence on his subsequent work? Interpretation is always nourished by flexibility. Psychoanalysis is no different. Perhaps it was the fantasy of witnessing the nude mothers’ body pulled from the river which is all important? The most recent psychoanalytic approach accepts the factual basis of Sylvester’s finding that Magritte couldn’t have witnessed the event and asks us to understand the trauma as typical of all children who suffer the loss of a mother.

Kaplan argues that in such cases ‘screen memories,’ however erroneous, serve to camouflage and transform the more intense pain of the actual life of the mother. In this case, what is screened is the long history of deep depression and attempts at suicide by Regina Magritte. Interestingly, from this point of view, Magritte’s strong identification with Edgar Allen Poe has nothing to do with themes of mystery, poetry or the unknown, but rather their shared trauma of maternal death during childhood.'s/construal.pdf

One may say that when we have nothing else to do we create problems so that the search for a possible solution keeps as occupied. According to the previous analysis too, “Magritte himself was overtly hostile to Freudian thinking. He resisted the notion of interpretation of his work in general, as well as drawing any specific connections between his psychological development and his art. There was no relationship and psychoanalysis could contribute nothing to the mysteries of life.” Therefore, in some sense, the analysis cancels out itself with the latter statement.

The heart of the matter (L’ histoire centrale), 1928

In ‘The heart of the matter,’ the woman holds the hood she wears by grabbing her throat. Is she trying to strangle herself, or is she just trying not to have her face exposed? Does the face belong to Magritte’s mother, or to another woman? Could it be our own mother, or another person who we have idealized so much that we always try to cover up her common aspects? But the point is that even the painter might have been ignorant of who this person really was. He didn’t originally painted a face, and then painted the hood. Behind the hood there’s no face at all, there's only the empty space of the canvas. Therefore the hood represents a veil of mystery which may be used to add mystery to any implied object the veil covers. It is this effect of implication or of free association the painter uses to give even to the most common objects, like a tuba or a suitcase, special importance.

The invention of life, 1928

The ‘hood’ appears several times in Magritte’s paintings. Magritte once told that he was proud of his mother’s death, as if she had killed herself in an act of ultimate self-sacrifice (for the sake of her own son.) Perhaps this was an illusion but it gave the painter the opportunity to create great art. Not all of us have the same opportunity. It is the condition of creativity Magritte created by making some assumptions and by exploiting the consequences of these assumptions what made the difference. The hood acted like a magician’s veil; each time it was removed, it revealed a new object. By this process of relocation and recollection the painter was also able to redefine the meaning of life.

The symmetrical trick, 1928

In the last paining what seems to be shocking is not the view of the female genitals but the hood the woman wears. The implication of what is missing is far more dangerous than the rest of the object which is visible. What is also interesting is that we are not disturbed by the act of mutilation but by the fact that the mutilated parts don’t match. It seems that the head is found on both sides of the mutilated body. This makes us wonder what a body consists of, and how accurate our perception of reality is. The ‘Symmetrical trick’ therefore concerns the relationship between the real object in physical space and the implied object in the virtual space of perception. The hood is the outline of our mind which covers the event.

The discovery of fire

The discovery of fire, 1935

There is a certain affiliation between fire and spirit. We may say that fire is a discovery of the spirit, in the sense that one has to be inventive to produce and use fire. One has also to be intelligent enough to manipulate one’s emotions and to evoke the emotions of others. Therefore the spirit is equivalently the product of fire. It is inspired by the burning desires of the soul, like the wind which emerges stronger than ever from the flames.

If we tried to depict this mutual relationship with a single object, this object could take the shape of a musical instrument. The tuba, for example, is well- suited for this purpose because it contains enough free space to be filled with air. The fire in this case would come from the air inside the guts of the musician, it would be transmuted by the curvature of the instrument, and it would be expressed in the form of music. Then the tuba would be an object uniting the two basic elements, fire and air, in harmony.

The ladder of fire I (L’échelle du feu), 1934

In fact air and fire are both aspects of harmony. Fire ascends toward the spirit, while the spirit understands the process by descending in the soul. According to the Unruh effect in physics, an observer accelerating in the vacuum will perceive a heat bath of radiation hitting him. We may say that whatever moves feels the effects of his own background in the form of friction. At the same time the energy of the background is expressed as a certain function of the moving object. If the object is a particle, it is expressed as vibration. If it is a shooting star it is expressed as a comet’s tail. If it is a burning soul it is expressed in the form of wishes. In the case of running thoughts it is expressed in the form of ideas. All ideas correspond to objects. Ideas are objects with burning form.

Magritte compared this painting to the caveman’s first discovery of fire. He said in a 1938 lecture, “‘The ladder of fire’ afforded me the privilege of being acquainted with the feeling experienced by the first men who produced a flame by rubbing together two pieces of stone.” He follows this up with his 1936 ‘The discovery of fire.’ The discovery is more apparent here; the paper can burn, the chair can burn, but the tuba cannot burn- making the burning tuba an impossible object. This impossibility is what Magritte is trying to convey.

The familiar objects

View from the window at Le Gras, Nicéphore Niépce, 1826- 1827

This is the oldest surviving camera photograph, and was created by Nicephore Niepce, in 1826 or 1827, at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. It shows parts of the buildings and surrounding countryside of his estate, Le Gras, seen from a high window. Niepce captured the scene with a camera obscura focused onto a pewter (mainly tin) plate coated with bitumen of Judea (asphalt). The bitumen hardened in the brightly lit areas, but in the dimly lit areas it remained soluble and could be washed away with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum. A very long exposure in the camera was required. Sunlight strikes the buildings on opposite sides, suggesting an exposure that lasted several hours, or even days.

19th century studio camera standing on tripod and using plates

The Therapist (Le Thérapeute), 1937

The Therapist, 1962

Before the discovery of photography, painters used to make a living by drawing portraits among other things. Portraits and landscapes were a common feature for a painter during the Renaissance. But as soon as photography was invented it seemed painters were threatened to lose their jobs. After all, a photograph was able to depict a face, object or landscape much more accurately than a painting. Therefore accuracy lost meaning for a painter, while abstraction began. So painters started to imagine things that didn’t exist in the real world. Things that even an abstract photographer could not capture. This way, painting could still find a place in modern art, besides photography.

The secret player, 1927

At the same time painters and artists in general began wondering if the unreal (or surreal) objects they tried to capture could be common objects referring to a ‘collective soul.’ For example, are the objects used by Magritte in his paintings recognizable by everyone? Can in ‘The secret player’ anyone participate in this ‘secret game?’ Everyone is familiar with the pieces of chess or the balusters of staircases. The symbol is the same, recognizable by everyone, only the interpretation changes. In fact, Magritte’s bilboquet is a fundamental structural element in his paintings. In the form of trees, bilboquets built a forest, and the bat of the cricket player is made of the same material (wood). As the curtain rises, we found ourselves in the world of dreams. The creature hovering among the ‘trees’ looks strangely familiar. It looks like a water bottle transformed into a headless creature. The gray lines on its black back emphasize its ability to float or fly, while the woman on the right has her mouth covered. The mysterious secrecy of the painting points directly to a dream state, while the position of the cricket players (the fieldsman comes before the batsman) seems to defy causality.

The familiar objects, 1928

The surrealist objects, since they are not found in reality, may gravitate with each other in a non- physical way. In the previous painting, some of the painter’s ‘familiar objects’ float in front of the spectators’ eyes. I have the impression that there are not many spectators but just one, captured in different time frames, watching, or better imagining, the same ‘super-object,’ or ‘sur-objet’ in its different manifestations. It’s hard to imagine the common characteristic which could unite all these separate objects into a single ‘super-object.’ One such characteristic could refer to a common property of these objects. An alternative explanation is some memory of the painter. For example, drinking wine (the jar), by the sea (the sponge and the shell), with a woman (the headdress), bitter as lemon. This is a common memory, referring to anyone of us. However, neither the sequence nor the combination of these events is unique. For example, what combines them could be the element of ‘blue.’ The headdress is blue, the sponge and the shell refer to water, while the lemon as well as the jar may contain water. In any case, the simplest common property which unites both the objects and the persons in the painting is the mind of the painter, and the defiance of gravity in a mode of meditation. Therefore, these phenomenally incongruous objects may coincide at a deeper level in a meaningful way.

Personal values, 1952

I have found an interesting analysis about this painting, which, by the way, is one of my favorites: “In ‘Personal values,’ Magritte shows a bedroom filled with everyday objects that are juxtaposed together in blown up proportions. These everyday objects include a comb, a matchstick, a wineglass, a bar of soap and a shaving brush. They seem to be scattered around the room with no apparent order. Their presence in the room and the scale in which they are depicted suggests to the viewer that the room is fully decorated. The wallpaper of the room’s walls displays white fluffy clouds and the azure blue sky. From the reflection on the mirror, a single window can be seen with white curtains draped at the side.”

Mirrors, curtains, the sky and the clouds are some of Magritte’s favorite items. The relative proportions of some of the other objects, however, are indicative of the painter’s personality. For example, the bed is proportionally the smallest, suggesting that the painter doesn’t like to sleep much. He could equally spend his time sitting on his poof-chair, which is as big as the bed. The huge comb and shaving brush denote a narcissistic personality, enjoying wine in the enormous glass, while the big matchstick on the carpet reminds of some equivalence between the shape of trees and lit matches.

What also makes the painting interesting is its impossible elements. The cupboard, for example, is a ‘double mirror,’ since it reflects the poof-seating, but also contains part of the sky, as well as the window, whose curtain imitates one of the cupboard’s legs. Therefore, the mirror of the cupboard is a ‘window’ itself, both showing the exterior and reflecting the interior.

The same analysis goes on: “The strong and rich colors found in the painting add a touch of exuberance and joy to the painting. The overall mood of the painting is also rather calming and serene, especially with the clouds painted on the walls of the room. A sense of harmony is also created with the miraculous sense of balance achieved by Magritte despite the varying textures, colors, shapes and sizes in which these objects are portrayed.

Despite the uplifting mood created, a sense of confusion or puzzlement is brought about due to the unusual proportions of the objects. The varying scales of each object draw the attention of the viewer as he takes in the whole painting. The unrealistic size of these objects holds the surrealistic quality of the painting…

In my opinion, the objects portrayed in this brilliant artwork are likely to belong to the artist himself. This conclusion is made based on Magritte’s writing, saying, “Painting for me is a description of a thought. The thought can only consist of visible objects, which exist in my head as clear imaged. A comb for example, I make a lot of drawings of it. That in turn will suggest other images- a wineglass, a shaving brush…” Magritte may have included these objects in this work with the objective to cause viewers to think about their own personal values and more importantly, rethink their significance in their lives. This is where the blown-up proportions of these objects come into play as Magritte tries to highlight the importance of these objects. The viewers are then stimulated to rethink about their relationship with their ordinary personal items, to question their thoughtless, hasty and routine interactions with familiar objects that usually cause these objects to be belittled and ignored. As such, viewers will stop and assess their values and importance, thus the title of the work, ‘Personal values.’”

What I like most about ‘Personal values’ is that it explicitly illuminates the painter’s everyday life: A small room to paint, some basic commodities (a bed, a cupboard and a poof-chair, a comb and a shaving brush, etc., and a lot of fantasy of course!

The promised land

The promised land (La terre promise), 1947

As well as bilboquets, Magritte used ‘cicerones’ or ‘cicerines’ in his paintings. The only human thing in ‘The promised land’ is the hands of the cicerines. One of them is holding two leaves, while the other one holds a glass with one hand, while with the other hand it holds the former cicerine. The glass is empty but it looks red because of the reflection of the cicerine’s red garment. The heads of the two cicerines touch one another, suggesting a close relationship, sexual or kinship. Oddly enough the second cicerine seems to appear from within the mirror as a reflection of the other cicerine, although parts of it are not inside the mirror. It is a sort of double reflection, half of which belongs to the real world and the other half to our own perception. The three bells or spheres suggest a triadic element perhaps related to the religious aspect of the title, but perhaps they are less than three- the third sphere at the back is most likely a reflection. In any case, the ‘three’ spheres offer a very vivid representation of a fixed idea- that of the ‘promised land,’ which the painter deserved and gained, a place found in a small room decorated with some of the painter’s familiar objects.

Cicero, 1947

Cicero, 1965

Cicero is one of the prominent philosophers of antiquity. According to Michael Grant, “the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language.” A characteristic of his is the neologisms he brought into Latin, and in turn into English, such as the words humanity (humanitas), quality (qualitas), quantity (quantitas), and essence (essential).

Therefore, Magritte had two reasons, among others, to admire Cicero. Firstly Cicero was an excellent philosopher, and secondly he was also the creator of new objects (words in this case). Magritte in his paintings presents Cicero as a person possessing the ‘fire of speech,’ coming out of his mouth, in the daytime, while at night he stands by the window, under the moon, contemplating. In his hands he holds the ‘leaf of piece’ or the ‘triple candlestick’ (perhaps corresponding to Cicero’s full name, Marcus Tullius Cicero, which incidentally was the same as his father’s).

The rights of man, 1947

Elementary cosmogony, 1949

Therefore, the identification of Magritte’s fire with a spiritual symbolism is confirmed. It may also be suggested a correspondence between the male-oriented cicerine and the female-oriented trumpet, as representations of a father-mother pair. In ‘The rights of man’ Cicero offers ‘earth and water,’ corresponding to the leaf and the glass, to cover the basic needs of humanity, while the burning trumpet represents the other two elements- air and fire. In ‘Elementary cosmogony,’ the philosopher rests on the ground, with his sphere of contemplation by his left hand.

Natural graces

Plain of air, 1940

Leaf customs, Max Ernst, 1925

The leaf motif was not unique to Magritte as we see. Max Ernst painted leaves having the water marks of wood, making thus wood a fundamental structural element in art. In the ‘Plain of air,’ Magritte in turn transformed the leaf to the tree itself, suggesting a fundamental unity in nature, together with the ground and the sky.

Project of poster ‘The center of textile workers in Belgium,’ 1938

At the first clear word, Max Ernst, 1923

Magritte cannot be considered a major (political) activist, but when he was engaged in painting posters for trade unions, he left surrealism aside. The spindle however is a common surrealistic object. In Ernst’s painting for example, the symbolism of the spindle overlaps with the symbolism of a cup-and-ball (bilboquet), which is held by the hand in a very characteristic way. The sadomasochistic atmosphere of the painting, accompanied by the insect at the top left, and toned by the contrast of red and green colors, belongs to Ernst’s surrealistic landscape. But the match-stick trees resemble representations in Magritte’s paintings.

The good season (La belle saison), 1961

Clairvoyance (La clairvoyance), 1962

Leaf-like trees (or tree-like leaves) in Magritte paintings are in fact an ‘ultra-surrealistic’ representation of nature, a detailed and consistent reductionism with which we recognize the whole in the parts, but also a unique harmony between the parts. In the second painting, Magritte’s tree is compared to a ‘real’ tree. It is remarkable to note that Magritte's ‘leaf- trees’ are unique, in the sense that they could be real trees, under different evolutionary processes. This is why Magritte used to say that his paintings were not ‘fantastic,’ but instead representations of real things, though depicted in an exaggerated and uncommon way.

Companions of fear, 1942

The taste of tears, 1946

Island of treasures, 1942

The natural graces, 1963

This is a group of paintings where leaf-like representations are transformed into birds. If trees could fly (or if birds had roots), their leaves may have looked like Magritte’s depictions. In the ‘Companions of fear,’ the owls grow right from the bush beneath, like the plumage which grows from our minds when we dream. The owl could be seen as a scary creature, hovering just above us as we walk in a forest at night, but also, as a bird of wisdom, which comes as a companion to guide us throw our most thick and dark fears. In ‘The taste of tears,’ the caterpillar has climbed from the plant to the bird, leaving its marks on its chest, on which we see the veins of a leaf. This is a very successful opposition between roughness (the caterpillar) and tenderness (the leaf), while the bird bends its head in a passive expression.

‘The treasure island’ is a novel of Louis Stevenson, first published as a book on 23 May 1883, and perhaps Magritte had read it or knew the title. Anyway, while the original story was about pirates and the lost treasure, Magritte’s ‘Island of treasures’ is about a barren island with just a nest of birds, which are growing from the ground like leaves.

Therefore Magritte’s ‘lost treasure’ is not to be found in gold but in the luxury of being able to enjoy the atmosphere of tranquil eternity on a remote island. The ‘Natural graces’ epitomize this message of pure naturalism expressed by the entangled features of surrealism.

The giantess (La géante), 1929-1930

The first ‘Giantess’ of Magritte features a miniature man entering a room with a seemingly huge nude woman towering above him. The scales of the painting are characteristic: While the closets and the table have the right dimensions with respect to the lady, the door and the couch are too small, even for the ‘little man’ who seems to be approaching the room. Also, the painting on the wall looks proportionally huge.

The giantess, 1935

The giantess, 1936

In a letter to Andre Breton in 1934, Magritte discussed the seeds of the idea that led to the creation of the ‘Giantess,’ saying that he was trying to discover what it is in a tree that belongs to it specifically but which would run counter to our concept of a tree. This was a part of Magritte’s pioneering adventures into the nature of the world and our perceptions, disrupting the absolute expectations people have about the nature of specific objects. So with the tree, Magritte sought the idiosyncratic, signature element that he could disrupt in order to confront the viewer with a new, fresh view of the tree. He did this by twisting the associated elements of the object, forcing the viewer's reappraisal of the commonplace. This solution was disarmingly simple: The tree, as the subject of a problem, became a large leaf the stem of which was a trunk directly planted in the ground. The name for these leaf-like representations comes from a poem by Baudelaire. In the poem, which is mentioned by Magritte, Baudelaire imagines himself exploring and roaming over the body of a giantess. The first verse of the poem goes like this:

“Du temps que la Nature en sa verve puissante
Concevait chaque jour des enfants monstrueux,
J'eusse aimé vivre auprès d'une jeune géante,
Comme aux pieds d'une reine un chat voluptueux.”
“At times when Nature expressed herself so eloquently
Conceiving monstrous children every day,
I’d have liked to live beside a young giantess,
At her royal feet like a voluptuous cat.”

Search for the absolute, 1940

Gigantic figures standing, in comparison, against miniscule ones, serve two purposes; firstly, to expose a game of perspective, of an interplay between the figure and the background; secondly, and at the same time, to denote the symbolism of the larger figure with respect to the smaller one. In the previous painting, the gigantic tree and the huge ball stand imposing one beside the other, in contrast to the two small human figures. The fact that the human figures are two suggests a dialogue. The painter here is not alone but with somebody, having together a conversation, perhaps wondering about the miracles of life. Their relative miniscule size compared to that of the tree and the ball give a sense of humility against the mysteries of nature and of the human spirit. Therefore the final cause of the high standing leaf-like trees and leaf- like representations is the ‘Search of the absolute,’ is a symbolic representation of the ‘tree of life,’ which synopsizes in its network of veins the history of mankind, and of the ‘ball of wisdom,’ which contains all knowledge.

The rape

Courtesan’s palace, 1929

The disguised symbol, 1928

The same reductionism or abstraction Magritte used in leaf-life representations (where the leaf looks like the tree, and vice-versa), is found in ‘body-faces.’ Here, the characteristics of the middle part of the human body are painted in a way to imitate the expressions of the human face. The nipples look like the eyes, and the bellybutton together with the shadowy fold above it resemble the mouth and a chin dimple. The dark areas of the paintings help this ‘body language’ stand out.

The eternal evidence, 1930

In ‘The eternal evidence,’ a headless body of a woman appears split into sepate frames, as if in a photographic film, while the parts are recombined in such a way to form the whole picture.

The eternally obvious (L’évidence éternelle), 1930

The eternally obvious, 1948

Magritte holding ‘The eternally obvious,’ Paris, 1930, The Menil Collection

In ‘The eternally obvious’ (1939), the whole picture emerges, though again in separate parts, of Georgette, Magritte’s wife and model. In 1948, Magritte replaced Georgette with some other model.

A famous man, 1926

Representation (La représentation), 1937

The same analysis of the whole into parts, which nevertheless may stand on their own, forming totalities themselves, occurs in the ‘Famous man,’ with a bilboquet. Its missing head reappears on the top left of the painting, hanging upside-down. In ‘Representation,’ a woman’s vagina is painted in such a way that it seems to be smiling.

The rape (Le viol), 1934

The rape, 1935

The culmination of Magritte’s effort to unify the language of the human body with facial expression is ‘The rape.’ Here, the body with facial characteristics reverses into a face with body-like characteristics. Again the eyes are the same as the female nipples, the naval stands for the nose, while the mouth takes the place of a vagina. The hair on the ‘head’ are certainly suggestive of pubic hair.

The rape, 1948

In the last ‘Rape,’ the violation of our understanding of the human form is completed, as the face and the rest of the body of a woman have totally merged together. The legs appear as the jaws of an alien creature just below its implied mouth, while the growth of the hair covers the body all the way down. The whole form of the body in the painting stands exactly for the head which is missing.

In Magritte’s own words, in ‘The rape’ a woman’s face is made up of the essential features of her body. So composed, the face reflects the secret desires of the painter and the observer that some women can convey their sexuality in the way in which they look at one. Painting, the art of rendering things visible, reveals its ability here to record impressively the constant sex-appeal which leaves its mark upon almost every moment of our lives. The selection of the work’s title indicates the ongoing conflict of the voyeuristic observer; Magritte comes very close here to Hans Bellmer’s erotic perversion, albeit without the latter’s sadness. He has destroyed what is most obvious of all, namely the face, replacing it with something even more obvious. It is the shock effect of the picture together with the basic idea lying behind it, which represent the key components of his work.

The act of violence (L’attentat), 1932

It has been suggested that ‘The rape’ series of paintings are the painter’s protest against the war. However, such paintings find their roots back in collage techniques and the quest of the painter to cut reality to pieces and recompose it in a unique and indicative way. Magritte was opposed to reality as we normally conceive it. Neither was he a hedonist, although some translated the ‘Rape’ as such. In ‘The act of violence,’ we see again that the ‘violence’ taking place is metaphorical; it’s a violation of common imagery.

Imp of the perverse

The female thief, 1927

The discovery, 1927

When I first saw ‘The discovery,’ I thought it was a depiction of a ‘leopard-lady.’ However, as the pose of the woman seems to be following the stripes on her body, a better explanation is that the figure is created by the ‘curvature of the canvas.’ The painter’s paint itself has this property of fluidity, as if the only thing a painter had to do was to follow the paint while flowing.

Imp of the perverse, 1927

In this painting, the ‘principle of fluidity’ can be better examined in the water marks on a piece of wood. The marks remind us that the wood used to be alive, so that the marks contain all the history of the corresponding tree, its environment, the rain it absorbed, the ground it used to stand on. Therefore, wood serves both as a construction material and as a functional object. It supports the painter’s canvas, but also tells the story of its past life to one’s trained eyes and ears.

The ‘Imp of the perverse’ is a metaphor for the common tendency, particularly among children and miscreants, to do exactly the wrong thing in a given situation. The conceit is that the misbehavior is due to an imp (a small demon) leading an otherwise decent person into mischief. The phrase has a long history in literature, and was popularized (and perhaps coined) by Edgar Allan Poe in his short story, ‘The imp of the perverse.’ It is also exemplified in ‘The bad glazier,’ a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire.

The conqueror (Le conquérant), 1926

The man of the sea, 1927

‘The conqueror’ depicts a musician dressed in formal attire, sporting by a black bow tie. A wooden plank replaces the head with two plant like, violin like, decorations. It reminds of a tenor about to sing an aria. This is a common Magritte use of musical notes in a collage probably used as a tribute to his brother Paul and close friend E.L.T. Mesens, both musicians.

In the second painting, we realize that the ‘man of the sea,’ as well as ‘the female thief’ we saw before, are depictions of the same persona- the ‘anima’ and ‘animus’ of the same person. The uniform the figures wear is very descriptive of the asexual (or bisexual) representation of a painter’s doll. This is very helpful however, because it lets us concentrate on some other, otherwise invisible, characteristics of the human body. First of all, we may discern its similarity (in fact its origins) with a tree. We all come from the forest, not only as primitive dwellers, but also because we recognize a part of our own in the story it tells. The whispers of a forest may sometimes be printed on the wood, like musical annotations, so that the tree trunk may take half the shape of a tree and half of a violin. The water marks now become imprints of the spectrum of the sounds in the forest of our soul.

Magritte’s ‘The man of the sea’ is strongly reminiscent of the ‘Sandman.’ It is a short story written by E. T. A. Hoffmann, in 1817. The story revolves around a ‘doll’ (automaton) called Olympia. One of the protagonists (Nathanael) falls in love with Olympia. He begins to watch Olympia from his window through his telescope, although her fixed gaze and motionless stance disconcert him. Spalanzani (Olympia’s ‘father’) gives a grand party at which it is reported that his daughter will be presented in public for the first time. Nathanael is invited, and becomes enraptured by Olympia who plays the harpsichord, sings and dances. Her stiffness of movement and coldness of touch appear strange to many of the company. Nathanael dances with her repeatedly, awed by her perfect rhythm, and eventually tells her of his passion for her, to which Olympia, repeatedly, replies only “Ah, ah!”

Eventually Nathanael determines to propose to Olympia, but when he arrives at her rooms he finds an argument in progress between Spalanzani and Coppola (an Italian trader), who are fighting over the body of Olympia and arguing over who made the eyes and who made the clockwork. Coppola, who is now revealed as Coppelius in truth (a frightening, large and malformed man), wins the struggle, and makes off with the lifeless and eyeless body. The sight of Olympia’s eyes lying on the ground drives Nathanael to madness, and he flies at the professor to strangle him. He is pulled away by other people drawn by the noise of the struggle, and in a state of insanity is taken to an asylum.

A modern version of the Sandman

Nathanael recalls his childhood terror of the legendary Sandman, who is traditionally said to throw sand in the eyes of children to help them fall asleep. Nathanael struggles his whole life against posttraumatic stress which comes from a traumatic episode with the sandman in his childhood experience. Until the end of Hofmann’s book it remains open whether this experience was real, or just a dream of the young Nathanael.

Landscape, 1926

The wreckage of the shadow, 1926

The similarity between the ‘Sandman’ and the ‘Man of the sea’ is apparent. The merge between human characteristics and inanimate matter (or plants and animals) was further explored by Magritte in his paintings.

In ‘Landscape’ there is another representation where the branches of a tree have merged with the veins of a human body. The head is formed by arm-like extensions; therefore it is more a body-like tree, rather than a tree-like body. This priority is also depicted in the rocks behind, which seem to be wearing vests.

In ‘The wreckage of the shadow’ there is a high degree of symmetry, combining objects and notions. The upper part wooden frames resemble the eagle’s head mountain at the left top, while the mountain on the right reappears within its own cave, at the bottom. The eagle seems to have left some of its feathers on the panel with the strange grid, which balances on one vertex at the center of the painting, while, just below, the feathered head of an eagle, standing on a stick and pointing at the opposite direction, completes the symmetries of the composition.

The comic spirit (L’ esprit comique), 1927

The finery of the storm (La parure de l’ orage), 1927

In the previous paintings, meaning has given its place to a more scholastic kind of painting. Ornamental vertical cutouts placed in front of a desolate seascape appear to be collaged on to the canvas- so dense, hard-edged and object-like are they. In fact, these ornamental totem poles are painted on to the canvas, producing a striking juxtaposition of an illusionist background and relief-like, tangible foreground. In fact, Magritte’s father was a taylor, so young Magritte may have many time watched his father to cut and tie pieces of cloth together, transfering later on his father art on the canvas.

The end of contemplation (La fin des contemplations), 1927

The same technique is employed in ‘The end of contemplation.’ The faces, as well as the shape behind them, seem to be cut out of paper edges, which form the nose, the mouth, the chin, as well as parts of the body. I would say that by merging or deleting the facial expressions, the painter forces us to accept a unified sense of reality, consisting of the experience of all senses simultaneously, making us reach this way the limits of contemplation, where common experience and artistic creativity come together.


Annunciation, 1930

The double secret, 1927

The iron-like balls (or bells), attached to strings (or just floating) in Magritte’s paintings, remind me of space machines, coming to our world to inspect us, with eyes hidden behind the gap all around the perimeter of these spheres, which could be something like flying saucers. But, despite what most people think, these objects come (at least most of the times) not from outer space but from within our unconscious mind. This is why all these ‘UFO’s’ seem so familiar to us.

‘Annunciation’ means ‘the announcement of divine incarnation.’ Therefore, in this painting, whether its implications are religious or not, we have the materialization of Magritte’s familiar surrealistic objects, such as the bilboquets, collage paper, together with an iron curtain full of iron balls or bells. The iron curtain certainly implies segregation, either religious or political. Someone could say that with this painting the painter wants to split parts with the rest of the surrealists or with the church or, on the contrary, that he wants to protest against the division between the ‘surrealistic’ and the ‘divine.’

Magritte certainly was not a strong believer in religion, and he probably considered the mystery of ‘annunciation’ in a secular sense. From the surrealistic point of view of course, the title could only be ironic. Magritte had quarreled with the leader of the French surrealists, André Breton, on a matter relating to religion in December 1929, and the rift between the two men was to last until 1933. At a gathering at his home, Breton, who, like all the surrealist writers, was an arch-atheist and anti-cleric, noticed that Georgette was wearing a cross, and asked her to take off ‘that object’. Georgette habitually wore the cross, which had belonged to her grandmother, and preferred to leave with her husband rather than remove it. Magritte was deeply angered and upset by this seemingly rather trivial incident, and rejected attempts by friends to effect reconciliation. Yet the fault was not all on one side: many present at the incident felt that Magritte’s hostile response was not entirely justified, particularly as it seems that he had long attempted to provoke Breton on the subject of religion. Patrick Waldberg writes, “At the meetings Magritte had for some time been making a custom of harrying Breton with ‘embarrassing’ questions bearing upon religion- “Tell me, Breton, what do you think of Jesus Christ? What is the view you take of the Virgin Mother? Breton, have you pondered the Catholic mystery?”

However, the message has to go much deeper than this. The iron curtain certainly implies a division, which is exaggerated by the other surrealistic objects, such as the cutout paper and the bilboquets against a natural landscape with trees, rocks and the sky. But this division is between the painter and the rest of the world. On the one hand, there is the surrealistic expression and understanding of things, while, on the other hand, there is the common interpretation of everyday objects. But the iron curtain itself with its strange hanging balls forms itself a strange wall, a metaphysical limit which everyone would like to pass to see what’s happening on the other side. Also, the one-to-one correspondence between the sky and the ‘curtain,’ the trees and the bilboquets, the rocks and the cutout paper, suggests that this interpretation is correct. The painter wants us to see the other side of familiar objects, and help us pass to a parallel, transcendental world.

The same sort of comparison is proposed by the two faces in ‘The double secret.’ One face is ‘normal’ but its missing parts are suggestive of its susceptibility to transformation. This transformation takes place with the second face, inside which we find the strange strings with bells. The first face is standing at the back, and its missing parts are parts of the sky or of the ocean, while the second face stands forward with no parts missing, except his interior organs which are substituted by the string of bells. Therefore, the painter brings forward the secret of this double reality, the inside world against the outside world, giving the impression of two faces, whereas there is presumably only one.

On the threshold of liberty

The palace of curtains (1928-1929)

In ‘The palace of curtains’ we see two mirrors, or two paintings of mirrors, lying against the wall. The ‘mirrors’ themselves can been seen as reflections of real objects and notions of objects (the sky and the ‘blue’ (ciel) respectively), or as entrances into what lies behind them. But paintings, as well as mirrors, are two-dimensional objects. In this two dimensional perspective, Magritte compares objects and notions concerning these objects. The notion of ‘blue’ is one of the basic elements of Magritte’s cosmogony, related to the notion of the sky.

The empty mask, 1928

The fixed idea (L’ idée fixe), 1927

The six elements, 1928

In ‘The empty mask,’ Magritte reveals more of his basic elements. Four words correspond to six images. The ‘blue’ on the left corresponds to the sky with clouds on the right, the face of a house (façade de maison) corresponds to the same image on the right, the human body corresponds to the forest, while what remains is representations of the notion of a curtain (rideau). Therefore the prevalent characteristic of the painter is his tendency to hide clues behind curtains.

There is some uncertainty about Magritte’s titles, but it is worth comment that both assemblies are called ‘empty,’ perhaps for different reasons. That is, it is easy to see the absence of images in the first version as the emptiness of the frames, but in the second, the mask is still empty because all masks are empty, at least those that do not represent anything, that are merely a decorated screen. Here Magritte may be playing off of the ‘frame’ convention: these segments can’t represent because they are not presented in proper rectangular frames. The title evokes the fear of the invisible which pervades the artist's work and reflects the surrealists' fascination with the subconscious.

Again, there is a perfect correspondence between the words in ‘The empty mask’ and the images in ‘The fixed idea,’ except one- the ‘curtain’ of course. I guess this is not coincidental, either it was intentional or not. What is also strange in ‘The fixed idea,’ is the identification of the ‘human body’ with a ‘hunter,’ probably Magritte’s friend Luis Scutenaire. At least this is what one might first think, because if either the ‘forest’ or the ‘human body’ are represented by the forest, then the hunter can only be identified with the ‘curtain.’

The ‘Six elements’ therefore combine the basic elements of Magritte’s cosmogony. If we compare this paining to the images in the ‘Empty mask,’ we find that the ‘body- face’ is identified with the cutout paper. While all images in Magritte’s paintings can be representations of other images hiding behind mirrors or curtains, the constant element is that of ‘blue.’ I would say that ‘blueness’ is the painter’s last stop before absolute emptiness (or fullness).

The conquest of the philosopher, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

On the threshold of liberty, 1930

It is perhaps interesting to compare this notion of ‘blueness’ with the notion of the vacuum in modern physics. In contrast to what was previously believed, the quantum vacuum is not empty, but it is full of elementary and subtle motions of particles, or ‘entities,’ which finally form everything we know. We consider particles as ‘very small round objects,’ but they can be of any shape, or of no shape at all. In fact quarks are identified with ‘flavors’ (up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top), and their charges with the three basic colors (red, green, and blue).

Wikipedia warns us that, the ‘color charge’ of quarks is completely unrelated to visual perception of color.

However, there is certainly an analogy between color charge and mental perception of colors. Although we have words for everything that we can perceive (even if we may use more than one words to describe something new), there are many notions that lie above the field of perception. For example, the word ‘liberty’ cannot be visualized, or ‘be listened to.’ Therefore when the painter decides to find an artistic representation for the notion of liberty, he must use all his powers to reach the limits of ‘free expression.’

Magritte finds himself on this ‘threshold of liberty.’ The painting contains eight frames, or eight building blocks. Inspiringly enough, the ‘building blocks’ which Magritte uses are much more interesting than those of modern atomic theory. Magritte managed to create the building blocks of a new entire universe, albeit not physical, but artistic. But the artistic interpretation is as real as any physical one can be. We shouldn’t consider, for example, atomic particles more real than Magritte’s ‘space-bells.’ They just serve the formulation of different theories, but are equally important expressions of human creativity and, probably, representations of reality.

The balcony, Edouard Manet, 1868-1869

Perspective: Manet’s Balcony, 1950

At first glance of this Manet’s painting, I thought that the ladies were holding guns instead of umbrellas or hand-fans. The austerity on their faces reinforces that impression. This was perhaps an illusion of my own. However, there really is something negative about the figures as Manet drew them (although all figures represent friends and relatives of his)- boredom or indifference. Perhaps Manet was cynical about the bourgeois spirit of his age; but the Surrealists would certainly put the bourgeois spirit of their age into coffins.

Portrait of Madame Récamier, Jacques-Louis David, 1800

Perspective: Madame Récamier by David, 1950

Magritte’s act to put the people in Manet’s balcony, together with Madame Récamier, in coffins, could be seen as a protest against everything the decadence of the bourgeoisie represented, or it could be a simple act of perversity.

As far as Juliette Récamier, known simply as Juliette, is concerned, she was a French society leader, whose salon drew Parisians from the leading literary and political circles of the early 19th century.

David shows her in the height of Neoclassical fashion, reclining on a sofa in a simple empire line dress with almost bare arms, and short hair. Many David portraits have the same bare background. Magritte also parodied David’s painting in his own Perspective: Madame Récamier by David, showing a coffin reclining.

Grande odalisque, (La grande odalisque), Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1814

The pose of a reclining figure looking back over her shoulder was adopted in 1814 by Ingres for his ‘Grande Odalisque.’ The painting depicts an odalisque, or concubine. Ingres’ contemporaries considered the work to signify Ingres’ break from Neoclassicism. ‘Grande Odalisque’ attracted wide criticism when it was first shown. It has been especially noted for the elongated proportions and lack of anatomical realism.

Magritte sleeping, by Lothar Wolleh

Magritte didn’t paint another ‘coffin’ in the place of the ‘Grande odalisque.’ Nevertheless the surrealist weapons were symbolic. The coffins Magritte painted in his Perspectives are used as a means to imitate the analogies of the pose, not as burial containers. In the same sense, the ‘canon’ depicted ‘On the threshold of liberty’ means both ‘gun’ but also ‘philosophical method.’ The title of De Chirico’s painting ‘The philosopher’s conquest’ certainly suggests that the canon represents a philosophical method (with the two balls below the canon apparently suggesting a hedonistic one.)

Is Magritte pointing his cannon toward the female torso to destroy it, or because he wants to find a way to conquer it? We often find ourselves trapped in dilemmas. Dilemmas are two-fold. They form a problem and a solution at the same time. I believe that Magritte at the last moment changed his mind and lowered the canon in his painting. It’s quite obvious that the canon is not aiming high enough. Furthermore, according to the law of gravity, the canon ball will follow a curved trajectory, falling most probably in the forest, below the female torso. However, as we move closer to the painting, we realize little by little that the direction of the canon is such that the most possible trajectory of the cannonball is towards the sky. So the painter, according to his own laws which combine things, he really succeeded in finding his ultimate target, reaching the philosopher’s goal. The cannonball hits the ‘blue’ after all.

The pleasure principle

Simply put, the pleasure principle, which is a Freudian concept, states that people have the instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It is contrasted to the reality principle. During adulthood one must pass from the world of pleasure to the world of reality, abandoning one’s ego for the sake of finding one’s id. However, things are much more complicated than that. First of all, pleasure is always accompanied by pain. Pleasure is gained through the excitation of the senses (and of the brain), therefore it is always an apocalyptic process. In other words, pleasure and pain are two complementary concepts, which tend to find a point of balance. Secondly, the principle of reality could be the same as the principle of pleasure. People understand, and adopt themselves to, reality through pleasure. Painful elements of reality which we are forced to accept are always filtered by our brain within the context of the pleasure principle. For example, when an adult has to give up masturbating for the sake of ‘maturity,’ he will adopt another method to fulfill the pleasure principle (by painting let’s say representations of masturbation). So, we don’t really overpass the pleasure principle, we transform it on a more sophisticated level.

Freud’s perverse polymorph, Salvador Dali, 1939

The story of the Sandman is interpreted by Freud in his 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny.’ It is the concept of an instance where something can be both familiar yet alien at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet incongruous, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject, due to the paradoxical nature of being simultaneously attracted to yet repulsed by an object. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize.

The state of the uncanny was first identified by Ernst Jentsch in a 1906 essay, ‘On the psychology of the Uncanny.’ Jentsch defines the uncanny as being a product of “intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one’s way about in. The better orientated in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it,” and expands upon its use in fiction, focusing specifically on Hoffmann’s ‘Sandman,’ which features the lifelike doll, Olympia:

“In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.”

Scene from the film ‘Un chien Andalou’

Freud drew attention on “the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes,” as the “more striking instance of uncanniness” in the tale. This uncanny effect was used by the surrealists extensively, as in the 1929 film, ‘Un chien Andalou,’ (‘An Andalusian dog’) by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The film has no plot in the conventional sense of the word. The chronology of the film is disjointed, without the events or characters changing very much. It uses dream logic in narrative flow that can be described in terms of then-popular Freudian free association, presenting a series of tenuously related scenes.

Young girl eating a bird, 1927

Murderous sky (Le ciel meurtrier), 1927

Gruesome scenes with sexual content were very common among the surrealists. Dali, for example, also painted humans eating animals alive, as in the previous painting. Certainly, ‘Young girl eating a bird’ is the most gruesome painting Magritte ever did. It’s a companion piece to ‘Murderous sky,’ depicting four identical bloody dying birds flying in front of a mountain of rocks.

David Sylvester suggests that this painting might be based on a poem by Paul Nougé which is considered to have been written at about the same time. It’s also possible that the poem could also be based on the painting. The poem goes like this:

“We find her in the heart of summer, in the shadow of a sturdy tree thronged with calmed birds unalarmed by her presence. The schoolgirl demeanor would be excuse enough, and her modest dress, her neat hair... It is then that one notices the pallor of joy, the eyelids closed over the cruelty of her dreams, the teeth pressed to the blood-stained lips, the woman engrossed in her pleasure and savoring, through the caress of its plumage, a creature docile to the point of continuing to live. Since one has to hold one's own, one invents, as an afterthought, the girl who ate birds.”

According to other sources the explanation behind this painting is rather simple: One day Magritte saw his wife eating a chocolate bird, so he decided he would do a painting of a young woman eating a live bird. Evidently he decided not to use an accurate portrait of Georgette because of the graphic nature of the subject material.

Magritte relationship with the French surrealists was rather distant or even turbulent in some instants. He had a rocky relationship with Breton over the years and generally disregarded Breton’s Freudian interpretations:

“Psychoanalysis has nothing to say, not even about works of art, which evoke the mystery of the world,” said Magritte. “Perhaps psychoanalysis itself represents the best case for psychoanalysis.” Magritte regarded it as a pseudo-science of the unconscious, a criminological and ideological starting point. As Michel Foucault- with whom Magritte had an interesting and instructive correspondence in the 1960s- succinctly explained, psychoanalysis aims at finally confirming existential repression by restricting desire to the family triangle, to the legally legitimized married couple.

Magritte was his own Surrealist once writing: “Happy is he who betrays his own convictions for the love of a woman.” He opposed Freud’s theses, automatist experiences based upon the power of the unconscious, and everything that all too often in the circle around Andre Breton, the artist, threatened to become dogma and law. It was unavoidable that those artists who were obviously permeated by Surrealism would be excluded sooner or later from the Surrealist movement. Andre Masson had realized this, and himself demanded his own exclusion. Breton’s reply to this was remarkable: “Why? I have never exerted any pressure upon you.” “Proof,” retorted Masson, “that you have exerted it upon others.” Magritte, for his part, to whom Breton had written indignantly in the late 1940s, “Your dialectics and your Surrealism en plein soleil are threadbare,” answered, “Sorry, Breton, but the invisible thread is on your bobbin.”

The point is that Magritte, who wasn’t generally a hedonist, decided to paint a hedonistic scene. We know that cats (as well as other animals) are used to playing with their victims (birds or mice) before they eat them, and sometimes they don’t eat them at all. Humans also used to go hunting (and still do), killing animals for fun (fox hunting, or safari, for example). It is this, almost perverse, instinct of pleasure that goes far beyond mere survival. We like to play with our victims, sometimes also enjoying seeing them suffering, just for the sake of fun. This is dreadful, but true.

The pleasure principle (Portrait of Edward James), 1937

This is one of Magritte’s most significant paintings. It synopsizes the pleasure principle. The portrait is supposed to be depicting Edward James, who was a sponsor of surrealist painters, including Magritte and Dali. Whoever was James, the portrait I believe depicts the painter himself, or one of his personas in a ‘state of pleasure.’ The ‘sponge’ is a surrealist object, so porous that it is able to fully absorb pleasure. It could also represent the female sexual organ. It is placed on the table in the foreground, so that it is visible by everyone. This way, it gives a warning that one should know what one is searching for, otherwise one may end up unhappy. The table itself divides the painting in two parts, one visible and one invisible. The right hand of the painter is very expressing, with the finger stretched trying to reach the ‘sponge,’ while the left hand is hidden beneath the table, suggesting that it is heading towards the ‘sponge’s’ counterpart (the male sexual organ). The head of the painter is covered with a glowing, alien, light, as if it were a ‘metaphysical lamp,’ lightened by some sort of tremendous apocalypse. All the painting is filled with calmness, showing that the painter has reached the ‘state of enlightenment.’

The explanation, 1952

Pleasure is like a vessel, always ready to be filled with a liquid of satisfaction. When we find pleasure, we have a feeling of fullness; when we don’t get satisfaction we fill empty. Things tend to move from higher states of energy to lower ones, from states of fullness to states of emptiness, like the feeling we have in crowed places, making us search for quieter places. Quiet places are hard to find nowadays. But the same goes for empty spaces. As the air and the water rush to fill all the caves and empty cavities, so the spirit is always preoccupied with emptiness. The absolute vacuum is the ideal place for creativity, for the mind to begin a new creation.

In fact there are no such things as ‘empty holes,’ but objects with a high level of plasticity. ‘Holes’ are the objects more searched for by the pleasure-seeking mind. What the body feels by penetration, the spirit understands through ‘peering.’ When a woman puts some lipstick, the allusion is not only aesthetical but also sexual, as the sharp edge of the stick penetrates the lips of the woman. Any woman wearing lipstick must have felt this pleasure of subtle penetration. There are lipsticks with vitamins, like those contained in fruits, such as carrots. A carrot contains therapeutic properties which match with its lipstick- like color.

This is what is implied in ‘The explanation.’ In the painting there are also two bottles; one is regular but the other one is sharp with a carrot-like lipstick color. The symbolism of sexual penetration is explicit, although the sharp bottle looks like an object used by women (a lipstick). However, this is an intelligent implication: As men use bottles as substitutes for sex while they drink, so women regard the male sexual organ in the same way they use their lipstick. Using a sex partner as an object of pleasure is the rule, the exception being true love. Therefore, the painter here offers the best explanation for the problem of love, and pleasure in general. The carrot stands out just to remind us that most of the times we behave like ‘bunnies.’ When we treat things or people as sexual objects, at the same time, we become such. This is not necessarily bad, if we are really aware of what we are doing.

The treachery of images

The treachery of images, 1928-29

“The famous pipe...? I’ve been reproached enough about it! And yet... can you fill it? No, it’s only a depiction, isn’t it. If I had written ‘This is a pipe’ under my picture, I would have been lying!”

The painting is sometimes compared with Korzybski’s “The word is not the thing” and “The map is not the territory.” Korzybski thought that people do not have access to direct knowledge of reality; rather they have access to perceptions and to a set of beliefs which human society has confused with direct knowledge of reality.

As Wikipedia narrates, one day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think,” said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog's head and the words “Dog Cookies.” The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. “You see,” Korzybski remarked, “I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.”

Here we see how the power of suggestion affects people, so that the worlds ‘dog cookies,’ in the previous example, are more powerful than the taste of biscuits. This can be explained by supposing that the notion of an object (or its image) can be more important than the object itself. In fact, what we really see, feel, or understand about an object is its representation, according to our senses, and according to the interpretation given instantly by our brain. We never see the ‘real’ object, only its image. This is what Magritte’s phrase ‘This is not a pipe’ suggests.

Even if we realize the world by representation, the world itself is no more real than what we perceive. One could say that things have no meaning, not even real existence before we observe them. This is a paradigm shift from (absolute) realism to relative realism, or simply relativism, or even ‘probabilism.’ In other words, there is no meaning saying what an object had been before we observed it. However, this interpretation has another consequence: objects are entangled to our consciousness, so that two objects, both imaginative, our consciousness on one hand, and its representation of reality on the other hand, interact with each other, forming the picture of the world as we know it.

This inescapable conclusion- that the real world is always referring to our own picture of the world, is a self-referential process within a closed logical system. According to Wikipedia, self-reference occurs in natural or formal languages when a sentence, idea or formula refers to itself. The reference may be expressed either directly- through some intermediate sentence or formula- or by means of some encoding. In philosophy, it also refers to the ability of a subject to speak of or refer to himself, herself, or itself: to have the kind of thought expressed by the first person pronoun, the word ‘I’ in English. Magritte’s work is full of self-referential imagery. His painting ‘The treachery of images,’ includes the words ‘This is not a pipe,’ the truth of which depends entirely on whether the word ‘ceci’ (‘this’) refers to the pipe depicted- or to the painting, or to the sentence itself.

It is clarifying here to note that in formal logic self-reference led Gödel to his famous incompleteness theorem. Gödel considered the sentence: ‘This sentence is false,’ incorporated in the program of a perfect computer. If then the machine was asked whether that sentence was right or wrong, the machine could never find the correct answer. It is a sentence referring to itself: if the original sentence is B= ‘A is false,’ then A is a sentence within the sentence B. Gödel concluded that logic is incomplete (thus the ‘incompleteness theorem’). In other words, there are statements concerning our logical assumptions which cannot be proved either right or wrong.'s_incompleteness_theorems

This is a conclusion with great implications. It doesn’t necessarily state that our logic is weak. It says that even if we consider the whole universe as a logical system (an information containing system), there are ‘eternal truths’ within the universe which cannot be answered or manipulated because of their spontaneous, self-referring nature. Therefore, in Magritte’s pipe, there is an infinite loop including both the ‘object of a pipe,’ and the image of the ‘object of a pipe,’ which in fact are both representations.

The two mysteries, 1966

On this basis, in his second version of ‘This is not a pipe,’ Magritte juxtaposes two ‘pipes.’ A ‘real’ one at the top left, and a ‘painted’ one at the center. Of course both pipes are painted. They are just representations of a real object. Here Magritte doubles the ‘pipe effect.’ It may seem that the pipe inside the painted canvas is less ‘real’ than the pipe outside the canvas because it says so (This is not a pipe). Still both pipes are representations. We cannot smoke them. However, Magritte’s point was not to destroy reality, but to make its representations more conscious to us.

Michel Foucault made an analysis on Magritte’s pipe, in his ‘Unraveled Calligram:’

“Magritte’s drawing (for the moment I speak only of the first version) is as simple as a page borrowed from a botanical manual: a figure and the text that names it. Nothing is easier to recognize than a pipe, drawn thus; nothing is easier to say- our language knows it well in our place- than the ‘name of a pipe…’ What misleads us is the inevitability of connecting the text to the drawing and the impossibility of defining a perspective that would let us say that the assertion is true, false, or contradictory. I cannot dismiss the notion that the sorcery here lies in an operation rendered invisible by the simplicity of its result, but which alone can explain the vague uneasiness provoked. The operation is a calligram that Magritte has secretly constructed, then carefully unraveled…

The calligram has a triple role: to augment the alphabet, to repeat something without the aid of rhetoric, to trap things in a double cipher. First it brings a text and a shape as close together as possible. It is composed of lines delimiting the form of an object while also arranging the sequence of letters. It lodges statements in the space of a shape, and makes the text say what the drawing represents.

The calligram is thus tautological. But in opposition to rhetoric, which toys with the fullness of language, it uses the possibility of repeating the same thing in different words, and profits from the extra richness of language that allows us to say different things with a single word. The essence of rhetoric is in allegory. The calligram uses that capacity of letters to signify both as linear elements that can be arranged in space and as signs that must unroll according to a unique chain of sound. As a sign, the letter permits us to fix words; as line, it lets us give shape to things. Thus the calligram aspires playfully to efface the oldest oppositions of our alphabetical civilization: to show and to name; to shape and to say; to reproduce and to articulate; to imitate and to signify; to look and to read…

From calligraphic doubling, Magritte seemingly returns to the simple correspondence of the image with its legend. Without saying anything, a mute and adequately recognizable figure displays the object in its essence; from the image, a name written below receives its ‘meaning’ or rule for usage. Now, compared to the traditional function of the legend, Magritte’s text is doubly paradoxical. It sets out to name something that evidently does not need to be named (the form is too well known, the label too familiar). And at the moment when he should reveal the name, Magritte does so by denying that the object is what it is…

But I have neglected, I fear, what is perhaps essential to Magritte’s Pipe. I have proceeded as if the text said, “I (the ensemble of words you are now reading) am not a pipe.” I have gone on as if there were two simultaneously and clearly differentiated positions within the same space: the figure’s and the text’s. But I have omitted that from one position to the other a subtle and instable dependency, at once insistent and unsure, is indicated. And it is indicated by the word ‘this.’ We must therefore admit between the figure and the text a whole series of intersections- or rather attacks launched by one against the other, arrows shot at the enemy target, enterprises of subversion and destruction, lance blows and wounds. a battle. For example, ‘this’ (the drawing, whose form you doubtless recognize and whose calligraphic heritage I have just traced) ‘is not’ (is not substantially bound to… , is not constituted by …, does not cover the same material as …) ‘a pipe’ (that is, this word from your language, made up of pronounceable sounds that translate the letters you are reading). Therefore, ‘This is not a pipe’ can be read thus:

But at the same time, the text states an entirely different proposition: ‘This’ (the statement arranging itself beneath your eyes in a line of discontinuous elements, of which this is both the signifier and the first word) ‘is not’ (could neither equal nor substitute for …, could not adequately represent ... ) ‘a pipe’ (one of the objects whose possible rendering can be seen above the text- interchangeable, anonymous, inaccessible to any name). Then we must read:

Now, on the whole it easily seems that Magritte’s statement is negated by the immediate and reciprocal dependency between the drawing of the pipe and the text by which the pipe can be named. Designation and design do not overlap one another, save in the calligraphic play hovering in the ensemble’s background and conjured away simultaneously by the text, the drawing, and their current separation. Hence the third function of the statement: ‘This’ (this ensemble constituted by a written pipe and a drawn text) ‘is not’ (is incompatible with) ‘a pipe’ (this mixed element springing at once from discourse and the image, whose ambiguous being the verbal and visual play of the calligram wants to evoke).

Magritte reopened the trap the calligram had sprung on the thing it described. But in the act, the object itself escaped… The trap shattered on emptiness: image and text fall each to its own side, of their own weight. No longer do they have a common ground nor a place where they can meet, where words are capable of taking shape and images of entering into lexical order. The ‘pipe’ that was at one with both the statement naming it and the drawing representing it- this shadow pipe knitting the lineaments of form with the fiber of words- has utterly vanished. A disappearance that from the other side of this shallow stream the text confirms with amusement: “This is not a pipe!””

This is not an apple (Ceci n’est pas une pomme), 1964

In fact, all Magritte’s objects are impossible objects. They are not real, they are representations of ‘things’ we consider real. The ‘image of an object’ is not the ‘object,’ but what we consider an ‘object,’ is again a ‘representation in our brain’ (and perhaps not the best one). The existence of perceivable things in physical space is a probabilistic assumption. We cannot really prove that something is ‘out there.’ The object can be found in cameras, photographs, radars, books, retinas, neurons, it can be also felt by skin cells, but can be never found outside of us. The space- time we recognize between things is a non-existing emptiness. On the other hand, the whole universe is an object within which everything exists. Again the ‘universe’ is a ‘representation of the universe,’ of something we consider the real ‘universe.’ It is really hard to imagine if the universe, or an apple, is ‘smaller’ or ‘bigger’ than us, ‘more’ or ‘less’ real. Therefore, the impossibility of objects is not confounded to their representation as optical illusions. Objects can be expanded into states of virtual realities. This is why we are so reluctant to give up our everyday view of reality. The deepest understanding of things and the world they compose could make everything we know collapse in madness!

The key to dreams

The pipe (La pipe), 1927

In 1927 Magritte made the first of the ‘pipe’ paintings, a crude image with the words ‘la pipe’ scrawled underneath it. This is one of his earliest paintings with words. This painting might derive from Mallarme’s nostalgic prose poem, ‘La pipe.’ In 1929 he would paint a refined image and label it ‘This is not a pipe,’ which became one of his best known images.

Sketch of a pipe, from a letter by Magritte to Paul Colinet

“What one must paint is the image of resemblance- if thought is to become visible in the world,” once Magritte said. I was wondering- in dreams we see things which function very differently than in reality. I remember once I dreamed of bananas chasing me. How can bananas walk, or what did bananas want from me? What do bananas want from anyone? I started thinking what the symbolism behind the bananas want. Of course the sexual implication was really scary. Freud wrote an essay, ‘The interpretations of dreams.’ There he explores the relationship between objects appearing in dreams and the symbolism hidden in the unconscious. Freud was based mainly on sexual repressions, while Jung generalized the picture, conceiving a whole different world hidden in what he termed collective unconscious. According to him, objects appearing in dreams are manifestations of archetypes, let’s say ‘fundamental properties’ of the human psyche, able to exert forces on objects in the real world.

This secret connection between everyday objects and their ‘archetypal’ forms manifested in spontaneous representations was one of the surrealists’ favorite games, which they played using a method called psychic automatism. For Magritte, however, this connection should be found between two different levels of consciousness. He didn’t just depict spontaneous representations, but also regarded the relationship between these representations and the real objects. But this relationship turns out not to be apparent.

In 1929, in the magazine ‘La révolution surréaliste,’ Magritte published ‘Les mots et les images,’ (‘Words and images’), accompanied by a number of funny little drawings. In this text Magritte makes a comparison between objects and names of objects:

An object is not so attached to its name that one cannot find for it another one which is more suitable.

There are objects which can do without a name.

A word sometimes serves only to designate itself.

An object encounters its image, an object encounters its name. It happens that the image and the name of this object encounter each other.

Sometimes the name of an object occupies the place of an image.

A word can take the place of an object in reality.

An image can take the place of a word in a sentence.

An object can suggest that there are other objects behind it.

Everything tends to make us think that there is little relationship between an object and that which represents it.

The words which serve to indicate two different objects do not show what may divide these objects from one another.

In a painting the words are of the same substance as the images.

Words and images can be seen differently in a painting.

A shape can replace the image of an object for any reason.

An object never serves the same purpose as either its name or its image does.

Sometimes the visible shapes of objects, in reality, form a mosaic.

Vague shapes have significance as necessary and perfect as that of the precise ones.

Sometimes, the names written in a picture designate precise things, and the images of vague things.

Or equally, the opposite.
Words and images (Les mots et les images), 1928

The fact that “An object never serves the same purpose as either its name or its image does,” summarizes Magritte’s exploration. Objects, names, and images can all be considered perceptual representations. When we write down the name of an object, we may think whatever we want (another object). Therefore the name of the object we write down is a substitute for the object we think about (even if the two objects do coincide). The same happens when we draw the picture of an object. There is the saying “An image serves for a thousand words.” However, Plato, among others, believed that words (‘logos=’ cause/ratio/speech) is more powerful than the corresponding images. Nevertheless, as Magritte showed, images and the words about the same images don’t necessarily coincide (not to mention that words are representations of ‘things’ themselves). Therefore, the interplay between objects and notions is guided by, let’s say, a common truth, which may be represented with a name or an image, or identified with an object, but which originally is neither. The way this truth or function- which combines different elements of the real world and composes coherent groups of representations- works, is rooted deep in the nature of consciousness, and has been the main subject in philosophical research.

This ambiguity between words, images, and the notions they represent is also illustrated in another series of paintings Magritte made under the title ‘Key to dreams:’

The key to dreams, 1927

Magritte creates one traditional way that words and images can share a frame, namely with the word as name or legend of what is also depicted in the fashion of vocabulary flash cards or early reading workbook sheets. Pierre Sterckx says they are images from the ‘Petit Larousse.’ Not just an equivalence of word and thing, but an exact match is implied. It is, as Sylvester says, a school reading primer gone wrong- but, as so often, not completely wrong, the lower right-hand cell is correct.

The key to dreams, 1935

In these paintings we see exactly the juxtaposition between words and the images which describe the words. Any reasonable connections which have been established in our common vocabulary dissolve and give way to ‘non-logic.’ In other cases words match their images in an original way, while in the last image we see the match between the word and the corresponding image (the valise). In any case, the mind is forced to consider: what other form an image may have? What other meaning a word may have? What would be the best way to understand everyday things and situations?

Magritte manages to guide us into a new world of senses and meanings. He makes us think in a new, extraordinary way, and learn how to contemplate at the level of some ‘secret,’ but perhaps common, ‘language,’ at which level things find their actual forms and their true meaning.

The art of conversation

“I do not see the […] hidden in the forest,”
from ‘La révolution surréaliste,’ 1929

This is the front cover of the magazine ‘La révolution surréaliste,’ which Magritte drew (the image of the woman, together with the phrase). In the same edition he also published his first ‘Words and images.’ His painting is surrounded by 16 photos of the surrealists (Magritte is recognizable on the right side, second from the bottom). The word ‘woman’ is replaced by the image of a woman, the forest being implied too.

Forbidden literature, 1937

The origins of language (Les origines du langage), 1955

Magritte moved away from the ‘tyranny of the object,’ the object tends to disappear, and instead ‘pure speech’ appears, even if this ‘speech’ is drawn in a painting. In the ‘Forbidden literature,’ speech is overpassed and dismantled for the sake of what is hidden behind its constituent word. The word on the floor probably reads ‘sirène’ (siren) which implies either the mythical creature or the siren of an ambulance. In both cases the word represents an alarming sound, which may either hypnotize us or wake us up. The pointing finger (making the letter ‘i’), suggests an alarming notion, while the leading-nowhere stairs strengthen the impossible aspect of the painting.

Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, Georges Seurat, 1885

Masquerade ball (Le bal masqué), 1958

‘The origins of language’ is reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s 1885 painting, ‘Le Bec du Hoc à Grandcamp.’ Magritte did several other versions with this theme, including ‘Masquerade ball.’

Here, the rock stands for the return to order. Order is attained by the correct use of language. But language does not always mean what it says. The same goes for body language. A gesture with a finger pointed upwards may have many different interpretations (including an insulting one!) The same ambivalence can be found in the image of a rock. Seurat’s rock in ‘Le Bec du Hoc’ and Magritte’s rock in ‘Masquerade ball’ are two different objects. Magritte wants to point out that the meaning we give to objects is related to our own desires, no matter what the objects may stand for on their own. The ‘tyranny of the object,’ leading to a ‘forbidden literature,’ is the way we treat things, possessively and ‘utilistically,’ imposing this way an authoritarian interpretation of reality on others. The object gains properties of a taboo, a symbol of political, religious and sexual power. Magritte wants to remind us that there always exists another interpretation, more subtle and ‘ungrounded,’ even more poetical and scientific, which can be searched for through improvisation and rationalization.

The use of speech (L’ usage de la parole), 1927

The use of speech, 1928

This process of ‘departure’ (‘dépaysement’ is in French the word the surrealists used) continues in ‘The use of speech.’ The words are found inside blobs, as in comics, but they infer one object or another, without the presence of any object.

The lost world, 1928

There is a new level of abstraction taking place, at which words are standing on their own, compared perhaps with other words, in the search of their hidden, deeper meaning. The first blob reads ‘personnage pendant la mémoire’ (‘figure of memory’), while the second blob reads ‘corps de femme’ (‘female body’). The blobs are connected to each other, serving like communicating vessels, leading to a third blob, yet unnamed. So this conversation says “a figure in memory looks like a female human body.” The third blob which is empty could probably contain the word ‘foret’ (forest), a scenery (paysage) where a horse (cheval) is free to run.

The literal meaning, 1929

This process of moving away from the earthly attraction of everyday, ‘heavy,’ and ‘crude’ objects leads the painter to a place where words are objects themselves, with their own ‘literal meaning.’ In the first painting, a ‘sad woman’ takes the shape of a ‘cavity of sorrow;’ in the second painting, a ‘forest’ is full of ‘melodies;’ in the third painting, a ‘forest’ and a ‘living room’ refer to the element of ‘wood;’ in the fourth painting, the missing word ‘fire’ has left its trace in the form of a peculiar object; while in the fifth painting, a ‘curtain’ and a ‘horse’ seem to fit better in a ‘circle’ and a ‘pentagon,’ respectively. The main point is that these ‘objects’ are words and notions, not ‘concrete things.’

Swift hope (L’ espoir rapide), 1928

Magritte’s ‘Swift hope’ makes a similar reduction. It offers a very inarticulate image, just about the minimum that will qualify as a pictured scene. And to emphasize the point, Magritte labels the image with some paradoxically specific words… It shows five clear elements, five rounded forms, with distinct shapes and different sizes. They have a hint of solid volume, a lighter patch swelling out of the middle of each one… The long thin one is standing upright. Three are lying on the ground at various distances. The small one is off the ground. In other words, the scene doesn't only consist of these five blobs. It situates them within a view and a three-dimensional space. ‘Swift hope’… divides into two parts. Below, there's a ground level; above, there's a backdrop.

And Magritte’s apparently elementary image holds another kind of information: shadows. Each of the five blobs has an area of darkness behind it that registers as a shadow cast on the adjacent surface. These bits of shadow aren’t put down very precisely or consistently. There are isolated dark areas that aren’t near to any object. But the effect is enough to stick the blobs to the ground they sit on, to make them seem more solid, to create a sense of dim light-fall.

Even without the labels, you’d probably have an idea that this scene was a landscape. And when you read them, what they declare isn’t so paradoxical. Tree, lead road, horse, village on the horizon, cloud: the words correspond pretty well to the shapes and sizes and positions of the five blobs. The tree is a tall thing. The horse-form almost has a head. The village is indeed on the horizon.

True, it’s weird to have a road represented by a long solid object, but it points away into the distance as a road might well do. And the cloud is funny, being such an abrupt lump, and apparently casting a shadow on the sky, but it's where a cloud should be. There isn’t a sharp disjunction between the things and what they’re meant to stand for rather less sharp, actually, than in the breakfast battle scene.

‘Swift hope’ is like a world in embryo. It feels thwarted and straining, a nocturnal, pupal landscape where things have not yet emerged into their destined identities. It's like Alexander Pope’s lines about the “Chaos dark and deep, where nameless somethings in their causes sleep.” But Magritte’s some things are not quite the forms of things unknown. You can see how these blobs could fulfil their waiting names. They just need licking into shape. By contrast, the title of the picture is utterly baffling.”

I would say that the gray landscape of this painting forms a representation of the space of our thoughts. In our mind, objects we perceive are transformed into ‘elementary blobs’ of information, having no real shape, color, sound, taste, touch, nothing except an ‘identification code,’ which helps the object reemerge in consciousness at any given time. This is the ‘work-sheet’ of our own brain, always two-dimensional, but having the strange property of containing things as seen in three dimensions. In fact the position of things in the painting matches this interpretation: ‘Snow’ (nuage) is naturally found on ‘top’ and an ‘iron causeway’ (chausse de plomb) at the ‘bottom.’ We don’t expect to ‘snow in our minds,’ neither a causeway to extend ‘beyond our thoughts.’ However, the blobs have a sense of direction: the causeway is heading forward, while the tree is ‘standing’ upright. And the title of the painting (‘instant hope’) is suggestive of the story: “I’ll take the less traveled road; riding a horse, my favorite one; from the leaf-like tree where I stand; to the distant village at the abyss.” If it weren’t snowing, that is…

The art of conversation (L’ art de la conversation), 1950

Leaf-like trees, chess pieces or bilboquets, figures of people with tall hats, form the building blocks of the painter’s world, which is a micrograph of a real forest, or of a human body. The horse is a transcendental vehicle, while the ‘canon’ is the painter’s rule- all these among many of the painter’s favorite things.

The art of conversation, (variations), 1950

Isle of the dead, Arnold Böcklin, 1880

In the second variation with the dying bull, the cut-out in the back section of the water spells ‘España’ (Spain). The third variation is Magritte’s transposition of Böcklin’s ‘Isle of the dead.’ In Magritte’s version, at the back of the water, the cut-off spells ‘Amour’ (Love).

The art of conversation, 1950

In the two last paintings, the painter succeeds in building his own Stonehenge. I was wondering why people built such megalithic structures, as Stonehenge, or the Pyramids. Some have suggested that such monuments could only have been built by aliens, but these people will never become great painters or anything else. Divine intervention is already found in human ingenuity, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to ask questions about God in the first place. Within us lie all the whispers of wishes, which the universe has been carrying along since the time of the ‘big bang.’ Nature has entrusted us with the task of improvement, therefore with the ability of improvisation.

Even before the first megalithic constructions, cave-paintings exhibit a magnificent level of abstraction. The previous one, from France, shows that the first painters lived long before the modern ones. I recall that when Picasso saw some of these cave paintings, he stated “we have learned nothing,” referring to the high level of abstraction these paintings show. It has recently been suggested that the strange ‘dots’ or ‘lines’ which appear in these paintings depict animals not in their natural environment but in a metaphysical world, which could be depicted while the cave artist was in a state of trance. Therefore, these depictions are representations of dreams, referring to another world, not the everyday one.

So, megalithic structures, as well as cave-paintings, aim to uplift the human spirit and to bring it closer to the heavens, where the ‘divine spirits’ live. The spiritual, or religious, aspect of us is inescapable. However, there are vastly different ways by which we perceive god and the supernatural. In Magritte’s previous paintings, the ‘megaliths’ form the word ‘rêve,’ which means ‘dream.’ Dreams and their artistic interpretation or representation, either in cave or modern paintings, bring us closer to the decipherment of our unconscious powers. Many times, we refer to an object but what we really have in mind is a completely different object. Other times, we have a notion about something which is impossible to be described as an object. In other words, there are more abstract notions than concrete objects, even if these notions can be ‘objectified.’ Magritte in his paintings reached a level of abstraction at which words can stand on their own, as unique and independent entities, no matter what the relationships between them can be, or if they might correspond to ‘real things.’ Therefore, the ‘Art of conversation’ emerges from an illiterate but powerful world of dreams, having a form which reminds its origin, among the stones of an age when people started asking questions for the first time. I guess that Magritte’s ‘Stonehenge’ can be compared to its physical counterpart as equally important, although based on ‘different grounds.’

The legend of the centuries (La légende des siècles), 1950

‘The legend of the centuries’ is a collection of poems by Victor Hugo, conceived as an immense depiction of the history and evolution of humanity.

Probably Magritte was influenced by the title of this collection. Magritte’s ‘Legend of the centuries,’ depicts two images of a chair, one within the other, perhaps with the same symbolism, but made of different material. The first one (the smaller) is probably made of common wood, and sits upon the bigger one, which is made of stone. The stone chair, which is enormous, is a megalithic monument, which becomes more obvious if we remove the back of the stone chair. Strangely enough, the huge back makes the stone-chair monument look like a burial ground. Such function is reinforced by the position of the small, common wooden chair. If someone tried to sit on the stone chair, he would end up sitting on the wooden chair. Therefore the monument is not made for one to sit on, but instead for watching it, from far away, standing still, for hours, contemplating what this monument of collective memory means.

The infinite recognition (La reconnaissance infinie), 1963

Monuments of art are everlasting expressions of the human quest for eternity and immortality, either ancient pyramids, or modern sculptures and paintings. There is a saying about the ancient Greeks that they would have preferred a discussion about eternity, rather than eternity itself. This is suggestive of the feeble and unattainable nature of the infinite. It is like dreams. They can never be fulfilled, so that they remain dreams. This kind of imaginative discussion must be taking place between the two gentlemen in the previous painting, talking about the problem of ‘infinite recognition.’ One man seems to ask the other one what he would have to do to become famous. The other man then replies that because people tend to forget, the best way one can make others think about one forever, is one to leave the others wondering about an important but infinitely unanswered question. If one is the first, for example, who wondered about the true nature of god, one will be always remembered as a prophet. Now the first man, listening carefully, seems to agree. He decides to make a painting, illustrating the discussion which took place. The two men appear in the painting, the ‘student’ and the ‘teacher,’ both incarnations of the persona of the painter, above the sea, seemingly walking in the sky of their thoughts, while they pose the famous question about the problem of infinite recognition…

Attempting the impossible

Adulation of space, 1928

Intermission, 1928

The surrealist object, in contrast to everyday objects is not found in reality, or if it is then it is so much distorted or ‘artistically restored,’ that is seizes to be recognizable. Surrealist objects come from the world of the unconscious, where form and shapes are found melted in a ‘soup of dreams.’ In the previous paintings we see this effect of ‘mitigation’ of objects in space. The bodies, in the first painting are distributed in such a way that they occupy all in between gaps, while, in the second painting, the limbs of bodies seem to flow together with the colors.

Attempting the impossible, 1928

Georgette and Rene Magritte, recreating the scenario for ‘Attempting the impossible’

Together with the ‘dreamer effect,’ where things are distorted or mitigated according to some rules of the unconscious, there is also a well- known effect, the observer effect. In physics, it says that the observer is as much important in an experiment as the experiment itself. He literally participates, so that the values taken depend on the choices of measurements he makes. Therefore, each time we need another observer, outside the system of the setup of the experiment, to test the validity of the results of the first observer, and so on, ad infinitum.

In the previous painting Magritte truly tries the impossible, as he wants to paint himself painting. Furthermore he tries to paint the statue of a woman in ‘real time,’ as if creating a living model while he paints.

According to Levy: "In this image he represents himself in the act of ‘painting Georgette…’ In his self-portrait, Magritte’s brushstroke attempts to give life to the female form. While this is the male Surrealist fantasy par excellence, such efforts can only prove futile: textual and pictorial significations are insufficient and the woman remains inaccessible."

Hermann’s grid illusion; Dark blobs appear at the intersections

Impossible objects have been related to optical illusions, arising from the conflict between the unconscious aspect of visual perception and conscious interpretation of the corresponding image. Helmholtz, who was a physicist, realized that the optical system is so poor that there must be a way for any image to be fully reconstructed in the brain in an unconscious way.

A very good example of this process is the previous image. They gray blobs do not exist, but they are inferred by the brain in the process of reconstructing the whole picture.

The paradoxes of human perception were also studied by psychology. The cognitive psychology of visual perception is rooted in the work of a small group of European psychologists who founded the Gestalt movement (Gestalt in German means shape or form). Their basic question was tantalizingly simple, namely, why do we see things the way that we do? Since what impinges on the retina from the external world is only a complex array of light waves, how is it that we perceive form, shape and movement? Why isn’t our perceptual experience chaotic and incoherent? For the gestaltists, order comes about through universal principles of organization.

Mind has rules to make sense out of the visual world. These cognitive processes are active and may result in a scene being seen in a new and different way. These alterations are called construals. We experience sudden shifts in perceptual consciousness due to a change in underlying organization.

One example is a rural Ethiopian version (previous image) of the well-known reversible figure in which we see a young woman whose head is turned away from us, or, an instant later, a construal in which an old woman with much larger nose, almost facing us. What had been a youthful neck is suddenly construed as the jutting chin of an elderly face. Note the way in which the same boundary or edge can be construed as a central part of one organization or another: the chin of one woman, becomes the nose of the other. The ear of one becomes the eye of another.

The fundamental issue of why we perceive anything at all was established with the discovery by the Danish gestaltist, Edward Rubin, of the principle of organization called figure- ground. Rubin stated that the visual system always organizes the field in such a way so that a segregated whole, a form, stands out against a more poorly defined background. The figure is organized so that it seems to have the quality of protrusion, solidity, and segregation. It seems closer to us. The ground is experienced as behind with the quality of looseness and absence of boundary. What is behind is experienced as continuous.

The endearing truth, 1966

Magritte ingeniously plays with construals of the figure-ground relationship in regard to what the perceptual system should organize as occluded. In ‘The Endearing Truth’ the simplicity of the figure-ground construals are clear. If we perceive the textured wall, then the table and alcoves become background. At that point when we see the table, with wine, bread and fruit, everything else has become organized as background. What had been figure is now ground, and subsequently shifts yet again.'s/construal.pdf

‘Construals,’ i.e. different interpretations which our brain gives for the object depending on its position relative to the background, is one thing. Magritte was more interested in the real form of an object, when influences of all other objects or of the background have been removed. However he did paint some optical illusions. For example, in ‘The endearing truth,’ the impossible object is a table incorporated in the wall behind. The table seems to levitate in the air, but this is so because it forms one object with the wall.

This ‘blivet’ (also devil’s or Schuster’s fork) portrays two irreconcilable perspectives at once: descending from the top are two bars with rectangular cross-section, while ascending from the bottom are three cylindrical rods.

The table in ‘The endearing truth’ is not exactly an impossible object, but the optical illusion is that we conceive the table and the wall as one object. There is no meaning saying “There is a table on the wall,” because tables normally don’t behave this way. However, in the microcosm of quantum physics it is a common phenomenon: microscopic things, considered both particles and waves, may ‘expand,’ covering the area of other objects, causing thus interference. The interference pattern produced by light after passing through slits is a well-known example. Macroscopic objects also exhibit wave-like properties although they are very faint. But recent experiments show that wave-like behavior may be expanded to quite large objects, as big as concentrations of molecules, so that in the future interference phenomena could be produced with large scale objects under extreme conditions (high- energy experiments, for example).

The titanic days, 1928

The titanic days, 1930

‘The titanic days’ show a nude woman struggling with a male attacker who exists only within the contours of her own body. Ellen Handler Spitz suggests this is the primal conflict between mother and father over sex that the man controls but the female tolerates and overcomes. It’s certainly one of Magritte’s most violent paintings depicting male aggression visible only in the female form. This is what Magritte wrote about the painting:

“I've treated this subject, the terror that grips the woman, by means of a subterfuge, a reversal of all the laws of space, which serves to produce a quite different effect from what this subject usually creates. The man seizes the woman he is in the foreground, so he necessarily conceals a part of the woman, the part where he is in front of her, between her and our vision. But the novelty consists of the fact that the man doesn’t overlap the contours of the woman.”

I would suggest that these paintings represent the eternal struggle between the opposites, male and female, good and evil, beauty and terror, and so on. The beauty of these paintings is the terror they suggest. The intermingling figures of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in their human-like form, struggle with each other to find a pose of balance, to form one and only body, through rotation. The left hand of the woman stops this rotation, and the system stabilizes in an eternal pose of ‘antithesis.’ The woman is naked while the man is dressed, but looking closer we realize that the female figure is also male; the face, also the muscles of the right arm, certainly have male features. There are not two figures but one, splitting into two by rotation, giving the impression of a couple, but in fact it is a unity.

Hunters of night (Les chasseurs de la nuit), 1928

The same imagery is produced by Magritte in ‘Hunters of night.’ Both hunters are of the same sex, even of the same material, because again there is one hunter, not two. We have the shadow of the first hunter in the middle, and the ‘anti-hunter’ with his own shadow on the left. This is a ‘twin self’ representation, in a world where two universes, one consisting of matter and the other one consisting of anti-matter, have merged. It is neither day nor night; it is a world at the edge of twilight. Someone should not feel either threatened or relaxed; He should be fully conscious: In such a world things may change shape and content at any moment.

The magician (Self-portrait), 1952

‘The dance of Shiva,’ Cern, Switzerland

‘Nataraja’ in Indian mythology is a depiction of the god Shiva as the cosmic dancer who performs his divine dance to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for the god Brahma to start the process of creation. Therefore in a real pantheon one needs both a Destroyer and a Creator. The Destroyer represents the power of degradation, and the Creator represents the power of re-organization. This new creation is depicted in Indian mythology with a high degree of elegance and artistic ability. What is interesting to note is the fact that god Shiva has more than two arms. I don’t know if this would be practical for humans, but at the symbolic level, most likely each arm represents a different function.

‘The magician’ is Magritte’s ‘god of creation.’ However, Magritte’s version is more down to earth, and more practical. The painter, after creating his own portrait, sits down to eat his meal. Two arms hold a piece of bread and a bottle of wine, the ‘body’ and the ‘blood’ which incarnate the son of god, while two more arms hold a fork and a knife to enjoy a dish of meat and vegetables, necessary to sustain ‘the son of man.’

Despite the many arms, the painting gives the impression of a static figure. As Magritte said, “Anyone crazy about movement or its opposite will not enjoy this picture.”

However, if we follow the hands from any direction, we realize that a cyclical pattern appears of four successive elements, two of human nature (meat and vegetables) and two of divine origin (bread and wine). But the painter, despite preparing to eat the earthly food, is about to consume the divine one. Certainly Magritte uses four arms for this juxtaposition between the earthly (the common) form and the divine one (the deeper representation). Therefore the ‘Magician’ intends to teach us about the ‘impossibility’ of motion, in the cosmic dance, where two worlds meet, the ordinary one and the word of miracles, in their eternal cycle.

The acrobat’s ideas, 1928

The acrobat’s rest, 1926

Magritte’s snake-like forms return with the previous paintings, in which parts of the human body are elongeted as if melted, or incorporated into the background, the sky in the first painting, or the wall in the second painting. The wall is an addition to the second painting, from which the trumpet and the gun are missing. Thus, in the ‘Acrobat’s rest,’ the acrobat is less ‘dangerous’ than in ‘The acrobat’s ideas,’ but also less ‘atractive.’ Whether Magritte’s wife was a dancer in reality or just in Magritte’s paintings, ‘the Acrobat’ represents a symbol of elasticity. ‘The acrobat’s ideas’ are so flexible that her body can merge with its own shadow on the floor, not to mention her ability to be at the same time in many places, although in pieces. Her motion is so flexible that the painter decides to immortalize her, by ‘petrifying’ her into the stone wall, burying at least ‘The acrobat’s rest,’ while he keeps the snake-lady, the trumpet, and the gun for ‘reality.’ This snake-lady is a materialization of the ‘Acrobat’s archetype,’ which any man would love to possess.

The muscles of the sky (Les muscles célestes), 1927

In ‘The muscles of the sky,’ the fluid forms descent from the sky, and try to stand on their ‘feet,’ on the wooden platform, or pavement, on the ground. What is extraordinary in the painting is that the sky and the forest are fully interchangeable. The little protrusions that the ‘forest’ makes into the sky, could be equivalently seen as protrusions of the sky into the forest, and the second option is reinforced by the two ‘human-like’ forms that descent from the sky. This painting is strongly reminiscent of fractals, as they multiply themselves covering space. The shadows of the two forms reinforce the ‘reality’ of the forms, as if they were solid objects.

This complementarity of forms, achieved by the interplay of form and background, is a more general aspect of nature. For example, there is a law in physics, the so-called uncertainty (or complementarity) principle, regarding the impossibility of measuring simultaneously the position and momentum of a quantum object. It has tremendous consequences for the natural word. Energy, for example, cannot become zero even in the tiniest area of space (there would be needed an infinite amount of time). On the other hand, an enormous amount of energy could be produced at a point in space but for a miniscule amount of time. Thus this principle may explain the singularity (an instantaneous infinite amount of energy) which gave birth to our universe. The principle also explains wave-particle duality, because, as it states, the smaller the area a quantum object occupies, the larger its momentum. Therefore objects (even sub-atomic particles) cannot be represented by ‘dots’ in space, but instead they are extended objects, spreading the probability of their distribution (the measure of their wave-function) to infinity.

This principle is exactly what the painter manipulates in the ‘Muscles of the sky.’ Both the ‘sky’ and the ‘forest’ are quantum-like objects, competing and complementing each other in their struggle for balance. The sky seems to be winning for the moment, by penetrating into the forest and ‘stepping’ on the ground. But this is just an episode. At some other instant, or perhaps in another painting, the forest may as well penetrate into the sky, raising its ‘branches,’ building there its own ‘tree-like’ universe.

The elusive woman (La femme introuvable), 1928

In ‘The elusive woman,’ the hands are scattered and reappear in many different places, integrated with the rock. The hands seem to run clockwise, the last hand being turned over. It is as if someone moved his hands so fast that they gave the impression of being in many places at the same time. In the quantum world this could be a real phenomenon related to quantum teleportation. Quantum objects are extended, not point-like, while their wave-function stretches in space and time; but when it collapses, the object (or better the collection of things which we call an object) may be found in more than one places. This is another consequence related to the indeterminacy of the microcosm, a fact which Magritte seems to have been aware of.

Perpetual motion, 1935

This is a final example of impossibility. Perpetual motion is impossible because of the famous second law of thermodynamics: To put it simply, a machine will sooner or later stop, because of friction. It will lose power in the form of heat. Therefore it must continuously be provided with some source of (external) power. The entropy (if all systems are taken into account) always increases. In order that the total entropy of the universe is reduced, we have to find another universe to account for the reduction. (But again the total entropy of both universes will increase, and so on).

Robert Fludd’s ‘water screw,’ 1660 wood engraving

This device is widely credited as the first recorded attempt to describe a perpetual motion machine in order to produce useful work, that of driving millstones. Although the machine would not work, the idea was that water from the top tank turns a water wheel (bottom-left), which drives a complicated series of gears and shafts that ultimately rotate the Archimedes’ screw (bottom-center to top-right) to pump water to refill the tank. The rotary motion of the water wheel also drives two grinding wheels (bottom-right) and is shown as providing sufficient excess water to lubricate them.

Does Magritte achieve the unachievable, a Herculean 13th labor, to conquer the 2nd law of thermodynamics, thus producing a perpetual motion device? The answer is found in the balance of the weight. ‘Hercules’ holds the bar from the middle, but the two ball-shaped weights are not the same. One of them is a ‘common’ weight, while the other one looks like the head of the weight-lifter. Furthermore, the face imprinted on this weight, suggests that it truly is the weight- lifter’s head. Therefore, this heroic ‘Hercules’ lifts a weight which weighs as much as his head, or, better, as much as the representation of his head.

This is a good approach. If we ever achieve perpetual motion, this will have to be a machine ‘consuming itself,’ regenerating its own program, in an infinite loop. The idea of an infinite loop is like a device of perpetual motion, and probably Magritte is indicating the problem of self-reference here, as the ‘heavy-weight’ champion has the task to lift the load of his own thoughts. However baffling or impossible this may be, it sets the basis for imagining what a perpetual motion object could look like: It would be as simple, or ‘primitive,’ as possible, neither male nor female, just ‘wearing the basics.’ It will contain all basic formulas of calculations, related to squares, triangles, circles or cylinders, it will have a good idea of its own image and existence, and, finally, it will contain a code, like a ‘back-bone,’ in order to ‘recover itself’ in case everything fails. Leaving perpetual machines aside, this is also a good advice to modern civilization, which tends to repeat the same mistakes again and again.

The perfect image

Georgette Magritte, 1934

Portrait of Georgette, 1937

Beauty is the purpose of any painter even if the notion of beauty is subjective or difficult to define. But beauty has always to do with some kind of balance, which is finally achieved through the juxtaposition of elements apparently unrelated and irrelevant to each other. In the case of portraits, the situation is simpler because the painter focuses attention on a face, which becomes the dominating figure in the foreground, forming a ‘center of gravity,’ therefore the starting point of interpretation, for all other objects in the background.

Pipe and passport of René Magritte and Georgette Magritte-Berger

The perfect image, 1928

At the age of 15, Magritte met Georgette Berger, the girl who would be his future wife, model and creative muse. Here’s an account of the meeting from Marcel Paquet:

“The monotony of everyday life in Charleroi was interrupted not only by the pleasures of the cinema but also by the annual fair, which took place at the Place du Manege opposite the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in direct proximity to the Palais des Beaux-Arts, home of one of Magritte’s frescoes, ‘The ignorant fairy.’ The fair of 1913 was to confer a luster upon his life forever more. A merry-go-round salon stood between the stalls and various amusements, a fairground institution which is no longer to be found. After a turn on the wooden horses, the boys and girls would walk around hand in hand, to the strains of a Limonaire organ. This merry-go-round was among those places where boys and girls met to embark upon their first flirtations. Magritte, who was fifteen that year, invited a little girl not yet even thirteen to a round: Georgette. Her father was a butcher in Marcinelle. Love was clearly already in the air at their first rendezvous: while life was to separate the two of them for some time, they would find each other again in the end, thereafter never to be parted.”

Anne-Marie Crowet, 1956

The ignorant fairy, 1950

The model for this painting is Marie-Anne Crowet. The same portrait is used later in Magritte’s mural. Marie-Anne Crowet’s father was Pierre Crowet who met Magritte in 1926 when Pierre was a student in Brussels. According to Pierre, “I ran into Rene Magritte from time to time (both of us being from Charleroi, we hit it off quite well). I admired his work and wanted to purchase one of his paintings but did not have any money. To help me out, he sold ‘The forest’ to me for 500 Belgian francs payable in installments of 50 francs per month. This was my first purchase and the start of my collection.” Pierre was a lifelong friend and commissioned of his wife and daughter who was the inspiration for ‘The ignorant fairy’ which later in 1956 became the central theme for Magritte’s large mural commissioned by the Musee de Charleroi with the same title.

The cloak of the night (or The evening gown), 1954

For Magritte, Marie-Anne Crowet possessed the ideal proportions for a painter’s model. Whether ‘The evening gown’ portrays Anne-Marie or some other woman, it is interesting to note the proportions Magritte kept in this painting. The body is symmetrically aligned to the moon, the sky, and the sea. The sea reaches the body up to the chest, dividing it into two parts. The hair reaches the lower part of the body, following the body’s curvature. The half- moon, merging with the pose of the naked body, gives an elevated spiritual meaning, and a very sensual content.

Portrait of Adrienne Crowet, 1940

Magritte also painted Anne-Marie’s mother. Anne-Marie’s face and body proportions would be used by Magritte as a standard in his paintings. Her face is used for the 1953 casino mural and the 1957 mural for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi.

Heart revealed (Portrait of Tita Thirifays), 1936

Tita Thirifays was the wife of Andre Thirifays, a Belgian film critic. In 1938 by Henri Storck, André Thirifays and Pierre Vermeylen founded The Royal Belgian film archive (Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique). Ever since it has been preserving a collection of films with a permanent esthetical, technical and historical value.

Portrait of Irène Hamoir, 1936

Irène Hamoir, poetess and novelist, was one of the central female figures of the surrealist movement in Belgium. Her father Léopold Hamoir was a hatter. Militant socialist, she took part in many socialist meetings around 1924. When she approached Camille Huysmans in 1925 with her first poem, she met the painter Marc Eemans, who became her first serious relationship. After collaborating in the review, Distances, which brought together the surrealist group of Brussels, in 1928 Irene Hamoir met Louis Scutenaire at Marcel Lecomte’s house. She married him in 1930. Irene and Louis attended the meetings of the surrealist group in Brussels, with Paul Nougé, the brothers Magritte, the musician Andre Souris, Marcel Lecomte, E.L.T. Mesens, Paul Colinet, and Marcel Mariën. They also were part of the Paris surrealist group.

Irene Hamoir attended the 1935 International exhibition of surrealism in Louvière. The next year Magritte painted her portrait. “The beauty broke its odd sheath, gave pinks to the fountains,” wrote Hamoir. She wrote a number of poems, novels, as well as a collection of sound poems in 1949. She also published several plates of poems in 1971- 1975. In 1982 Irene and Scutenaire wrote ‘Her and Him,’ a foreword for the retrospective Rene Magritte and surrealism in Belgium.

Portrait of Rena Schitz, 1937

Portrait of Suzanne Spaak, 1936

The portrait of Suzanne Spaak was painted for his sponsor, Claude Spaak. Spaak was a playwright, but had also been an active collector of Magritte’s paintings for some time. In 1935, he made a semi-formal arrangement to allow Magritte to abandon commercial work and focus fully on his own artistic output. To this end, he provided the artist a monthly stipend, while also guaranteeing the paintings he produced. In addition to this, Spaak actively sought other sponsors for Magritte.

Portrait of Germaine Nellens, 1962

This is an interesting portrait, as the woman emerges from (the painting which depicts) the sea and the sky. In 1951 Gustave Nellens commissioned Magritte to paint the large eight murals at Casino gaming room at Knokke-Le Zoute in Belgium. Surely this is a portrait of Gustave Nellens wife or daughter.

Portrait of ELT Mesens, 1930

Magritte met poet and musician ELT Mesens in 1920 at Magritte’s art exhibition with Flouquet. Mesens would be his friend, business collaborator and promoter for nearly thirty years. Magritte soon arranged for Mesens to give Magritte’s brother Paul piano lessons. Mesens, who was just sixteen, had already been composing music for two years. He started his artistic career as a musician influenced by Erik Satie and an author of Dadaist poems. He published the reviews ‘Œsophage’ and ‘Marie,’ both with Magritte. His activity as one of the leaders of the surrealist movement in Belgium was eased by the fact that he was an owner of a gallery, where he organized the first surrealist exhibition in Belgium in 1934. As its organizer, he also went to co-organize the London International Surrealist Exhibition which made him settle down in London. There he became the director of the London Gallery (which he ran during the late 30s and after the war with Roland Penrose) and the chief editor of the London Bulletin (1938-1940), which was one of the most important bulletins among the English-language Surrealist periodicals.

Mesens began to buy Magritte’s paintings in 1927 and when Magritte’s gallery closed in the early 1930s Mesens stepped forward and bought 150 of Magritte’s paintings which helped ease the Magrittes through hard times during the depression years.

The white magic (Portrait of Paul Eluard), 1936

Pencil in hand, seated demurely next to a naked female torso, the poet is represented in the act of writing. His physique is portrayed with clarity and detail: the majestic forehead, distinctive hairline and lightly pursed lips can belong to none other than Paul Éluard. While the precision in the representation of the poet is notable, such accuracy or ‘correctness’ is coupled with a lingering sense of ‘impossibility’ with regard to the scenario envisaged. Éluard is writing directly onto the skin of the abdomen of the woman, as if the stroke of his pencil were capable of breathing life into her. The boundaries between the two bodies are difficult to distinguish; the poet and the woman appear to fuse seamlessly into each other. Éluard’s physical positioning in relation to the naked torso is loaded with erotic signification: the poet’s hand and forearm hide her vaginal area and along with the outstretched pencil they form a phallic trio which projects onto her body. Establishing a visual link between poetry and sex, Magritte depicts poetic writing as an erotic exploit; it is presented as the sexual act itself, capable of creating and giving life to new forms.

One of the intriguing features of ‘White magic’ is that it can be read simultaneously as a portrait of Éluard and as a self-portrait of Magritte. Boundaries between the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’ are blurred and the (con)fusion of Magritte and Éluard ensues. The ‘synthesis’ between the painter and the poet is further intensified by the fact that ‘White magic’ bears a strong resemblance to ‘Attempting the impossible.’ In this image he represents himself in the act of ‘painting Georgette:’ a (failed) fantasy of bringing the woman to life through art which, aside from its reference to the Pygmalion myth, is echoed in his portrait of Éluard almost a decade later.

Is Magritte’s portrait of Éluard the displaced double of his own self-portrait? This delayed parallel between the two portraits is not inconceivable, especially since in ‘White magic’ Magritte privileges the representation of the common ground he shares with Éluard rather than focusing on the specificity or the distance that separates them. Placing the accent on the similarities between their two practices, Magritte makes the portrait a space of dialogue between the poetry of Éluard and his own aesthetics.

Portrait of Paul Nougé, 1927

Paul Nougé was a Belgian poet and philosopher. He was one of the most influential members of the Surrealist school in Belgium. He was a friend and associate of fellow artists Louis Scutenaire, Marcel Mariën and René Magritte. His poetry influenced Magritte.
Portrait of Paul-Gustave Van Hecke, 1927

Van Hecke with his friend André De Ridder possessed the most successful avant-garde business in Belgium. It is not without reason that Flemish expressionism was already institutionalized in the 1920s. Van Hecke’s propaganda machine consisted of a gallery, a magazine and a publishing house. Magritte’s friend ELT Mesens was the director of Van Hecke’s ‘Galerie L’Epoque.’ Mesens did not feel committed to Flemish expressionism however, and the purposes and the functioning of Van Hecke’s gallery alone would be the sole source of inspiration for him.

Homage to Eric von Stroheim, 1957

This witty portrait was done by Magritte as an invitation to L’Ecran du Séminaire des Arts. Erich von Stroheim was an Austrian-born star of the silent film age, lauded for his directorial work in which he was a proto-auteur. As an actor, he is noted for his arrogant Teutonic character parts which led him to be described as ‘not a character actor, but what a character!’ Playing villainous German roles during the Great War, he became known as ‘The man you love to hate.’

Justice has been done (Portrait of Harry Torczyner), 1958

Harry Torczyner met Magritte around 1956 was Magritte’s New York-based attorney, friend, and stateside promoter. Up until Magritte’s death in 1967, Torczyner kept every letter that they exchanged during their ten year correspondence. This book of letters with photographs, handwritten excerpts, and Magritte’s working sketches are also interspersed throughout the anthology ‘Letters between friends.’ Accompanying each letter is a French translation and exact dates of composition are meticulously recorded. The highlights, of course, are Magritte’s letters themselves, with his candid descriptions of inspiration, roadblocks, the creative process, and revelations about his own art and that of his contemporaries.

Dangerous liaisons, 1934

Georgette Magritte

The picture ‘Dangerous liaisons’ depicts a naked woman. The mirror which she is holding in her hands is turned towards the observer. It covers her body from shoulders to thighs; simultaneously, however, it reflects precisely that part of her body which it is covering, seen reduced and from a different perspective. Magritte has thus painted two different views of the female body, one its direct appearance, the other the imaginary one of the reflection. He confronts the observer with two incompatible aspects, compelling him to reflect upon the discrepancy, upon this enigma which is characteristic of this painter’s entire work. We see the female body, not as a cohesive whole but fragmented and fractured. Through the painting experience, the body loses its integrity, relinquishing its inner cohesion and taking on a fragmentary appearance. In this particular case, Magritte is further demonstrating that liaisons are always dangerous in painting, since the perspective of the artist, the covetous gaze with which he looks at the body of his model, also plays a role for the work.

The woman’s body thus develops into the area of conflict between two incompatible manifestations. Where does this conflict come from? This is precisely the point, that it can only stem from the viewpoint and the work of the artist, who has introduced the pulsations of his own body into the work in such a way that it would seem possible to feel them with one’s hands. Magritte’s art is never passive. On the contrary, it acts, and always with the intention of creating disquiet, of being subversive. There is room between the two views of the female body - their proportions and the positioning of the hands such that they cannot be reconciled with each other (it is impossible for the right hand, holding the frame, to be the same as the one which the woman is holding to her breast) - for the tilted edge of the glass pane and the frame of the mirror. The displacement between the two views of the body would thus seem to have been caused by a further displacement, namely that of painting itself. Magritte is demonstrating that painting fills a space between visible reality and imaginary picture. How should this space come about, if not from the body of the painter?

The bungler (La gâcheuse), 1935

Vanitas, Pieter Claesz, 1625

In the arts, ‘vanitas’ is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The Latin word means ‘vanity’ and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

‘The bungler’ is a surrealist version of a vanitas painting, presenting youth and death in a wittily macabre combination. It is typical of Magritte’s work in that it is a finely painted scene which combines dramatically different elements in a deadpan style, making an illogical scene appear credible. Painted as a grisaille on tinted paper, it was made to be reproduced in black and white on the cover of the Belgian edition of the ‘Bulletin International du Surréalisme’. The painting formerly belonged to the jazz musician George Melly, who was involved with the British Surrealist Group while in his teens and was a great admirer of Magritte’s work.

The spirit of geometry (Mathematical mind), 1937

Pietà (Revolution by night), Max Ernst, 1923

In ‘The spirit of geometry’ Magritte exchanges the heads of a mother and a baby- compressing one and enlarging the other. The effect is at once uncanny, threatening, comic and perceptive. The shrunken mature woman and imposing child may unsettle the viewer but are intimately bonded with each other. Their inverted relationship seems to stand for the cycle of generations. The original title, ‘Maternity’, may have referred too literally to such themes before Magritte provided the current, more enigmatic, replacement.

Magritte’s painting reminds of Ernst’s ‘Pietà.’ It is an example of the early period of the surrealist movement. Its title reflects the revolutionary sentiments of the movement. This image is notable for its combination of heavily textured surfaces and sharp, hand-drawn outlines. In the background drawn on a wall is a man with a bandaged head ascending a flight of stairs. A profile on the work in the British newspaper ‘The guardian’ indicates the figure could represent either Sigmund Freud or the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who suffered a head wound during World War I.

The painting is interpreted as symbolic of the turbulent relationship between the artist and his father, as an amateur painter and staunch Catholic. In the painting, Ernst replaces the classic image of the Virgin Mary holding the crucified body of Jesus (pietà) with his father as Mary and the artist himself as Jesus. The expressions on both faces are blank as though in a state of sleepwalking.

In ‘The spirit of geometry’ Magritte also performs a transposition, between the mother and the baby. However, in Magritte’s case the transposition is complete: The mother becomes the miniature of the baby, while the baby is depicted as a fully grown up man. In Ernst painting, the costumes and facial characteristics of the two images explicitly represent the merge of two worlds- the classical and the modern one. In Magritte’s painting the merge is between two modern worlds- it is a transformation in mathematics, not in history. The baby is enlarged, while the mother is shrinked.

Scaling in geometry is a transformation that enlarges or shrinks objects by a scale factor that is the same in all directions. The result of uniform scaling is similar (in the geometric sense) to the original. Scale invariance is a feature of objects or laws that does not change if scales of length, energy, or other variables, are multiplied by a common factor.

What is important about uniform scaling in physics is that it permits conservation laws not to be violated. The notion of conservation (of energy or mass, for example) is fundamental both because it allows calculations (by writing down equations of the quantities conserved) and because it establishes symmetry in the way we think about the world. In the latter case, if the ‘energy’ in the universe were not conserved, then we could not be able to define (therefore understand) the universe as a (closed) totality. This process of conservation, or symmetry transformation, is transferred from the world of geometry to painting by the ingenious mathematical mind of Magritte. No matter how strange the two figures might look, it is relatively easy to perform the transformation in order to regain the initial (‘correct’) figures. Therefore, the physical symmetry of space and the representation of objects in the painting are conserved, and the painting can be considered as ‘classical’ and ‘diachronic,’ as any statue of the classical era.

The flood

The flood (L’ inondation), 1928

In ‘The flood,’ Magritte establishes correspondences between the half-naked torso of a woman and a tuba, by virtue of their juxtaposition. However, unlike this picture, the tuba in other paintings is burning, and fire for Magritte has overtones of pleasure. He said, “the astonishing discovery of fire, due to the rubbing together of two bodies, reminds us of the physical mechanism of pleasure.” Suzi Gablik says that “fire has always been an image of primary sexuality” and, as in ‘The invention of fire,’ it’s the hidden sexuality of the beautiful captive that will begin to burn.

The painting could have been equally named something like ‘Disappearing body of….’ Magritte with paintings such as ‘The flood’ inaugurated a style of female statue- like bodies half-disappearing into the sky. Paintings such as ‘The flood’ are interesting hybrids both in appearance and in style: The body is half ‘visible’ and ‘half-invisible,’ while the paintings of this style are half surrealist and half impressionist: The abstract object (the ‘flooded woman’) is clearly surrealistic, while the vivid colors marking the difference between the two halves of the body (pink and blue) belong to the impressionist style.

The tuba represents a couple of things. Firstly, it is a musical instrument and as such it offers a ‘music tone’ in the painting. Furthermore it gives the painting a sense of harmony through the implication of music. Secondly, it is of the same shape as the female body. See how the curve of the tuba matches the curvature of the woman’s palm. Moreover, it is an object which one can lean on. In other paintings of the same style the tuba is substituted by a rock. Therefore it is an object put there to give an earthly impression to the painting (in contrast to the bluish, sky-like atmosphere.) This way the painter accomplishes harmony both for the (color-oriented) senses and for the (logic-oriented) spirit.

The pose of the woman, with the right limb coming forward is a classical pose found in all statues. It gives motion to the representation and at the same time a high degree of balance. Sooner or later one’s attention will be focused on the protruding knee for a while; then to the tuba; one will certainly feel aroused; then one will feel satisfaction centered at the genitals of the woman; then one must free one’s imagination in order to fly- beyond the woman’s face to his own spirit, away from the wall of the room to the sea, to the far-away house with the tall tree, to the house accommodating the contents of some distant memory.

This flood can be found in all of us, depending on the degree one is able to ‘flood’ himself with the corresponding emotions. When I was a child, together with my parents we used to rent a small apartment near the sea. The sea was so close that sometimes I could feel my bed bumping up and down at the rhythm of the waves. Once I dreamt that my bed started to float, going here and there in the sea. At the age of, let’s say, 15 I lost such abilities. The bed became a rigid object, steady and unmovable, while the sound of the waves became a constant annoyance. When the apartment was sold I felt relieved. However, from time to time I still dream of the place, the little room with my bed, the tall tress just between the balcony and the sea, my mother vanishing into the sky, and the music of my guitar playing lonely by itself.

All these recurring emotions are like a flood which we often try to avoid in order not to drown ourselves in the emotions. However, by accepting and expressing these feelings, one can make the difference as a trained artist in painting, or at least as a good swimmer in dreams.

Black magic

Standing nude, 1942

As in ‘The flood’ so in the ‘Black magic’ series, the model stands between ‘heaven and earth,’ while the painting is adorned with some of the painter’s favorite objects- curtains, the ‘blue,’ the ‘nude,’ a rock, etc.

Black magic, 1934

Black magic, 1945

As we see in these paintings, the classical theme of a naked model appears- the pose as well as the implied motion of the body is classical, while the colors, the apparently strange and irrelevant accompanying objects, as well as the explicit sexual annotations are modern. Even in photographs, we lean against trees, walls, etc, in order to maintain our balance, so that the photo is not blured. This inherent ‘ancient instinct’ with respect to posing seems to have been transferred in painting. It seems that the model of the painter has to lean against something, sometimes in a provocative way as if saying “come and take me.” As far as the object of balance (the rock) is concerned, it serves in the previous case probably as a sexual implement. One has to be harder than stone to overpass the woman’s pretentious resistance. The dove in ‘Black Magic’ (1934) matches very well the balance of the painting- the spirit is leaning on the body, which in turn supports itself by a rock, while in ‘Black Magic’ (1945), the rock is balanced by the clouds- in a world of dreams, where sometimes we need something to lean on.

‘Lifeline’ (La femme au fusil), 1930

The invasion (L’ invasion), 1938

The Black Magic series was a favorite of collectors according to Magritte. He painted many versions and similar paintings by a variety of different names were done later in that decade. It’s certainly one of Magritte’s most striking nudes, a painting of his wife and muse Georgette. The original pose for the ‘Black magic’ series is ‘Lifeline.’ The pose is very similar as the wall is cut out except there is a rifle propped up against wall.

Black magic, 1941

The proud ship (Le beau navire), 1942

In a letter to Paul Nougé of January 1948, Magritte wrote on the subject, “I am searching for a title for the picture of the nude woman (naked torso) in the room with the rock. One idea is that the stone is linked by some affinity to the earth, it can’t raise itself; we can rely on its generic fidelity to terrestrial attraction. The woman, too, if you like- from another point of view, the hard existence of the stone, well-defined, ‘a hard feeling,’ and the mental and physical system of a human being are not unconnected.”

In ‘Black magic’ (1941), the model emerges from within the ‘flowers of evil,’ or ‘bell-flowers.’ Her arm is submerged into the abyss, while she seems to be in a dream state, while in ‘The proud ship’ the woman holds a rose.

Flowers of evil, 1946

In the ‘Black magic’ series the nude is always depicted either with her eyes closed, or with her head turned away from the viewer or, as in the present work, with blank eyes resembling those of a sculpture, thus becoming the object of the spectator’s gaze and erotic desire. Magritte said, in fact, that an undercurrent of eroticism was one of the reasons a painting might have for existing.

In addition to the title of Baudelaire’s book (‘Flowers of evil’), the picture is an inter-textual allusion to his poem entitled ‘Beauty:’ “I am beautiful, oh mortals! Like a dream of stone.” The woman’s body has a sensual reality but she is made of stone. She seems alive but her eyes are vacant. This movement back and forth between the true and the false, between living flesh and inanimate matter gives rise to un-decidability that is both mysterious and postmodern because the foregrounding of one possibility brackets the other one by putting it under erasure. From a Surrealist point of view, the body is marvelous and astonishing. From a postmodern point of view it is contradictory and its status is undecidable unless, of course, we suspend the voice of reason. But suspending reason is precisely what the Surrealists wanted us to do so that we could slip into a sensual dream world where everything is possible and in which even metal burns with a hot and living flame.

The magnet, 1945

The dream, 1945

Again in the previous paintings we see the main juxtaposition between colorful and ‘black and white’ (or better ‘cloud-like’) paintings. The difference with the ‘Flowers of evil’ is the mysterious shadow image blended into the curtain.

The uncertainty principle (Le principe d’ incertitude), 1944

Before he painted this enigmatic painting in April 1944, Magritte described in a letter to his friend Marcel Mariën the image of a woman casting a shadow of a bird in flight. This, he said, would be the subject of his next painting: “An object (a human figure or something else) is presented against a background on which its shadow falls, with the amendment that the shadow is that of some quite different object. Example: a naked woman projecting another in the form of a bird onto a curtain.”

This is an excellent painting- at least for a physicist (the title I mean, not the equation):

Here, let’s say, x= woman transforms into p= a bird, while h= a constant. The constant means that if you increase the size of the woman (the accuracy of measuring x), then the size of the bird will be decreased (the accuracy of measuring p). In physics, x stands for ‘position,’ while p stands for ‘momentum,’ but ‘woman’ and ‘bird’ may do equally fine- as far as they are complementary quantities. In physics, the uncertainty principle (formulated by Heisenberg) says that when we measure entangled properties (such as position and momentum), by increasing the accuracy in measuring one quantity (for example position) we reduce the accuracy in measuring the other quantity (in this case momentum). In words of art, if the position of an abstract object occupies space in the shape of a woman, then its shadow in motion (the ‘momentum’) could look like a bird.

This is not at all far-fetched. Quantum objects in physics occupy extended areas described by wave-functions. They are also restless. If we try to measure the position of a quantum particle, the more clearly we try to see it the more wildly it behaves. In fact the shadow of a bird is an excellent example of a wave-function (the measure of the probability for the object to be found at a certain place): As we try to identify it by casting light, the object is excited and casts its momentum like the shadow of the wings of a bird all over the place. Magritte proves Heisenberg was right!

The future of statues

The copper handcuffs (Les menottes de cuivre), 1931

Venus ‘de Milo’ (Aphrodite of Milos), 130-100 BCE

Fashioned after Venus de Milo by Magritte this small statue depicted in ‘The copper handcuffs’ became this subject of several other paintings. The image of Venus de Milo fascinated Magritte and other surrealists.

Aphrodite of Milos, better known as the Venus de Milo, is an ancient Greek statue. Created sometime between 130 and 100 BC, it is believed to depict Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. It is a marble sculpture, slightly larger than life size. From an inscription that was on its plinth, it is thought to be the work of Alexander of Antioch. It is currently on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Bathers drying themselves, Pablo Picasso, 1909

Bathers of Llane, Salvador Dali, 1923

Bathers, 1921

Three nudes in an interior, 1923

The classical pose of statues became the archetypal form of representation of the human body throughout the history of painting. In recent times, themes like women bathing were popular from the Renaissance to Impressionism and Cubism. Magritte followed the subject in some of his early cubist paintings like the previous ones.

Spiritual exercises (Exercices spirituels), 1936

In ‘Spiritual exercises’ we are back to Magritte’s favorite subject material- nude women. Here the orb replaces the girl’s face but it’s not just an image, Magritte gives it substance by having her wrap her arms around it. Behind her is some form of mental game where numbers are matched.

Study of Bathers, Paul Cezanne, 1898

Study of Bathers, Paul Cezanne, 1902

Given the title’s identification of the figure as a ‘bather,’ the painting appears to be a punning Surrealist interpretation of the genre made famous by Manet, Renoir, Cézanne and their contemporaries at the end of the 19th century, although Magritte’s depiction of the seascape in the background suggests that her link to the outside world emanates from her dreaming unconscious rather than any actual proximity. The present scene, however, lends considerably more complexity to the image. Magritte has replaced the head of a now standing female nude with a light, shining sphere and placed her in an outdoor scene. This effect is heightened by a wall of anonymously rational architecture, which the artist has articulated with a radically slanted perspective, an ambiguous geometrical toy or set of weights, and a spectral, virtually camouflaged galleon sliding along the horizon. Although the nude woman seen here assumes a role similar to that in her initial incarnation (for which the artist’s wife Georgette claimed to have posed), this once passive dreamer has now become a more confrontational and object-like presence. The viewer is no longer a detached and uninvolved witness to a mysterious and evocative dream, but is now faced with an challenging and perhaps even threatening hallucination.

Bather, 1925

The soothsayer’s recompense, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

The mannequin-like figure and hard-edged dreamscape seen here reflect the lasting impact of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘pittura metafisica’ (metaphysical painting) on Magritte’s oeuvre. Indeed, David Sylvester refers to Magritte’s discovery of de Chirico’s ‘Love song’ as “one of the famous epiphanies in the hagiography of modern painting.” Furthermore, the anonymity of present female figure and her relation to an industrial yet decidedly natural if not classicizing landscape reveals Magritte’s knowledge of de Chirico’s larger body of work, specifically his androgynous mannequin figures of the 1920s.

The title ‘Spiritual exercises’ derives from the texts of Saint Ignatius Loyola (1522- 1524), which are prayer exercises designed to stimulate the mind, memory, will and imagination in order to better achieve communion with the divine. Although Magritte does not necessarily share the Christian message and spiritual intention of Loyola’s text, he has set a similar task for himself, to instigate an alternate mode of thought in the viewer's mind through the suggestiveness of his imagery. He directs his viewers to exercise the powers inherent in their visual imagination and undertake a similar examination of consciousness, in order to arrive at a fuller understanding of human reality.

The marches of summer, 1939

When the hour strikes, 1965

Delusions of grandeur, 1948

Objective stimulation, 1939

This is a series of ‘torso’ paintings. ‘Torso’ for a painter could mean “what remains of an ancient statue in modern times.” What remains is not only the mutilated limbs, but also the implied symmetrical beauty. Magritte’s statues are leaning a bit forward, as if tired of the elapsed time, and they are lost somewhere between reality and imagination. In some paintings (as in ‘Delusions of grandeur’) the torso appears as if through distorting lenses, gradually magnifying different parts, while in other paintings (as in Objective stimulation) a torso appears within a torso.

Dialogue revealed by the wind, 1928

What is interesting in the previous painting is that the two statues are reflections of the one in the foreground, with its back against the viewer. The second statue behind, is easily recognized as a mirror reflection, but the third one to the left represents an image created by a 90ο rotation of the ‘original’ reflection.

The vision (La clairvoyance), 1965

A torso, without arms or head, poses before an idyllic landscape reminiscent of a Mediterranean island. The torso is no sculptural fragment, though, but appears to be made of living, breathing impossible flesh. In ‘The vision,’ executed in 1965, Magritte has portrayed the historical world of ancient Greece that produced the fragmentary statuary that fills so many museums as a place inhabited by a fragmentary woman. This is a retrospective justification, perversely implying that the armless and headless statues that we see today were taken from life- that they are the result of design and not hazard. In this assault on our customary understanding of our universe and its laws and rules, Magritte demands that his viewer take a fresh view at the reality to which we are all too accustomed, peeling the scales from our eyes to reveal the everyday world as a place of infinite hidden wonders.

In 1965, Volker Kahmen had suggested that Magritte create an image of the Venus de Milo as though it were made of the granite that features in many of the Belgian artist's images. Instead, Magritte wrote back with a better idea, explaining that he would portray the statue as though it were made of flesh: “The sudden absence of stone, where stone really exists, and the presence, however, of the form that the stone embodied, must necessarily evoke a sense of mystery. The nature of such a statue would not thereby be made arbitrary or subject to a whim: it is necessary that it should be flesh.”

Magritte has thereby created an absorbing surreal vision that blurs the boundaries of art and reality, hinting at the subtle magic of the relationship that links them. The use of one of the most iconic sculptures in the world is a spur to our confused recognition. However, it is interesting to note that in ‘La clairvoyance,’ Magritte has tailored the sculpture to his own uses, reinventing it not only through the use of flesh instead of stone, but also by removing the head and the drapery of the original, making the impossible appearance of a living flesh fragment all the more incongruous and affecting.

The birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1486

Rhinocerotic gooseflesh, Salvador Dali, 1956

The importance of marvels (L’ importance des merveilles), 1927

Botticelli’s ‘The birth of Venus’ became a popular theme for modern art. In ‘Rhinocerotic gooseflesh,’ Salvador Dali makes the statue appear from within a shell which seems to be stretching all over the beach, forming a curtain enveloping the landscape of this dream scene. Dali used a pattern of symmetry which he called ‘rhinocerotic’ because of the geometrical proportions he found in a rhinoceros horn (related to the number phi).

In Magritte’s version (The importance of marvels), the woman appears again and again out of her own body (like a matryoshka doll). Her color is that of statues, the arms are open, and the hair follows the direction of the left arm. The presence of the wind is important in this painting for one reason or another. For me, the wind is always an echo of the past, a means to clean our thoughts, therefore to help our mind ‘listen’ to the sound of eternity.

Napoleon’s death mask

The future of statues, 1937

This work is made from a commercial plaster reproduction of the death mask of the French Emperor Napoleon. Magritte painted at least five of these casts, each with sky and clouds. Discussing the works, the artist’s friend the surrealist poet Paul Nougé suggested an association between death, dreams and the depth of the sky. He commented: “a patch of sky traversed by clouds and dreams transfigure the very face of death in a totally unexpected way.”

The face of genius (Le visage du genie), 1926-27

The forest (La foret), 1927

Napoleon’s original death mask was created on May 7, 1821, a day and a half after he died on the island of St. Helena at age 51. It is commonly believed that Dr. Antommarchi (one of the many doctors that encircled Napoleon’s deathbed) cast the original ‘parent mold,’ which would spawn many bronze copies. Some historians dispute this, claiming that the surgeon Francis Burton, of Britain’s Sixty-Sixth Regiment at St. Helena, cast the original mold and it was Dr. Burton, too, who presided at the emperor’s autopsy. Antommarchi obtained from his British colleagues a secondary plaster mold from Burton’s original cast. With his own mold, Antommarchi later made, in France, copies of the death mask in both bronze and plaster.

It is believed that Madame Bertrand, Napoleon’s attendant, managed to steal part of the cast, leaving Burton with just the ears and back of the head. He took Bertrand to court in an attempt to get the cast back, but failed. A year later Madame Bertrand gave Antommarchi a copy of the mask, from which he had several copies made. One of these he sent to Lord Burghersh, the British envoy in Florence, asking him to pass it to the famous sculptor, Antonio Canova. Unfortunately Canova died before he had time to use the mask and instead the piece remained with Burghersh. The National Museums Liverpool version, cast by E. Quesnel, is thought to be a descendant of that mask.'s_death_mask

The important fact about Magritte’s portraits of Napoleon is that they are very realistic. The face is not distorted, or implied, or anything else. However it is decorated with tree-like representations. In ‘The forest’ the head has become one with the trees which seem to grow on the face. In ‘The face of genius,’ two parts of the head are removed, in an asymmetrical way, revealing the ‘chess-pieces forest.’ It is clear from this comparison that Magritte used chess-like trees, or bilboquets, to represent a natural habitat for the spirit; Thus the title of the painting.

Death mask of Agamemnon, 1550- 1500 BCE

Sugar is for the brain what gasoline is for cars. Sugar is understood by the brain as pleasure. Syrup as well as honey have the color of gold. At least this is what makes us lust so much for these substances. Sometimes it’s low blood sugar, but it is always the accompanying melancholy that makes us long for candies. The previous mask doesn’t really belong to Agamemnon (it is quite earlier). But it belongs to one or another of the Mycenaean aristocrats.

The mask was supposed to make the dead happy for eternity, as it rested upon the deceased’s face. For an anthropologist this mask is equally important because it may reveal the true facial characteristics of the people that lived in Greece at that time. However, more important than how these people looked like, is the eternal smile on the mask’s expression. The lips are tightly sealed with a hint of satisfaction, the eyes are firmly closed dreaming the eternal dream, and the pronounced brow ridge beneath the eyes makes the whole face glow in everlasting bliss.

I was wondering what was most important both for the artist who made the mask and for its bearer. Was it its weight in gold? The accuracy of the facial characteristics? Who was more important? The artist? The dead who wore the mask? Or the archaeologist (Schliemann) who discovered it? Neither. If we someday find a name here or there suggesting the name of the dead who wore the mask or a name for the artist who made it, still it is the mask itself what stays for eternity. In fact it is a representation of the eternal sleep, an expression for the infinite world of the afterlife. The same goes for the painter. A name for a painting or for the painter himself is not what matters most. It is the representation, the evolution of notions, the progress of the human spirit, and the emergence of the next generation who will come in contact not with the painter but with the painting and what it stands for. Every artist knows that- ‘This is not Agamemnon.

Deep waters (Les eaux profondes) 1941

Death is not nothingness because it is always something perceived in life. Death doesn’t really exist when we are dead, but it is the most motivating force while we are still alive. It makes us lust for life more and more. Throughout the ages death took certain symbolic representations. Crows or their like for example have always been connected with death, perhaps because they are scavengers. On the other hand, statues have always stood for people from the past that are gone but whose statues can last forever. A lady with a pale and white face is the ghost of fate who comes from the dead to haunt us. In the painting the scenery is really solemn, quiet and still. Her gray coat stands in contrast to her marble-like face. The crow, the trunk, the color of the sea and the sky, even the glove-hands of the lady are dipped into gray. Her lips are sealed and her eyes are turned away from us. She is not just our unknown fate; she is the past we have forgotten.

Memory (La mémoire), 1948

Memory, 1948

Memory, 1942

If we take a look at a dictionary, we will realize how little it says about ‘memory.’ The ‘process of storing information’ definition doesn’t say much about the psychological mechanism. Important is what we select to be ‘stored’ instead of anything else. Secondly, it is the fact that most information passes into the mind unwillingly, therefore it belongs to the unconscious. Our conscious definition about reality has therefore to do mostly with the deliberate actions we take to avoid the unconscious memories which are more or less repressed. The ‘Memory’ series Magritte painted are considered unconscious memories about his dead mother. However, I believe that such memories would be so painful for the artist that even if they were expressed in his paintings they would have been more implicit or completely transformed. Perhaps his preference for cloud-like adornments in bodies and faces was indeed such an unconscious act of redemption related to his mother’s death. But since such themes are repeatedly found in many different occasions, such as in his depiction of Napoleon, we find a more general pattern about death and life, fame and fate, remembrance and forgetfulness.

The formal definition of ‘memory’ is something like ‘information storage.’ However, this definition is not only short, but also vague. Where is this information stored? In the brain, someone could say. But since memory cannot really be understood without all the accompanying emotions, a better place for the location of memory is the soul. Now is the soul found in the brain? Hardly, I would say. In fact the opposite process takes place. All information is filtered by the senses before it enters the brain. And what we term as ‘senses’ is even broader that what we commonly refer to. It includes not only vision, hearing, etc., but also conditions such as premonitions, foresight, and so on. It seems that the human body is surrounded by some sort of ‘ethereal field,’ identified with (or with some functions of) the soul, where what we call ‘sense of the world’ takes place, and where the synthesis of ‘memory’ takes place.


The rose path (Giverny), Claude Monet, 1922

Previous picture (‘Teapot’): Is this picture worth a thousand words? According to the Holographic Principle, the most information you can get from this image is about 3 x 1065 bits for a normal sized computer monitor. The Holographic Principle, yet unproven, states that there is a maximum amount of information content held by regions adjacent to any surface. Therefore, counter-intuitively, the information content inside a room depends not on the volume of the room but on the area of the bounding walls. The principle derives from the idea that the Planck length, the length scale where quantum mechanics begins to dominate classical gravity, is one side of an area that can hold only about one bit of information. The limit was first postulated by physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft in 1993. It can arise from generalizations from seemingly distant speculation that the information held by a black hole is determined not by its enclosed volume but by the surface area of its event horizon. The term ‘holographic’ arises from a hologram analogy where three-dimension images are created by projecting light though a flat screen. Beware, other people looking at the above image may not claim to see 3 x 10^65 bits- they might claim to see a teapot.

This is not far- fetched at all. According to the holonomic brain theory, developed by neuroscientist Karl Pribram in collaboration with physicist David Bohm, human cognition is accomplished through processes which involve electric oscillations in the neural network of the brain. These oscillations are in fact waves and create wave interference patterns in which memory is encoded. These brain processes are similar to the way information is stored in a hologram, with any part of the hologram contains the whole of the stored information. This model allows for important aspects of human consciousness, including the fast associative memory that allows for connections between different pieces of stored information and the non-locality of memory storage (a specific memory is not stored in a specific location, i.e. a certain neuron).

Girl with a pearl earring, Johannes Vermeer, 1665

Memory therefore seems to live inside the mind but outside the brain. In fact our memories are just part of a larger clustering, including the memories of others, the history of evolution, the memories of our own species, and even more. Our own personal history is nothing more than part of a gigantic hologram. Our collective unconscious is distributed throughout this hologram. And deep inside something tell us that this is really going on, even if it is hard to express it or to demonstrate it experimentally. The artist is much closer to this reality. He deals with dreams and fantasies all the time. When Vermeer, for example, painted the ‘Girl with a pearl earring,’ no matter how humble the subject might be, it was a portrait intended to stand out for eternity. The focal point in this painting is the pearl. In Magritte’s memory paintings, the focal point is the wound on the statue’s head. Light is transformed into blood. As in Vermeer’s painting the girl seems ready to shed tears like pearls, so in Magritte’s painting the statue is about to recover a bleeding memory. But the memory belongs to the statue, not to the painter. Classical statues belong to the past. When does the past bleed? Only when it is compared with the present, and the present is unpleasant too.

In fact memories belong to the past, and, just like dreams, when they are faced with reality and the present, they come into conflict. We always refer to the past as glorious, against a dull and non- worthy present. What belongs to the past becomes idealized, either as a person or as a painting representing a person. But the present is always compared with this ‘glorious’ past. The past forms the grater sky under which we all live and refer to in the present. This grater sky at the time of the surrealists was full of the glory of the Renaissance mixed with the smoke of two World Wars. This was the ‘Threatening weather’ Magritte saw in the sky, and he was strongly opposed to the misdeeds, both political and social (he was particularly scornful of the emerging Pop Art), of his time.

Therefore I believe that the bleeding statue in the ‘Memory’ series is the protest of the artist both against war and the brutality of modernism. But it is also a more general allusion with respect to the lost world of innocence. As the ‘torso of memory’ is brought into the world of the present, the idealization of the past comes to an end and one has to face reality. Our past is always influenced by the present. We project our present ideas to the past. In a sense, the past is not found in another place and time, but instead it lies in the world of the present, even if it looks somewhat distant and faint. The same goes for the future. It is a projection we make from the present to a place and time that are lying ‘ahead.’ It seems that there is a symmetrical pattern which emerges, both ‘behind’ and ‘in front’ of us with a point of reference in the present. The figure of statues, with their eternal beauty and harmony, emerge in the present, staring into the past their idealized world of innocence, as the future catches up with them.

Eternity (L’éternité), 1935

‘Eternity’ expresses the full force of Magritte’s alien yet authoritative visual power. Unlike many of his other works, however, ‘Eternity’ was not the result of an immediate inspiration, a vision or conception, but instead evolved from an idea given to Magritte by his friend Claude Spaak, the first owner of the painting. Spaak claimed that his original notion was the sight of a gallery wall hung with paintings, and between them stood a large ham. However, by 1935, this idea had already evolved significantly in Magritte’s mind:

“I am busy at the moment on a rather amusing picture: in a museum, there are three stands against a wall, with statues of Dante and Hercules to the left and right while the one in the center supports a magnificent pig's head with parsley in its ears and a lemon in its mouth.”

In the final state of his conception, Magritte employed busts of Christ and Dante with a slab of butter placed in the middle. These epic busts give the impression of being relics that have survived- if only as fragments- through centuries of turmoil representing the idea of ‘eternity’ in the title. However, between them, monumental in its own way, is the fresh but perishable butter, a jarring contrast that assaults the viewer’s rational sensibilities. Time, and the authority of the museum, have been turned on their heads, as Magritte forces his museum-goer to look beyond his preconceptions and to contemplate the internal and external reality of this painted world in all its paradoxical wonder.

The persistence of memory, Salvador Dali, 1931

Again here the sliced piece of butter may seem to have vanished but it is certainly a representation of the ‘softness of time.’ Time is like butter. It cannot be ‘stubbed,’ but it melts and reorganizes itself invulnerable. This element of ‘softness’ with respect to time was vividly expressed by Dali in the ‘Persistence of memory,’ with his melting clocks. When he was asked by physicist Prigogine if the clocks had anything to do with temperature and entropy, Dali replied that he was just thinking of melting Swiss cheese at the time. Again, in Magritte’s case, the surrealistic representation of eternity and infinite time comes about with the natural properties of a piece of butter.


High- level meetings (Les grands rendez-vous), 1947

This facial image of the Persian queen, Scheherazade, is repeated in several other paintings from this period. The Scheherazade image is based on Poe’s short story, ‘The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade.’

Scheherazade, 1948

Scheherazade, 1950

Poe’s tale is based on the legendary Persian queen, Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. The original tale goes: “Every day Shahryar (or ‘king’) would marry a new virgin, and every day he would send yesterday’s wife to be beheaded. This was done in anger, having found out that his first wife was betraying him. He had killed three thousand such women by the time he was introduced to Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter.”

Scheherazade, Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823- 1903)

In Sir Richard F. Burton’s translation of ‘The Nights,’ Scheherazade was described in this way:

“Scheherazade had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding kings, and the stories, examples and instances of by gone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”

Against her father’s protestations, Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with the king. Once in the king’s chambers, Scheherazade asked if she might bid one last farewell to her beloved sister, Dinazade, who had secretly been prepared to ask Scheherazade to tell a story during the long night. The king lay awake and listened with awe to Scheherazade’s first story and asked for another, but Scheherazade said there was not time as dawn was breaking, and regretfully so, as the next story was even more exciting.

And so the king kept Scheherazade alive as he eagerly anticipated each new story, until, one thousand and one adventurous nights, and three sons later, the king had not only been entertained but wisely educated in morality and kindness by Scheherazade who became his queen.

Voice of silence, 1928

This is a story of betrayal, affection, and boredom. The king’s sexual appetite was so great that he devoured one woman each night, before he met Scheherazade. She managed to allure the king, however not with her body charm but with her spirit. Strange though it may seem, this king was not interested in wealth but in eternal fame. The tale doesn’t tell us what in Scheherazade’s tale captivated the king’s imagination, but it must have been a story with infinite episodes; or perhaps the ‘voice of silence itself.’

The Liberator (Le Libérateur), 1947

Magritte’s ‘Liberator’ has the same pose as in his ‘Therapist’ paintings. One difference is that the cavity (or bird’s cage) on the chest of the ‘Therapist’ is replaced by a ‘screen’ on the chest of the ‘Liberator.’ The latter holds the facial image of the Persian queen, Scheherazade, and his chest is adorned by the four icons found in the cave in ‘High- level meetings,’ the bird, the cup, the pipe, and the key.

These four objects may be related to various ‘obvious’ functions. The bird of freedom, the key to dreams, the cup of pleasure, the pipe of peaceful meditation, and so on. But what if we remove the facial characteristics from the ‘candlestick’ the ‘Liberator’ holds? Then we may find the original story which lies behind the true face of Scheherazade. The mystery of a thing is what is implied by its missing parts- the face of beauty itself.

Hommage to Alphonse Allais, 1962

The strange pearl necklace, which makes up queen Scheherazade’s face, mysteriously reappears on the fish which is somehow related to Alphonse Allais.

Highly regarded by the surrealists, Alphonse Allais was a French writer and humorist. He is the author of many collections of whimsical writings. A poet as much as a humorist, he in particular cultivated the verse form known as holo-rhyme, i.e. made up entirely of homophonous verses, where entire lines rhyme. For example:

par les bois du djinn où s’entasse de l’effroi,
parle et bois du gin ou cent tasses de lait froid.
by the woods of the djinn, where fear abounds,
talk and drink gin, or a hundred cups of cold milk.

Allais is also credited with the earliest known example of a completely silent musical composition. Composed in 1897, his ‘Funeral march for the obsequies of a deaf man,’ consisting of nine blank measures, predates comparable works by John Cage and Erwin Schulhoff by a considerable margin.

Allais participated in humorous exhibitions, particularly in those of the ‘Salon des Arts Incohérents’ of 1883 and 1884, held at the Gallery Vivienne. At these Allais exhibited arguably the earliest examples of conceptual art. Of his art, perhaps the most influential were his plain white sheet of Bristol paper ‘Première communion de jeunes filles chlorotiques par un temps de neige’ (First communion of anemic young girls in the snow) (1883), and a similar red work, ‘Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes on the shore of the Red Sea (Study of the Aurora Borealis) (1884).

Monochrome painting was initiated at the first ‘Incoherent arts exhibition’ in 1882 in Paris, with a black painting by poet Paul Bilhaud entitled ‘Combat de nègres dans un tunnel’ (Negroes fight in a tunnel). Monochromatic painting has been an important component of avant-garde visual art throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Painters have created the exploration of one color, the examination of values changing across a surface, the expressivity of texture and nuance, expressing a wide variety of emotions, intentions and meanings in a wide variety of ways and means. From geometric precision to expressionism, the monochrome has proved to be a durable idiom in Contemporary art. In the subsequent exhibitions of the Incoherent arts Alphonse Allais proposed seven other monochrome paintings.

This explains Magritte’s ‘Homage to Alphonse Allais.’ The title could equally be something like, ‘Monochromatic painting of a fish wearing a necklace and resembling Alphonse Allais’ silent stories.’

The spirit of the family (L’esprit de famille), 1963

The heart of the world, (Le coeur du monde), 1956

I don’t know if Magritte (or a friend of his) used to go fishing; but a fish has certainly a symbolic meaning. Pointing upwards it looks at the sky- usually we look down on fish but seldom we realize that we are little more than fish: as fish occasionally jump out of the water to see what lies above, so we try from time to time to lift ourselves above the clouds to take a look at what lies beyond. Such a discussion, about the ‘beyond,’ must be taking place between the two figures by the side of the great sphere in ‘The spirit of the family.’ If the sphere represents the ‘spirit’ then the fish represents the ‘family,’ our family consisting of all our collective inventions.

Such an invention is also the unicorn. The unicorn is a legendary animal that has been described since antiquity as a beast with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead. The unicorn was depicted in ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization and was mentioned by the ancient Greeks in accounts of natural history by various writers. The Bible also describes an animal which some translations have rendered with the unicorn.

In European folklore, the unicorn is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a long horn and cloven hooves (sometimes a goat’s beard). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin. In the encyclopedias its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. In medieval and Renaissance times, the horn of the narwhal was sometimes sold as unicorn horn.

Perhaps the most wondrous of all mystical creatures, the unicorn is a symbol of magic, miracles, purity, innocence and enchantment. This magical and enchanting animal appears to only a rare few and has the ability to bestow magic, miracles and wisdom to those who are pure of heart and virtuous in their deeds.

The presence of a unicorn is announced by the soft and faint tinkling sound of tiny bells being shaken; or of tiny chimes being rustled by a breeze. And as bells and chimes symbolize the presence of divinity, the tinkling sound which accompanies the nearness of a unicorn reminds us that we are in the presence of a highly spiritual essence whose boundless domain encompasses all realms matter and spirit.

The unicorn, unlike all other horned animals save perhaps the rhinoceros, is a single-horned creature. While the two-horned animals are linked, symbolically, to the realm of duality and matter, the unicorn’s single horn reminds us that its domain is the realm of unity; a realm that transcends and exists beyond the bounds of matter and duality.

Whether unicorns used to be a prehistoric species now extinct or they have always been creatures of our imagination, their horn has a certain symbolism, possibly expressing some notion of purity linked to the sexual drive (it is well-known that the rhinoceros’ horn has been used as an aphrodisiac). This combination of purity and lust is what makes the unicorn such a powerful image in the world of dreams (Freud I guess would relate the unicorn with some symbolism of castration). It is such symbolism what would have made the unicorn a so much wanted object of pure desire.

Magritte’s ‘unicorn’ in ‘The heart of the world’ has a tower on its head instead of a horn. Therefore, not only we find a symbol of purity, but also a place for purity to inhabit. Thus, the heart of the world is found in the tower of a castle, which is, at the same time, the horn of a female (judging from its long blond hair) unicorn. But if all we know is confined in the horn of the unicorn, then the rest of the world is completely unknown to us. Therefore, the unicorn is what we see when we are faced with our wildest dreams and with all our secret desires.

The indiscreet jewels (Les bijoux indiscrets), 1963

‘The indiscreet jewels’ is the first novel by Denis Diderot, published anonymously in 1748. It is an allegory that portrays king Louis XV as the sultan Mangogul of the Congo who owns a magic ring that makes women’s genitals talk.

In an old English translation, the jewels were the ‘toys,’ or genitals, of the women, making the play on the notion of transformative and elusive jewels evoked by Magritte’s picture all the more complex. For here, in place of a bracelet, is a human face: this is, indeed, an indiscreet jewel; however, in the eighteenth-century novel the indiscretion was shared by the ring which was able to gain such voluble responses from the women of the fictitious Congo of which the main protagonist was sultan and by those women’s no-longer-private parts themselves. This title therefore adds an extra layer of Surrealism to the work, paying homage to one of the movement’s predecessors.

An image from Salvador Dali’s dream, part of the inspiration for the film ‘Un chien Andalou’

An eye appearing in the palm of a hand was a favorite theme for the surrealists (such a depiction is found in the film ‘Un chien Andalou,’ (An Andalusian dog) where, instead, there’s a hole in the hand from which ants emerge). Hands that can see or talk probably represent an extension of the human senses, an ‘arm of the mind’ which stretches beyond the known world, trying to grasp what’s found out there. Either in dreams or through meditation this ‘hand’ represents the ‘branch of us’ into the supernatural. Therefore Magritte’s hand in the painting shouldn’t be treated for any sexual allusions, at least not mainly, but for its use as the extension of the painter’s brush into the unknown.

The mask of the lightning

The married priest (Le prêtre marié), 1960

The married priest, 1961

Looming dominant upon the canvas as though monumental within their own small world, two masked apples appear to consort together in a barren landscape. Despite the fact that all of the elements in ‘The married priest’ exist in the real world, and indeed despite the fact that one could place a mask on an apple, there is nonetheless a distinct atmosphere of strangeness about this picture. Where is the tree from which these fruit could fall? These apples appear to be on a beach, a crescent moon above them in a surprisingly day-like sky, sand stretching behind them. There is both tranquility and menace in the scene, which is clearly dominated by the masked fruit. They appear to be interacting in some manner. Despite the fact that there are no eyes behind the masks, this anthropomorphizing element succeeds in implying an intelligence to the apples that is accentuated by Magritte’s deft depiction of the slightly jaunty angle at which they perch, as though eager and aware. These fruit appear engaged in some form of furtive conversation, or are perhaps waiting... Are they lovers, criminals in disguise, highwaymen, Scarlet Pimpernel-like characters, or are they going to a masquerade ball? The dashing cavalier aspect of the masks is humorously off-set by the sad nibbling by caterpillars to which their plumage has been subjected, adding a slightly tatty air to these dandyish fruits.

Masks, disguises, hidden faces- all these are repeated motifs in Magritte’s pictures. These elements introduce a notion of the malleability and illegibility of character, of identity, of selfhood, of life. They are elements used to hide, but also to entertain. They are the accoutrement of the criminal and the actor alike, and in both cases conjure a vivid theatricality. But be it upon the stage or on a moonlit night in the middle of nowhere, these masks are unsettling, as they hide information. They introduce subterfuge, be it in the leisurely suspension-of-disbelief context of the stage or in the more disturbing context of someone concealing their own identity.

In ‘The married priest,’ the masks actually appear to perform almost the opposite function of some of those other works- where on human figures, masks and other elements remove any possibility of identification, and thereby remove some of the humanity of the subject, here the masked apples are lent a suspicion of impossible humanity by their masks. They in fact gain character, becoming entertaining, even rakish figures on the beach, rather than mere abandoned fruit. It is through the inclusion of the masks that all our questions emerge, all the implications of possible back-stories that make these apples so intriguing. This simple adornment, added to an inanimate object, dispels the literalness of the scene and introduces a wild card, a joker, an element of unpredictability that engages the viewer actively, presenting the apples as intriguing mysteries that are of course impossible to solve.

Magritte’s cover for a 1946 issue of ‘View’

The hesitation waltz, 1950

The image of the masked apple first appeared in 1946 for a cover design Magritte did of ‘The view.’ The apple with a mask is also featured in ‘The hesitation waltz.’ Eroticism, understood both in light of the Marquis de Sade and Sigmund Freud, was fundamentally important to the Surrealists. In my opinion the apple wearing a mask is displaying a Marquis de Sade type costume.

Frontispiece of ‘Les infortunes de la vertu,’ Marquis de Sade, 1791

‘Justine’ (or ‘The misfortunes of virtue’) was written in 1791 by Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, or Marquis de Sade. It is set just before the French Revolution in France and tells the story of a young woman who goes under the name of Therese. Her story is recounted to Madame de Lorsagne while defending herself for her crimes, en route to punishment and death. She explains the series of misfortunes which have led her to be in her present situation.

Justine is a 12-year-old maiden. It follows her until age 26, in her quest for virtue. She is presented with sexual lessons, hidden under a virtuous mask. The unfortunate situations include: the time when she seeks refuge and confession in a monastery, but is forced to become a sex-slave to the monks, who subject her to countless orgies, rapes, and similar rigors. When helping a gentleman who is robbed in a field, he takes her back to his chateau with promises of a post caring for his wife, but she is then confined in a cave and subject to much the same punishment.

In her search for work and shelter Justine constantly fell into the hands of rogues who would ravish and torture her and the people she makes friends with. These punishments are mostly the same throughout, even when she goes to a judge to beg for mercy in her case as an arsonist, and then finds herself openly humiliated in court, unable to defend herself.

The story is told by ‘Therese’ in an inn, to Madame de Lorsagne. It is finally revealed that Madame de Lorsagne is her long lost sister. The irony is that her sister submitted to a brief period of vice and found herself a comfortable existence where she could exercise good, while Justine refused to make concessions for the greater good and was plunged further into vice than those who would go willingly.

The story ends with Madame de Lorsagne relieving her from a life of vice and clearing her name. Soon afterward, Justine becomes introverted and morose, and is finally struck by a bolt of lightning and killed instantly. Madame de Lorsagne joins a religious order after Justine’s death.

Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine, and as a result de Sade was incarcerated for the last 13 years of his life. Napoleon called Justine “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination.” The book’s destruction was ordered by the Royal Court of Paris in 1815.

The masque of the lightning (Le masque de la foudre), 1965-66

This is the ‘bolt of lightning’ which struck Justine in de Sade’s story. ‘Coup de foudre,’ in French literally means ‘strike of lightning,’ but metaphorically it means ‘love at first sight.’ The word ‘mask’ here wants to hide the real emotions (not sadistic- à la de Sade- I guess) of the painter towards the lady depicted with the perfect breasts and long blond hair. However the painting is surrealistic. Her eyes are blank as those of a statue and her pose is reminiscent of statues, although the colors of the painting are pink. The cloud and the pipe underscore the surrealistic environment of the painting.

Stone mask, 7000 BCE, probably the oldest mask in the world

The use of masks in rituals or ceremonies is a very ancient human practice across the world. Some ceremonial or decorative masks were not designed to be worn. Although the religious use of masks has waned, masks are used sometimes in drama therapy or psychotherapy.

The ritual and theatrical definitions of mask usage frequently overlap and merge but still provide a useful basis for categorization. In ancient Rome the word persona meant ‘mask.’ A citizen could demonstrate his or her lineage through imagines, death masks of the ancestors.

Ritual masks occur throughout the world, and although they tend to share many characteristics, highly distinctive forms have developed. The function of the masks may be magical or religious; they may appear in rites of passage or as a make-up for a form of theatre. Equally masks may disguise a penitent or preside over important ceremonies; they may help mediate with spirits, or offer a protective role to the society who utilize their powers. Biologist Jeremy Griffith has suggested that ritual masks, as representations of the human face, are extremely revealing of the two fundamental aspects of the human psychological condition: firstly, the repression of a cooperative, instinctive self or soul; and secondly, the extremely angry state of the unjustly condemned conscious thinking egocentric intellect.

Surrealist exhibition of 1938, Rue des Mannequins

Salvador Dali and his mannequin, from the surrealist exhibition, Paris 1938

Aside from masks, mannequins (= ‘figurines’) were common objects for the surrealists. They were used not only as ‘sex dolls’ but also, and more generally, as representations of humanity itself. Through their neutral characteristics, one’s imagination would be set free to give the dolls whatever character one liked. The woman in ‘The mask of the lightning’ has such ‘neutral’ features, with respect to her expressions, therefore she represents a ‘mannequin’ destined to fulfill one’s wildest dreams.

Two sisters (The Jewish angel), Giorgio De Chirico, 1915

The two sisters, 1925

De Chirico extensively used masks or mannequins in an effort to join antiquity with modern representations. Magritte’s ‘Two sisters’ certainly draws its inspiration from De Chirico’s painting. However, in Magritte’s painting the faces are not covered but they are explicitly shown, the difference between them being that one face is awake while the other one is dreaming. Therefore, the merge between the ancient and the modern in De Chirico’s work, took the form of the merge between reality and dreams, at present time, in Magritte’s painting.

Masks: …However you think of it, it ends up as the fundamental fact of the mask. In this way the primitive, with all its implements and pictures, opens up for our benefit an infinite arsenal of masks: the masks of our fate- the masks with which we emerge from unconsciously experienced moments and situations that have now, at long last, been recuperated.

Impoverished, uncreative man knows of no other way to transform himself than by means of disguise. Disguise seeks the arsenal of masks within us. . . . In reality, the world is full of masks; we do not suspect the extent to which even the most unpretentious pieces of furniture (such as Romanesque armchairs) used to be masks, too. To hand over these masks to us, and to form the space and the figure of our fate within it- this is where folk art comes to meet us halfway. Only from this vantage point can we say clearly and fundamentally what distinguishes it from ‘more authentic’ art, in the narrower sense.

It is a fact that all mankind wears or has worn a mask. This enigmatic accessory, with no obvious utility, is commoner than the lever, the bow, the harpoon or the plough. . . . Complete civilizations, some of them most remarkable, have prospered without having conceived the idea of the wheel, or, what is worse, without using it even though it was known to them. But they were familiar with the mask.

The forbidden world

The forbidden world, 1949

It is the world of the painter, forbidden while expressed. The artist never reveals his true nature. What he depicts is the implied. Magritte had always stressed that the object and its representation is not the same thing. But this process follows more than two stages. It is the object as perceived by the artist who then expresses it. Then it is the representation of the object as perceived by the viewer. Finally it is the description by the viewer of the object he perceived, according the depiction of the painter, as the latter perceived it. It is hard to say that two different people have the same impression of an object, or of reality, as everyone perceives the world in his own way, according to his secret thoughts and his deepest desires. Our personal, most precious objects are kept deep in our souls for our own sake, no matter what the common view about the same objects is- Thus the forbidden world.

What makes the difference in the previous painting is the colors. During the 40’s Magritte abandoned his surrealistic style and returned to the world of his youth, the girl he used to know, while the played in a cemetery, the artist he met there, who was, as Magritte said, “endowed with powers from above…”

Angelus (L’angélus), Jean-François Millet, 1857-59

Archeological reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus, Salvador Dali, 1935

Magritte goes on, “Unfortunately, I learnt later that painting bears very little direct relation to life, and that every effort to free oneself has always been derided by the public. Millet’s Angelus was a scandal in his day, the painter being accused of insulting the peasants by portraying them in such a manner…

Olympia, Edouard Manet, 1863

The harvest, 1943

People wanted to destroy Manet’s Olympia, and the critics charged the painter with showing women cut into pieces, because he had depicted only the upper part of the body of a woman standing behind the bar, the lower part being hidden by the bar itself. In Courbet’s day, it was generally agreed that he had very poor taste in so conspicuously displaying his false talent. I also saw that there were endless examples of this nature and that they extended over every area of thought. As regards the artists themselves, most of them gave up their freedom quite lightly, placing their art at the service of someone or something. As a rule, their concerns and their ambitions are those of any old careerist. I thus acquired a total distrust of art and artists, whether they were officially recognized or were endeavoring to become so, and I felt that I had nothing in common with this guild. I had a point of reference which held me elsewhere, namely that magic within art which I had encountered as a child…

Landscape, 1920

Landscape, 1926

In 1915 I attempted to regain that position which would enable me to see the world in a different way to the one which people were seeking to impose upon me. I possessed some technical skill in the art of painting, and in my isolation I undertook experiments that were consciously different from everything that I knew in painting. I experienced the pleasure of freedom in painting the most unconventional pictures. By a strange coincidence, perhaps out of pity and probably as a joke, I was given a catalogue with illustrations from an exhibition of Futurist painting. I now had before my eyes a mighty challenge directed towards that same good sense which so bored me. It was for me the same light that I had encountered as a child whenever I emerged from the underground vaults of the old cemetery where I spent my holidays.”

The first day, 1943

Nude, 1919

In retrospect, the image of the girl and boy climbing out of an underground vault in which death is present, and then discovering a painter who is attempting to record his view of the cemetery on canvas, seems almost an advance announcement of Magritte’s later career.

The record of his childhood experience specifically mentions the sharp contrast between the view of the two children, who are in principle as far away as can be from the end of life, and the place where they are playing. A cemetery is the place par excellence in which one's memories of those no longer with us are preserved and cherished. It soon becomes clear that elements almost always appear in Magritte's pictures such as present a sharp contrast to each other, thereby triggering a shock which shakes the intellect out of its apathy and sets one to thinking.

In fact, the ‘girl’ and the ‘boy’ in relation to the previous paintings are separated by a period of more than 20 years. This is proof that the themes which Magritte used throughout his career were recurring again and again, as fixed ideas, in relation of course to some eternal question about art.

Lola de Valence, Edouard Manet, 1862

Lola de Valence, 1948

The title of this work refers to Lola de Valence painted by Manet, and then immortalized in a quatrain by Charles Baudelaire which first appeared in the 1868 edition of ‘The flowers of evil.’ Lola de Valence was the scene name of Lola Melea, the first dancer of the dance company of Camprubi. It performed at the ‘Porte Dauphine’ during the summer of 1862. Manet persuaded Camprubi to bring his dancers to the studio of his friend the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens during their leisure hours, and they posed for him there.

In May 1940, Magritte beset by martial problems and the Nazi invasion of Belgium left with a few close friends for France leaving Georgette behind. When he return to a Nazi occupied Brussels in October 1940 and reconciled with his beloved Georgette, his life was in shambles. Naturally melancholy, he became depressed. In 1943 to overcome the ambient despair of the war period, Magritte launches out in a type of painting inspired by impressionism in order to combine, through his personal research, the expression of the feelings of lightness, unconcern, happiness.

The bathers, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1918-19

Felicity of images (Friendship), (Le bonheur des images (L’amitié), 1943

His inspiration was by a reproduction of Renoir’s ‘Bathers.’ This painting and other similar Renoir’s triggered his ‘sunlit’ period. Enticed by the sensuality of the colors, he opted for a more luminous palette. While continuing to draw objects and figures with the meticulous detail for which he was known, he added to them a touch clearly inspired by Impressionism, unleashing color in new, warmer and more cheerful tonalities. From March or April 1943, to the end of 1944 he produced about fifty pictures in this new style.

The spring (La source), Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1856

The sage’s carnival (Le carnaval du sage), 1947

The break in the clouds (The calm), 1941

The sea of flames, 1946

Marcel Mariën elaborated on this work of Magritte:

“Fired with enthusiasm, Magritte immediately went on to make other versions, including ‘The dance’ (a standing nude), and ‘The harvest’ (a reclining nude), and then concluded the experiment by taking the solution to its peak of refinement, since he performed the same transformation on Ingres’s ‘The spring,’ an ‘academic’ representation if ever there was one, by not only adorning the young girl’s body with different colors, but by recreating the whole picture according to the technique of the Impressionists! And Nougé, who had already supplied the titles for the previous versions, was to name this last experiment, the subversive profundity of which remains as usual unnoticed by everyone else: Monsieur Ingres’s good days…”

The Intelligence (L’Intelligence), 1946

Perhaps of more significance to the history of Belgian Surrealism, though, is that Marcel Mariën was responsible for the first monograph on Magritte, published in 1943, and for the subsequent study on the artist, ‘Les corrections naturelles,’ which appeared in 1947. Mariën also claimed that during this time because of the bleak economic times, painted forgeries of the works of other masters and that Marcel sold some of these paintings (the claim has not been documented).

The green stripe (Portrait of madame Matisse), Henri Matisse, 1906

The pebble (Le galet), 1948

Whether ‘forgery’ or not, what is distinct in this period of Magritte paintings is the vivid tone of the colors, combined with an erotic atmosphere. The surrealist object, abstract though defined, gave its place to the undetermined and colorful stripes and lines of impressionism, expressing a turn in the painter’s attitude from the painting of the spirit to the painting of the heart. It could be said that it was the war what made the difference: the naive attitude of the surrealists who wanted to create an atmosphere of shock and danger, turn into an effort to offer some colors and warm sentiments in a world devastated by the Second World War. Magritte did this by imitating paintings of famous painters before him.

The Surrealists blamed Magritte for his paintings:

The riff began when Magritte accompanied by Marcel Mariën went to Paris in 1946 to meet with Breton to show his new work. Breton was not impressed and his close friend ELT Mesens didn’t approve of his new ‘sunlit period’ which Magritte argued was “the need in this post-war world to emerge from darkness.” Magritte added, “against the general pessimism I uphold the quest for joy and pleasure.”

Breton replied in a letter, “I can assure you that not one of your latest pictures gives me the impression of sunlight (Renoir, yes)...” To justify his change in direction Magritte wrote ‘Le Surréalisme en plein soleil’ (Surrealism in full sunlight), and circulated the draft to various surrealists for support. Later in 1946 Breton published a list of the various surrealist painters and left Magritte off the list- he later listed Magritte as one of the “surrealists despite themselves.”

The goad (L’ aiguillon), 1943

Favorable omens, 1944

In 1946 Magritte issued his manifesto Surrealism in full sunlight, saying, “We have neither the time nor the taste to play at Surrealist art, we have a huge task ahead of us, we must imagine charming objects which will awaken what is left within us of the instinct to pleasure…”

Starry night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Thousand and one nights (Les mille et une nuits), 1946

Although his ‘sunlit’ Renoir styled paintings began in 1943, all his work was not impressionist. At the start of 1947 Magritte was painting in both his realist style and his impressionist style. Some of his works were already headed toward more extreme colors. This extreme style, closer to some of Van Gogh works, would accelerate in late 1947 when he was invited to hold his first solo exhibition in Paris at the Galerie du Faubourg in May 1948. He had waited twenty years to do a solo show in Paris and was resentful at the lack of appreciation that he felt the Parisian surrealists gave him.

The spilt (La fissure), 1949

Because the money is US currency and Magritte had an art dealer in New York, Alexander Iolas, we could assume the break means a break from the past, as if we were arriving at the ‘New World’ on a ship. With some international recognition and success through Alexander Iolas, Magritte was not impressed by his invitation to hold his one man show at the Galerie du Faubourg, Paris. As a joke concocted by Magritte and his friends, Rene painted a series of hilarious pictures to exert a bit of revenge upon the Paris art world.

The triumphant march, 1947

The pope’s crime, 1948

The ways and means (Les voies et moyens), 1948

The ellipsis (L’ ellipse), 1948

According to Bernard Marcade, “In French, the term ‘vache’ is used for an excessively fat woman, or a soft, lazy person. An unpleasant person is described as a ‘peau de vache’ (‘cow-skin’); ‘amour vache’ (‘cow-love’) refers to a relationship more physical than emotional. It thus treads a line between vulgarity and coarseness, and that is what characterizes this set of paintings and gouaches, representing a radical departure from the painter’s neutral, detached style which had finally been accepted by Parisian Surrealist orthodoxy. Overall, the striking thing about these works is their garish tones, their exuberant, grotesque and caricatured subjects, all executed rapidly and casually in the name of a freedom from aesthetic and moral injunctions and prescriptions.

The exhibition was accompanied by a small catalogue with a preface by the poet Louis Scutenaire, bearing an evocative title (‘Les pieds dans le plat’ - Putting one’s foot in it) and written in a slangy style. Moreover, Scutenaire would admit as much some years later: “The important thing was not to enchant the Parisians, but outrage them.” The triviality of the works actually wrong-foots Surrealist good taste. Both text and images are placed on a deliberately rustic and provincial register. “We’d been fed-up for a good long time deep in our forests, in our green pastures.” Traditionally, the Belgians were seen as coarse peasants by the French, including the intellectuals (in 1865 Charles Baudelaire had written his pamphlet ‘Poor Belgium’). This chauvinism, still prevalent even among Parisian Surrealists, was here returned to the sender: “We’d like to say shit politely to you, in your false language,” Scutenaire goes on to write. “Because we bumpkins, we yokels, have absolutely no manners, you realize.”

Famine (La famine), 1948

Skeletons fighting over a pickled herring, James Ensor, 1891

Magritte’s vache period was a kind of sabotage of the idea of painting which to a certain extent anticipates what would be, some 30 years later, at the heart of the so-called ‘Bad painting’ which erupted across the world of Western art in the late 1970s and 1980s. In it, in fact, we find a similar way of integrating the devalued registers of popular culture (advertising, comic strips, graffiti). Scutenaire suggests that this series of paintings was to a large extent inspired by “caricatures shown by Colinet, published before 1914 in magazines for children”. It is true that one can recognize, here and there, explicit references to caricatures by the Belgian cartoonist Deladoes, or even direct borrowings of scenes from the ‘Aventures des pieds nickelés,’ the famous strip drawn by Louis Forton:

Cover sketch from ‘L’ empâtant’ (1914 -1915), Louis Forton

The exhibition at the Galerie du Faubourg enjoyed no commercial success. But the target had been hit. The Parisian Surrealists felt they were being aimed at, and were duly offended. The ‘vache’ period could not subsequently be transformed into a style. Barely a few weeks after the opening of the show, Magritte used the excuse of his wife’s supposedly negative reaction to bring the adventure to an end: “I would quite like to continue with the ‘approach’ I experimented with in Paris, and take it further. That’s my tendency: one of slow suicide. But there’s Georgette and my familiar disgust with being ‘sincere’. Georgette prefers the well-made painting of ‘yesteryear’, so particularly to please Georgette in future I’m going to show the painting of yesteryear. I’ll find a way to slip in a great big incongruity from time to time.”

The ocean (L’ ocean) 1943

As we’ve already said, the difference between the ‘surrealist’ and the ‘sunlit’ Magritte was in colors. The surrealist object is something well defined (although highly abstract), while the impressionist object is dissolved into an ‘ocean of flowing colors.’ In fact, Magritte kept his surrealist objects, although he made them appear more colorful. In the following paintings we see some of Magritte’s favorite leaf-like representations:

The fire, 1943

Elsinore (Elseneur) 1944

The clearing, 1944

The flavor of tears (La saveur des larmes), 1946

‘Elsinore Castle’ is the setting for much of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In the painting the forest forms the outline of the castle.

In ‘Flavor of Tears’ we encounter Magritte’s favorite ‘sky-like’ landscape, with a curtain at the right side and some leaf-like trees, though in this version of the ‘flavor of tears’ one of the ‘trees’ is broken.

About this time, Magritte’s ‘bilboquets,’ were transforming into ‘cicerines:’

Fragment of a painting (Fragment d’une toile), 1945

Natural encounters, 1945

In ‘Natural encounters’ we find artist Robert Gober’s high windows. The painting shows a pair of cicerones (which represent guides) standing in front of a wall pierced by two high casement windows revealing patches of blue sky. It looks like the window on the right has fallen magically and now is in a different position on the wall.

The archivist (L’archiviste), 1948

The cripple (Le stropiat), 1948

The age of pleasure (L’âge du plaisir), 1946

The depths of pleasure (La profondeur du plaisir), 1948

Magritte never abandoned his ‘art of conversation,’ or his pipe, as shown in ‘The archivist,’ or in ‘The cripple’ respectively, while his impressionistic women with long hair and bright colors are holding his favorite bilboquets. Therefore, the ‘forbidden world’ of the painter still remains a kingdom hidden at the ‘depths of pleasure,’ much closer to the world of dreams than ever before.

Applied dialectics

Magritte’s earliest paintings, which date from about 1915, were Impressionistic in style. He studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, but found the instruction uninspiring. The paintings he then produced were influenced by Futurism and by Cubism.

Magritte’s advertisements for the couture firm ‘Norine,’ 1926

By 1924 Rene Magritte was working as a design artist for Norine, run by a charismatic couple: the cultural and intellectual Paul-Gustave Van Hecke and the grande couturière Honorine “Norine” Deschrijver. They established their couture business during World War I (1918). For the first time, a Belgian couture house created its own designs instead of buying them from Paris, and offered an attractive and highly original local alternative. After the war, they became the most important couture house in the country.

Project for a mural, Norine House, Brussels, 1931

Norine was a prominent representative of the Modernist movement in fashion. In fact, Van Hecke and Norine’s environment was entirely modern and was a hub of Surrealism and Expressionism: their private home, Van Hecke’s art galleries and journals and the couture house’s salons featured work by national and international contemporary artists. They firmly embedded art in fashion; this symbiosis with modern art gave their creations high art status. The couture house’s beautiful graphics were conceived by Belgian artists such as Frits Van den Berghe, Leon de Smet and- most importantly, by René Magritte.

Magritte held his first exhibition in Brussels in 1927. Critics heaped abuse on the exhibition. Depressed by the failure, he moved to Paris where he became involved in the surrealist group. Having made little impact in Paris, Magritte returned to Brussels in 1930 and resumed working in advertising. He and his brother, Paul, formed an agency which earned him a living wage.

Studio Dongo advertisement, 1931

Between the years 1931-1935, Magritte and his musician brother Paul built at the back of his arden an advertising company, Studio Dongo, named after Fabrice Del Dongo. Magritte’s main goal was to paint and he did ad work only because of his financial difficulty. The Studio Dongo followed the rules of advertising: their messages were neutral and simple. They produced illustrations, advertising artwork and covers for musical scores as a means of making money while Magritte continued to try and sell his paintings.

Although Magritte exhibited twice at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in the 1930s, he was temporarily left without a commercial outlet for his paintings after the closure of ‘Le Centaure’ in 1930. The gallery’s stock of 150 recent paintings by Magritte was purchased by his old friend E. L. T. Mesens. Later that decade Mesens moved to London, where he became director of the London Gallery. Through Mesens, Magritte gained greater recognition in Great Britain.

In 1933, Magritte defined his artist intentions by stating that the primary aim of his work from that point on would be to reveal the hidden and often personal affinities between objects, rather than juxtaposing unrelated objects. He continued to remain in contact with Breton and Eluard in Paris, contributing to the final two issues of ‘Le Surréalisme’ and remained associated with surrealism in general throughout his career.

Soon Magritte’s output increased due to the sponsorship of Claude Spaak, who he met in 1931. Spaak was a playwright, but had also been an active collector of Magritte’s paintings for some time. In 1935, he made a semi-formal arrangement to allow Magritte to abandon commercial work and focus fully on his own artistic output. To this end, he provided the artist a monthly stipend, while also guaranteeing the paintings he produced. In addition to this, Spaak actively sought other sponsors for Magritte.

When Edward James took over Magritte’s Dongo Studio company around 1936, Magritte quit his ad work at Dongo and devoted himself entirely to painting. Thanks to James, Spaak and Mesens, Magritte’s art began to be recognized internationally. Consequently companies began to contact Magritte to create artwork for advertisements he often was inspired directly by his canvases.

The witness, 1938

The present (Le présent), 1938-39

In the 1940s Magritte had again joined the communist party, which he had joined for the third time. Magritte's political involvement was based essentially upon his spirit of opposition. All of his poster designs were rejected on principle by the party leadership, and he could not bear having to subordinate his art to an ideological party line, even one so broadly conceived. “There is no more reason for art to be Walloon than for it to be vegetarian,” was his reply to those seeking to enlist him for exhibitions aimed at demonstrating regionalist interests. Ultimately, his sole, his real banner was the mystery inherent in objects, in the world, that mystery which belongs to everyone and to no one.

It is true that Magritte demonstrated something of an antisocial tendency; with his rebellious temperament, he found it difficult to conform to existing conventions. One day, the King wished to give a banquet in his honor, perhaps intending to commission a picture from him; Magritte rang up the master of ceremonies a few hours before the dinner was due to begin, informing him that he had unfortunately burnt a hole in his dinner jacket with his cigarette, and would therefore be unable to participate in the festivities. He soon fell out with Raymond, whom he criticized for being bourgeois and conformist; on the other hand, he always felt very close to his other brother, Paul.

Black flag (Le drapeau noir), 1937

In order to show the Nazi aggression in Europe and the coming World War, Magritte inaugurated a series of paintings, such as ‘The witness’ and ‘The present.’ The first one explicitly shows a slug and guts lying on the ground full of blood. The second one shows a morbid vulture wearing a funeral costume, and showing its nails, next to the ‘flowers of evil.’

Magritte’s ‘Black flag’ may refer to the German bombing of the small Spanish town of Guernica in April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. (Picasso also painted Guernica on the same subject). Magritte later wrote that the picture “gives a foretaste of the terror which would come from flying machines, and I am not proud of it.” In contrast to artists who praised technology, Magritte was showing that machines have their darker side. Looking closely at the planes, one can see that they are made of a variety of strange shapes. The plane on the bottom right has a long, curtained window where its wings should be.

Homesickness, 1940

In ‘Homesickness,’ the painter with his ‘wings of desire’ muses over the bridge, standing against the sitting lion in opposite directions. Magritte originally thought of calling this painting ‘Menopause,’ probably referring to a period without his wife.

The painting Homesickness features a forlorn Magritte as an angel leaning over a bridge contemplating the river, perhaps thinking of suicide. What about the lion? The lion is hard to overlook. Curiously the ‘king of the jungle’ is not threatening or menacing and looks away disinterested. Clearly the lion represents Georgette, and perhaps Magritte never understood this himself. The two are separated, not interested in each other, while Magritte contemplates his sorrow, his sadness, his rejection. Much of the change of the 1940s can be seen in his painting Homesickness, a painting that showed with great courage his depression over the very real threat of losing his family and home.

Sheila Legge

The ‘surrealist phantom,’ Trafalgar square, London, 1936

The first Surrealist Exhibition took place in London in July 1936. On his trips to London to visit James and Mesens to prepare for his exhibitions, Rene had an affair with the young surrealist model known as the ‘Surrealist Phantom’ of 1936, the artist Sheila Legg (in her mid-20s), who posed for surrealist events with Dali and others and was one of the most photographed surrealist woman at the time. Apparently this started in March 1937. As a result, Magritte made several visits to London in order to work in connection with Legg.

Magritte did not want to hurt Georgette or arouse her suspicions, so he arranged for his friend, Paul Colinet (1898-1957) a Belgian surrealist poet, to spend time with Georgette so she would be safe... a little too safe as it turned out. While Magritte was away Georgette and Paul Colinet became romantically involved. Georgette at one point asked Rene for a divorce. So when Magritte fled Brussels during the war, Georgette did not go with him.

Applied dialectics, 1945

The Belgium capital of Brussels was liberated by Allied forces on September 3, 1944. The Allies liberated the Belgium port of Antwerp, an important port. Magritte’s Applied Dialectics 1944-1945 is one of the few paintings that directly deals with the war. Most of his paintings (like his Treasure Island series) use the symbolic war birds to imply German aggression.

War is a really awful thing. It is such not only because of the impoverishment it brings about, but also, and most importantly for the artist, because of the humiliation of human personality. Therefore, the most dangerous wars in human history are those fought not explicitly but ‘in the background.’ The Second World War for example was horrible not only because of the heavy casualties, but, most importantly, because of the racist paranoia it brought about, re-emerging from the darkest depths of the human soul. Magritte himself was not a militant but he had to become a ‘war- artist’ in order to overcome the depressing atmosphere of the time. Although he usually painted pictures with ‘hidden meanings,’ since he had claimed that the picture had always have explicit interpretations, this time he decided to paint pictures clearly depicting the war.

“I’m no militant,” he said later on to Patrick Waldberg in 1965. “I feel unarmed for a political struggle, both as regards my competence and with respect to my energy. However, I hold to what you say I am, I continue to be for socialism… that is, a system which does away with the inequality of property distribution, with differences, with war. In what form I don’t know, but that’s my attitude, despite every defeat and set-back.”

Magritte was primarily a painter of ideas, a painter of visible thoughts, rather than of subjects. He valued neither lyrical nor Expressionist abstraction. In his view, those artists producing such work, in presenting subject-matter, were presenting nothing worthy of a single thought, nor even deserving of one's interest. Magritte did not possess a studio in the strict sense of the word, responding maliciously to those who commented in surprise upon this that painting was done in order that it might land on the canvas, and not on the carpet, which indeed revealed not the slightest stain. The truth is that we cannot even say with any certainty whether Magritte actually enjoyed painting. He clearly liked to think in pictures; as soon as he had elaborated these thoughts with the aid of sketches and little drawings, however, he baulked at the idea of transferring them onto canvas, preferring to go and play chess in the ‘Greenwich,’ a well-known Brussels cafe. He was not as passionate a player as Man Ray or even Marcel Duchamp. nevertheless, Magritte loved this form of visible mathematics more than the act of painting. Numerous anecdotes attest to his great contempt for that which Bram Bogart called ‘peinture-peinture’ (which may be roughly translated as ‘painting for the painting’) and Marcel Duchamp ‘the class of the ‘rétiniens’ (‘retina-cretins’)” - in contrast to the class of the “grey subject-matter.”

In other worlds, colors decorate the painting but do not form the objects it consists of. It’s like a game of chess: The color or the forms of the pieces don’t decide the moves or the result. The pieces move in certain directions, but what matters is the mathematics of the movements, not their apparent motion. Furthermore, a good chess player, like an excellent artist, enjoys his game for hours. But it is not like sitting in front of a television ‘killing time;’ it’s a merciless effort not to lose concentration, not to make wrong calculations about the parts of the game, to be fully alert of all possible combinations. Therefore, good art, like a game of chess, is neither a game for the sake of the game, nor a play for those who just hung around, hopelessly watching others how they make the ‘pieces’ move.

Not to be reproduced

Not to be reproduced (Portrait of Edward James), 1937

There had been some allegations about Magritte having been involved in forgery. According to Patricia Allmer, in her essay ‘La reproduction interdite: René Magritte and forgery:’

The first monograph on René Magritte’s art, entitled Magritte, was published in 1943. Marcel Mariën wrote the introductory essay for the book and Magritte himself chose twenty images which were reproduced in color. As David Sylvester writes: “There was one highly significant difference in the book as published from the book as originally planned- that all the reproductions were in color. This was a surprising development given the cost involved and Magritte’s precarious financial position.

Marcel Mariën’s autobiography ‘Le Radeau de la mémoire’ states that the funds for this book, and for other projects, stemmed from Magritte’s production and sale, between 1942 and 1946, of artistic forgeries. Mariën cites Magritte to illustrate his relaxed attitude towards forgeries stating “that buying a fake diamond without knowing will cause the same degree of satisfaction [as buying a real one], due to the fact that one has paid a high price for it.”

Sylvester has reproduced some of the forged images in question in the ‘Magritte catalogue raisonné;’ however, there is as yet no real, substantial evidence that Magritte ever forged paintings: therefore these images will be referred to in this essay as ‘Magritte’s alleged forgeries.’

According to Mariën, Magritte’s forgeries were produced to fund color plates for the 1943 monograph and included, it is alleged, imitations of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Titian and Meindert Hobbema.

Mariën’s allegations of forgery were contested by Magritte’s widow, Georgette, in the Brussels and Paris courts. The allegations were based on citations from postcards and letters by Magritte in La Destination, which is Mariën’s collection of letters between himself and Magritte, making the reader reliant on the former’s claims about the authenticity of the letters he provides. This reliance on narrators stretches still further, since, as Sylvester explains: “It may well be that Mariën has not neglected to follow his mentor’s [Magritte’s] lead. The reproductions in ‘La Destination’ include, on the one hand the drawings within Magritte’s letters, on the other, a number of drawings unconnected with the letters, which are not actually ascribed to Magritte but are not ascribed to anyone else either and which are in a style closer to that of the set of drawings made by Mariën for Louis Scutenaire… than the style of any Magritte drawings known to us.

Marcel Mariën and Leo Dohmen, Forced labor (Les travaux forcés), detail of ‘Grande baisse’ (‘Great depression’), 1962

The images in ‘La destination’ were not the only instance where Mariën could have produced work that was subsequently attributed to Magritte and where Mariën could have forged Magrittes. Another instance is the spoof advertisement ‘Grande baisse’ from 1962. It was produced by Mariën, but ascribed to Magritte. The leaflet was sent out the morning before the private viewing of Magritte’s retrospective at the Casino in Knokke. It was headed by a caption showing a 100 Francs banknote with Léopold I’s head replaced by that of Magritte. The title that appeared below this, ‘Hard labor,’ was taken from the warning printed on Belgian banknotes: “La loi punit le contrefacteur des travaux forcés” (“The law punishes the counterfeiter with forced labor”)… Under Belgian law the reproduction of a current banknote in any form constitutes forgery unless it is printed over with the word ‘specimen.’ The photomontage led the Director of the National Bank of Belgium to call in the police who immediately phoned Magritte. André Blavier, in a letter to Raymond Queneau, explained the incident: “Very important gentlemen of the police are said to be dealing with the case.” And Magritte, when interviewed on the telephone, thought the call was part of the joke and, not appreciating it, started bawling out the director of the STD, or whatever its equivalent is in our dear mother-country.

Leo Dohmen, a photographer and art dealer, was Mariën’s accomplice. He was, following Mariën’s suggestion, the actual producer of the photomontage. According to Dohmen the image and its title ‘Forced labor’ were deliberate allusions on Mariën’s part to another, much more serious forgery, namely five hundred copies of counterfeit 100 francs banknotes allegedly made by Magritte and his brother Paul in 1953 and which Mariën helped to distribute.

The specter (Le spectre), 1948- 1949

Although ‘Grande baisse’ is a critique of Magritte, connecting him closely with forgery, it also seems to be based on, and imitates (or perhaps even plagiarizes), another artwork depicting a banknote incorporating the manipulation of the King’s head, namely Magritte’s painting ‘The specter.’ This detailed image of the obverse of a Belgian 500 Francs banknote stretches across the picture’s dark background, and the image is signed, underneath on the left, by Magritte.

According to Sylvester the banknote is a virtual copy of a Belgian 500 franc banknote. Only one small detail in relation to the currency is added- in Magritte’s portrait Leopold II, second King of Belgium, smokes a pipe. Money here reveals its spectrality- like the specter it stands in for and marks the ‘return’ of something which is absent, namely value. The signature in the painting also reveals its ghostly character, as marker of the absent presence of the artist. Money, the image and its signature- all are open to forgery, revealing the unreliability of the very elements of bourgeois reality which relies so heavily on conventional assumptions about the authority of presence guaranteed by representation, money and signatures.

One dollar bill, John Haberle, 1890

Magritte’s ‘The specter’ draws together two forms of representational currency, art and money. It seems to imitate or copy not only money, a 500 Francs banknote, but also art, as indicated in the work from 1890 by nineteenth-century American trompe l’œil artist John Haberle, entitled ‘One dollar bill’ (with which Magritte may have been familiar). Trompe l’œil and forgeries share an intention to deceive the viewer, and, simultaneously, to question the aura of originality. The counterfeit is, like the forgery, a constitutive part of the trompe l’œil, since, as Célestine Dars states, the trompe l’œil is designed or placed in such a way as to “draw the real world into a counterfeit one.”

With respect to Mariën, he and his fellow Surrealists loved making jokes. In 1953, Mariën went to the Belgian coast, where he distributed false bank notes printed by René and Paul Magritte. In 1962, the joke was on Magritte when Mariën and Leo Dohmen produced a tract, ‘La grande baisse,’ to coincide with a major retrospective of Magritte’s work in Knokke. Presented as written by Magritte himself, it announced drastic discounts on the artist’s major paintings and offered the chance to order them in different sizes.

Even leading Surrealists, amongst them André Breton, failed to grasp the joke and praised Magritte for this undertaking. Magritte was furious when he found out and the 25-year friendship between Magritte and Mariën was over.

Three flags, Jasper Johns, Jr., 1958

Concerning Magritte, I believe he was spooked by naïve people who took everything for granted; people, for example, who believe that painting the American flag is a crime. Certainly Magritte was very scared by people who destroyed or ‘executed’ his art by one kind of interpretation or another.

Escaping criticism, Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

However, the answer (concerning ‘forgery’) is much simpler (though it seems more complicated in the beginning). Jasper John’s painting ‘Three flags’ uses the technique called ‘trompe-l'œil.’ Wikipedia explains that trompe-l'œil (French for ‘deceiving the eye’), is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that depicted objects exist in three dimensions.

Still life, Pompeii, c. 70 AD

Though the phrase originates in the Baroque period, when it refers to perspectival illusionism, trompe-l'œil dates much further back. It was (and is) often employed in murals. Instances from Greek and Roman times are known, for instance in Pompeii. A typical trompe-l'œil mural might depict a window, door, or hallway, intended to suggest a larger room.

A version of an oft-told ancient Greek story concerns a contest between two renowned painters. Zeuxis (born around 464 BC) produced a still life painting so convincing that birds flew down to peck at the painted grapes. A rival, Parrhasius, asked Zeuxis to judge one of his paintings that was behind a pair of tattered curtains in his study. Parrhasius asked Zeuxis to pull back the curtains, but when Zeuxis tried, he could not, as the curtains were Parrhasius’s painting- making Parrhasius the winner.'%C5%93il

The Annunciation diptych, Jan van Eyck, (1433- 1435)

As we see 3-D perspective in art was well known since the ancient times, and the knowledge has passed all the way through from the Renaissance to modern painting. Therefore, it is a process of passing down artistic and scientific knowledge, through imitation and experiment.

A bachelor’s drawer, John Haberle (1890- 94)

It is also interesting to note that, according to Wikipedia, there is a fanciful form of architectural trompe-l’œil, quodlibet (‘quod libet’ in Latin means ‘what pleases’), which features realistically rendered paintings of such items as paper-knives, playing-cards, ribbons, and scissors, apparently accidentally left lying around. Therefore, we see that even Magritte’s bilboquets have their own ancestors in the past (such as the quodlibets).

The bloodletting (La saignée), 1939

This is another example of the trompe l’oeil technique. According to the aforementioned analysis ‘La reproduction interdite: René Magritte and forgery:’

‘The bloodletting’ also draws on the tradition of trompe l’œil through the representation of a painted frame and a brick wall, exploring the trompe l’œil’s subversion of the sublime since the trompe l’œil artist will not leave anything to the imagination. He will not allow any interpretation beyond what he represents.

Sarah Whitfield recalls Magritte’s reply, when asked by a journalist what was the reason for painting a brick wall: “I think I was wondering at the time what would be absolutely forbidden to show in a picture.” What is absolutely forbidden to show is the nothingness and the bareness behind the painting. Magritte comments: “Behind the colors in the pictures is the canvas. Behind the canvas there is a wall, behind the wall there is … etc. Visible things always hide other visible things. But a visible image hides nothing.”

The nothingness of the ‘absolutely forbidden’ is revealed in Magritte, through allowing the viewer to risk the ‘gaze’ into nothingness. As effective as a forgery, Magritte’s artwork counteracts and subverts the Western ‘privileged position of the gaze…’

As Baudrillard states:

“When the hierarchical organization of real space … is undone, something else emerges… What is more, this shock that is the miracle of trompe l’œil … reveal[s] to us that ‘reality’ is never more than a world hierarchically staged, an objectivity achieved according to the rules of depth; that reality is a principle the observance of which regulates all the painting, sculpture, and architecture of the time. But it is a principle and a simulacrum and nothing more, put to an end by the experimental hyper-simulation of trompe l’œil.”

Magritte’s forgeries and use of trompe l’œil methods reveal reality’s simulated nature. His art does not try to ‘create’ or use a ‘new language’- this would reinforce the capitalist myths of ‘originality’ and ‘individual creativity.’ Rather, through plagiarism and forgery, he reinvents, changes and interferes with the language of those who exert aesthetic and representational power, ranging from the previous canon to the art market. Magritte’s attraction to forgery is motivated by the same factors as his attraction to trompe l’œil- both negate Western notions of the authenticity, originality and genuine meaning of the work of art…

As Marcel Mariën states in that first monograph of 1943: “The particular point of [Magritte’s] painting… is a permanent revolt against the commonplaces of existence.” Magritte’s forgeries are part of a wider method intended to disrupt Western bourgeois capitalist ‘habits of thought.’ As he wrote in 1935: “My art is only valid insofar as it resists bourgeois ideology, in the name of which life is extinguished.”

I believe that the previous analysis has confused forgery and artistic technique (at least it doesn’t try to specify the boundaries). Trompe l’oeil is not a ‘paranoid illusion’ but a fact of how the eye and the brain work. In fact it is a truth which has its deepest roots in the holographic principle. Simply put, three dimensional information can be adequately represented in two dimensions (this is why the brain is able to reversely unwind information from 2-D to 3-D). Therefore the trompe l’oeil technique is not a satanic device of the communists who want to destroy the western civilization. It’s a method which exploits the way nature works.

‘Not to be reproduced’ was commissioned by poet and Magritte patron Edward James and is considered a portrait of James although James’ face is not depicted. (In other words, either Edward James was too naïve to believe he was depicted in the painting, or too kind so that he passed over Magritte’s trick.) Magritte painted another portrait of Edward James (The ‘pleasure principle’), however, his face (again) is obscured by a bright flash like that produced by a camera flash. ‘Not to be reproduced’ depicts a man standing in front of a mirror, but whereas the book on the mantelpiece is reflected correctly, the man can see only the back of his head. The book on the mantel is a well-worn copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ (written here in French as ‘Les aventures d’Arthur Gordon Pym’).

Is this title also a forgery? Well, it isn’t, since the painting says that it is ‘not to be reproduced.’ I am sure very few people are aware (or have really grasped) the meaning of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. The problem is found not in the human nature but in nature in general. A central bank which has the authority (and only this bank) to print money is as much a forger as anyone else who does the same (although the bank is considered a ‘legitimate’ one). There is also virtual money nowadays, so the problem of forgery has been transformed from a ‘genuine- fake’ to a ‘real-virtual’ dilemma. To ‘copy’- ‘paste’ information certainly cannot be considered a crime of any form. So, let’s suppose there is also ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ painting (instead of the ‘authentic-fake’) dilemma. In ‘Not to be reproduced,’ the reality is ‘faked’ because the figure is looking at his back in the mirror. But the realistic element is not lost, because the viewer inspects the whole picture in the ‘right way,’ otherwise he would see his own image inverted in a real mirror. The ingenuity of the painter once more is proved: “This is not Edward James.” In fact Magritte was too ingenious to be a forger: He could always transform ‘forgery’ to produce his own authentic style. Isn’t this all about the progress of culture after all?

In praise of dialectics (Éloge de dialectique), 1937

This is a trompe l’oeil trick: what should be outside the window is really inside the window. Nice! This is one of the paintings Magritte did referencing the German philosopher Georg Hegel. Magritte owned a French translation of Hegel’s works and his philosophy of painting was organized in a similar way: By juxtaposing opposite images the mind seeks to resolve the conflict. This concept became integral in Magritte’s paintings and aptly illustrated above: the outside is really the inside.

Here’s a definition of ‘dialectics:’ The Hegelian process of change in which a concept or its realization passes over into and is preserved and fulfilled by its opposite. The development through the stages of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis in accordance with the laws of dialectical materialism. Any systematic reasoning, exposition, or argument that juxtaposes opposed or contradictory ideas and usually seeks to resolve their conflict. The dialectical tension or opposition between two interacting forces or elements.

This was Magritte’s applied dialectics, the conversation he had with himself, expressed in his paintings. Few people understand that the world and what we think about the world are two different things, although they may look alike. ‘In praise of dialectics’ depicts a house within a house, the real object and its representation in our soul. But both houses are in fact representations in the painting. Again the mirror in ‘Not to be reproduced’ is a not a real mirror. But perhaps through this process of ‘double reversal,’ by looking in a magic mirror, watching instead of our face the back of our head, we may come closer to reality- not as we find it in our minds, but as we conceive it by understanding what we don’t understand.

The return of the flame

Cover illustration for the first volume of ‘Fantômas,’ anonymous artist, 1911

One of the most popular characters in the history of French crime fiction, Fantômas was created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. The character was also the basis of various film, television, and comic book adaptations, with a series of silent serials in 1913-14.

The Fantômas novels and the subsequent films were highly regarded by the French avant-garde of the day, particularly by the surrealists. Blaise Cendrars called the series “the modern Aeneid;” Guillaume Apollinaire said that “from the imaginative standpoint Fantômas is one of the richest works that exist.” Magritte and the surrealist poet and novelist Robert Desnos both produced works alluding to Fantômas.

The return of the flame (Le retour de flamme), 1943

Fantômas is the master criminal who subverts the everyday, by slipping into the role of its actors. Fantômas films are obsessed with forgery, depicting its prevalence in scenes, motifs and actions ranging from fake jewelry to the forgery of letters, signatures and other documents, as for example in the first Fantômas film in 1913. In this film Fantômas steals a baroness’s jewels and leaves her with a blank name card on which, after he has gone, his name magically appears. In the same episode different letters and signatures are shown, and people are not who they seem to be; so the bourgeois gentlemen Gurn turns out to be Fantômas himself, thereby allowing Fantômas to enact the meaning of the word ‘Phantom’ embedded in his name, by repeatedly becoming ‘something that has only an apparent existence; an apparition, a spectre; a spirit, a ghost.’ Fantômas is like a linguistic ‘shifter’ where the moment of capture becomes the very moment of his escape, recalling Derrida’s deictic play: “Where? Here. There.”

Magritte has been accused of imitating (or even forging) ideas. As Patricia Allmer says:

“One of the color images included in the monograph, to fund which Magritte forged artworks, was ‘The return of the flame,’ from 1943- another instance of painterly ‘plagiarism.’ The painting shows Fantômas, the master criminal, reigning over Paris. Sylvester calls this painting a “translation of the famous Fantômas poster,” whilst Georges Marlier dismisses it as “the Fantômas poster, painfully transposed onto canvas.” The painting is indeed a repainting, a plagiarism of a poster where the only changes are the style of the painting and the flower in Fantômas hands. Counterfeit and forgery are also present in Magritte’s identity. The remnant of ‘Magritte’ the person is a fictional, almost cartoonlike, bourgeois figure, coupled to an oeuvre which has been shaped by art history into a ‘coherent’ whole. As is stated in the catalogue to the exhibition ‘Seeing is deceiving:’ “It is characteristic of 20th century needs that art historians have attempted, purely on stylistic grounds…, to isolate a group of works produced by the same artist. This ‘artist’ is essentially the creation of art historians…”

Photograph of Magritte with ‘The barbarian’ (Le barbare) (1927), 1938

A photograph taken in 1938 shows Magritte standing beside his painting ‘The barbarian.’ The photograph itself is a phantom, an apparition of the painting, which no longer exists. ‘The barbarian’ shows Fantômas wearing a cylinder and an evening gown in front of a fragile wall- fragile, because it metamorphoses into transparency. According to Sylvester there is a remarkable similarity between this image and a music-hall poster of the period, showing the popular illusion of transparency known as ‘Pepper’s ghost effect’- another trompe l’oeil, another forgery. In the photograph, Magritte mimes the posture of Fantômas in the painting as well as his clothing through wearing a bowler hat and evening dress. Magritte mimes and parodies Fantômas, thereby reversing the conventional preeminence of reality- here reality follows fiction. However, he mimes a character whose main feature is that he can slip in and out of roles and appear in different, but mainly bourgeois, identities.”

Pictured above is a promotional photograph released by Disneyland just before the Haunted Mansion opened to the public in 1969, demonstrating the amazing special effects to be found in the Grand Hall segment of the attraction.

The illusion known as ‘Pepper’s ghost’ stems back to the mid 1800’s when Henry Dircks and John Pepper first demonstrated the principle. It has been used over the years as the basis of many magic tricks and ghostly effects, most noticeably perhaps the haunted house in Disneyland. The basic principle is that with a half silvered mirror one can see the superposition of two scenes, the dominant objects being the brightest, or most highly illuminated. The mirror surface used goes by a few different names, half silvered mirror, one way mirror, and two way mirror. The basic principle is simply that the surface transmits and reflects light, normally 50% of each.

Certainly Magritte identified himself with Fantômas (among other heroes). But Fantômas was not a real thief, he was a fictional character. Magritte was a painter who depicted this fictional character in his paintings. As Fantômas was always able to escape, so Magritte always wanted to be illusive in his paintings using his favorite technique of trompe l’œil. When Magritte painted the poster ‘The return of the flame’ he made a painting in the same way that an artist who paints a landscape does not ‘forge’ it. And when a painter paints himself as a robber, he shouldn’t be afraid of going to jail.

According to Matesson Art, there can be no doubt that this mysterious challenge to the established order and the laws of the ruling class represented a rich source of inspiration for Magritte, one which also played a role in the subject matter of some of his pictures: one thinks, for example, of such pictures as ‘The return of the flame.’ The influence of the Fantômas figure also played a significant role in Magritte’s selection of titles for his pictures. Patrick Waldberg has been able to provide evidence of the considerable importance of the titles of Magritte's pictures within his work as a whole, where their purpose may be seen as providing a counterpoint to realistic perception.

The Great War (La Grande Guerre), 1964

For instance, the woman in the feathered hat, her face hidden by a bunch of violets, should be seen as ‘The Great War,’ as an incessant conflict with that which is visible, where each object always hides another. In revealing itself, an object simultaneously conceals itself, thereby functioning as the curtain for another. Magritte was always deeply conscious of this tightrope walk between revelation and masking. Things have a flip side, a reverse, which is even more curious and fascinating than their manifested form, the facade presented to everyone, their face; and it was this reverse, this dark side, which Magritte so subtly captured and rendered visible, in defiance of all logic.

Accordingly, the titles of his pictures never serve to describe or identify. On the contrary, they bring some additional infringement, some further false trail, into play, the function of which is to create a confrontation within language and the logic of words, one analogous to the confrontation arising out of the painted picture. Magritte’s work is certainly representational, and yet, at the same time, it constitutes an incessant attack upon the principle of reproduction in art. What his figures thereby lose in identity, they gain in mystery and otherness. Mystery finds its way into the everyday in Magritte’s art, while subversive thought becomes gentle custom. Joy is constant; every moment is a festival.

One main inspirational source for the Surrealists was the literature of Isidore Ducasse, alias the Comte de Lautréamont, who around 1870 had written that nothing is “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Later, in 1948, Magritte illustrated Lautréamont complete works with 77 drawings which rivaled the text in strangeness.

The threatened assassin (L’ assassin menacé), 1927

‘The threatened assassin’ is another of Magritte’s paintings that captures the mystery of Fantômas. The painting is derived from a scene in Louis Feuillade Fantômas film. It depicts two figures concealed by the doorway, armed with strange weapons, watching the ‘murderer,’ who is dressed in a business suit.

Magritte provides this narrative- Fantômas has just killed a woman, and having placed a pure white cloth over her upper chest, pauses to listen to a record on the phonograph. Outside the room, three witnesses stare into the inner room. Juve and Fandor (two detectives closest) threaten to capture Fantômas, one with a cudgel, the other with a net. Clearly Fantômas is surrounded (threatened) but is he worried? No... “because he always escapes and even passes through walls.”

Here’s an analysis from Levy: “Magritte’s room, portraying the ‘stabbed mannequin,’ by its very complexity, sets up resonances that echo throughout Robbe-Grillet’s text. It matters little that the latter's narrative contradicts details in the painting or adds to them, since the picture is subverted in the same manner that reality is contradicted. The three men looking in the window of ‘The threatened assassin’ are not mentioned in Robbe-Grillet’s text and the bowler-hatted man on the left, outside the door, is holding a baluster, not a club. Robbe-Grillet invents the sound of the phonograph that the young man inside the room is listening to and the narrator says it is replaying the woman’s cry. This cry animates the painting and the naked mannequin which becomes a ‘real’ woman. Although there is no sewing machine in the picture, the narrator tells us that the phonograph is the same age as the sewing machine, an allusion to Lautréamont’s dissecting table where the fortuitous encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine generates the ultimate spark of Surrealist beauty and activity.”

David Sylvester suggests that ‘The threatened assassin’ were scripted from a set of violent and erotic poems by Paul Nougé finally published in 1956. The poems were written in 1926-27 when both Magritte and Nougé were working together designing catalogues for Samuels, a fur company. Here are some of the poetry lines:

“In the background, at the level of the window sill,
Four heads (Magritte only had room for three) stare at the murderer.
In the corridor on either side of the wide pen- door,
Two men are approaching unable as yet to discern the spectacle.
They are ugly customers.
Crouching, they hug the wall.
One of them unfurls a huge net, the other brandishing a club.
All this will be called, “The Threatened Murderer.”
Paul Nougé

I was wondering why every film has to have someone playing the bad guy, and why so often the bad guy is the favorite hero. There is something romantic about those breaking the law, going against the establishment. Is there some deeper truth behind this? First of all, we need a measure of ‘evil’ to compare it with what we define as ‘good.’ Otherwise both good and evil would have no (difference in) meaning. Secondly, good and evil are very much interchangeable. For example, if a thief gives part of the stolen stuff to the poor (as often is the case with romantic heroes such as Robin Hood) then he performs an act of high social importance, and the policemen chasing him become the ‘bad guys.’ As far as Magritte’s Fantômas is concerned, he uses any means available to succeed in his cause, treachery, illusion, misinformation, disguise, ghostly character. But no matter what the character of Fantômas was, Magritte used these techniques in an artistic and defensive manner. If Fantômas did so just to protect himself, Magritte did it also to protect his art.

Surrealism was born out of a protest against the establishment of the time. Communism was some sort of fashion at the time (a necessity for some poor countries, but a reason to talk about in bourgeois café.) I am not going to get political here; I just want to say that even if some surrealists were stuck with the communist ideal (like Breton did) others (like Dali and Magritte) progressed and produced real ‘revolutionary’ art. This is the point: no matter what the political background is, art always represents transformation, it is free to do so, and it must always remain (also politically) free.

11 The false mirror

The false mirror, 1928
The false mirror, 1935

The pupil of our eye is black; the diaphragm of a camera is also black, to regulate the amount of light passing through. The optics of the eye create an image of the visual world on the retina (through the cornea and lens), which has much the same function as the photographic film. In Magritte’s ‘False mirror’ we see this effect. We see an eye’s pupil, while the iris has the color of ‘sky with clouds.’ However, there’s much more to it, as the title suggests, ‘false’ mirror.

The black ‘spot’ that helps us see also creates a blind spot in vision. According to Wikipedia, a blind spot is the place in the visual field that corresponds to the lack of light-detecting photoreceptor cells on the optic disc of the retina where the optic nerve passes through the optic disc. Since there are no cells to detect light on the optic disc, a part of the field of vision is not perceived. The brain interpolates the blind spot based on surrounding detail and information from the other eye, so the blind spot is not normally perceived.

This is a way to perform the blind spot eye test:

Left eye blind spot test

Sit about arms- length from your computer monitor. Use your hand to cover your right eye (do not close the eye). Using your left eye, focus on the right dot in the picture below. Slowly move your head toward the computer monitor. The dot to the left should completely disappear as you move closer. If you continue to move closer after the dot has disappeared, it will then reappear.

Right eye blind spot test

Again, position yourself arms- length from your monitor, This time, cover your left eye (do not close the eye). Focus on the dot to the left pictured above while slowly moving toward the computer monitor. This time, the dot to the right should completely disappear as you move closer. Again, if you continue to move closer, it will reappear.

What is interesting to note is that the dot disappears when we cover the opposite eye, which means that one eye cannot cover the visual field of the other eye. This is why, as Wikipedia says, the brain interpolates the blind spot based on surrounding detail and information from the other eye, so the blind spot is not normally perceived. In other words, this has to do with unconscious inference.

In Magritte’s ‘False mirror’ it is as if one looks at his own eye, while looking at the sky. The black spot, which at the same time is one’s own pupil, takes the place of the sun, in the same sense that the sun illuminates whatever one sees. In this case, the function of the sun is inverted, to absorb light like our pupil does.

This ‘observer effect,’ according which the observer interacts with what he observes, finds its ultimate expression- the observer observes himself observing. The foreground and the background of the painting merge, while the traditional representation of god as an ‘eye in the sky’ becomes anthropic, as the whole sky is found within a human eye.

Therefore, an equivalent title for the painting (in physics terms) could be perhaps ‘The anthropic principle.’ According to Wikipedia, the anthropic principle is the philosophical consideration that observations of the physical universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. Some proponents of the anthropic principle reason that it explains why the universe has the age and the fundamental physical constants necessary to accommodate conscious life. As a result, they believe it is unremarkable that the universe’s fundamental constants happen to fall within the narrow range thought to be compatible with life.

In other words, this principle states that the reason we understand the world is because the world was made this way (otherwise we wouldn’t know it). The principle, although it looks like a tautology, has serious implications concerning our understanding of the world. One implication is that the world we observe is anthropic, meaning that what we see is inherently dependent on the way we perceive things.

There is an interesting comparison that we could make between the blind spot of the eye and black holes in the cosmos. First of all, we may note that the blind spot, as black holes, is not visible. We regard what is missing by inferring what should be there with relation to the objects of the surrounding environment. However, these objects are distorted by the effects of attention (or gravity respectively).

Artist’s conception of the event horizon of a black hole; Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

Furthermore, black holes are defined by the event horizon, which is like an imaginary ring surrounding the singularity of the black hole. It is imaginary because it becomes measurable relatively (at least two observers are needed in the universe to define an event horizon- a poor fellow falling into the black hole, and a lucky one measuring the fall. The universe has its own event horizon. It is naturally formed by comparing the growth rate of the universe to the speed of light. Places whose light will never catch up with us will remain eternally invisible; in the future that is, because we may observe them right now as they were in the distant past.

Therefore, an event horizon represents a condition of certain limits imposed to the observer with respect to his space-time frame of reference. However, our own thoughts seem to possess an event horizon. Events, for example, which took place in the past but will not happen again in the future are considered memories. Furthermore, the blind spot of vision suggests that there is a ‘black hole’ created by observation, as if light itself hides parts of the objects at the same time while it makes them visible. In a similar way, our thoughts seem to destroy the image of the perceived object at the point where attention is focusing, so that we need to ‘shift’ our attention a little further in order to conceive, though indirectly, the missing part. Therefore, we see how important psychological effects (the act of observation, for example) are in the interpretation of natural phenomena.

There is an interesting book Elizabeth Styles wrote, ‘The psychology of attention.’ According to her:

“Usually, we move our eyes to an object or location in space in order to fixate what we are attending to. However, as early as 1866, Helmholtz noted that attention and fixation were not necessarily coincident… If you fixate in one place (for example, on the asterisk here*) you are able to read nearby words without shifting fixation to the location occupied by those words…

One of the most popular metaphors for visual attention is that it is like a spotlight that allows us to selectively attend to particular parts of the visual environment. William James (1890) described visual attention as having a focus, a margin and a fringe… Posner (1980) showed that directing attention to a valid stimulus location facilitates visual processing, and this led him to suggest that “attention can be likened to a spotlight that enhances the efficiency of the detection of events within its beam.”

As Style’s remarks, “it is important to note here that attention is not synonymous with looking. Even when there is no time to make a voluntary eye movement to the cued location, facilitation is found. Thus, it seems, visual attention can be covertly directed to a spatial location other than the one we are fixating.”

The environment seems to be participating in what we see, all the time. Our perception of the world cannot be achieved if we just focus our attention on a form without simultaneously having an idea of the background. It is at a later, second, stage that focused concentration begins to explore the details of the observed object, while an idea about its general form has already been conceived.

This distinction between form and background is also related to impossible objects because the impossibility arises from the unconscious demand for wholeness. In the second painting (‘False mirror,’ 1935) Magritte blurs the conclusion drawn in the first one (‘False mirror,’ 1935), since there is a cloud passing in front of the eye’s pupil, making the eye an impossible object, but also suggesting that there seems to be an (objective) reality beyond the effect of observation.

This ultimate reality in the particular case is represented by the painter himself who seems to possess the special position to be able to observe the observer observing himself. However, who watches the painter? It is this question produced by infinite regress (the observer needs another observer to test the results of observation, ad infinitum) which brings about the anthropic reality of the world. The human conclusions about the world are as legitimate and ‘objective’ as the nature of the world itself.

The looking glass (La lunette d’approche), 1963

‘The looking glass’ shows the opening between the mirror that Alice traveled through. ‘Through the looking glass and what Alice found there’ (1871) is a work of children’s literature by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), generally categorized as literary nonsense but the books received cult status by the surrealists who treasured nonsense.

Alice in Wonderland (Alice au pays des merveilles) 1952

Literary nonsense (or nonsense literature) is a broad categorization of literature that uses sensical and nonsensical elements to defy language conventions or logical reasoning. Even though the most well-known form of literary nonsense is nonsense verse, the genre is present in many forms of literature.

The Jabberwock as illustrated by John Tenniel

The surrealist technique of automatic writing was based on nonsense poetry. Some of the previous Dadaist texts (or all of them) may be considered as nonsense writings. Lewis Carroll was one of the first to use nonsense writing. ‘Jabberwocky’ is one of his nonsense poems, and the word literally means ‘nonsense.’ Its first verse goes like this:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Fresh widow, Marcel Duchamp (1920)

There exist not only nonsense ‘word poems,’ but also nonsense sound poems, and, one may say, also ‘nonsense paintings.’ Cubism, for example, or abstract painting in general, containing incomprehensible, absurd or impossible objects and forms, could be regarded as ‘nonsense.’ Magritte’s ‘Looking glass’ draws on Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fresh widow’ (not fresh window!).

‘Fresh widow’ consists of a small model of a French window, constructed by a carpenter, but containing flat pieces of black leather in place of the eight panes of glass. An ordinary window is an object that establishes a permeable boundary through which people can experience the world, separating inside from outside in a way that permits both perception and psychological projection to pass through. By replacing the glass with opaque leather, Duchamp eliminated the transparency that allows this interchange to proceed, turning what had been a medium of interaction into a barrier that reminds us by its very obstruction of the communication it allowed before.

‘Fresh widow’ was a visual pun on his own preoccupations- in this case, his interest in making media of communication opaque where they had once seemed transparent- and the visual pun fit together with the verbal one in the work’s title: a recently widowed woman is a person who has been deprived of an important relationship that ties her to the external world, throwing her back into the darkened space of her own thoughts and feelings; a window whose panes no longer allow light or affect to pass through is an apt metaphor for her condition. Duchamp, however, did not consider that condition to be one of loss only; ‘Fresh Widow’ was a glass altered so that the disillusionment that, in the note on shop windows, followed breaking the pane had no chance to occur.

The work was therefore fittingly signed with the name Rrose Sélavy, the partner who, as the eros that is life, never grants her lovers actual possession, keeping their desire fresh too. In this light, the proclaimed "freshness" of the widow derives from her inaccessibility to the new partner for which she is constantly ‘ready;’ as long as she remains separated from the world by the opaque panes that symbolize her state, she exists as an instance of the condition where, to use again Walter Benjamin's phrase about Baudelaire, lovers are spared rather than denied fulfillment.

Unfulfilled desires may be stronger that fulfilled ones, in the same sense that dreams are to remain dreams, and the speed of light is supposed to be always constant. The improbability or impossibility in ‘The looking glass,’ however, is that the left window’s frame (the one opened) leaves the sky on the wall. Therefore the wall is not necessarily black. Nor the window’s frame is covered with black leather (or any leather at all). I guess that with this ‘triple’ trick the painter deliberately left the viewer to decide about the interpretation of this impossible object- “this is not a window.”

The unexpected answer

The unexpected answer, 1933

This is the first painting where Magritte explores the cutting of the door, and the door as a symbol. The outline is almost human in form resembling perhaps the outline of different people that pass through the doorway. Here’s what Magritte said about this his best known door painting:

“Let us now turn to the panel of a door; this can be open to a landscape seen upside-down or else the landscape can be painted on the door. But let us try something less gratuitous: let us make a hole in the wall beside the door panel, a hole that is also a door panel, a hole that is also an exit- a door. Let us further improve this juxtaposition by reducing the two objects to one: the hole goes quite naturally into the door panel. And through this hole we see darkness; this last image seems to be enhanced yet again if we light up the invisible thing hidden by the darkness, for our gaze always wants to go further and to see at last the object, the reason for our existence.”

‘The unexpected answer’ gives us a glimpse of what’s behind the door- but there’s no object just darkness. So we look into the darkness trying in vain to see the object.

There could be a whole philosophy to cover the subject of holes. One thing is for certain: Holes are not empty! At least they are full of air. In ‘empty’ space they are full of energy. Invisible things are not black- they are invisible. Poetically we could say that the ‘black’ represents our ignorance about what we don’t understand (but in this case we do recognize our ignorance). Scientifically, there comes again the famous ‘black spot.’ In fact the black spot is not an anatomical anomaly of the human eye. It is a consequence of how light behaves. Light seems to create a black spot at exactly the point where it falls while illuminating the object. What we perceive is not an infinite number of black spots that constitute the object, but the whole picture of the object with the exception of the black spot. In reality, we don’t even see the object- we just perceive its reflection as imprinted on our eyes.

The amorous perspective, 1935

The victory (La victoire) 1939,

The door and the window are often used as metaphors for a picture in Magritte’s work, they mark the intersection between one reality and another, in much the same way that a painting does. By 1939 when ‘Victory’ was painted, Magritte had refined the aims of his art into the search for the hidden poetry of objects and for what he called their ‘elective affinities.’ For Magritte this was a hidden association between two objects that when revealed pictorially achieved strange and surprising results; results that also made an uncanny and recognizable sense in much the same way as the poetic association of seemingly unconnected words can make sense.

In ‘Victory’ Magritte unites three elements into one powerful and, for him, surprisingly romantic image. “The problem of the door called for an opening one could pass through,” Magritte declared in a lecture given in November 1938. “In ‘The unexpected answer,’ I showed a closed door in a room; in the door an irregular-shaped opening revealed the night.” Painted in the following year, ‘Victory’ develops this more bizarre and visually awkward opening in a more logical and straightforward way by depicting an open door transposed to the coast and depicted in such a way that it becomes a part of the landscape it shows. As Magritte knew, the poetic mystery of a work intensifies when the distortions from what one judges as ‘normal’ are set at a minimum.

The point where the land meets the sky and where the sky meets the earth is one of mystic significance and one that has particular resonance in the human mind. The vast horizon line made by the meeting of land and sea and sea and sky lends itself to and indeed provokes a contemplation of the sublime. In ‘Victory’ Magritte marks this meeting point between the three elements with an open door- a device that seems to invite the viewer into a new world of possibility. It is not a material entity, as is reflected by the fact that it seems to be actually materializing out of the sky, sea and sand of the landscape and only its brass handle seems to be tangible and ‘real.’ The same is true for the rather whimsical cloud that enters, quietly like a child or a ghost, through the door's opening, seeming to promise much and inviting the viewer to enter a new ‘enchanted domain.’

Marcel Duchamp, Door: 11, rue Larrey, 1927

Such is the magic of Magritte’s art that this exquisite cloud becomes the dominant personality of the painting, a clear character who speaks gently and wryly of an alternate reality. Its positioning between the two realms is what makes it the key element in the painting. Magritte’s door, like Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Door’ from his apartment, manifests a clear ambiguity in the way that it stands ajar, and it is this ambiguity that the cloud both announces and transcends…(it) becomes an active element in the painting, invading or exiting through the passive door that has appeared mirage-like on the sandy shore. A favorite motif of Magritte’s because it is, by its own nature, an enigma, the cloud here seems, paradoxically, to be the least enigmatic element in the painting.

Étant donnés, Marcel Duchamp, 1946–1966

‘Étant donnés,’ (La chute d’eau/ le gaz d’éclairage), in English ‘Given’ (the waterfall/ the illuminating gas), is Marcel Duchamp’s last major art work which surprised most of the art world who believed he had given up art for chess almost 25 years earlier. It is a tableau, visible only through a pair of peep holes (one for each eye) in a wooden door, of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden and legs spread holding a gas lamp in the air in one hand against a landscape backdrop.

Duchamp worked secretly on the piece from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio. It is composed of an old wooden door, bricks, velvet, twigs, a female form made of parchment, glass, linoleum, an assortment of lights, a landscape composed of hand-painted and photographed elements and an electric motor housed in a cookie tin which rotates a perforated disc. Sculptor Maria Martins, Duchamp’s girlfriend from 1946 to 1951, served as the model for the female figure in the piece, and his second wife, Alexina (Teeny), served as the model for the figure's arm. Duchamp prepared a ‘Manual of Instructions’ in a 4-ring binder explaining and illustrating how to assemble and disassemble the piece.

The piece was created with the intention of having it displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Anne d’ Harnoncourt, a young curator at the time and future director of the museum, orchestrated the acquisition and transfer of the piece to Philadelphia. According to the artist's wishes, it wasn’t until 1969, after Duchamp's death in 1968, that the Philadelphia Museum of Art revealed the tableau to the public.

The improvement (L’ embellie) 1962

The door in ‘The improvement’ is not an impossible object as the door in ‘The unexpected answer,’ where a cloud appears between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy.’ Here, the door opens just to reveal the landscape hidden behind, although magnified, more ‘illuminated.’ This door therefore opens our heart, revealing the true beauty of life and the heaven; this heaven, not the one ‘above.’ Light is pouring in as the door opens, the sky behind being so remarkably bright, as we might never have expected. The painter here paints ‘the weather’ better than ever before, so he considers this an ‘improvement.’

All Magritte paintings with doors or windows want to note the distinction (or lack of distinction) between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside.’ The ‘outside’ we see is an internal representation we have ‘inside.’ There, inside our minds, where the whole universe exists (as a representation of the supposed ‘physical’ universe), everything lies on the two-dimensional surface of our brain- a structure of 2-d layers. The 3-d which our brain ‘sees’ (and how it sees it) is one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness and perception.

According to holography, at a fundamental level the universe has one less dimension than we perceive in everyday life and is governed by laws similar to electromagnetism.

What made me an impression with respect to the previous picture is the ‘bilboquet’- like structure, emerging vertically in 2-d from within the 3-d grid of space-time (consider 1-d more for time). The holographic principle is related to string theory and quantum gravity; it states that the description of a volume of space can be thought of as encoded on a boundary to the region- one dimension less. First proposed by Gerard t’ Hooft, it was given a precise string-theory interpretation by Leonard Susskind. The holographic principle was inspired by black hole thermodynamics. In the case of a black hole, the insight was that the informational content of all the objects that have fallen into the hole might be entirely contained in surface fluctuations of the event horizon. In a larger sense, the theory suggests that the entire universe can be seen as a two-dimensional information structure ‘painted’ on the cosmological horizon, such that the three dimensions we observe are an effective description only at macroscopic scales and at low energies.

This is what makes the holographic principle so interesting: All information contained on a room can be found on the walls, on the ceiling, and on the floor. The same goes for humans: we consider the world in 3-d, as the world is registered in our minds in 2-d. The holographic principle may describe the transformation between 2-d and 3-d representation, but it doesn’t really explain why this transformation occurs naturally. Why, for example, the brain ‘unfolds’ 2-d information into 3-d visualization, and not 4-d or 5-d? Nevertheless, it seems as if the whole reality (both ‘external’ and ‘internal’) lies on the surface of a ‘holographic mirror.’ This mirror projects both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside,’ while the distinction is made by subjective consciousness. The mirror, in Magritte’s paintings, is sometimes perceived as a window, other times as a ‘door.’ The anomalies portrayed by Magritte imply that there is something more than an ordinary ‘window’ or ‘door’ at play. The ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ merge and split, again and again, suggesting that we are all supposed to live somewhere in between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality,’ somewhere inside the mirror, experiencing his reflective images as our own. Therefore the mirror is ‘false,’ but, in any case, it may contain the only ‘real’ representations or reflections there may be.

The beautiful world

The cultivation of ideas (La culture des idées), 1927

About curtains wrote André Breton. Here follow some lines from his poem ‘Rideau- rideau’ (Curtain- curtain), as an example of what a ‘curtain’ could mean in a surrealist context:

“The vagabond theatres of the seasons which will have played out my life
Under my catcalls
The forestage had been set up as a cell from which I could hiss
My hands on the bars I could see against a backdrop of dark greenery
The heroine bare to the waist
Committing suicide at the beginning of the first act…”

But the heroine was really killed in a dream, as the poem goes on,

“The play went on inexplicably in the chandelier
The stage gradually clouding over
And sometimes I shouted
I broke the jug they had given me and from which butterflies escaped
Rising crazily toward the chandelier
Under pretense of an interlude they insisted on presenting me
a ballet of my thoughts…”

and, finally it ends in a liberating way like this:

“I hardly dared to open my door a crack
Too much freedom was granted me at once
Freedom to escape in a sleigh from my bed
Freedom to bring back to life the persons I miss
The aluminum chairs drew closer together around a kiosk of mirrors
In which a curtain of dew arose fringed with blood turned green
Freedom to chase real appearances before me
The basement was marvelous- there appeared on a white wall
my silhouette fire-specked and pierced with a bullet in my heart.”

The village of the mind, 1926

The message to the earth, 1926

‘The village of the mind’ is simply Magritte’s early attempt to make normal objects become huge. The giant arm occupies the stage behind a curtain on a rod. The fingers dissolve through the wall as if it was invisible.

In ‘The message to the earth,’ Magritte uses his favorite trick, the painting within a painting. A bright red meteorite has fallen to earth and is trying to send a message via a few wires behind the picture frame and a tacked up curtain. The curtain is used for two trompe l'oeil tricks: 1) at the top of the frame it’s in front of the meteor but at the bottom the meteor is behind- impossible of course; 2) the curtain is tacked up to thin air- with bright red tacks.

The misanthropes, 1942

Memories of a saint (Les mémoires d’un saint), 1960

‘The misanthropes,’ refers to Molière’s ‘The misanthrope’ (Le misanthrope). It was first performed in 1666 in Paris. The play satirizes the hypocrisies of French aristocratic society, but it also engages a more serious tone when pointing out the flaws which all humans possess.

Much to the horror of his friends and companions, Alceste (the protagonist and the ‘misanthrope’ of the title) rejects ‘la politesse,’ the social conventions of the seventeenth century French salon. His refusal to ‘make nice’ makes him tremendously unpopular and he laments his isolation in a world he sees as superficial and base, saying early in Act I, “... Mankind has grown so base/ I mean to break with the whole human race.”

Despite his convictions, however, Alceste cannot help but love the flighty and vivacious Célimène, a consummate flirt whose wit and frivolity epitomize the courtly manners that Alceste despises. His deep feelings for her primarily serve to counter his negative expressions about mankind, since the fact that he has such feelings includes him amongst those he so fiercely criticizes. Though he constantly reprimands her, Célimène refuses to change, charging Alceste with being unfit for society.

When Alceste insults a sonnet written by the powerful noble, Oronte (who was also in love with Célimène), he is called to stand trial. Refusing to dole out false compliments, he is charged and humiliated, and resolves on self-imposed exile.

His friends forsake him, and upon meeting them, he discovers that Célimène has been leading him on. She has written identical love letters to numerous suitors and broken her vow to favor him above all others. He gives her an ultimatum: he will forgive her and marry her if she runs away with him to exile. Célimène refuses, believing herself too young and beautiful to leave society and all her suitors behind.

Because both Tartuffe and Dom Juan, two of Molière’s previous plays, had already been banned by the French government, Molière may have subdued his actual ideas to make his play more socially acceptable. As a result, there is much uncertainty about whether the main character Alceste is supposed to be perceived as a hero for his strong standards of honesty or whether he is supposed to be perceived as a fool for having such idealistic and unrealistic views about society.

Molière has received much criticism for The Misanthrope. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, claimed that it was Molière's best work, but hated the fact that Alceste was depicted as a fool on stage. He believed that the audience should be supporting Alceste and his views about society rather than disregarding his idealistic notions and belittling him as a character.

The beautiful world (Le beau monde), 1962

The wasted effort (La peine perdue), 1962

Torczyner proposed the title of this painting to Magritte, enjoying an anecdote that a street name in Brussels (called originally ‘La peine perdue’ because of annual rebuilding of a bridge after flooding) had been corrupted anecdotally to ‘pain perdu’ (‘French toast’).

At Easter of that year, Torczyner had hoped to buy ‘The beautiful world,’ but it was completed and sold the day before he saw it. He therefore commissioned Magritte to make a similar work for him in the hope it would be ready for the exhibition of his collection planned for Minneapolis later in the year. It was finished at the end of July (too late, it turned out, for the exhibition) and delivered by Magritte, already framed, in August. The date of 1948 in the inscription on the work was intended to confuse Magritte’s dealer Iolas and was used by Magritte when he sold works behind the dealer’s back.

Discussing the delicate, evocative blues in this composition, Hammacher wrote in 1973: “‘The wasted effort’ is a fairly late and complicated imaginative composition in blues. Much of the earlier work is present- even the ball with the slit in it, the transformed offspring of the horse’s harness bells. The mighty sky with its fleets of clouds- which would form a background, if they did not appear again where we find the cutout curtains or theater wings- has undergone a change of tone. One no longer thinks of reality when seeing this triple version of clouds. Here Magritte has achieved a symphonic orchestration of something remembered, calling it ‘clouds and sky.’ On either side of the grey-blue plane of the stage- for that is what it is- stand two blue curtains, as partitions in the same space, in which they are not hanging and hardly even standing, but simply existing, with a function all their own. In this orchestration they are rather like the opening bars, a modest overture, leading to the main theme in the center.”

Mona Lisa, 1962

Mona Lisa, 1967

The curtain and ball image are repeated in many works starting very early in Magritte's career lasting until his death.

La Gioconda, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1506

The laugh (Le rire), Eugène Bataille, 1883

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most recognizable and famous works of art in the world, and also one of the most replicated and reinterpreted. Mona Lisa replicas were already being painted during Leonardo’s lifetime by his own students and contemporaries. Some are claimed to be the work of Leonardo himself, and remain disputed by scholars. Prominent 20th-century artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali have also produced derivative works, manipulating Mona Lisa’s image to suit their own aesthetic. Replicating Renaissance masterpieces continues to be a way for aspiring artists to perfect their painting techniques and prove their skills.

L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp, 1919

Salvador Dali, self-portrait as Mona Lisa, 1952

The name ‘L.H.O.O.Q.,’ is a pun: the letters pronounced in French sound like “Elle a chaud au cul” (“She is hot in the arse”), a vulgar expression implying that a woman has sexual restlessness. In a late interview, Duchamp gives a loose translation of L.H.O.O.Q. as “there is fire down below.”

As was the case with a number of his ready-mades, Duchamp made multiple versions of L.H.O.O.Q. of differing sizes and in different media throughout his career, one of which, an unmodified black and white reproduction of the Mona Lisa mounted on card, is called ‘L.H.O.O.Q. shaved.’ The masculinized female introduces the theme of gender reversal, which was popular with Duchamp, who adopted his own female pseudonym, Rrose Sélavy, pronounced “Eros, c’est la vie” (“Eros, that’s life”).

According to Rhonda R. Shearer the apparent reproduction is in fact a copy partly modelled on Duchamp’s own face.

But if we take seriously what Salvador Dali said about his Mona Lisa,

“I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the person grow to look like his portrait.”

Mona Lisa of Magritte, by colinx

Mona Lisa of Magritte, Rudolfs Kristapsons

Mona Lola, Lola Dupré

Portugal-based artist and illustrator Lola Dupré has created this painting called: ‘Mona Lola.’ It’s a re-interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ for Phone Booth Gallery’s ‘reimagined’ exhibition. The exhibition represents new works by several artists that re-interpret old masterpieces.

I was wondering; why Mona Lisa has caused such a sensation worldwide and through the ages? Is the painting something special? No. So, what is the reason? Mainly it is not the painting but the painter’s personality. It is not because of ‘Mona Lisa’ but because of ‘Da Vinci.’ What I mean by this is that when we look at Mona Lisa we think of Da Vinci’s personality, which we project to the painting. The same goes, for example, with Salvador Dali. His paintings wouldn’t look the same if we didn’t take into account Dali’s excessive personality. However, is this personality reflected in the painting? Well, not exactly; Mona Lisa is a simple lady, a simple model, in a rather simple painting. Compare Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a pearl earring,’ for example, which is at least equal to ‘Mona Lisa-’ but when we look at a painting we don’t really look at the painting, we just look at what we have been told about it.

Early morning (Le grand matin), 1942

The columns of the night (Les orgues de la soirée), 1965

In ‘Early morning.’ the door ‘opens’ to the sea- landscape. The leaf-like birds refer to the ‘Natural graces,’ nature’s harmony I guess to merge the ‘wings of imagination’ with the ‘roots of the past.’

In ‘The columns of the night,’ the jockey reaches the ‘curtain-columns’ in the sundown. These columns remind me of the Clashing Rocks, which were defeated by Jason and the Argonauts, in their quest for the golden fleece. Here, however, the golden fleece is replaced by purple curtains; but the analogy still holds: The curtains could be made of wool (like a fleece) and the color of the sun is like gold. It seems that the curtains shall remain forever still after the jockey passes through them, as the Clashing Rocks stopped moving permanently after the Argonauts passed through them.

The palace of curtains, 1928

I found the previous two photos on the net:

What you can see in this photo is Brussels’ Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. The person who took this photo is a flickr artist who goes under the name gbastiani. When I first obtained the photo, my feelings were mixed: it was obviously an amazing photograph, but immediately I realized there was nothing out of ordinary going on. Or was there? What I expected to see was quite opposite! Could the original still exist if there was no digital editing?

Jan and Joël Martel / Robert Mallet-Stevens
Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes
Mallet-Steven’s Garden of Modern Housing with the famous cubist trees by Jan and Joël Martel, 1925

In 2011 took place the exhibition ‘La carte d’ après nature’ at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. Curated by Thomas Demand, the exhibition featured three rarely seen paintings by Magritte. The exhibition took its name from a journal published by Magritte between 1951 and 1965, in which he collected ideas from different times and places, relating them to one another by way of shared threads of thought.

Since the Surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s undertook to make an art of the unconscious that freed the artist and viewer from the authoritarian constraints of overzealous rationalism and morality, every successive generation of artists has learned some new lesson derived from the Surrealist project of articulating the free exchange of form in Nature and its representations in the Mind.

German artist Thomas Demand continues the artistic fixation with the Surrealist equation of Mind and Nature, but unlike preceding generations, he doesn’t center his exploration on the nihilistic convulsions and injuries inflicted on civilization through its divorce from nature. Instead, Demand has chosen to highlight the synergism and synchronicity discernible between the forms produced in the Mind and the forms produced by Nature in his exhibition ‘La carte d’après nature.’ This synergism and synchronicity is underscored by Demand in paring down the surrealist vision to fit what he calls “domesticated nature... potted plants, gardens, theme parks and models of wild growth.”

Although the Surrealists were varied in their approaches to both Mind and Nature, it can be said that many of them made art that not only suggests Nature and the Mind aren’t dualistic, but together form a single continuum which can't be separated. In this respect, the exhibition seems to be redefining ‘the uncanny,’ or at least the domesticated uncanny, as being no more than our recognition of the moment when the Mind, in its attempt to impose a human-centered order onto Nature, finds that that order is already there.

If Magritte’s forays into the Mind-Nature continuum is only hinted at in the show's title, the conspicuous hanging of three little-known paintings by Magritte confirms that this most ironic of Surrealists presides over the exhibition. Each of the paintings is strategically positioned on a wall ‘draped’ with wallpaper digitally produced in the fashion of draperies covering a living room bay window and with which we close ourselves off from the world outside our control. But they equally suggest theatrical curtains that close off the portal of a proscenium stage from its anticipating audience.

The great style (Le grand style), 1951

In the airy glades (Parmi les bosquets légers), 1965

The universe unmasked, 1932

It may be just my take on things, but Demand appears to have chosen the three Magritte paintings for their pictorial embodiment of three distinct models of the relationship of Mind to Nature and the world. If the painting ‘The grand style’ embodies the exterior-objective space of Nature, ‘In the airy glades’ is easily the subjective interior of the mind. In between is ‘The universe unmasked,’ the intersubjective space of architecture as the meeting place of inside and outside; room and landscape; dream and reality.

Considering that Magritte is the artist most famous for distinguishing between the mind’s structural conflation of an object with its function as a sign- I mean, of course, Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (‘This is not a pipe’)- the three paintings in this show remind us that Magritte had another side to him capable of blurring the hard distinctions between object, subject, sign and context to effect ambiguities that invite metaphysical speculation and mysticism, and visual puns that betray the unconscious conflations of the mind.

It may even be said that the new mainstream media have rendered the age-old dichotomy of the subjective and objective as near-obsolete in the realms of art and entertainment, while rendering the intersubjective bridging of subjectivity and objectivity as among the most important new theoretical and psychological models of use to both scientists and artists today.

A major difference between the Nature and Mind relationship as portrayed in today’s popular arts and the art of the Surrealists is that popular art assumes a mythical interface exists between the Mind and Nature. Of course, this interface is devised to effect a dramatic and entertaining narrative tension. In hugely popular films like The Matrix, Avatar and Inception, characters facing deadly cyber dangers in dreams or some other out-of-body projection wake up to find the dangers instantly vanish.

The Surrealists, on the other hand, sought to dissolve this mythical boundary. They held the events of dreaming to be as potentially perilous, if not more, than the events of waking life. Dreams have the capacity to disinter the repressed immoral and subversive desires of the unconscious psyche, enabling such desires to follow and overtake the dreamer even more threateningly when awake. It's ironic that the Surrealists here prove themselves to be more realistic than the media dream makers of a popular culture obsessed with realistic portrayals.

By contrast, the artists assembled in ‘La carte d’ après nature’ show no sign of this imagined interface. Forms and ideas flow freely between Mind and Nature. In this respect, the exhibition is like a dream journal, that over an extensive span of time relays the accumulating epiphany that has made the dreamer aware of a stage between dreaming and waking whereby s/he feels s/he is actively manipulating the form and content of the dream s/he is waking up from. Artists, who are experts at choosing and editing content and shaping media to conform to their wills, are particularly well attuned to this stage between waking and dreaming.

It is the artists’ expertise at mapping the terrain between dreaming and waking- the overlapping of Mind and Nature- that compels Demand, like Magritte before him, to designate ‘the map’ (‘la carte’) not just as a metaphor for art, but as the premier function of art.

Although ‘La carte d’ après nature’ concerns itself with the enclaves of a refined and fully awake, if sometimes punning, compilation of imagery and ideas, it no less conveys this sense of a world unfolding by intelligent design as one moves from work to work in the show, and especially when we survey whole rooms in succession.

Then, too, in Surrealist art, as in dreams, the artist/dreamer commonly assumes or doubles the appearance and identity of others- an act that affirms not just the continuum of Mind and Nature, but also the continuity of the human race. It is perfectly in keeping with the original Surrealists for Demand to blur the boundary between his own identity and art and the identities and art of the artists he includes in his show, both living and dead.

In this context Demand has turned Magritte’s journal devoted to “collected ideas from different times and places... by way of shared threads of thought” into a space whereby the walls function as pages of a book bearing images and ideas attesting to the reciprocity of Mind and Nature- the ‘prose of the world’ one presumes would have enticed the aging Magritte himself.

The blow to the heart

Invitation for a voyage (L’invitation au voyage), 1961

‘Invitation for a voyage’ was created by Magritte for his Chicago-based patron, Barnet Hodes, and featured in an extensive 1964 retrospective of Magritte’s works held at the Arkansas Art Center. Already a friend of several of the Surrealists, Hodes was a unique collector who desired to own a work by each of the artists represented in the first Surrealist exhibition, as well as a gouache representing each of Magritte’s major themes. As he explained to Magritte, “I would like to have a representative collection of your wonderful pictures in the small form that I enjoy so much.”

Rather than create direct copies, Magritte appears to have reveled in reincarnating his former subjects in a new medium, on a new scale, and often in new variations, explaining that they needed to “be rethought by me, so that I don’t produce a mere mechanical copy.” In the case of ‘Invitation for a voyage,’ he took the motif of a picture that he had originally painted in 1944. Dating from the Second World War, that work indulged Magritte’s decision at the time to create works in a faux- Impressionist style. This decision managed to shock many of the collectors of the day, including René Gaffé, who is reputed to have seen the oil of ‘Invitation for a voyage’ and made disparaging remarks about it.

Magritte had decided controversially to bring light, joy, sensuality and a large dose of irreverence to his works at that time. Nowhere are these more conspicuously brought to the fore than in this marriage of the sunset with the rose, two motifs that have been immortalized by artists as emblems of romantic beauty. Magritte himself, writing to Hodes about the rose that featured in another picture from his collection, ‘Pandora’s box,’ explained, “The brilliance of the rose corresponds to the importance of its role (element of beauty).”

Already in 1944, Magritte had explained of the theme that: “I have thought of a very simple idea, but its simplicity doesn’t worry me for a moment, because it is an idea that allows me to give a more vivid and effective expression to a particular feeling, made up of a nostalgia, poetry, etc. It is a big rose which appears far out at sea.”

Luxe, calme et volupté, Henri Matisse, 1904

The title of ‘Invitation for a voyage’ was suggested by Marcel Mariën; it was taken from the title of a poem by Charles Baudelaire which featured numerous references to roses, sunsets and other forms of beauty. It contained a chorus that was repeated several times: “Là, tout n’est qu’ ordre et beauté, Luxe, calme et volupté” (Thus, everything is nothing but order and beauty, Luxury, calm and pleasure), and which itself had inspired other artists including Henri Matisse.

Meditative rose, Salvador Dali, 1958

Except from beauty, surrealist roses represented the mystery of the soul. Dali’s ‘Meditative rose’ can be considered something of an enigma coming from a painter whose works are primarily the stuff of dream and nightmare. Absent are the stretched forms and crutches- instead we have a pretty picture. Here Dali seems to be showing off his painting skills at a time when many famous artists (including Dali himself) were painting in a much more abstract manner.

The ‘Om’ symbol

The painting itself is reminiscent of a natural Om symbol (representing Sanskrit prayers with specific sound- words) hanging against the sky above a desolate landscape. This work was completed the same year that Dali published his ‘Nuclear Mysticism’ manifesto, titled ‘Anti-matter.’ Commenting on this newfound belief in science, DNA, and nuclear physics the artist had this to say, “In the Surrealist period I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world and the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. Today the exterior world and that of physics, has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr. Heisenberg. It is uncertain how this piece fits into either the paranoiac method or the nuclear mysticism practices.”

A rose in the universe (Une rose dans l’ univers), 1961

Magritte however was neither a mysticist nor a follower of modern physics (although it seems he was quite aware of the meaning of contemporary quantum mechanics). ‘A rose in the universe,’ stands alone in a pink background, which seems to have about the same color as an infrared radio picture of the night sky:

‘The Milky- Way countryside,’ infrared picture taken by Spitzer radio- telescope

New views from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope show blooming stars in our Milky Way galaxy’s more barren territories, far from its crowded core; “We sometimes call this flyover country,” “We are finding all sorts of new star formation in the lesser-known areas at the outer edges of the galaxy,” said astronomer Barbara Whitney.

The tomb of the wrestlers (Le tombeau des lutteurs), 1960

However, Magritte’s view of the universe is quite distinct, as seen through ‘surrealist eyes.’ What is interesting to note, as depicted in ‘The tomb of the wrestlers,’ is that a rose which stands for ‘the heart of the universe’ (or ‘the universe of the heart’) is painted in such a way to fit inside an ordinary room. Magritte here explores not only the universe of an idea, but also how this universe may fit in the space of the human mind.

In this particular piece, Magritte portrays a gorgeous scene in which the beautiful rose seems to overtake the room and capture the viewer’s complete attention to the point where the details of the room and the snowy landscape outside are overlooked.

The inspiration for the work originated from a conversation Magritte had with Harry Torczyner, surrounding the Soviet Union’s ‘tachiste’ painters. Tachisim is a French style of abstract painting that is similar to surrealism, but a style that Magritte was not comfortable with. He said to Torczyner, “They paint white on white, and they believe that this is an achievement.”

In response to Magritte’s dismissal, Torczyner challenged him to paint, “a white rose, in a white room with a window looking on to a landscape covered with snow.” ‘The tomb of the wrestlers’ is what Magritte produced, with as minimal white as possible.

So why did Magritte choose to alter the challenge? Well painting the rose a ‘revolutionary’ red instead of white was his idea of recognizing Torczyner’s trip to the Soviet Union, and the Red October that allowed for the Bolsheviks to govern Russia, and were then, in the 1960’s, altering course after the death of Stalin; thereby making this work a rather telling portrait of Magritte’s sentiments at the time.

The blow to the heart (Le coup au cœur), 1952

‘The blow to the heart’ is a painting of one of Magritte’s icons of a rose. In the painting you can see the thorns have been replaced by a sword or dagger. It’s as if the beautiful flower has been transformed into a gladiator that has arrived from the sea by an invisible ship and is ready to do battle.

In a letter from Magritte to Iolas, 1951, Magritte said “My present research, at the beginning of the winter, is concerned with the rose. I must find something precious and worthy to say about it.” By the time he painted this work in 1952, he had experimented briefly with Impressionist techniques after the war and now returned to the stylized realism that is so particular to his oeuvre.

The artist here explores what he found as an inherent paradox contained in a rose. In a letter which he wrote to fellow Surrealist and poet Paul Eluard, Magritte described the exploration that led him to the creation of ‘The blow to the heart:’ “... for about two months I have been looking for a solution to what I call ‘the problem of the rose.’ My research now having been completed, I realize that I had probably known the answer to my question for a long time, but in an obscure fashion, and not only I myself but any other man likewise. This kind of knowledge, which seems to be organic and doesn’t rise to the level of consciousness, was always present, at the beginning of every effort of research I made.... After completion of the research, it can be ‘easily’ explained that the rose is scented air, but it is also cruel, and reminds me of your ‘parricidal rose.’ I also recall a passage from Nougé’s forbidden images: It is because of searing memory that we become aware of this faint scent of roses...”

Ready-made bouquet, 1956

For Magritte, the interplay of pale colors and the bravery of the artist’s heart takes the form of battles between opposite elements in his paintings. A rose holding a dagger, for example, is not necessarily an incompatible picture; roses smell nice but they can also hurt us with their thorns. Therefore, a rose is an excellent representation for the passions of our heart- faint, ‘pink’ memories of the past, together with traumatic experiences which make our heart bleed at the same time. The world we live in has always these two complementary features.

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, 1482

Magritte’s ‘Ready-Made Bouquet’ is obviously inspired by Botticelli’s ‘Primavera.’

Most critics agree that ‘Primavera,’ also known as ‘Allegory of Spring,’ depicting a group of mythological figures in a garden, is allegorical for the lush growth of Spring. Other meanings have also been explored. Among them, the work is sometimes cited as illustrating the ideal of Neoplatonic love. The painting itself carries no title and was first called ‘La Primavera’ by the art historian Giorgio Vasari, 1550.

The reading of the picture is from right to left: Zephyrus, the biting wind of March, kidnaps and possesses the nymph Chloris, whom he later marries and transforms into a deity; she becomes the goddess of Spring, Flora (or the ‘Primavera’), eternal bearer of life, and is scattering roses on the ground. This is a tale from the fifth book of Ovid’s ‘Fasti.’ In Ovid’s work the reader is told “till then the earth had been but of one color.”

Flora, the goddess of flowers and the season of spring

Next to Flora, or ‘Primavera,’ is Venus, the goddess of love, accompanied by the Three Graces, and on the far left is the god Mercury, who here announces the coming of spring. The pastoral scenery is elaborate. It is indicated that there are 500 identified plant species depicted in the painting, with about 190 different flowers, of which at least 130 have been specifically named.

The truth in her jasmine bouquet (La vérité dans son bouquet de jasmins) 1954

While roses are considered flowers of the day, jasmines prevail at night. Here the symbolism of the sun is replaced by that of the moon- but the emotion stays the same: sharp- pointed feelings, which always help us explore better the world of our soul- feeling both romantic and alert. Whoever the gentleman depicted in the painting is his conical hat complements the image of the half moon. If the hat represents a ‘sharp thought’ then the face of the moon brings the thought deep in the heart. There is a ‘silver’ atmosphere, despite the black and white painting, which merges the sense of sight with the ‘smell of jasmines,’ which the title suggests. Therefore, the ‘blow to the heart’ continues in Magritte’s ‘romantic’ paintings, by placing the sharpest instruments of the spirit in the softest core of the soul.

The human condition

The plagiary (Le plagiat), 1939-40

This is one of a series of gouache compositions depicting a vase of flowers on a table in an interior setting. The spray of flowers is depicted as a cut-out silhouette, acting as a window onto a landscape of grassland, trees and shrubs. This superimposition of forms and the dialogue that Magritte establishes between revelation and concealment is a frequent tactic in his work. The incorporation of the bird’s nest with its three white eggs into the domestic interior- the inclusion of nature into man’s fabricated environment- is a further extension of this trope.

The title of the present work was coined by Magritte’s friend, the poet Marcel Mariën. Magritte responded: “The title ‘Plagiary’ is very strong and very fine. I am appropriating it.” In 1942, Magritte and his Surrealist friends poetically re-defined the word “garden” as “a space set between a landscape and a bunch of flowers.” ‘Plagiary’ encapsulates this notion, and the wonderful contrast between the sharply-defined ‘reality’ of the foreground and the gentle color of nature in the background imbues the work with multi-layered meanings and poetic ambiguity.

The human condition, 1933

This is how Magritte himself explained the painting in 1938, “The problem of the window gave rise to ‘The human condition.’ In front of a window as seen from the interior of the room, I placed a painting (canvas and easel) that represented precisely the portion of landscape concealed by the painting. For instance the tree represented in the painting displaced the tree behind the painting outside the room. For the viewer the tree is simultaneously inside the room in the painting and outside the room in the real landscape.”

Magritte continues, “This is how we see the world, we see it outside ourselves; and yet the only representation of it is within us. Similarly we sometimes remember a past event and the memory makes it a present event. Time and space lose that crude meaning which is the only one we have in our daily experience.”

A retrograde loop of two events A and B. Event B predisposes event A, so that A be the cause of B. Causality seems to be temporarily violated, but in fact both events occur, in a sense, simultaneously, so that there is no causal relation between them. It is the loop itself which connects both events.

I have written recently an essay called ‘The extended present.’ In the endnote I say the following:

“When I first conceived the notion of the extended present, I was unaware of the work of Edmund Husserl on the ‘phenomenology of temporality,’ where the same notion is expressed. Husserl uses the notions of ‘retention’ and ‘protention’ as key aspects of his theory. According to his view, as described in Wikipedia, our experience of the world is not of a series of unconnected moments. It would be impossible to have an experience of the world if we did not have a sense of temporality. That our perception brings an impression to our minds depends upon retention and protention. Retention is the process whereby a phase of a perceptual act is retained in our consciousness. It is a presentation of that which is no longer before us and is distinct from immediate experience. A simple example might be that of watching a ball being thrown. We retain where the ball was in our minds to understand the momentum of the ball as we perceive it in the immediate present. Retention is not a representation or memory but a presentation of a temporally extended present. That is, a present that extends beyond the few short milliseconds that are registered in a moment of sense perception. Protention is our perception of the next moment. The moment that has yet to be perceived. Again, using the example of a ball, our focus shifts along the expected path the ball will take. According to Husserl, perception has three temporal aspects, retention, the immediate present and protention and a flow through which each moment of protention becomes the retention of the next.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty analyzes the temporal phenomenology of perception as follows:

“Husserl uses the terms protentions and retentions for the intentionalities which anchor me to an environment. They do not run from a central I, but from my perceptual field itself, so to speak, which draws along in its wake its own horizon of retentions, and bites into the future with its protentions. I do not pass through a series of instances of now, the images of which I preserve and which, placed end to end, make a line. With the arrival of every moment, its predecessor undergoes a change: I still have it in hand and it is still there, but already it is sinking away below the level of presents; in order to retain it, I need to reach through a thin layer of time. It is still the preceding moment, and I have the power to rejoin it as it was just now; I am not cut off from it, but still it would not belong to the past unless something had altered, unless it were beginning to outline itself against, or project itself upon, my present, whereas a moment ago it was my present. When a third moment arrives, the second undergoes a new modification; from being a retention it becomes the retention of a retention, and the layer of time between it and me thickens.”

This is exactly the meaning of our discussion. Events do not form a ‘causal chain of points’ in space-time, connected to each other in a linear and non- flexible way. Instead, they are extended objects spanning space- time. At a first stage, pairs of events are spontaneously created as past- like and future- like symmetrical conditions. Temporality is then involved, at the second stage, arranging events in a causal process of future- past division. Thus these conditional pair of events consist of ‘retained’ and ‘proteined’ partners, which will either be expressed and realized, or the infinite causal loop associated with them will disintegrate and return to the vacuum.

Still, the parts of this spontaneous pair of events are non- locally connected to each other, so that any causal succession of events that consciousness recognizes is arbitrary, though, in a sense, necessary. Furthermore, post- conditions and pre- conditions, which correspond to Husserl’s protention and retention respectively, are not just perceptual representations of ‘real’ events, but instead they represent true conditions realized by consciousness. So what is fundamental in the whole process is not time, which is just a form of order taking place at the second place and retrospectively, but the non- local collapse of the infinite loop and the instantaneous distribution of the events.

Consciousness is certainly not an idle and stationary object at the ‘center’ of its ego- universe, separated from all other events that it regards. On the contrary, it participates and forms space- time by arranging things. It even gives cause and meaning to things. But at the same time, consciousness is not just a process, the path each time chosen from an infinite number of possible routes in the distribution of events. It possesses the holistic property of its non- local and symmetrical deepest nature. It also contains the holographic information of events in each part of its space- time. So, we may say that consciousness is the awareness of the distribution of events itself, having the ability both of causally considering the parts, at present, and spontaneously imagining the totality, in its extended present.”

It is really interesting, you may read it! Here I just want to say that what we consider as the ‘past’ (or even the ‘future’) is an event always found in the present because we always consider the past (or the future) from the present- think about it: we don’t travel backward (or forward) in time; we just consider (or reconsider) an event that we persistently regard as ‘distant’ but always from a point of reference in the present. This is important because our ‘past’ is always deformed by the present state of consciousness. Again, this is important for the perception of future events because they are ‘already visible’ to us here and now. Therefore, what we regard as the present is in fact an extended object, stretching both ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ in time, into the areas of what we consider as the ‘past’ and the ‘future;’ Thus the notion of the extended present.

Magritte from his point of view regards this fuzzy territory between ‘here’ and ‘there,’ ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’ In fact there is neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside.’ There is a correspondence between the external, physical world (which in fact is implied) and the internal, perceptional representation. Both these ‘realities’ are virtual. What we consider as proofs for the ‘objective’ existence of the physical universe, are all subjective axioms and properties of our own: proof is logical, pain and fear are emotions, faith is a belief, and existence is an axiom taken as granted.

This led Magritte furthermore to say, “I have a great idea (not earth shattering) about the naive question, ‘What does this picture represent?’ My idea is that the questioner sees what it represents, but he wonders what represents the picture, and faced with the difficulty of figuring it out from this direction, he finds it easier and more fitting to ask what the picture ‘represents.’

What the picture represents is our ideas and feelings- in short, whoever is looking at the picture is representing what he sees. This idea is not, some say, within the realm of knowledge, so it won’t help me protect myself when the occasion arises.”

The human condition, 1935

In this painting we look out through the mouth of a cave across a steep mountainous valley. In the center of the painting, standing on an easel, is a painted canvas representing a castle. We are led to believe, but can never know for certain, that the painted castle conceals a real castle behind. Magritte’s work often explores the limits of knowledge and the power of illusion. Perhaps he chose the location of the cave because it makes reference to Plato’s famous parable of the cave, itself a critique of human knowledge and understanding. The title of the painting is almost certainly a reference to Rousseau’s statement: “Our true study is that of the human condition.”

Plato’s cave, also titled ‘Analogy of the cave,’ is presented by the philosopher in his ‘Republic’ to compare “...the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature.”

Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

The allegory may be related to Plato’s theory of Forms, according to which the ‘Forms’ (or ‘Ideas’/ ‘Archetypes’), and not the material world of change known to us through the senses, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Only knowledge of the Forms constitutes real knowledge. Socrates informs Glaucon that the most excellent must learn the greatest of all studies, which is to behold the Good. Those who have ascended to this highest level, however, must not remain there but must return to the cave and dwell with the prisoners, sharing in their labors and honors.

Plato had trouble with his theory of forms, because he ended up having forms for any material object (a chair for example). In any case, Magritte was more interested in images as representations, rather than in forms as universal entities. However, it seems that he believed in the purity of forms:

“Questions such as ‘What does this picture mean, what does it represent?’ are possible only if one is incapable of seeing a picture in all its truth, only if one automatically understands that a very precise image does not show precisely what it is. It’s like believing that the implied meaning (if there is one?) is worth more than the overt meaning. There is no implied meaning in my paintings, despite the confusion that attributes symbolic meaning to my painting.

How can anyone enjoy interpreting symbols? They are ‘substitutes’ that are only useful to a mind that is incapable of knowing the things themselves. A devotee of interpretation cannot see a bird; he only sees it as a symbol. Although this manner of knowing the ‘world’ may be useful in treating mental illness, it would be silly to confuse it with a mind that can be applied to any kind of thinking at all.”

The human condition, 1935

The human condition refers to all human experience. We consider a chain of biological events, predetermined and common to all of us (death being the final event of this chain). The way humans deal with these events defines the human condition. However, the way we understand our problems also shifts the definition of the human condition. In other words, it is a state of being, not a definite conclusion.

This means that the human condition is also a concession regarding the answers we give to the fundamental questions of existence: What is the purpose of life? Is there any purpose? Why do we die? Is there eternal life? How important are we in the cosmos? How should we treat others? How should we treat the environment and other life forms? Thus, the human condition has not only an everyday significance, but also a philosophical one.

Some people consider that the human condition can be summarized according to the following three paradoxes:

- Imagination can go anywhere, while the physical body cannot.
- We are able for the best, but also capable of the worst.
- We hope for an afterlife while we find new ways of self-destruction.

The term has also been used in a negative sense or in a cynical way, in order to bring forward the vanity of everyday life and of the world in general. We are to saying “we are just human beings,” as if we wanted to stress some inferiority with respect to an unidentified supreme cause. This may be compared to the phrase “we are just mortal beings,” in a more melodramatic way. Negative views regarding the human condition may also be derived from negative or nihilistic feelings against modern (technological) civilization.

Some philosophical movements, such as transhumanism, tend to dramatically change the human condition. However, skeptics, such as the physicist Enrico Fermi, argue that human nature has changed a little since the primitive stage, despite any scientific or spiritual progress, as if we had been carried together with our fundamental instincts to more complex environments. Transhumanists agree, but argue that this is exactly the problem; having completed our biological evolution, it is about time that we changed the fundamental parameters of life, by using the new technologies.

It is interesting to note that the Dada movement had such elements of ‘transhumanism,’ combing the physical with the artificial. However surrealism made a turn into the primitive human soul. Perhaps this was the final step back before the great move forward to the modern era. I just want to add here that we don’t really need to become ‘cyborgs’ in order to improve out nature. It took billions of years of evolution for biological life forms; they are made of carbon, not silicone or steel. What we really need to improve is our imagination and awareness with respect to the world, not to add some cables to our brain.

Where Euclid walked, 1955

What we should note is that the human condition is found within the context of the anthropic principle: “The world is as we know it,” meaning that the way we see the world is filtered by human intelligence, and vice-versa, human intelligence is an expression of the natural world. Simply put, if the universe didn’t support intelligent life, we wouldn’t be here to discuss about it.

Magritte in ‘The human condition’ series uses the idea to reveal that secret truth: The painting, which is at the same time the window of our eyes and of our souls, together with all our experiences, is the landscape. Whatever we know about the external world, all the things we regard as real, are products of human experience, and lie on the surface of our consciousness.

The ancient Greeks used to say that “moderation is the best thing;” However the saying also means “each measure is the best.” Euclid regularly used ‘measure’ to define things and the ‘Elements’ of his geometry. Much later than Euclid, Proclus told the story of Euclid’s reply to Ptolemy, who asked whether there was any shorter way in geometry than that of the ‘Elements.’ Euclid replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.” Another anecdote relates that a student, probably in Alexandria, after learning the very first proposition in geometry, wanted to know what he would get by learning these things, whereupon Euclid called his slave and said, “Give him three-pence since he must make gain by what he learns.”

In the only other key reference to Euclid, Pappus briefly mentioned in the fourth century that Apollonius “spent a very long time with the pupils of Euclid at Alexandria, and it was thus that he acquired such a scientific habit of thought.”

In ‘Where Euclid walked,’ Magritte imagines the landscape at Euclid’s time, which nevertheless seems medieval, not ancient. Perhaps this way he wanted to note the great change which occurred between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, a transformation which was made possible by the renewed contact with the ancient texts. The cone of the building has certain geometric properties (in Euclid’s ‘Elements’ there are descriptions of cones), and it appears both in the canvas and in the landscape, stressing perhaps this passage from fantasy to reality, from intuitive understanding to scientific reasoning. Therefore, the human condition becomes here transparent, setting the fundamental perquisites for the comparison between how we perceive the world and what the knowledge of the world (and ourselves) is, or what it should be.

Heraclitus’ bridge (Le pont d’ Héraclites), 1935

‘Heraclitus’ bridge’ is an imaginary construction, and shows that Magritte was aware of Plato’s ‘Cave’ (at least he knew the meaning of the allegory). One end of the bridge is at the entrance of the cave (our everyday world), while the other end connects the bridge to the sky. The shadows in the foreground may represent the shadows we see in our everyday experience (in the ‘Cave’), or they may stand for the ‘prisoners’ (us). The river is probably related to Heraclitus’ famous saying “everything flows.” This is a fine painting, which, beyond any scientific or philosophical references, illustratively connects the two worlds- the physical and the metaphysical ones.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “The self-glorification of Heraclitus contains nothing religious; he sees outside himself only error, illusion, an absence of knowledge- but no bridge leads him to his fellow man, no overpowering feeling of sympathetic stirring binds them to him.”

The signs of evening, 1926

Magritte thus could be regarded as ‘departed’ (dépaysé) form everyday life as Heraclitus was (at least according to Nietzsche). Magritte was indeed withdrawn, absorbed by his paintings and the philosophical connotations behind them. However he insisted that his paintings were not deceitful or misleading, but that they were revealing a deeper aspect of what nature is, and how we should regard ourselves, therefore exploring the meaning of the human condition.

Evening falls (Le soir qui tombe), 1964

Does a mirror contain the information of what is reflected? Reflection itself remains a mystery. According to classical optics, what we really see is an ‘imaginary object’ inferred by reflection. The following diagram simplifies the process:

A typical textbook diagram showing how reflection in a plane mirror produces a virtual image (I) of the object (O). The dotted lines indicate virtual rays.

In fact it was Euclid long before Newton who devised such a ‘tricky’ mechanism to explain vision, although he believed that the ‘imagery light rays’ were produced by the human eye. Either projected by the eye or by the illuminated object, virtual rays is what we finally perceive, not real objects. This is why some people have reached the conclusion that there must be some form of previous unconscious knowledge of the object, just before it is visually perceived.

Another violation in ‘Evening falls’ is that of time and causality; the broken glass seems to have preserved the information of the landscape. This may imply that the glass had been broken before it was painted. Is this possible? In ‘physical space’ no, but in ‘virtual space’ yes. Both suns are painted by the painter’s brush, and both of them are imprinted in the viewer’s brain. Both suns are virtual objects: one sun (the visual object) is a representation of perception, and the other sun (the physical object) is again a representation of imagination. Under this realization, causality is meaningless. Therefore, what is the real difference (or connection) between what we perceive about the world and what the world in itself is? Thus the human condition.

The white race

The good year (La bonne année), 1947

It’s said that someday a manned hot air balloon had landed on the roof of his parents’ house. The maneuvers undertaken by the men in their efforts to fetch down the enormous, empty bag, together with the leather clothing of the ‘aeronauts’ and their earflap helmets, left him with a deep sensitivity for everything eluding immediate comprehension.”

The art of living, 1964

Hot air balloon shaped as the Abbey of Saint Gall

The hot air balloon is the oldest successful human-carrying flight technology. It is part of a class of aircraft known as balloon aircraft. In 1783, in Paris, France, the first untethered manned flight was performed by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’ Arlandes in a hot air balloon created a year earlier by the Montgolfier brothers.

The king’s museum (Le musée du roi), 1966

The grand air (Le grand air), 1963-64

The Royal Museum(s) of Fine Arts of Belgium, contains over 20,000 drawings, sculptures, and paintings, which date from the early 15th century to the present. The museum has an extensive collection of Flemish painting, among them paintings by Bruegel and Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin, Anthony van Dyck, and Jacob Jordaens. The museum is also proud of its ‘Rubens Room,’ which houses more than 20 paintings by the artist.

Landscape with the fall of Icarus, now seen as a good early copy of Bruegel’s original

‘Landscape with the fall of Icarus’ is a painting long thought to be by Pieter Bruegel, or a good early copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel’s original, perhaps painted in the 1560s. Largely derived from Ovid, the painting is described in W. H. Auden’s poem ‘Musée des Beaux-Arts,’ named after the museum in which the painting is housed in Brussels.

Auden’s poem goes like this:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree;
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The age of enlightenment (Le siècle des lumières), 1967

The beautiful relations (Les belles relations), 1967

Every day (Tous les jours), 1966

Magritte belonged to the Flemish tradition of his predecessors. But ‘The age of enlightenment’ came, with hot- air balloons and telescopes, to train the human senses with the experience of the new age. The new technology brought about modern painting- certainly the advent of photography made painters search for abstract objects, ‘invisible’ for photographic machines. Again, with the advent of more advanced optical means, such as the telescope, artists once more, had to ‘disembark’ or ‘dépayser’ into the most distant and fantastic places of the universe, in order to surpass the power of the scientific organs.

A large Zeppelin above the Alpine mountains, Michal Karcz

Magritte on Mars, by kiron

It’s rather obvious that Zeppelins look like whales floating in the air- thus the fish depicted in Magritte’s ‘The grand air’. Flight in general hides inherent risks for the ‘pilot.’ Icarus story is not to be taken in the letter. Although it could be based on a real story, it symbolises the struggle of the human spirit to reach the sun and the sky, together with the consequences, easily ignored by ordinary people, as Auden notes in his poem. But there’s also reward. Icarus’ name is here to stay, while Magritte has had an asteroid named after him (7933 Magritte)…

The white race, 1937

An abstract nude figure rests on the sand amidst a beach-like environment. Magritte deconstructs the female form, depicting an eye, an ear, a mouth, and a nose precariously balanced upon one another but lacking the coherency to form an identifiable face. Though the legs and arms appear relatively proportionate, the large, round belly and perfectly circular breasts contribute to the disproportional nature of this figure. According to Whitfield, this last and most imposing work in ‘The white race’ series was executed in the spirit of a Picasso bather. Though Magritte neither confirmed nor denied this resemblance, he found the comparison to be a “very lucid reaction.”

Bather, Pablo Picasso, 1928

Seated bather, Pablo Picasso, 1930

Picasso’s mood during the painting of ‘Seated bather’ is shown as clues, hidden deep within his artwork. Picasso used natural colors for the woman and the setting. The natural colors of the woman cause the viewer, if only for a second, to feel the painting has a sense of realism. The subtle color and flow of the water show that Picasso most likely was not rushed and felt calm and relaxed. Picasso’s sharp contrast of color during the forming of the legs and head he was trying to make a point that this is how it is supposed to look.

Picasso’s ‘Seated bather’ has a surreal-like and very unnerving nature. The woman’s head is sectioned off into pieces, her eyes are merely extensions of the top part of the head, her mouth is sideways and has no jaw connected to the face. The cubism style Picasso used in this painting is closely related to surrealism.

(Part of ‘The white race’)

Fossil jaw from world’s oldest known dog

Every dog has its day, but that day took more than 14,000 years to dawn for one canine. A jaw fragment found in a Swiss cave comes from the earliest known dog, according to scientists who analyzed and radiocarbon-dated the fossil.

Is it enough here to say that Magritte’s ‘White race’ has nothing to do with racism (or with jaws)?

A little of the bandit’s soul

Magritte was a close friend and colleague of Andre Souris, an eminent Belgian musician. In 1926 Souris and a fellow Belgian, Paul Hooreman, started a quasi-surrealist journal called ‘Musique’ and experimented with chance music. By 1927 both Souris and Magritte collaborated with the leader of the Belgian surrealists, Paul Nougé, on the surrealist publication ‘Adieu a Marie.’ As the leadership not only of Magritte and Souris but of one of Magritte’s oldest friends, the founder of the Belgian Dada and Surrealist movements, the musician E.L.T. Mesens, indicated, what distinguished the Belgian surrealists from their Parisian contemporaries was a deep interest in music. Magritte’s brother Paul was a musician too. The official photographic portrait of the Belgian Surrealists dating from 1934 included both Mesens and Souris as well as Magritte. Their main spokesman and theorist Nougé did not share Andre Breton’s more classical surrealist disregard of music which Breton himself later disavowed in 1946.

‘Le rendez-vous de chasse,’ Bruxelles, 1934

(Sitting from left to right: Irène Hamoir, Marthe Beauvoisin, Georgette Magritte. Standing from left to right: E.L.T. Mesens, René Magritte, Louis Scutenaire, André Souris, Paul Nougé)

Belgian Surrealism emerged with the publication of ‘Correspondance’ in 1924, the same year as Breton’s first manifesto. The periodical was printed on different colored fliers and featured critiques of many of the French Surrealists’ writing and philosophies. The Belgian Surrealist group featured, among others, E.L.T. Mesens, Paul Nougé, Rene Magritte, Camille Goemans, Marcel Lecomte and, a bit later, Marcel Mariën. Several members of the Belgian Group interacted and collaborated with the French Surrealists. Here’s a photo of the Brussels surrealist gang taken in Brussels twenty years later:

The café ‘La fleur,’ Bruxelles, March 1953.

(From left to right: Marcel Mariën, Camille Goemans, Gérard Van Bruaene, Irène Hamoir, Georgette Magritte, E.L.T. Mesens, Louis Scutenaire, René Magritte and Paul Colinet).

Photos seem to capture time. We all have photos of the past, watching ourselves together with friends and landscapes as they were some time ago. There seems to be a certain ‘black-and-white’ element surrounding photographs, like the previous one, even if they are taken using the most recent, advanced, machine. Photographs are meant to depict the past, and our past, like dreams, is supposed to be ‘black and white.’

Observatory time: The lovers (A l’ heure de l’ observatoire: Les amoureux), Man Ray, 1936

One of Man Ray’s most memorable paintings, ‘Observatory time,’ is featured in this black-and-white photograph, along with a nude. It includes a depiction of the lips of his departed lover, Lee Miller, floating in the sky above the Paris Observatory. In the photograph, the nude is lying on her side on a sofa underneath the painting, with a chessboard at her feet. ‘Observatory time’ hints at what the woman might be dreaming: a nightmare or an erotic fantasy. The lips in the picture were an inspiration for the logo of ‘The rocky horror picture show,’ and many other pop culture iconic images. The chessboard appears in many of the artist’s works- Duchamp, Picabia and Man Ray all loved playing chess. And Man Ray considered a grid of squares, “the basis for all art... it helps you to understand the structure, to master a sense of order.” He also made chess set designs and photographs of chessboards, pieces and players.

Therefore mathematics (like a chess board), is also black- and white. The way our brain ‘sees’ color may be considered another mystery: a physicist would say that ‘colors’ are just light frequencies. The fact that we perceive (some of) light frequencies as ‘colors’ is a great wonder. Even the lips in ‘Observatory time,’ it seems that we have imagined them to be red.

The flying statue, 1963

(Winged) Victory of Samothrace, 200- 190 BCE

Symmetry however is more important than color. If it weren’t for the shape of lips, we wouldn’t imagine ‘red color.’ If it weren’t for the notion of eternity, we wouldn’t think the ocean or an ancient statue, for example. How life could exist without the sea, the sky, the blue of the eternal? How could a bird fly in the sky without shape, so irrationally in the absolute vacuum without a scratch of pain to leave behind? What the tree of my life look like without roots, the human spirit without the head of ancient statues?

A little of the bandit’s soul (Un peu de l’âme des bandits)

Violin- shaped figurine, Cycladic civilization, 3200-2800 BCE

I therefore realized that modern art could not exist without the ‘classical.’ I recalled, among other things, the marble statuettes of the Cycladic civilization, during the 3rd millennium BCE. Take, for example, the figurine depicted in the previous figure. Abstraction had already gained such a high level, so that these ancient people carved headless figures similar to musical instruments. The fine carving as well as the geometrical proportions are magnificent manifestations of harmony in art.

The denizens of the river (Les habitantes du fleuve), 1926

What are ‘The denizens of the river’ thinking about? Are they contemplating about something along the water bed? Is the water bed an expression of time and eternity? Dolls casually dressed are common in clothing stores. However there is something strange about the dolls in the painting. They form a pair, and the female one even wears a glove and holds a mirror.

The harpist from Keros, 2800-2300 BCE

Or what modern theorists of string theory would think about if they hadn’t read about the ‘music of the spheres?’ Or perhaps if they hadn’t listened to the ‘Harpist’ playing?

The beyond (L’au-delà), 1938

Nothing. But again everything. Harmony is universal, therefore its representations are recognizable by people everywhere and anytime. Even if beauty is subjective, the underlying symmetries are indispensable- The lost arm of an ancient statue will haunt us until we find a way to bring it back to modern art. It is this condition under which surrealism and classicism met. It was the cry of the ghosts of antiquity that were meant to be heard and be dealt with not by neo-classicism, which just extended the agony, but by surrealism, which found a way of expression and interpretation of this agony.

What stands out in music or in photography is not the notes or colors, but the implication which the vibrations cause to imagination. Implication is always stronger than illustration. Again, the same goes for painting. Prediction is stronger than depiction. In the previous painting what we try to imagine is ‘The beyond.’ We try to imagine eternity, and we may think something like an endless blue sky, even not blue, even not a ‘sky.’ Perhaps, just the pedestal, upon which some representation of the eternal may come to stand. But it is always ‘the beyond’ in all our inquiries what remains the most pervasive element of all.

The seducer

The Seducer (Le Séducteur), 1950

The name of this painting could be equally ‘Camouflage,’ or ‘Fata Morgana.’ It would be thus a nice game of words between Morgan the Pirate and Morgana the Sorceress. The ship in Magritte’s painting is made out of the natural elements, sky, clouds, and water. It’s a mirage, a deception, therefore a ‘seduction,’ because it traps the eyes at the image.

The Flying Dutchman, Albert Pinkham Ryder, c. 1887

One of the most famous ghost ships is the Flying Dutchman. It is a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. The myth is likely to have originated from 17th-century nautical folklore. The oldest extant version dates to the late 18th century. Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries reported the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.

According to a tale:

“The news soon spread through the vessel that a phantom-ship with a ghostly crew was sailing in the air over a phantom-ocean, and that it was a bad omen, and meant that not one of them should ever see land again. The captain was told the wonderful tale, and coming on deck, he explained to the sailors that this strange appearance was caused by the reflection of some ship that was sailing on the water below this image, but at such a distance they could not see it. There were certain conditions of the atmosphere, he said, when the sun’s rays could form a perfect picture in the air of objects on the earth, like the images one sees in glass or water, but they were not generally upright, as in the case of this ship, but reversed- turned bottom upwards. This appearance in the air is called a mirage. He told a sailor to go up to the foretop and look beyond the phantom-ship. The man obeyed, and reported that he could see on the water, below the ship in the air, one precisely like it. Just then another ship was seen in the air, only this one was a steamship, and was bottom-upwards, as the captain had said these mirages generally appeared. Soon after, the steamship itself came in sight. The sailors were now convinced, and never afterwards believed in phantom-ships.”

But it may reappear soon:

These sort of phenomena are called ‘Fata Morgana.’ Officially, it is considered an unusual and complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. This optical phenomenon occurs because rays of light are bent when they pass through air layers of different temperatures in a steep thermal inversion where an atmospheric duct has formed. Fata Morgana mirages distort the object or objects which they are based on significantly, often such that the object is completely unrecognizable. A Fata Morgana can be seen on land or at sea, in polar regions or in deserts. This kind of mirage can involve almost any kind of distant object, including boats, islands, and the coastline.

Portrait of Morgan le Fay (Fata Morgana), Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, 1864

‘Fata Morgana’ is in fact an Italian phrase derived from the vulgar Latin for ‘fairy’ and the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay, from a belief that these mirages, often seen in the Straits of Sicily, were fairy castles in the air or false land created by her witchcraft to lure sailors to their death.

The Seducer, 1951

Most obviously unlike a seascape, Magritte has done something odd indeed to the ship: he has replaced its shape with an extension of the water. If that leaves only a dream, the painting’s title, ‘The Seducer,’ also suggests uncensored fantasy, and Magritte himself spoke of painting not just real objects, as in a still life, but ‘real desires.’ Whoever is carrying out a seduction, no one is restraining his transgression.

USS destroyer Eldridge, according to the Philadelphia Experiment

According to another story:

“The story goes that in October of 1943, at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, an experiment was conducted aboard a US Navy Cannon-class destroyer escort called the USS Eldridge, number DE-173. The experiment involved the creation of a force field which rendered the ship invisible both to the eye and to radar. The experiment was witnessed by hundreds, possibly thousands, of sailors both ashore and on other ships nearby. Unfortunately, there were severe side effects to the crew on board ship. Some were found materialized inside the metal of the ship, others were never seen again, and still others were driven insane or plagued for years by mysterious cases of phasing in and out of existence. In typical Navy fashion, everything has been denied.”

The Seducer, 1953

Probably no other painting of his comes as close to monochrome, further obliterating the border between sea and sky. The wave crests may resemble the traces of a ship firmly scudding across the high seas, or they may look like treacherously choppy water during a storm. The third variant (1953), now in a private collection, may incline more closely toward the first version.

One can see ‘The Seducer’ as carefully analyzing and displacing illusion. One can consider the water covering the ship as a reminder that, in a proper representation, an approaching ship would once have lain below the horizon. Besides, unmooring has its own connotations when it comes to the sea. Do these first two layers of meaning, pleasure and critical reflection on painting itself, contradict each other? Absolutely, and that already suggests a third, more unsettling level of interpretation, one that many Surrealists themselves sometimes overlooked in his art… Magritte’s watery ship will continue on its course.

Mental complacency (Le confort de l’esprit), 1950

Did the Philadelphia Experiment really happen? Well, it will certainly happen in the future, and then it will be much more magical- in the same sense that mobile phones would have looked magical less than 50 years ago. The painter’s job is not to perform miracles in the literal sense, but to portray them in his paintings. There is nothing wrong with this, and it is really harmless- dreams have never killed anybody. But a painter, unlike an opportunistic discoverer, has a very difficult task to perform: his paintings must contain elements to make them timeless. While the Eldridge (as far as I know) was sold as scrap to a metal firm in Athens, Greece, the Flying Dutchman is still out there, together with Magritte’s Seducer. But it is behind the ‘comfort of the spirit,’ in our own castle of the mind that we gaze at the sea, see the ghost ship coming, living all the mystery, neither fearful nor reassured.

The collective invention

Collective invention, 1934

I found an analysis on the net about Magritte’s ‘Collective invention,’ which is interesting from a ‘feministic’ point of view- whatever ‘feminism’ (against what?) means:

“The problem of woman is the most wonderful and disturbing problem there is in the world.” Thus wrote André Breton in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism in 1929. In his opinion, the manifestation of true freedom is achieved thanks to the releasing of suppressed desires. Thus the Surrealist design for emancipation led to the repudiation of morality as being a source of oppression and alienation.

In the Surrealists’ works, depictions of woman repeatedly underwent dehumanization as an unprecedented thirst for objectifying, transforming and dismembering her body emerged. Amongst these Surrealistic hybrids was the figure of a mermaid in reverse, the anti-mermaid of the canvas entitled ‘Collective invention.’ Here, the mythic image of half-woman, half-fish, with its deep cultural roots, has been rejected and reworked, her femininity reduced to the role of genitalia exposed to the sphere of the complete liberation of the male imagination.

The presence of spirit (La présence d’esprit), 1960

The beauteous mermaids and sirens were a mythological merging of the female body with fish or birds, respectively. They inhabited aquatic and rocky spaces and their sensual voices and music were their defense against men. In the bestiaries, they were manifestations of licentiousness, debauchery and carnal temptation, whilst all kinds of legends and myths told of their enticing men into the unfathomable, watery deeps, luring sailors with their magical singing and leading them along the pathway to their deaths. Edward Lucie-Smith holds that, in the erotic art of the West, the mermaid was depicted as the thieving seductress who hunts the male imagination.

In Magritte’s ‘Collective invention’ we observe a reversal of this treatment; the half-woman, half-fish is mute and has been cast up on a sandy seashore, possible inveigled by a man, hooked and drawn onto dry land by him. Removed from the water, the hybrid figure with the legs and hips of a woman and the torso and head of a fish lies lifeless. The inability to utter so much as a sound summons up a monumental association with Franz Kafka’s short story ‘The Silence of the sirens,’ which had been published three years earlier, in 1931. In the story, Kafka reworks the Homeric myth of Odysseus’ brush with the sirens. In The Odyssey, the classical hero overcomes their deadly singing by instructing his sailors to plug their ears with wax and ordering that he himself be bound to the mast so that he might listen intently to the rare sensuality of their voices. In Kafka’s story, the sirens remain mute because their silence is intended to prove an even more lethal weapon than their songs. The power of the glance overcomes the power of the voice here and it is the man who emerges victorious from the duel. It is he who beguiles the sirens and they who ultimately suffer death.

The song of the sirens (Le chant des sirènes) 1953

Magritte undertakes a reshaping of the myth which is similar to Kafka’s. The figure he painted in ‘Collective invention,’ is an inverted mermaid who remains silent and could have been beguiled and/or caught by a man. Her piscine, animal constituent predominates, emphasizing her dependency upon the aquatic space. Yet the power, the giving of life, the fertility and the purification which water symbolizes do not pertain to her. This is no Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus,’ a mythical painting of the figure rising from the sea’s spume, but a painting of the death of Venus, flung onto the sand by a wave or hooked and hauled to dry land from the salty deeps. In this way, Magritte inverts and reworks another myth which was also to be a frequent presence in the pop culture classics which were to follow.

The art of the Surrealists and Magritte is frequently interpreted in the context of Freud’s theories in respect of subconscious sources, the urge of the libido and the fear of castration. Relating art to the artist’s psychological condition was intended to provide a convincing argument to the effect that art is an expression of traumas, experiences, pain and loss endured and survived and that it reveals desire or conceals it. In this context, ‘Collective invention’ could be an expression of the trauma experienced after the death of the artist’s mother. In the background of ‘Collective invention’ beyond the watery waves, behind the horizon, the light of the distant sun still glimmers. In Freud’s theories, the sun is nothing other than a symbol of the father. Considering the anti-mermaid within categories of the first and most powerful object of sexual desire, in other words, in this case, the mother, the radiant sun might bear testimony to the presence of the father, source of prohibitions and law.

In the pornographic representation, primary law, such as the prohibition of incest or other social taboos, is not binding. Pornography is the ‘collective invention’ derived from masculine sexual fantasies and reducing the female figure to the elements of her erogenous zones. It might be considered as a visual manifestation of the surrealist inclination toward the degradation and fragmentation of female bodies. Susan Gubar called attention to this in interpreting Magritte’s painting ‘The rape’ from the standpoint of feminist criticism, but it is an aspect which can also be attributed to ‘The Collective invention,’ as well as to other canvases by Magritte.

The figure of the anti-mermaid, however, is an exceptionally degrading, desacralizing and demythologizing image of woman. In juxtaposition with the piscine torso and head, it takes on a uniquely blasphemous appearance. It calls into question the culturally rooted representations of mermaids and the birth of Venus and assails Christian symbolism. Like the silent sirens of Kafka’s short story, Magritte’s half-woman, half-fish is exposed to the power of the masculine gaze. She is stripped not only of the mythical qualities and values of the voice, but also of the mythical incarnations of beauty. Put to death where the foaming waves meet the shore, she still does, however, possess her genitalia and through that, she arouses masculine lust.”

I quote:

“Xavier Abril maintained that, to take possession of the dream is to be completely a fish, calling to mind Albert Einstein words to the effect that the mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. Seeking the path to freeing the mind and concealed desires, to releasing that which is conscious and unconscious, the Surrealists believed in the causative power of art, which is capable of transforming reality. Oscillating around the pornographic representations of the female body, they overturned the myths rooted in culture, proposing a new view of the world of liberated desire. Their questioning of the tendency to imbue woman with a sacred quality led toward the putting to death and degrading of the mythical sirens and mermaids and of the mythical Venus. It was also for this reason that Marilyn Monroe’s oeuvre has been of such interest to subsequent feminist criticism and disciples of Freud’s theories alike. These interpretive perspectives make it possible to deduce from ‘The collective invention’ meaningful relational systems between the collective, which is to say, men versus women and the individual, in other words, the child versus the mother. They reveal an interesting path for the interpretation of the Surrealist figures of mermaid and siren, which, in the face of impending social transformations and in the face of the subject’s traumatic experiences, had to be transformed and put to death once and for all.”

The last paragraph is in fact from the previous analysis but I replaced the words ‘Breton’ with ‘Einstein’ and ‘Magritte’ with ‘Monroe.’ As you can see the meaning remains the same, which shows the ambiguous (also mechanistic) character of human speech. This ambiguity is want Monroe (excuse me, I mean Magritte) wanted to show.

Mermaid and merman, 1866; Unknown Russian folk artist

Mermaids are associated with the mythological Greek sirens as well as with sirenia, a biological order comprising dugongs and manatees. Some of the historical sightings by sailors may have been misunderstood encounters with these aquatic mammals. Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids while exploring the Caribbean, and sightings have been reported in the 20th and 21st centuries in Canada, Israel and Zimbabwe. The U.S. National Ocean Service stated in 2012 that no evidence of mermaids has ever been found.

We commonly refer to mermaids as creatures half-human and half-fish, but always the human part is the upper one. This is because they should be as clever as we are, with a beautiful tail of a fish. But what if they looked the opposite way? Then they may have looked more like us- we are certain about our feet, but know little about our brain. A fish rots from the head down.

The wonders of nature (Les merveilles de la nature), 1953

A painting such ‘The wonders of nature’ fully illustrates Magritte’s poetic sensibility. Here he has depicted two fish-headed lovers apparently joined in song. The conventional mermaid form of the fish-tailed, human-torsoed creature is reversed, making a creature of fantasy even more unreal. Despite their petrification in stone, the figures appear to be very much alive, with an uncannily human quality. ‘The wonders of nature’ is exemplary of Magritte’s use of the theme and appearance of petrification throughout the 1950s. The painting also contains visual elements found in earlier paintings, such as the ghost ship that blends with the waves on the horizon, which made its first appearance in ‘The Seducer,’ or the figures themselves, found in an earlier incarnation, ‘Collective invention.’

One of Magritte’s illustrations for Lautréamont’s Maldodor, 1948

Magritte, like many of the Surrealists, was well acquainted with the prose poem ‘The songs of Maldoror’ (Les Chants de Maldoror), by the nineteenth-century French poet Isidore Ducasse, who worked under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont. Among the illustrations that Magritte created for a 1948 edition of Lautréamont’s work was a depiction of a fish with human legs sitting on a rock by the sea with a small ship coursing the waves in the distance. This association may account for the confusion over the painting’s title, once given as ‘The lovers’ and for a long time known at ‘The song of love.’ Magritte had informed Joseph and Jory Shapiro, the original owners of the work, that the title was ‘Le chant d’amour’ (The song of love). Yet, when asked by his friend Harry Torezyner later on, Magritte said that he could not remember the title.

Illustrations for Eluard’s ‘The necessities of life’ (Les necessites de la vie), 1945

In the previous picture we see (among other things) Paul Eluard with a fish tail hanged by the neck. Such dreadful representations seem to target not only the viewer but also the artist himself. It was a sort of cynical and merciless method of self-critique, aiming to clean up the artist’s mind and soul from the dirt of bourgeois conformism. But it was also the descent to the depths of the human soul- and perhaps at the same time an expression of the bourgeoisie’s decadence at the time.

Here’s an excerpt from the Fourth Chant of Lautréamont’s ‘The songs of Maldoror:’

“Me... I am always like the basalt! In the middle, as in the beginning of life, the angels are similar to themselves: It wasn’t long ago when I hated myself! Man and me, confined within the limits of our intelligence, like a lake inside a reef of coral islands, instead of uniting our respective forces to defend us against chance and misfortune, we are moving away from each other, by an earthquake of hatred, by taking two opposing roads, as if we were reciprocally wounded by the tip of a dagger! It looks as if one accepts the contempt that inspires the other one; Pushed by the motive of a relative dignity, we are rushing not to mislead our opponent; everyone remains on his side being aware that the peace proclaimed would be impossible to keep. Well, so be it!- that my war against man drags on, since one recognizes in the other its own degradation... since we are both mortal enemies. Since I have to win a victory disastrous or succumb, the fight will be beautiful: me, alone, against humanity. I will not use any weapons made of wood or iron; I will utilize the layers of minerals extracted from the earth: the powerful and seraphic melody of the harp will become, under my fingers, a daunting talisman. In more than one ambushes, man, this sublime monkey, has already pierced my chest with his spear of porphyry: a soldier does not show his injuries, no matter how glorious they may be. This terrible war will lay the pain in the two parties: two friends who obstinately seek to destroy each other, what a drama!”

This is the eternal battle between the id (the world of instincts) and the super-ego (the ideal person) performed by the ego (our everyday self). The symbol of the fish comes from the depths of instinctual drives, blind, mute, and mindless, exactly (and correctly) as Magritte’s represents it- reversed, because it is the head (the spirit) what is missing, not the tail (the instinct).

In ‘The wonders of nature,’ the two beings face the unknown naked and petrified, while the ‘Seducer’ slides in the water, threatening as any ghost ship would be. Is this ghost ship a symbol of threat for the two creatures’ untamed love, or does it, on the contrary, magnify the mystery of their coming together? Well, the title ‘Song of love/ Wonders of nature’ suggests a high level of beauty and harmony. ‘Love of song/ Nature of wonders’ could equally fit. Love is a song of the heart, while music is the love of the heart; therefore both music and love comprise wonders of nature. The rock upon which the creatures sit represents the hard, earthly element, while the ghost ship represents the thin, heavenly element of reality. The two creatures, made of stone, stand against the silence of the vacuum.

Pyramid power

Symbols are believed to possess secret powers. A mermaid, for example, is considered a supernatural being because she is half-fish (not because she is half human.) Although symbols are abbreviations or citations, what they refer to is not the object but the meaning they try to explain. For example, numbers and mathematical analogies in general, were invented by humans in order to explain order and harmony in the world, not just to define the solid objects related to them. This is not just a problem of form, but mainly of symbolical representation.

‘Power pyramids,’ for example, are believed to contain special powers, so that objects kept inside them can be preserved or sharpened. It’s not the object but the shape of the symbol what creates the alleged effect. Is it possible that a shape affects space-time and the physical forces inside it? No matter what the secret power of pyramids may be, the effect of objects on space-time is proved by modern physics thanks to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Empty shells rotating exert a force (Coriolis) on the space-time inside them. Here however, we are interested in the effects of symbols not just as geometrical shapes but, more generally, as quantities having effects on a psychic level.

The dreamer’s painting, Man and His Symbols, C.G. Jung

A dream of crime & punishment, J.J. Grandville, 1847

Can symbols possess ‘psychic’ powers, such as material objects exert physical forces? Carl Jung talked extensively about the psychic, as well as the metaphysical, aspect of symbols:

“To mention but one example out of many, I noted the following on April 1, 1949: Today is Friday. We have fish for lunch. Somebody happens to mention the custom of making an ‘April fish’ of someone. That same morning I made a note of an inscription which read: “Est homo totus medius piscis ab imo.” In the afternoon a former patient of mine, whom I had not seen for months, showed me some extremely impressive pictures of fish which she had painted in the meantime. In the evening I was shown a piece of embroidery with fish-like sea-monsters in it. On the morning of April 2 another patient, whom I had not seen for many years, told me a dream in which she stood on the shore of a lake and saw a large fish that swam straight towards her and landed at her feet. I was at this time engaged on a study of the fish symbol in history. Only one of the persons mentioned here knew anything about it.”
(Abstract from Carl Jung’s book ‘Synchronicity- An acausal connecting principle’)

Freud, with respect to the ‘uncanny,’ would also go a step forward to recognize more parameters of the phenomenon, such as the case of the ‘meaningful’ repetition of an event (numbers, names, or symbols.) Carl Jung related such meaningful coincidences with synchronistic phenomena. In other words, the feeling of the uncanny may have to do not only with repressed experiences, but also with a deeper reality of our own psyche. Images seem to appear from the unconscious, which are common for everyone (Jung called them archetypes), reproducing themselves in the real world, causing to us certain unexplained but strangely familiar (‘uncanny’) feelings. Perhaps it was these images or psychic contents that the surrealists tried to grasp through psychic automatism, and through the ‘effect of the double:’

Paranoiac visage, Salvador Dali, 1935

The previous image rotated

Salvador Dali used this effect in many of his paintings. In the previous painting we may see two different things- a hill or a face. Dali expanded his notion about the phenomenon and introduced his so- called ‘paranoiac- critical method.’ It may sound a bit ‘paranoiac’ but Dali thought this was a way to systematize irrational thought. No matter what the interpretation of phenomena related to the ‘uncanny’ or the ‘double’ may be, by exploring and expressing them we liberate the forces of the unconscious, therefore we defuse it, performing some sort of artistic psychotherapy. This is not a matter of physical or mental exercise, but of pure psychic force released, and artistic expression is what helps this force be transformed creatively.

Faraway looks (Les regards perdus), 1927

A taste of the invisible, 1927

The glass house (La maison de verre), 1939

The meaning of night, 1927

Magritte used the ‘effect of the double’ in paintings with repeating but not intermingling forms, the images keeping their separate places in space and time (e.g. in paintings such as ‘The end of contemplation,’ ‘The double secret,’ ‘Not to be reproduced’). This is not always the case, as in ‘The glass house,’ where the face is found at the back of the head.

Interference pattern in Joung’s double slit experiment

The ‘effect of the double’ has its own importance in modern physics. It could be also stated as the uncertainty (or complementarity) principle, and it is expressed through the wave-particle duality. In other words, light behaves either as a ‘wave’ or as a ‘particle,’ depending on the uncertainty of our measurements. This is not because of our ignorance. This is a reality of nature. It is a ‘perhaps’ answer, with some quantities of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in it. We don’t even know if there is something ‘propagating out there’ when we measure light. But we can see the interference pattern. This is a generalization of the pleasure principle in quantum mechanics- the more we try to measure the ‘momentum,’ the more we lose the ‘position’ of some ‘thing.’

I would also suggest that, more importantly, the ‘effect of the double’ in physics means two (or more objects) at the same place but in ‘different times.’ It has thus to do with ‘parallel worlds,’ existing right here but with different ‘parameters’ of time. This ‘parallel realities’ are conceived by the brain as ‘double’ (or ‘multiple’) images, because the brain cannot interpret more than one event at a certain time.

The Babylonian God Oannes

‘ΙΧΘΥΣ’ (Ichthys), a symbol of Jesus, as an adopted Christian symbol

As in psychology the fish symbolizes something that comes from within our deepest unconscious nature, so in religion it is related to different representations of the ‘archetypal god.’ The world ‘ΙΗΣΟΥΣ’ (Jesus) in ancient Greek, for example, is also identified with the word ‘ΙΧΘΥΣ,’ which means ‘fish.’

Pisces, Man Ray, 1938

Women in sardine cans (Femmes aux boîtes de sardines), Oscar Domingues, 1937

Connivance (La connivence), 1965

The search for truth (La recherché de la vérité), 1963

Therefore, it seems that ‘the search for truth,’ related to the fish symbol, is attained with the ‘connivance’ of the secret agents of our own psyche. We may find hard to admit that most, if not all, of our objections and protests against what we consider provocative or ‘immoral’ come from repressions of sexual instincts. But as we have built up a common view about the world, some of our wrong ideas keep on repeating themselves, like some annoying insects buzzing in our minds, and which the sooner they are contained and eradicated the better. Magritte’s ‘Collective invention’ reminds us exactly this- we are the mermaids, sitting at some beach, against the vastness of eternity, a little bit more clever than fish, making dreams, moving our tails, building a theory, revising it, building another one... Those who believe that mermaids don’t exist are simply foolish.

‘Quantum Fish #2’

As you see there are also ‘quantum fishes.’ I’m not sure what their properties are. Perhaps they can jump here and there instantaneously, like sub- atomic particles in the vast quantum ocean of the vacuum. Perhaps they form pairs of matter and anti-matter, like mermaids and ‘creatures with fish heads and human legs’ do. Here’s a part of the article related to the previous image:

Quantum resonance is an example of fundamental aspects inherent to experience (or to existence.) It offers an explanation to questions which remain unanswered, such as the origin of life and consciousness, the law of probabilities, the nature of subjective experience. The term refers to a collective or unified (quantum) field of consciousness (resonance) which is manifested in every form, context, or singularity. However, the notion of quantum resonance expresses this notion in a new way. On one hand, individuality exists as a singularity within a broader context, while, on the other hand, individuality exists as the broader context within which a person lives.

I was thinking that an object may be independent of our existence but not of our experience. Whatever we see is different from what it is by itself. Therefore, we change things when we pay attention to them, at least at the level of knowledge. Absolute truths are not ideal for a painter to paint, because they lack the flexibility of multiple interpretations. But the magic found in any authentic piece of art is a truth beyond interpretation. And this is part of the way we experience the world. Let’s say that we are able to conceive the unconceivable- and this is a curious thing.

I believe that the ‘Collective invention’ is on the same track with the evolution of science, bringing us through a paradigm shift to the modern era, from para-physics to physics, from the proof of faith to the faith in proof. But the faith in proof is not a new dogmatic religion. It teaches neither ‘the love of logic’ nor ‘the logic of love.’ It is logic in love. It is faith in experimentation. What is missing in modern logic is ‘Eros,’ thought and love on the same level. This is what Magritte taught us- an artist without spirit is as bad as a scientist without soul- and as bad as anyone without a sense of magic.

The voice of space

The voice of space, 1928

Early in Magritte’s paintings we see some of the painter’s ‘fixed objects’ appear. These objects correspond of course to ‘fixed ideas.’ Fixed ideas can be seen either as ‘preoccupations’ or as ‘premonitions.’ The difference is that premonitions are rather personal, while preoccupations may be based on ‘archetypal forms,’ common to the human unconscious. Magritte’s ‘bells,’ which in this case look like ‘space balls,’ are perfect manifestations of some abstract idea, which, maturing in the painter’s mind, became a well- defined object. Its shape is spherical, its color reminds of metal composition, and these objects seem to have harnessed anti-gravity.

Someone could say that Magritte’s ‘bells’ are like spaceships or ‘spheres of consciousness’ coming to our world from another, advanced one, to survey or spy on us, with some instruments hiding behind the small gap of the spheres along their perimeter. However, these objects have many different uses in Magritte’s paintings.

Pink bells, tattered skies (Grelots roses, ciels en lambeaux), 1930

‘Pink bells, tattered skies,’ is one of the paintings in which Magritte used the symbol of the bell, alongside another of his favorite motifs, clouds. As in other Magritte paintings where these ‘silent bells’ appear, these ones are physically floating in the air, occupying one half of the painting, free of their weight, their function and their usual scale, which gives them an unreal appearance that emphasizes their oneiric power. This is also helped by an almost photographically accurate technique, which seems to freeze the image in time and space.

The other half of the scene (the painting is divided into two equal areas) is occupied by a sky full of fluffy cloud formations, in stark contrast to the stately definition of the area taken by the round bells. The chromatic difference- bright blue for the cloudy background and electric salmon pink for the bells’ space- contributes to the general feeling of perplexity and uneasiness emanating from the picture, such as happens with the best executed Surrealist visions.

Jingle Bells, one of the best-known holiday songs in the world, was written by Massachusetts song writer James Lord Pierpont and published in 1857 under the title ‘One horse open sleigh.’ Though it is commonly thought of as a Christmas song, it was actually written and sung for Thanksgiving. In the winter time, it was common to place bells on the harnesses of horse drawn sleighs to avoid collisions at intersections. The rhythm of the song mimics that of a trotting horse’s bells.

By distorting the scale, weight, and use of an ordinary object and inserting it into a variety of unaccustomed contexts, Magritte confers on that object a fetishistic intensity. He has written of the jingle bell, a motif that recurs often in his work: “I caused the iron bells hanging from the necks of our admirable horses to sprout like dangerous plants at the edge of an abyss.”

The disturbing impact of the bells presented in an unfamiliar setting is intensified by the cool academic precision with which they and their environment are painted. The dainty slice of landscape could be the backdrop of an early Renaissance painting, while the bells themselves, in their rotund and glowing monumentality, impart a mysterious resonance.

The voice of the winds, 1928

This ‘mysterious resonance’ produced by these spherical objects is not new. The ‘celestial spheres,’ or ‘celestial orbs,’ were the fundamental entities of the cosmological models developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus and others. In these celestial models the apparent motions of the fixed stars and the planets are accounted for by treating them as embedded in rotating spheres made of an ethereal, transparent fifth element (quintessence), like jewels set in orbs. Since it was believed that the fixed stars did not change their positions relative to one another, it was argued that they must be on the surface of a single starry sphere.

This sphere is the dome of the sky as conceived by a human being watching from below. The harmony recognized by early people between this world and the heavens was always based on some form of symmetry, either mathematical or musical. ‘Musica universalis’ or ‘Harmony of the spheres’ is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies- the sun, moon, and planets- as a form of music. This ‘music’ is not usually thought to be literally audible, but a harmonic and/or mathematical and/or religious concept. The idea continued to appeal to thinkers about music until the end of the Renaissance, influencing scholars of many kinds, including humanists.

Boethius, during the Middle Ages, recognized three levels for the ‘music of the spheres:’ the universal music (musica universalis), the music as conceived by humans (musica humana), and the music performed by artists (musica instrumentis (sounds made by singers and instrumentalists)

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three consubstantial persons, expressions, or hypostases: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit- “one God in three persons.” The three persons are distinct, yet are one “substance, essence or nature.”

The problem of trichotomy is one of the most fundamental problems of philosophy, regarding how many separate but elementary parts we need in order to form the world. Another common philosophical notion is that of duality (good and evil, day and night, feminine and masculine, and so on). As far as the problem of trichotomy is concerned, it appears not only in theology, but also in psychology (id- ego- super ego), as well as in other scientific or philosophical fields. For example, in mathematics, the law of trichotomy states that every real number is either positive, negative, or zero.

This principle, based on the number ‘three,’ seems to pervade all levels of human intelligence, and seems to serve as one of the deepest stabilizing factors of human behavior and personality. For example, if we consider a fundamental duality like the pair of good and evil, we can further consider a third element (let’s say a spiritual element which lies beyond good and evil) to help us brake the vicious circle of good and evil. As far as ‘The voice of winds’ is concerned, there are three ‘bells’ appearing in the sky, probably having the ability to ‘ring’ some sort of music which the painter conceives and wants us to join him. This ‘voice of the winds’ certainly goes deeper than mere acoustic sounds in the air, it has more to do with the ability to listen to the music of an internal voice, echoing a deeper and universal harmony. The shape, the metallic color, the narrow frame or ‘window’ around the perimeter of the spheres, all these elements point out a representation of a state of consciousness.

The flowers of the abyss, 1928

The title of these paintings probably refers to the title of Baudelaire’s poetic collection ‘Flowers of evil.’ In the beginning of the collection, Baudelaire says:

“La sottise, l'erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine.”

“Stupidity, mistake, sin and stinginess
Occupy our spirit and traverse our bodies
And we are favorably eaten by remorse
Just like the beggars feed the vermin.”

And goes on:

Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l'incendie,
N'ont pas encore brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre âme, hélas! n'est pas assez hardie.

If rape, poison, the dagger, the fire,
Haven’t yet embroidered their pleasant designs
The trivial canvasses of our pitiful destinies,
It’s because our souls, alas, are not bold enough!

The preface concludes with the following malediction:

C'est l'Ennui!- l'œil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!

It’s Boredom!- with eyes full of unwitting tears,
He dreams of the gallows smoking his hookah.
You recognize, reader, this tricky monster,
You hypocritical reader, my fellow man, my brother!

Baudelaire spoke of boredom, death, hospitals and gallows, about Satan and evil. ‘Spleen,’ as was defined in Baudelaire’s poems, is a sentiment or a state in contrast to the ‘Ideal.’ Baudelaire influenced all the Francophones (at least), therefore Magritte too. In Magritte’s ‘Flowers of the abyss,’ his ‘spheres’ appear either as blossoms of flowers, or as levitating spheres. It’s therefore certain that they represent a state of mind, most likely accompanied by some sentiment of melancholy. The ‘flowers of the abyss,’ like the ‘flowers of evil,’ emerge from the depths of our soul, objectify our ‘Spleen,’ a strange, hard to describe, negative emotion, and they are here to offer the cure with their magical powers.

Automation (L'automate), 1928-29

Automation, 1929

This is another representation of the ‘spheres.’ The title of these paintings (‘Automation’) suggests an automated process of the soul, perhaps its own manifestation (let me use the terms ‘soul’ and ‘consciousness’ interchangeably in this context). Creativity in fact is based on spontaneity; it is therefore related to some automatic process of the unconscious. However, in the first painting ‘consciousness’ occupies a chair- and this interpretation brings about an extremely impossible object! I don’t really know what else the painter might have in mind. In the second painting the sphere again levitates, showing that it doesn’t belong to this world, although it seems to be a very common object to all of us- a representation of the sphere of consciousness. At least this is my own ‘idée fixée’ about the meaning of this object.

Apparition 1928

What a remarkable painting this is (for a physicist at least!) It was formerly known as ‘Person walking toward the horizon.’ An alternative name could be ‘Person falling toward an event horizon.’ The distortion of the image is very significant. We can discern either two ‘holes’ or a person split in two (the body and the head corresponding to the two black blobs).

There is an interesting modern theory in physics, string theory, which states that all fundamental entities consist of ‘strings,’ miniscule objects which vibrate with different modes and frequencies, forming the world we know. Normally, strings are very tiny, but, as the painting suggests, someday, they may be found in the macrocosm.

The painting could also suggest a black hole (and some reflection of it, due to gravitational lensing), or just two ‘event horizons;’ one almost circular and another one elongated, representing some kind of loops or warps in spacetime. In fact, theoretically at least, these sort of anomalies could appear in the sky, if of course we find someday a way to produce the immense amount of energy necessary for such phenomena (together with the corresponding knowledge to avoid the potential dangers).

I believe that when Magritte painted the ‘Threatening weather,’ more generally when he imagined threatening situations, it was not just the expression of a negative emotion; it was at the same time a burst of creativity. The most threatening thing in the world is emptiness, and Magritte seems to have known that well. His paintings expressing the ‘state of the double,’ I mean paintings which at the same time show the ‘interior’ and the ‘exterior,’ like the ‘Human condition’ or ‘The unexpected answer,’ presuppose the annihilation of space-time; distance in space, therefore the passage of time as we know it, could be treated as an illusion, existing only in our everyday world. Therefore, paintings such as ‘Apparition’ express ‘sightings’ of a very different order in nature, which scientists try to reproduce in the laboratory, while the painter tries to depict on his canvas.

Universal gravitation (La gravitation universelle), 1943

Here, Magritte’s friend Scutenaire is immortalized, wearing his hunting suit, carrying his gun, partly buried in the wall. Above the wall, we see huge tree trunks, helping to magnify the ‘gravitational effect.’ Perhaps these trees are huge electromagnetic columns producing the immense field necessary for such bizarre quantum phenomena. And this is strange, because, in this painting, Magritte imagined a state of gravity related to quantum mechanics. Objects penetrating and intermingling with each other are a common notion in quantum mechanics- interference or super-position are common terms referring to this strange effect of ‘indivisibility’ in nature (at least in the microcosm). Here, Scutenaire seems to be in a state of super-position with the brick wall. In fact his left arm has become one with the wall. However, there isn’t yet any theory connecting quantum mechanics with gravity- a unified theory of quantum gravity, as it is called. How can gravity, as the painting suggests, show the same behavior (interference phenomena) as in quantum mechanics? Well, despite the fact that nobody knows how this may be done, Magritte suggests that not only the idea but also the representation of the idea in a painting is not impossible at all.

The battle of Argonne, 1959

Clear ideas, 1958

In a showdown between two seemingly opposite forms, a large cloud and an equally large stone face each other, floating in the sky above a serene landscape. The viewer cannot help but notice the disconcerting nature of this work; the giant stone appears as weightless as the cloud, yet stone is notably heavy and typically anchored to the ground. Of works such as this (that convey the ‘world of stone’) Meuris states, “Gravity is necessarily succeeded by weightlessness. And with Magritte the process is quite independent of the law of physics… Actually, all things considered, the problem of weightlessness has more to do with the poetic than the scientific dimension. Faced with these paintings, it is appropriate to draw on ‘knowledge.’ It is enough that, by their presence before us, they transport us into other realms in a state of total serenity, outside time.”

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, or the Battle of the Argonne Forest, was a part of the final Allied offensive of World War I that stretched along the entire Western Front. It was fought from September 26, 1918, until the Armistice on November 11, a total of 47 days. The battle was the largest in United States military history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers, and was one of a series of Allied attacks known as the Hundred Days Offensive, which brought the war to an end. The Meuse-Argonne was the principal engagement of the American expeditionary forces during the First World War.

In Magritte’s ‘Battle of Argonne’ we can see the forest and the sea in the far distance. The Armistice is represented by the balance between the rock and the cloud below the moon. However, Magritte’s ‘battle’ is fought between two different abstract forces or elements, the earthly and the heavenly one. In ‘Clear ideas,’ the land is removed, and a rock levitates underneath a cloud and above the ocean. The bottom of the rock is darker, its illumination becoming brighter as we move towards the cloud and the sky.

Zeno’s arrow (La fleche de Zénon) 1964

In Magritte’s sense, there is a connection between wining gravity and wining time. It seems as if by reversing or even stopping time we could make things float in the air. ‘Zeno’s arrow’ is another example of a levitating rock. Here, the rock is set in the foreground, in front of a cloudy sky, above the sea.

Zeno’s arrow is a paradox (among others) conceived by the ancient Greek philosopher in order to prove the impossibility of motion. It goes like this: “If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.”'s_paradoxes#Arrow_paradox

This is in fact a problem of modern differential calculus (as stated by Newton and Leibnitz): The motion of an arrow in flight is described by successive ‘infinitesimal’ dispositions. The problem however remains the same- if infinitesimals are infinitely small then the total distance should be infinitely large; or if at an (infinitesimal) instant of time the position of the arrow is measured as if the arrow was motionless, how is it possible that the arrow is moving? The answer is not obvious at all, and the modern theory of infinitesimals has produced the problem of limits- a quantity going to zero without ever becoming zero.

There is a variation of Zeno’s paradox, the so-called quantum Zeno effect. In 1977, physicists E. C. G. Sudarshan and B. Misra studying quantum mechanics discovered that the dynamical evolution (motion) of a quantum system can be hindered (or even inhibited) through observation of the system. In other words, an unstable particle, if observed continuously, will never decay.

If we take quantum mechanics as the basis to explain the arrow paradox, it is the observer who ‘freezes’ the arrow’s motion. However, the observer is not measuring the arrow continuously, but in discrete intervals of time; therefore at the intermediate intervals during which the arrow is not observed, it can move! The arrow is not considered a quantum object (it is too large), but I guess in the future all objects will be regarded at least as quantum-like.

I just wanted to stress the importance of the observer here. In fact, we are the ones who both observe motion and ‘stillness.’ The arrow by itself can do whatever it wants, but it is the way we measure it and interpret its condition (moving or being still) what gives the arrow specific properties with respect to space and time.

Let’s think about motion. Let’s think for example an object moving. Is it really moving? We believe things are moving ‘out there’ while everything is motionless in thought. We could equivalently say that it is consciousness what is ‘running’ towards objects. However motion has also an objective existence. For example, our body will be compressed in a fast accelerating vehicle or rocket. But again what we realize is the effect of what we consider motion, not the phenomenon of motion itself.

The same goes for gravity. It is a notion whose ‘real’ effect is what we feel on our bodies (having weight for example). Therefore the existence of gravity is what we infer by common experience, but the cause of such a force is something difficult to grasp. The problem with a levitating rock is that experience teaches us that all things fall, not that levitation cannot be theoretically achieved. On the other hand, motion is a condition perceived by the senses and interpreted by the brain as such. But things do not really move in our brain. Therefore, for the human mind motion is impossible (in the same sense that objects are weightless when we think about them).

The glass key, 1959

The castle of the Pyrenees, 1959

A different contrast predominates in the picture of a rock hanging motionless in the air, a contrast between the weight of the stone and the lightness attributed it by the painting. Magritte characterizes one impossibility by means of another, as in the picture ‘The glass key;’ at the same time, he is following a process which he would often employ in order to pay homage to one of his favorite authors, Dashiel Hammet (who wrote a novel with the same title).

“I think that the best title for a picture is a poetic title,” Magritte once said. As in his pictures- here, for example, the rock seemingly hanging motionless in mid-air- Magritte likewise frequently sought fantastic, ‘poetic’ motifs for his titles. In this case, the contrast exists not between different objects but rather between the different qualities of the same object: the weight of the stone cannot be reconciled with the lightness which the painted picture gives it.

As far as ‘The castle of the Pyrenees’ is concerned, it was inspired by Anne Radcliffe’s book ‘Visions of the castle in the Pyrenees’ (Les visions du château des Pyrénées). From 1959 to 1964 Magritte painted three versions of this subject matter. The final 1964 work was due to his friend Harry Torczyner, who commissioned Magritte to paint this large-scale oil to cover up a window in his New York office, whose preference of the painting would be to have the rock floating above a dark and stormy sea like the North Sea of his youth, but in a bright daytime sky, so that from the dark ocean we see rising this rock of hope crowned with its fortress-like castle.

The invisible world (Le monde invisible), 1954

The anniversary (L’anniversaire), 1959

The calligrapher (Le calligraphe), 1958

There is some sort of preoccupation with space in Magritte’s paintings with rocks. In ‘The invisible world,’ a rock occupies an empty room with a view of the sea and the sky, while in ‘The anniversary,’ the rock doesn’t leave any room left, as if the rock is space itself. In ‘The calligrapher,’ a rock is standing alone in a desert landscape. Certainly rocks represent endurance against eternity, both naturally and psychologically. Rocks, if they don’t fly, are certainly objects we can lean on; when they do fly, we may preserve our dreams in a palace built upon such a rock (like the ‘Castle of the Pyrenees’).

Magritte’s preoccupation with space is also found in paintings with houses:

The breast, 1961

Spiritual look

‘The breast’ shows numerous three to four-floored houses heaped up like in the case of a ‘car-dump.’ Evidently Magritte questions the box-concept of modern architecture. The picture looks very strange, because, usually, houses cannot be ‘heaped up’ like this. They are not stable units that can be vertically piled up under any spatial conditions like boxes, cars, or pieces of wood. Houses of this type are composed of different elements. They fall apart correspondingly.

In ‘Spiritual look,’ architectural speculation has moved away from the ground getting caught in the heights of an absurd tower. Magritte ironically questions our ideas about the house as a machine-like unit. It is not a tool for dwelling, a planned functional whole. It follows other laws, those of a gradually evolved tectonic cultural landscape intimately related to man. Doors, windows, rooms etc. all have their own lives, their own structure, their own history. Note that in Magritte’s ‘house-dump’ no human being is indicated! The whole oeuvre of Magritte is organized in this way. He experiments with one or many houses, asks spatial, temporal and causal questions in and around buildings, produces tests with parts of houses, with the ‘in front’ and ‘behind’ of walls, with furniture, with monuments.

The listening room, 1952

The listening room, 1958

‘The listening room’ gives viewers cause to think once they consider the title of the work and attach it to the physical work of art. Not a huge painting in itself, it depicts a mighty green apple within a tiny room. Or maybe it is an ordinary sized apple placed within a tiny room? This is typical of Magritte, who amused himself by playing with scale in his work. In Magritte’s own words on discussing his unnatural placement of objects, he describes “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.”

Magritte painted this theme twice, once in 1952 and yet again in 1958. The apple remains consistent, however the room in which it appears is rich in background color in the earlier version. Having a deep brown wooden floor and terracotta walls against an ivory painted window frame and ceiling, the painting seems warm and inviting. The window allows in light that allows the skill of the artist to be fully appreciated in his depiction of the apple skin. Beyond the window, the fields echo the green hues of the fruit. In the later painting, however, the room has become more of a cell like, pale structure with stone floor and walls. The window, now a glass free archway, lends the painting a stark, cold interpretation. The apple itself appears to stand out more in the second painting, the coolness of the background a starker contrast. The viewer could simply reach out and remove the fruit from its confines.

It is interesting to study the attention to detail. The painting could almost be photographic in Magritte’s realistic approach to the piece of fruit, yet he chooses to place it in an impossible situation. Furthermore, he gives it an ironic title, there are neither ears with which to listen, nor anything within the painting to listen to. The apple remains silent in what appears to be a silent room. Perhaps Magritte intended the title to apply to the viewer and not the viewed? Do viewers, on reflection of the painting, begin to listen to their own thoughts on the subject? After all, in Freud’s theory of symbolism in dreams, the apple represents a breast and people should perhaps note that Magritte’s own mother committed suicide when he was young. It is understood that his father attempted to lock her in a room in order to keep her safe from herself. Maybe once all this is considered, then ‘The listening room’ becomes a place for silent contemplation and grief.

The principle of Archimedes (Le principle d’ Archimède)

It is interesting to note here that what we consider space is something absolutely non- existent. It is objects which give a sense of space. For example, two objects ‘in space’ define the distance in between. Furthermore, space itself is defined as the interior of an object. What we commonly refer to as ‘space’ is in fact the ‘interior of the universe.’ No space can be defined outside these limits. In other words, space is always relative to some reference point, with respect to an observer.

However, the observer is not found in an absolute position in space. He also refers to the object he observes or to a point of reference of another observer; and so on. Here the observer is the viewer, and the ‘system’ he ‘observes’ is the painting. Let’s take for example the ‘Listening room’ first. The huge apple occupies the room. The space of the room is defined by the interior of the apple, leaving outside the corners of the room.- It is very interesting to note that Archimedes was the first who tried to calculate the area (or perimeter) of a cycle using another object (a polygon with a gradually increasing number of sides) inside the circle. This is I believe the fundamental notion (as well as the secret) behind Magritte’s attempt to artistically ‘square the circle,’ to fill the room (which is an object) with an apple (which is another object).

As far as ‘The principle of Archimedes’ is concerned, Archimedes defined the principle as follows: “Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.”'_principle

This is related to the force of buoyancy. Hot air balloons illustrate the principle: They float in the air because the air they contain is lighter (has lower density) than the air outside. Magritte had painted balloons, and it seems he was astonished by the principle. Therefore he decided to use the principle to paint apples floating in the air. Can apples float in the air? Well, any object could, provided it was less dense than air. The problem here is not the form of the apple but the composition of the object (whatever its shape). In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the energy density of the vacuum is related to gravity, as well as temperature, and other forces which may be present. Could we construct an object lighter than ‘empty space?’ Well, it would suffice to be lighter, less dense, than the density of the local gravitational field in order to make it not to ‘fall.’ I don’t know if Magritte knew that free fall is true inertial motion (therefore free falling objects or observers are considered stationary from their frame of reference). Nevertheless, things ‘float’ in empty space, away from gravity, in space stations for example. Someone in a space station could take a plate with apples and arrange them in such a way as depicted in Magritte’s painting. Then he could paint them or take a picture of them, imitating Magritte’s painting. However this has nothing to do with Archimedes’ principle or Magritte’s initial intention. Or has it?

The familiar world (Le monde familier), 1958

I left this painting to be the last one, regarding the ‘Voice of space’ unity, because it summarizes the painter’s ideas about the relativity of space. The three objects are set in an opposite direction (the rock higher, the ‘bell’ lower, and the cloud in the middle), suggesting that the ‘bell’ could be considered the lightest object of the three- but the heaviest in importance. The ‘bell’ here seems to exert some ‘force of resonance,’ through sound or microwave vibrations, on the other objects, making them levitate. Although magical, this ‘resonance sphere,’ or ‘bell,’ appears to be a physical object, as it casts shadow on the beach, just in front of the vast sea. The vastness of the sea expressed in the painting, suggests the idea of eternity. The three objects are therefore set according to an eternal representation- the earth (the rock), the heavens (the cloud in the sky), consciousness (the sphere), against the ocean of the eternal. Therefore, space has its own voice; either in the form of the cosmic background microwave radiation of physics, or in the form of the imaginary sounds produced by magical surrealistic objects, such as Magritte’s ‘bells.’

The voice of blood

It would be a mistake to take Magritte’s titles literally. But there’s certainly some underlying meaning or principle. Here, for example, the symbolism of the ‘spheres,’ or ‘bells,’ which we previously encountered (although ‘impersonal’ here), together with a huge tree (not bilboquet- like this time), and a house, forms a basic triad- the spirit, the body, and the heart, respectively- of the memory (or voice) of blood.

The voice of blood (La voix du sang), 1947

The voice of blood, 1948

In ‘The voice of blood’ and other works of the late 1940s, Magritte returned to the mysterious imagery and representational surrealistic style, after spending the earlier portion of the decade producing parodies of Impressionism. The mysterious image of a mighty, leafy tree transformed into a cylindrical cupboard with a white ball and illuminated house reveals the lasting impact of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘pittura metafisica’ on Magritte's oeuvre. The artist may have based the unfolding bark doors of this tree on an illustration of cork harvesting that he found in the Larousse encyclopedia, one of his preferred sources of existing imagery. Magritte’s colleague, the playwright Claude Spaak, has suggested that Magritte found this image in a chapter from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s adventures in Wonderland,’ where she remarks that “one of the trees had a door leading right into it.”

Having established a new visualization of the compartmented tree with the present work, Magritte painted many subsequent versions with the same title, each of these works retaining this basic iconography with very slight modifications. In 1947, Magritte painted two gouaches of this scene and he produced a second oil painting with a crimson curtain (second image), as well as two more gouaches in the following year.

The voice of blood, 1959

The voice of blood, 1961

Whereas Magritte cropped out the tree’s canopy in these images, the version painted in 1959 expands the composition to encompass the whole tree, which he preserved in the final canvas done in 1961.

The title of these works may also translate as ‘The call of blood,’ or alternately ‘Blood will tell,’ which confers an ominous character onto the scene. The illuminated windows of the tiny house suggest an unseen and possibly nefarious activity. Magritte twice offered commentary on this work in 1948, yet his enigmatic words amplify the mysterious quality of the imagery. Addressing the scene in his text, Magritte states: “The words dictated to us by the blood sometimes appear foreign to us. Here, it seems to want to command us to open up magic riches in the trees.” In an exhibition catalogue from the same year, Magritte refers to the tree as an enchanted creature, writing: “We could hear the hearts of the trees beating before the hearts of men.” This cryptic subject matter is enhanced by an ambiguous sense of scale that is established in the sphere and house. The viewer must contemplate whether he can accept these two objects as a conventional sports ball and a dollhouse, especially if the house is possibly life-sized.

Threshold of forest (Le seuil de la foret), 1926

The parade (La parade), 1940

The ‘Voice of blood’ series build upon ideas that Magritte had previously conceived in previous paintings. In the ‘Threshold of forest,’ we see a tree baring a wall in its trunk, suggesting a intermediate stage between trees and buildings, an idea which was later transformed in the ‘Voice of blood’ series of paintings. In ‘the parade,’ we find a blue print for the idea of a curtain behind the tree in the 1948 version of ‘The voice of blood.’

Paul Eluard wrote a poem in 1935, with respect to Magritte’s paintings. It goes like this:

“Steps of the eye
Through the bars of forms
A never-ending staircase
None-existent rest
One of the steps is hidden by a cloud
Another by a big knife
Another by a tree which unfolds
Like a carpet
Without gestures
All the steps are hidden
Green leaves have been scattered
Immense fields deduced forests
At sundown leaden banisters
On a level with the clearings
In the light milk of morning
The sand pours its rays
Onto the silhouettes of the mirrors
Their cold, pale shoulders
Their decorative smiles
The tree is tinted with invulnerable fruits.”

The ‘parade’ was exhibited in a small exhibition held in Brussels during the Occupation in 1941, and was acquired by Eluard. The deceptive simplicity of this picture’s composition, with its near-desert landscape, a tree and a curtain, lends it a forceful immediacy. The image is easy to read, yet more complex to decipher. At the same time, it is after the initial jolt of recognition that ‘The parade’ slowly reveals its mysteries. The gnarled tree is shown against a red curtain similar to that which appears in several of Magritte’s paintings. In this way, Magritte throws various conventions of artistic tradition into question: the contrast between interior and exterior, represented by curtain and tree, has somehow been exploded. Likewise, the idea of concealment and revelation represented by the curtain has been reversed: the tree, far from being hidden, is displayed to the viewer, while the potentially barren landscape in the background has been suppressed. Magritte has used the rich red of the curtain to thrust the meticulously-rendered bark of the tree into bold relief, creating an intriguing and aesthetic dissonance between the textures of the wood and of the soft material in the background.

Dolmen in the snow, Caspar David Friedrich, 1807

In ‘The parade,’ Magritte has subverted the usual presentation of trees in paintings. Here, he has done this by showing the tree firstly without leaves, and secondly cropped in such a manner that most of its bulk and height is implied to continue far above the top edge of the canvas. To some extent, it recalls the expressive trees in the paintings of, say, Caspar David Friedrich, for instance his ‘Dolmen in the snow’ from circa 1807. In both paintings, the trees appear to function in part as substitutes for human subjects, proxies able to convey some sense of sublime fallacy. But in Magritte’s painting that sentiment is transformed into something distinctly Magrittean- it has an understated wit and playfulness, as the artist plays with our perceptions and expectations.

Almayer’s folly (La folie almayer), 1951

The red model (Le model rouge), 1935

‘Almayer’s Folly,’ is Joseph Conrad’s first novel, published in 1895. Set in the late 19th century, it centers on the life of the Dutch trader Kaspar Almayer in the Borneo jungle and his relationship to his mixed heritage daughter Nina.'s_Folly

In Magritte’s version, the tree has large roots, just like mangrove trees in Borneo, but it is rooted in the air. Furthermore, the tree trunk is a castle, half ruined, perhaps to suggest its antiquity. In ‘The red model,’ the boots have become one with the feet wearing them. Such sort of tautologies emphasize the common origin of things, as well as criticize the common way in which we treat things of everyday use.

Regarding the subject, Magritte said: “The problem of shoes demonstrates how the most barbaric things pass as acceptable through the force of habit. One feels, thanks to ‘The red model,’ that the union of a human foot and a leather shoe arises in reality from a monstrous custom.”

The uncanny affinity between the feet and the shoes drives our curiosity and undermines our habitual conceptual polarity: feet/shoe, human/non-human, civilization/wilderness, inside/outside. To combine human feet with leather to form a new object is an expression and demonstration of hybridization and monstrosity. The frightening reversal reveals a monstrous habit when the ‘outside’ becomes ‘inside.’ The container (boot) contains the contained- the privileged human-flesh-foot. Then, with the backdrop of the ground, one would recognize the ‘foot’ of the boot as a stranded ‘thing.’ This thing-ness objectifies a human entity as a non-human entity that shatters the viewer’s subject position. The awareness of the ‘thing-ness’ of foot and the hybridity of such combination evoke a bizarre feeling which could be designated as ‘monstrous.’ ‘Monstrosity of being’ designates the ontological grasping of an alien world that belongs to the realm of ‘infinity’ and ‘totality.’

The monstrosity in ‘The red model’ suggests a spilt- feet/shoe, human/non-human, civilization/wilderness, inside/outside. In the awareness of the reversal, we transfer from the esthetical to the ethical undertaking- we recognize a monstrosity in the human custom- a human unskins the animal in order to make a thing to cover the human skin, and in doing so he terminates the being of the animal (and reduces it to become ‘stuff’) to construct being for humans. Here we recognize a preference to an orderly interiority as being (and exteriority as non-being). Human identity is created by ‘bracketing off’ the wild outside of the human skin. The freedom to either put on the leather (to integrate the being of animal into the human organism) and or put off the leather (and regard it as ‘stuff’ to create distance between the human and the wild) is regarded as process of culturalization. Such a violence of ‘nailing’- of compulsory associating, assimilating alien things together is an indispensable element of dream and memory. Habit, or a persistence of memory, is indispensable in monstrosity.

I’m very glad that I found such a ‘monstrous’ analysis concerning ‘The red model.’ I have always believed that art is a great way toward psychoanalysis (and even better than). We don’t need to understand Dali’s monstrous images; it suffices to recognize them- this is how we get them out of ourselves. The uncanny is explicitly depicted in ‘The red model,’ with a human-like shoe (or a shoe-like foot). The feeling of the uncanny emerges, since we cannot make up our mind if the object is human (a being) or footwear (a thing).

The oldest known leather shoe, about 5500 years old, found in Armenia

However, I don’t believe that shoes are barbaric at all. The earliest known shoes are sandals dating from approximately 7,000 or 8,000 BCE, found in Oregon, USA. The world’s oldest leather shoe, made from a single piece of cowhide laced with a leather cord along seams at the front and back, was found in Armenia, and is believed to date to 3,500 BCE. Ötzi the Iceman’s shoes, dating to 3,300 BCE, featured brown bearskin bases, deerskin side panels, and a bark-string net, which pulled tight around the foot. However, it is estimated that shoes may have been used long before this, but it is difficult to find evidence of the earliest footwear due to the highly perishable nature of early shoes.

I don’t know if Magritte regarded humans as barbarians because we skin animals to provide ourselves with clothes (among other things), or if he believed that walking barefoot is a sign of civilization. But the point is that the statement itself is a tautology: By wearing shoes, we are at the same time civilized (because we know the technology) and savages (because we skin animals). Even if we didn’t skin animals, wearing shoes would remain related to an ambiguous behavior: No matter how civilized we become, we keep on wearing clothes to protect our naked parts from the environment- and from the ‘common view.’

The labours of Alexander (Les travaux d’ Alexandre), 1950

The original story (about the Gordian Knot) goes something like this: Gordias, before becoming king of the Frygians was a peasant. At one time the Phrygians were without a king. An oracle decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. Gordias (then a peasant farmer) drove into town on an ox-cart, and, on entering the city, Gordias was declared king by the priests. The ox-cart remained in the palace of the kings of Phrygia when Alexander arrived. Alexander attempted to untie the knot. When he could not find the end to the knot to unbind it, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (the so-called ‘Alexandrian solution).’

Alexander tried to solve the problem because an oracle had prophesied that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia. However Alexander solved the problem by using brute force! This is why the phrase ‘Gordian Knot’ is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (disentangling an ‘impossible’ knot) solved easily (and arbitrarily) by cheating or ‘thinking outside the box.’ However, unlike fable, true myth has few completely arbitrary elements. This myth taken as a whole seems designed to confer legitimacy to dynastic change in this central Anatolian kingdom: thus Alexander’s “brutal cutting of the knot... ended an ancient dispensation.”

The comparison suggested here is rather clear: As Alexander solved an ancient problem (the problem of tyrannical regimes) with military force, so Magritte ended the ‘tyranny of images’ with artistic methods. As in the case of the Gordian Knot the ‘knot’ symbolizes a problem which needs solution, in ‘The labors of Alexander’ the objects represent meanings (therefore other objects) underlying and underlining the true problem.

The imaginative faculty, 1948

A similar problem refers to Columbus’s egg. It refers to a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. The expression refers to an apocryphal story in which Christopher Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was inevitable and no great accomplishment, challenges his critics to make an egg stand on its tip. After his challengers give up, Columbus does it himself by tapping the egg on the table to flatten its tip.

As the term is often alluded to when discussing creativity, and has also been used as the trade name of puzzles, Magritte’s ‘Effective affinities,’ or the previous painting, ‘The imaginative faculty,’ express the painter’s ingenuity in solving problems. How could someone, for example, depict the male sexual organ in a simple, also artistic, way? Magritte found a solution by using a candle and three eggs (one egg being redundant!).

Clairvoyance (Self- portrait), 1936

Instead of Columbus’s eggs or Gordian knots, Magritte used ‘Magrittean apples’ to illustrate the same principle- how to use an object as a complement in order to find the simplest possible solution to a problem with an equally important respective meaning. In ‘Archimedes principle,’ Magritte used apples to float, instead of whatever objects Archimedes originally used, to solve the problem of buoyancy. -However Columbus’s egg reappears in the previous painting-.

An Archimedean point is a hypothetical vantage point from which an observer can objectively perceive the subject of inquiry, with a view of totality. The ideal of ‘removing oneself’ from the object of study so that one can see it in relation to all other things, but remain independent of them, is described by a view from an Archimedean point. The expression comes from Archimedes, who supposedly claimed that he could lift the Earth off its foundation if he were given a place to stand, one solid point, and a long enough lever. This is also mentioned in Descartes’ second meditation with regards to finding certainty, the 'unmovable point' Archimedes sought.

Skeptical and anti-realist philosophers criticize the possibility of an Achimedean point, claiming it is a form of scientism. Example quote: “We can no more separate our theories and concepts from our data and percepts than we can find a true Archimedean point- a god’s-eye view- of ourselves and our world.”

How interesting this is- a kind of belief in absolute truth. It is also related to the observer effect in physics, and the subject-object problem in psychology and philosophy. This is the importance: If we could remove ourselves from the thing we observe, then this thing could be seen perfectly in its totality, without the influence of the observer. Exactly this problem is depicted in Magritte’s ‘Clairvoyance.’ The painter becomes the absolute observer, who observes himself painting his own portrait. But again, the painter is not the ‘absolute observer.’ He refers to the viewer, who in turn refers to someone else, and so on, ad infinitum. The problem of infinity (infinite regress) arises here against any attempt for absolute knowledge.

In Magritte’s initial painting, ‘The labors of Alexander,’ the tree holds the axe, as if it felled itself. This is impossible, because it is a self-referring action. The picture is also reminiscent of one who chopped off one’s own head. Again we have the same problem of self-reference and of the impossibility of absolute reference. It is as if we were able to push ourselves so that we started to move. This is the endless and cumbersome journey of knowledge which we tend to search for in an absolute manner.

The search for the absolute (La recherche de l’absolu), 1960

The search for the absolute, 1963

An exquisite, autumnal gouache from 1960, ‘The search for the absolute’ shows one of Magritte’s most iconic and favored motifs, the tree-leaf. However, where in his earlier explorations of this theme the leaf was green, standing gargantuan, absurd, magical and magnificent in its landscape, here it is denuded of ‘foliage,’ the branches or veins the only remaining trace of its former verdant self. Nonetheless, the emphatic flatness of the leaf has been retained in this image, ensuring that Magritte’s conceptual game remains in play. At the same time, appearing bare and thus allowing the pink glow of the sky to filter through its gauze of branches, ‘The search for the absolute’ attains a profound sense of visual lyricism that adds to the appropriateness of its title.

The title of the present gouache likely stems from the novel ‘The quest for the absolute’ (La recherche de l’ absolu) by Honoré de Balzac (1834), which portrays the destructive effects of one man’s obsession with alchemy and a quest for absolute truth. Magritte often took inspiration from literature, film, and musical scores when coming up with titles for his canvases, and he also invited suggestions from friends such as the writers Paul Nougé and Louis Scutenaire, who is thought to have contributed the title for the present work. As in many of Magritte’s paintings after 1930, the title has a tenuous, indirect or seemingly incongruous relationship with the imagery, through which the artist invites the viewer to build associations on his own.

The search for the absolute, 1940

‘The search for the absolute’ is a variation on an idea that Magritte first depicted in three oil paintings at the end of 1940. Magritte described these canvases to the Belgian playwright Claude Spaak in a letter from January 1941, stating: “Among the recent canvases, there are three versions of ‘The search for the absolute,’ which is a leafless tree (in winter) but with branches that provide the shape of a leaf, a leaf even so! One version takes places in the evening with a setting sun, another in the morning with a white sphere on the horizon, and the third shows this great, self-willed leaf rising against a starry sky.”

Easter morning, Caspar David Friedrich, 1833

By the time Magritte revisited the theme of ‘The search for the absolute’ in the 1960s, the tension of the Second World War was far in the past. Accordingly, his subject has a romantic warmth to it that was lacking in its chillier 1940 incarnation. Indeed, the contrast between the branches, or veins, of this tree-leaf against the pink sky recall the 1833 German painter Caspar David Friedrich’s work ‘Easter morning.’ Deliberately invoking the visual language of Friedrich, Magritte has depicted his expansive landscape with a low horizon, leading into a meditative distance, with the single tree-leaf in the foreground acting as an anchor to the composition, serving as an analogue not for the trees of ‘Easter morning,’ but instead for the often solitary figures the German painter used in the foregrounds of his pictures.

The search for the absolute (posthumous publication)

Magritte’s deadpan style of representation sets formal rationalism against an improbable and fantastical sense of scale; the ball is an oppressive presence when contrasted with to the miniscule figures, yet without the suggestion of the landscape setting, the gouache could almost pass for a purely scientific representation of two frontal, hand-sized objects. The use of an enlarged leaf to represent a tree, the substitution of a part for the whole, underscores his exploration of provocative encounters between objects that are based on an inherent association with each other. Continuing this game of affinities, the leaf-shaped tree also suggests a circulatory system as it branches through a human lung, lending the image a human aspect, which further contrasts with the hard, inanimate perfection of the ball. The branching lines describe the nature of the quest; they are a series of paths to be chosen and taken while none actually leads to the absolute.

This is the journey of the absolute- back to our roots, at the same time. The ‘Voice of blood’ unity suggests such a journey. It is not just an elaborate artistic way to depict a tree, a house, and a child’s game (a ball) in the same place at the same time. It is also the simultaneous gathering of three objects, which correspond to three distinct respective meanings. Blood runs in our veins. Trees have their own veins, and Magritte often depicted leaf-like trees with veins. This is our earthly past in the soil, where we all come from and where we will all end. The house could be related to childhood, therefore memories. Our blood is full of memories. Memories are stored in genes and carried by blood. Blood is our heritage and our biggest obligation. The ball, resting on the upper tree-floor, is again related to the spirit (just like all ‘bells’ or ‘space-balls’ in Magritte’s paintings.) The spirit is placed above the heart or any family ties (represented by the house), and well above the roots of the tree (physical drives, hidden instincts). We cannot avoid the ‘call of blood,’ but at the same time we cannot help following the call which echoes in the highest pockets of the heavens, beyond the tip of the tree, or behind the curtain, in the deepest roots of our soul.

Time transfixed

Reflections of time (Les reflets du temps), 1928

Reflections of time, 1927

What is time? Time is one of the most common ‘things’ or notions, which we deal with every day. Here’s a definition:

“The system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.”

This is the most common, ‘causal’ interpretation of time. Time in this sense is defined as the ‘gap’ between succeeding events (in a series where the previous event causes the following one). This way time is defined through the relations between events. But what if the relations were different? What if, for example, a couple or group of events appeared spontaneously, without any apparent relationship between them whatsoever? What if the hands of a clock pointed towards a ‘canon’ and the ‘sky,’ as depicted in the first painting ‘Reflections of time’?

In the second painting, the ‘clock’ looks like a strange device consisting of the sound hole of a violin, while the ‘clock,’ whose face looks more like a precious stone, has one hand extended, with a small ‘pearl’ at the end. The only notion of time in this painting is implied by the shadow that the hand of the clock casts on the ground.

The lining of sleep, 1928

F-shaped sound holes are common in Magritte’s paintings, and they are used, let’s say, to improve the ‘artistic resonance’ of the painting. There is a certain connection between time and sound. In fact we perceive time through our ears mostly. Now I suspect that we also perceive space mostly with the help of our ears. It is the emptiness found all around us, echoed in the wind, or the sound of silence itself what gives us the best impression about space and time emptiness. Indeed, time is not the ticking of the clock but the gap in between two ‘ticks.’ In the same sense, space is the gap in between two positions, not the position themselves. What an astonishing discovery: space-time is just a notion with the help of which we ‘feel’ the gaps all around us. This is what happens in ‘The lining of sleep:’ The f-holes of a musical instrument, together with some other of its parts have risen in the night sky, inviting us, as the curtain falls, to listen to the world of dreams.

The end of time (La fin du temp), 1927

Magritte’s notion of time is also revealed in cut out paper paintings. In the ‘End of time,’ one has the impression that one may stop time by replacing the face of a clock with a cut out paper, as if the holes of the paper formed traps for the passage of time. The ‘time device’ of this painting is leaning on a table (or even a wall) with characteristic wood lines. The wood lines seem to have an impact on some notion of time in the painting, as tree rings could have.

Man with a newspaper, 1928

Time is considered not only in the context of causality (that things should have a ‘purpose’ in order to occur), but it is also regarded as continuous. However, a fragmented picture of time is illustrated in the ‘Man with a newspaper.’ The painting looks as if taken from the movies, consisting of separate frames, the man disappearing after the first frame.

Magritte told Andre Bosmans in 1960 that the image of a man seated in a room was based on an illustration in ‘The natural method of healing,’ by F.E. Bilz, a popular guide to health, first published in 1898. The book is illustrated with a large number of quaint steel engravings. This particular one was done to illustrate an “Ideal incandescent fuel stove with flue recommended by Professor Bilz for any place where there is no chimney, and where much warmth is required.” Magritte followed the main lines of the composition, but eliminated a number of details and simplified the forms throughout. The most conspicuous changes are that the pipe runs vertically upwards instead of bending almost at right angles; the shelf and the vase with peacock feathers have been eliminated; the curtains are different and the view through the window is of landscape instead of buildings; there are more flowers on the window ledge; the object in the foreground is a stool instead of a chair; and the man is not smoking. Georgette Magritte confirms that there is a copy of the French language edition of this book in her husband’s library and that this particular page is missing, having probably been extracted to work from.

The repetition of the same image in four compartments (almost identical except for the presence of the seated man in the upper left section only) is itself highly unusual in Magritte’s work. A.N. Girling has pointed out that ‘cross-eyed’ viewing of the two pairs of images, and especially the lower pair, produces a strongly three-dimensional stereoscopic effect, which because of a slight sideways displacement of the images he believes must have been deliberate. It may be added that the table and stools have also been shifted downwards in the lower pair of images, and one looks more down onto them. However, Georgette writes that she never heard her husband speak of stereoscopes, that he took no interest in the bizarre pairs of photographs of a stereoscopic kind and that the family never possessed a stereoscope.

When Magritte was asked whether his painting could have any connection with Bergson’s theories of time on account of its repetition of an image and the fact that a man is present in one compartment but is absent from the other three, he replied: “The man with a newspaper... like my other paintings, is concerned with the description of a thought combining forms (visual) drawn from the tangible world- but in such a way that mystery is evoked. This thought is inspired in the sense that it both resembles forms of the visual world and that it evokes the mystery without which no world and no thought would be possible. I regard the description of inspired thought as poetry. Inspired thought (as I understand it) arises spontaneously: one may search for it but it comes independently of the will. ‘The man with a newspaper’ is the image of a thought and the latter does not correspond to a philosophical doctrine. Bergson’s theories describe ideas; what I paint contains no idea. I paint something to be seen: ‘an image in itself’ which is the image of a thought ‘in itself.’ This thought (like all mystery) defies interpretation. However, it is possible to speak of this thought, to comment on the image which describes it. To do this well requires inspiration.”

Time transfixed (La durée poignardée), 1938

However, it seems that Magritte was indeed influenced by Bergson, as the previous title suggests. ‘Duration’ was a key concept in Bergson’s philosophy, and the title (durée poignardée) means something like ‘duration suspended.’ It literally translates as ‘stabbed duration,’ but the element of suspended time is well supported by the train, emerging from within the fireplace, as if nailed onto the wall. The clock also, exactly above the train, further supports this view of ‘suspended time.’

Bergson was a French philosopher influential especially in the first half of the 20th century. He believed that immediate experience and intuition are more significant than rationalism and science for understanding reality. Bergson rejected what he saw as the overly mechanistic predominant view of causality. He argued that we must allow space for free will to unfold in an autonomous and unpredictable fashion.

Bergson attempted to redefine the modern conceptions of time, space, and causality in his concept of duration. He introduced his theory of duration as a theory of time and consciousness in his essay ‘Time and free will,’ first published in 1889. On the contrary to Kant, who believed that time and space could exist independently of consciousness, Bergson realized that the moment one attempted to measure a moment, it would be gone: one measures an immobile, complete line, whereas time is mobile and incomplete. Therefore, for the individual, time may speed up or slow down, whereas, for science, it would remain the same.

With respect to Zeno, who believed that motion is impossible, Bergson argued that the problem only arises when mobility and time, that is, duration, are mistaken for the spatial line that underlies them. Time and mobility are mistakenly treated as things, not progressions. They are treated retrospectively as a thing’s spatial trajectory, which can be divided ad infinitum, whereas they are, in fact, an indivisible whole.

Magritte, who was reportedly unhappy with the generally accepted translation of ‘Time transfixed,’ hoped that Edward James, who had bought the painting, would hang it at the base of his staircase so that the train would ‘stab’ guests on their way up to the ballroom. James instead chose to hang the painting above his own fireplace. Magritte described his motivation for this painting: “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.”

Piazza d’ Italia, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

The anxious journey, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

The depiction of locomotives (as well as of other steam powered machines and vehicles) was in fact one of De Chirico’s favorite themes in his early paintings. For example, in ‘Piazza d’ Italia’ we see a locomotive, while in ‘The anxious journey’ we see a steam- boat. De Chirico combined classical painting (statues for example) with the industrialized and modernized environment which he grew in. Magritte first saw de Chirico’s works in the beginning of the 1920s. However, Magritte didn’t joined De Chirico in the latter’s modernizing efforts. Magritte sought the ‘soul of the steam’ in a locomotive, not the locomotive itself. In the same sense, the clock in ‘Time transfixed,’ is there to make us thing about ‘duration,’ not what brand it is, or what time it shows. Note that one of the candlesticks in the painting has no reflection in the mirror. Therefore this candle stick is just a virtual duplicate- a consequence of ‘transfixed’ time.

The voyager (Le voyageur), 1937

Calabi- Yau manifold

This is another painting which apparently contains a complex notion of time. Time here is wrapped or warped, together with some of Magritte’s favorite surrealist objects. Objects define space therefore also time. Objects also compose our memories. In our minds time runs differently from physical time. But as we compare distances between objects to define space, so we compare objects (or events) to define time. Two successive ticks of the clock are two events which have importance for an observer who measures time duration- not for the universe.

When I first saw this Magritte’s compactified conglomeration hanging in the sky (‘The voyager’), I remembered depictions of manifolds. Manifolds are multi-dimensional geometric constructions which can help describe and visualize objects with complex shapes. In physics, manifolds are used in superstring theory to depict extra dimensions of spacetime (which may reach as much as 10 or 11). It is interesting to say that strings (also called branes in this context) offer a generalization of a particle to higher dimensions. Our own universe could be a massive 10-brane (with 10 spatial dimensions); then there might be other branes existing in a higher dimensional space. If branes are actually universes, then this might possibly imply the existence of a multiverse. Physicist Brian Greene illustrates this by saying that it is as if the branes are slices of bread, and a multiverse is the loaf of all the slices together.

The golden legend, 1958

In fact this painting could represent the generalization of multiverse theory; here each loaf of bread is a ‘multiverse.’ But how many ‘universes’ are out there? And what do we really mean when we say ‘dimensions?’ Is the universe found somewhere else but inside the ‘manifold’ of our brain? And what is the meaning of dimensions in space-time, within the spaceless and timeless confines of our mind? Is the physical theory we have about the universe more complex (or more important) than a loaf of bread?

I remember that when Dali was asked by the physicist Ilya Prigogine concerning his painting ‘Persistence of memory’ about the meaning of the melting clocks (if he incorporated the theory of relativity in the notion), Dali replied that the soft watches were not inspired by the theory of relativity, but by the surrealist perception of a Camembert cheese melting in the sun.

This answer was apparently cynical most likely because Dali wanted to point out how strong our ‘persistence of memory’ is concerning the theories we built about the world (and how difficult it is to change our views).

The month of the grape harvest, 1959

I was thinking that if there was another (a second) dimension of time, an object could be found simultaneously in two different places at the same time. If time had an infinite number of extra dimensions, its ‘multiplication effect’ could be infinite. In ‘The month of the grape harvest,’ Magritte explores the notion with astonishing simplicity: The people depicted look as if they were copies of the same time-machine (although not perfect copies). Each person in fact represents just an instant from the history of the same consciousness- the one that invented them. They are too many to be Magritte’s acquaintances all of them. Therefore the meaning is not about social relationships but, on the contrary, about a lonely mind reproducing its own parts.

Still life with stoneware jug, wine glass, herring and bread, Pieter Claesz, 1642

Living still life, Salvador Dali, 1956

Causality and continuity with respect to time are notions under scrutiny by modern science. Quantum mechanics (‘quantum’ means ‘discrete quantity’) considers the possibility of a quantized space-time, where quantum particles may jump instantaneously from place to place in quantum teleportation, or they can be connected with a ‘spooky action at a distance,’ as once Einstein said about a strange phenomenon predicted by quantum mechanics but now proven to be correct, and which is called quantum entanglement. In our thoughts, time can stop and distance can disappear; but what can never stop is thought itself. It is the motion of our own consciousness what gives meaning to space and time, and this is what gives rise to paradoxes.

Still lifes are such paradoxes because they depict common objects and themes from everyday life as if they were ‘stabbed’ by the painter so that he could avoid the passage of time. What is also interesting is that many early still life paintings used the trompe l’œil technique, as in Claesz’s painting- the knife and the glass are balancing at the edge of the table as if they were ready to fall. Dali in ‘Living still life,’ explored further the notion by making a painting where everything seems to float.

Fine realities, 1964

The land of miracles (Le pays des miracles), 1964

Magritte indeed painted still lifes. In ‘Fine realities,’ a table is lying on an apple (and not vice- versa), while in ‘The land of miracles,’ we can see a room through a landscape. The impossibility expressed in such paintings is based on how we perceive objects, therefore on how we conceive the notions of space and time.

One may say that there really is a simple way of understanding time, and this is decay. No matter what we wither, we get old, and eventually we die. The metaphysical problem of time can be therefore reduced to the study of a dead fish, a corpse or a statue, a rotten apple or a decaying radioactive particle.

Still lifes represent ‘snapshots’ of everyday events, ordinary or extraordinary, which were captured just for an instant of time, before they moved on. In this sense, all paintings are still lifes, because they capture just a scene of an event in space and time, not motion. But again, any painting also incorporates motion- the painting may have appeared suddenly in the painter’s mind, but it took time (therefore motion) to be painted on the canvas. Still lifes also express things and events gone- dead natures used to be alive. Where do things go when they leave? Are ‘still lifes’ dead, or do they keep on living in the illusive world of paintings and in our memories? No matter what effect a painting intends to create, the space and time, the meaningful relation and causal succession of the objects, and the reconstructed continuity and totality of the scenes, are all just ‘still lifes’ of consciousness.

Hegel’s holiday, 1958

‘Hegel’s holiday’ is another example of a still life. There is a letter written by Magritte to Suzi Gablik explaining the genesis of the work:

“My latest painting began with the question: how to show a glass of water in a painting in such a way that it would not be indifferent? Or whimsical, or arbitrary, or weak- but, allow us to use the word, with genius? I began by drawing many glasses of water, always with a linear mark on the glass. This line, after the 100th or 150th drawing, widened out and finally took the form of an umbrella. The umbrella was then put into the glass, and to conclude, underneath the glass; which is the exact solution to the initial question: how to paint a glass of water with genius. I then thought that Hegel (another genius) would have been very sensitive to this object which has two opposing functions: at the same time not to admit any water (repelling it) and to admit it (containing it). He would have been delighted, I think, or amused (as on vacation), and I call the painting, ‘Hegel’s Holiday.’

Here follows an analysis of the painting:

“What is fascinating here is to watch how the work progresses almost beyond or against Magritte’s will, as though he can only look at it unfold before his eyes. The subject of the painting begins as a kind of ‘stain’ in the water that repeats itself from drawing to drawing before taking on its final form as an umbrella. It is as though there is some unconscious force at play of which Magritte is only an effect, which precedes him and which he can only trace out or follow. Magritte does not know at any stage what he is imitating or what his series of drawings has in common. But the extraordinary thing is that out of this series of comparisons something is produced that- perhaps- has nothing in common with that original line with which he began. That umbrella is almost infinitely different from that ‘linear mark on the glass’ he began by imitating.

And what about the final comparison between the umbrella and the glass of water? Here too, as Magritte notes, there are two opposed things: an umbrella that does not admit or repels water and a glass that admits or contains it. But, again, the strange thing is that we somehow find something in common between these two opposites - or, at least, the problem is raised for us: what do these opposites have in common, what do both resemble, the one transparent and admitting water and the other opaque and repelling it? Is this not, however, the very problem of painting itself, this bringing together of two opposed qualities? The opaque and the transparent, that which admits light and water and that which excludes them, the canvas as a window and the canvas as a wall? Can we not say that ‘Hegel’s holiday’ is a painting of painting itself, an attempt to show or represent the very thing that allows painting- painting as the transformation of unidentifiable blobs of paint into identifiable and nameable objects? Is not that passage from the mark or stain to the object we see there the very passage implied in all painting?”

Portrait, 1935

It is this relationship between the painter’s own experience of the picture as he paints it and the feeling that he is already the spectator, looking back at the picture after it is painted, that Lacan spoke of as the ‘gaze.’ It was the ‘gaze’ for Lacan - that which sees you from the picture before you see it - that for him explained the possibility of the painter making his stains on the canvas recognizable. He is attempting to represent this gaze of the other. But the paradox is that, at the very moment he captures this gaze, it reveals itself as a mere umbrella, something that seems to bear no relationship to anything else, to hover inexplicably in the air supported by nothing. Our look is inescapably drawn towards the umbrella as the solution to the painting or as that in which the solution to the painting is to be found. But, as Magritte says, this umbrella does not admit or repels our look at the same time. That is, what is shown is that, if the umbrella is the unconscious origin of the painting, as though Magritte has somehow forgotten it- and it is that prior gaze which allows him to remember it- this umbrella also only comes about at the end of the painting, after we ourselves have seen it.

This ‘gaze’ is the interaction between the observer and what is observed. But what we observe depends on the collective memories of ‘all things having been observed in all the history of mankind.’ The way we see things depends on the predispositions of our unconscious. The painter, on the other side, is not excepted from this rule; he too draws images according to the landscape of the collective unconscious; and this is exactly the secret of common identification between the painter and the audience. However, this illustrative, unconscious world of inspiration is dynamic- it changes. Therefore new ideas and new objects may arise. Here comes the ingenuity of the painter to present these new ideas in an innovative and revolutionary manner:

What is it that the water and the umbrella have in common? It is, of course, that line from which the umbrella sprang, which was, as Magritte says, at first “in the water and then underneath it.” But, if we look closely at the painting, it is just this line- the point or spur at the top of the umbrella- which is missing. More precisely, then, it is because this line which they have in common is now missing that the water is allowed to balance on top of the umbrella, that the two can be compared. And it would be this line that we have called the stain. It is exactly through the disappearance of this stain that everything comes into being in the paining. It is through its exclusion that everything else is able to be balanced around it and compared to it. It, as it were, annunciates itself. It cannot be refuted because its very absence only proves it all the more.

Foucault writes about this stain or similitude which allows these resemblances and which “like a sovereign makes things appear.” Perhaps we see this sovereign crowned in ‘Hegel’s holiday,’ crowned precisely with the transparent ring of a glass of water, testament to his power to make things appear by himself disappearing. And we must not forget that Hegel who understood better than anybody the power of the ‘vacancy’ of the king, the king as that ‘place-holder of the void’ for whom everything and everybody stands in. That is, a king who works even when- and perhaps especially when- he is not working, who is always and never on holiday.

In my view, what is important in ‘Hegel’s holiday’ is the painted symbolism of a philosophical idea; otherwise the painting would have been simply called ‘Holidays.’ According to Hegel,

“Heraclitus is the one who first declared the nature of the infinite and first grasped nature as in itself infinite, that is, its essence as process. The origin of philosophy is to be dated from Heraclitus. His is the persistent Idea that is the same in all philosophers up to the present day, as it was the Idea of Plato and Aristotle.” For Hegel, Heraclitus’s great achievements were to have understood the nature of the infinite, which for Hegel includes understanding the inherent contradictoriness and negativity of reality, and to have grasped that reality is becoming or process, and that ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’ are mere empty abstractions. According to Hegel, Heraclitus’s ‘obscurity’ comes from his being a true philosopher who grasped the ultimate philosophical truth and therefore expressed himself in a way that goes beyond the abstract and limited nature of common sense and is difficult to grasp by those who operate within common sense. Hegel asserted that in Heraclitus he had an antecedent for his logic.”

It is the saying “everything flows” that is illustrated with a glass of water in ‘Hegel’s Holidays.’ However, the everlasting flow is now contained in the glass. Therefore the painter has succeeded in also containing the notion. This notion of flow is in fact a way consciousness understands infinity, using an everyday element (common water). The prospect of the infinite is certainly manifested in the curvature of the umbrella and its parabolic ribs. The umbrella is opened like the membrane of bats, as dreams unleash themselves from the cave of our deepest thoughtful fears. The umbrella is here to protect us, and it offers us its handle to grasp reality.

As far as the opposition between an umbrella and a glass of water is concerned, I believe that these objects represent in fact a unity. An umbrella is useless without the rain, therefore it was made for this purpose. An umbrella is a compliment to the rain, and at the same time a substitute for a shelter against eternity. This is I believe the secret of a painting successful in its analogies: the consideration of the complementarity of the opposites- against a nightmare of eternal struggle between them.

The heartstrings, 1960

This prospect of the complementarity principle (which by the way is a synonym for the uncertainty principle) is expressed in ‘The heartstrings.’ Someone has left his glass of champagne in the middle of a landscape, waiting to be filled by the rain. A cloud rests on top of the glass, slowly filling the inside. This is the fulfillment of a thought, which evaporated, change phase, and returned with a new form to one of its natural containers- a glass of pleasure.

This makes sense given the process that Magritte used in his works, of which he stated, “I cannot paint before I have the whole picture in my head. It happens slowly… I want to paint a cloud. So I draw some clouds, maybe a hundred of them. And each time I surround them with shapes whose meaning remains hidden from me until such time as inspiration visits anew and I know what fits beneath the cloud is a champagne glass.”

The future of voices 1927

Time (spacetime) in fact is an extended object. All we recall about the past, or imagine about the future, are considered in the present. There is no ‘future’ or ‘past’ outside our successive instants of ‘here and now.’ Events outside this ‘here and now’ are just conditions either to be fulfilled or to be proven wrong. We may consider ourselves realists, but our lives are guided by dreams, fears, beliefs and expectations. In the world of our thoughts everything floats, going from place to place instantaneously, travelling in time.

All events are potential, connected for a moment to a particular ego which makes them real, and then again they live their separate lives. But these conditional events or objects form our world- we are indeed composed of illusive entities that we have agreed to call them ‘particles.’ As objects occupy space and define the distance in between them, so they define time by their distributions and (re)arrangements. Time is defined by the successive sounds clocks make, or the ‘traces’ objects leave behind as they move on, even though the related motions are of secondary importance.

In the ‘The future of voices,’ the objects constitute a unity in future time. Their conditionality is expressed by the fact that they float in the air- A leaf, which sometimes takes the form of trees; a ‘sponge,’ which is also found in the ‘Pleasure principle;’ a valise, which represents itself and implies a journey; and a pipe, which is not a pipe. The objects form a quaternity this time.

There is an interesting concept of quaternity in Jungian psychology related to religion. According to a rule, words about theological constructs (such as ‘god’) can be interpreted as referring to structures within the psyche. By this rule, Jung interprets the Father as the self, the source of energy within the psyche; the Son as an emergent structure of consciousness that replaces the self-alienated ego; and the Holy Spirit as a mediating structure between the ego and the self. However, Jung believed that the psyche moves toward completion in fours (made up of pairs of opposites), and that therefore the Christian formulation of the Trinity would give way to a quaternity by including missing aspects. (This analysis prompted Jung to send a congratulatory note to Pope Pius XII in 1950 upon the adoption of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to wit completing the quaternity.)

The notion of quaternity already exists in modern physics. It is time the fourth parameter (dimension), added to the three dimensions of space, in order to form a four-dimensional unity. In fact without time the model of the world would be incomplete- nothing could move or change.

This notion is expressed in the ‘Future of voices.’ The ‘voices’ are conditions about the future. If these conditions are to be represented by the four objects of the painting, then I believe that the valise is a newly discovered fourth element. The sponge (pleasure), the leaf (the canon= rule), and the pipe (the illusive object) form a triad- a method towards the illusive object of pleasure. The suitcase is the carrier which makes things portable. We pack up our things and begin a journey towards happiness.

But happiness is not to be understood as pleasure itself. The painting expresses just a condition. The objects float in the air, suggesting that time has been cancelled. Therefore it’s about time we reconsidered the ‘voices we hear’ about this condition, and what our (more inspired) interpretation of what lies ahead in the future, at the end of our journey, would be.

The enchanted realm

‘The enchanted realm’ is Magritte’s masterful series of 8 canvases done in 1953. Each canvas recreates the best versions of his earlier paintings. I include some paintings (could be relevant or not) which I found by random search on the net.

The enchanted realm (I)


Camouflage in nature is a defensive mechanism against predators, but, at the same time, it is a ‘wonder of nature’ by itself;

While the word ‘chameleon’ is often used to describe people who change given their social surroundings, actual chameleons often change colors to signal their physiological condition and intention to other chameleons.

This house looks very much like the one in Magritte’s ‘Empire of lights:’

“Here came the evening, mists and clouds came down from nowhere, everything started getting darker and darker. We had our dinner before lights went off and entered our room. Shantanu took out his guitar and old hostel days’ renovated in candle light. The forest was resting in complete darkness, chilling breeze passing by and the night got started!”

The enchanted realm (II)

Women holding pigeons in art is an expression of purity. The following painting, for example, portrays Gala Dali, Salvador Dali’s wife and muse:

Leda Atomica, Salvador Dali, 1949

It is said that Gala saved Dali from his own madness, and he signed his painting with his and her name as “it is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.”

The worm-like structures which Magritte uses, either as ‘castles’ or ‘candles,’ could be a representation of the human guts or ‘libido.’ However, these structures are living creatures (tube-worms), common in all the seas around the world.

The enchanted realm (III)

The Ahmadiyya mosque in Zürich (built 1963), the oldest Swiss mosque with a minaret

The federal popular initiative ‘against the construction of minarets’ was a successful federal popular initiative in Switzerland to prevent the construction of Mosque minarets. In a November 2009 referendum, a constitutional amendment banning the construction of new minarets was approved by 57.5% of the participating voters. Only four of the 26 Swiss cantons, mostly in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, opposed the initiative.


Insects on leaves were depicted by the surrealists as an indication of still lifes; But as a silkworm eat the leaves to produce something splendid (silk), so the painter ‘devours’ his raw materials to produce a piece of art. However, the mystery of silk production (by the silkworm) is yet unsolved, in the same way that the secret of inspiration is:

The secrets behind the mighty strength of silk could be unraveled by neutron-scattering experiments being carried out in France. Early results have revealed that silk worms spin their silky threads in a process that seems completely counterintuitive to what is expected.

The enchanted realm (IV)

I found this painting on the net to compare with Magritte’s ‘Seducer.’ Here, the ghost ship reaches the end of the earth, as if it had reached the limits of imagination itself;

The flat earth theory, stating that the world is a flat disk rather than a sphere, was believed in by many cultures around the globe up to around the fourth century B.C. when philosophers and scientists came to the conclusion that the Earth was actually a sphere. But this was just a beginning of a centuries’ long debate. In fact, the flat-earth theory, tied to the geocentric cosmology of Ptolemy, dominated among clergymen and even navigators until the 16th century A.D. when Copernicus questioned the very essence of this dogma.

Magritte became an inspiration for modern artists. The reverse representation of a mermaid became popular:

Ellen Wetmore (US), ‘Collective invention:’ What would that grand Rene Magritte inverted mermaid painting look like as a performance with a real woman on a real beach and one real, dead smelly fish?

It could also be considered prophetic, as far as genetic engineering is concerned:

A fish called wonder: This new species seems to have developed an Adam’s apple…

The enchanted realm (V)

When Alice went to Wonderland, anything she dreamed of could become true. For example, trees could speak…

Humans have long felt the presence of spirits living in the forest. For Keith Jennings, those ethereal beings take the form of human faces, peering out from the bark of trees. The sculptor began creating the wooden sages in his backyard with basic hand tools. Eventually, he was commissioned to transform twenty oaks on St. Simon's Island off of the coast of Georgia for the project, Tree Spirits. Blending in with their surroundings, the visages appear from stumps, look through ferns, emerge from of gnarled trunks.

What is it more painstaiking? To work on the construction of Stonehenge, or to paint ‘The legend of the centuries’? I believe that both enterprises are equally difficult. A painter needs muscles as much as a construction worker needs artistic talent. They say that Stonehenge served as an astronomical calendar. In such a case, ‘The legend of the centuries’ could serve as a measure of relative scales. But whatever the initial purpose or the message, both paintings and megalithic structures are monuments of the human heritage.

The enchanted realm (VI)

The leaning tower of Pisa

It is said that Galileo measured the properties of free fall by letting objects fall from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa. It is also known that both a rock and a feather will fall simultaneously on the ground (without air resistance). Magritte seems to be well aware of this fact. This was a discovery as important as the ‘discovery of fire.’ A musical instrument catching fire, a feather compared to the softness of a woman leaning on a rock, all express certainly an artistic inclination.

The enchanted realm (VII)

Masquerade balls were very common in the carnival season in the past centuries all around Europe. Masks incarnate personas and at the same time they hide one’s everyday look. But in many cases the mask we wear becomes attached to our face and we can’t get rid of it (or of the character the mask portrays). Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The masque of the red death’ is based at a masquerade ball in which a central figure turns out to be his costume.

In the heart of Transylvania lies the most mysterious place in Romania. In Hoia-Baciu Forest, considered by the locals to be the most terrifying place where often, people who visit it suffer all sorts of mysterious sensations.

The human psyche is perplex like the Gordian knot; dense as a forest. The mythical creatures which people see in haunted forests, at the same time inhabit the human soul. This is why we are so fond of stories like ‘Alice in Wonderland:’ the wonders of tomorrow is just what we haven’t dreamt of yet. If Alice represents the world of our dreams, Alexander stands for all our ambitions. The ‘labors of Alexander’ is not just the story of a tree which cut down itself; It represents the achievement of finding not only an efficient solution to a problem, but also realizing a sufficient problem to the solution. If there were limits to our thought, there would be no place left to go.

The enchanted realm (VIII)

A cœur de lion necklace certainly goes with a lion wearing a garland of flowers around its neck. It also fits with majesty, or with a candlestick which has the shape of the face of queen Scheherazade. In the original tale, she escapes death by keeping her husband busy with her stories. Her stories succeed in liberating her husband from his insatiable sexual appetite. This is why the ‘Liberator’ holds her scepter; look how much tamed the lion looks, sitting by the side of the ‘Liberator’s’ foot. While for an animal the libido is expressed as a brutal force, in humans it can be transformed into artistic power.

Youth illustrated (La jeunesse illustrée), 1937

This is a parade, with many different objects down the street; a barrel, a torso, a lion, a pool- table, a trumpet, a leaf-tree, a bicycle, etc. These objects come from the painter’s mind as he recalls his youthful, surrealist, imaginary memories. They are not real memories, but ‘adopted’ ones, serving the artistic biographical qualifications of the painter.

Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo, 1508 and 1512

The enchanted realm, Knokke-le-Zoute casino

In fact, ‘The enchanted realm’ is a series of paintings where Magritte made a revision of some of his favorite subjects. If Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Magritte painted the walls in the Knokke-le-Zoute casino. Of course, the time gap is about 500 years; therefore any comparison should consider this time frame. But for me the artistic progress is obvious- it’s just that the nudist and angelic paradise of Adam have become the pure and granite ‘Domain of Arnheim…’

The domain of Arnheim

The grand family, 1963

The grand family (variation)

Bird depictions in Magritte’s paintings take the form of the landscape itself in many occasions, as if they were flying chameleons, so to speak. In ‘The grand family,’ the bird forms a part of the sky, and its shape intensifies the colors of the part of the sky it occupies, while in the second painting the bird’s feathers are covered with flowers. This way, the bird becomes an integral part of nature, or a part of nature takes the shape of a bird, while the bird becomes a living piece of space and time.

The background of ‘The large family’ displays a dreary sky, either on the verge of a storm or, could the pink light on the horizon signify the end of one? The ominous clouds together with the rolling sea below evoke turbulent feelings, perhaps symbolizing the trials and tribulations that families often endure together. On the other hand, a significant contrast is created between the gloomy surroundings and the frontal white bird, a common symbol of peace. Window-like, this bird reveals within its silhouette a calm blue sky with white fluffy clouds that bring about feelings of warmth, much like those experienced on a beautiful summer day. The bird may well represent the unity and love within a family unit. In depicting harmony and discord, Magritte skillfully portrayed the concept of family in ‘The large family’ by evoking relevant and intense emotions through symbolic surrealism.

The kiss, 1951

Variations of ‘The large family’ are shown in ‘The kiss.’ These two paintings can be regarded as complementary. In the first painting, a bird in the shape of clouds occupies a part of the night sky, while in the second painting, the opposite takes place- it is day but the bird within its shape depicts the night sky.

The promise, 1966

The return, 1940

‘The promise’ looks like ‘The grand family’ but here the bird has the shape of a part of the cloudy sky while the rest of the canvas is blue. In ‘The return,’ there is a nest with three eggs on the window ledge beneath the flying bird; however one has the impression that the nest does not belong to the bird, because the nest and the eggs look real but the bird looks like just a part of the sky. Could we say that the painter somehow solved the chicken- egg dilemma, or does he just underline it?

Concerning this dilemma, it is an old problem related to causality, and evokes questions about how life and the universe in general began.

Aristotle was puzzled by the idea that there could be a first bird or egg and concluded that both the bird and egg must have always existed:

“If there has been a first man he must have been born without father or mother- which is repugnant to nature. For there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg.”

The same he held good for all species, believing, with Plato, that everything before it appeared on earth had first its being in spirit.

Another solution to the problem found in the Eastern tradition of Buddhism and Hinduism, is the cyclical notion of time. The concept of eternal return, in the Western culture is found in the writings of Nietzsche, who indicates that there is repetition of time. The assumption is that time is eternally repetitive, and therefore, there is no ‘first’ in eternity; there is no creation. The answer then becomes: neither the egg nor the chicken is first. There is no ‘first’ in a cyclical view of time.

My view is that the problem lies in the logical view of time. Time, according to common sense, must be like an ‘arrow,’ like a bird’s peak, leading towards some direction. However, before the ‘egg hatches’ time is not triggered yet. At this stage the ‘bird’ is a condition, and conditions are timeless. It could be any kind of bird (or anything else) which might ‘hatch’ in the real world at any time. This is interesting because it has to do with a state in the universe before space and time (therefore at this stage there isn’t any ‘time’ to talk about yet). In some sense, “The spirit of the bird laid down the egg from which the bird would hatch in reality.” Magritte’s painting is in fact expressing such a condition: The eggs are found in the room, while the bird is in the sky. But both the sky and the room lie on the surface of the canvas, and at the same time ‘on the surface’ of our consciousness. Whatever we think about space, time, and causality, they are conditions only to be brought about afterwards, when we make the attempt to give the painting a rational explanation.

Spring, 1965

Here, the bird forms part of the forest beneath. The nest with eggs has been brought to the foreground, creating Magritte’s favorite juxtaposition between the ‘two worlds:’ the interior and the exterior ones. The title of the painting suggests that the painter celebrates ‘spring,’ which in this case is the birth of an idea.

According to Christie’s, by the time ‘Spring’ was painted, Magritte had long been filtering the visual world from his unique perspective, taking the simple elements and assumptions from everyday life and converting them, twisting them, giving them just enough of a nudge and a disruption that they would take on new qualities. In this picture, Magritte has chosen a selection of simple elements bird, trees, eggs and reconfigured their properties to marvelous effect. In turn, the genuine world of visual impetus surrounding the viewer regains some of its poetry and mystery - when next we see a bird, we no longer take for granted the strangeness of its ability to fly or the uniqueness of its appearance.

In ‘Spring,’ Magritte appears to question the nature of the two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional world in part through the visual puzzle with which the viewer is presented, and also through the deliberate cut-out appearance of the bird itself. Is Magritte deliberately pointing out the flatness of painting in comparison to the 'depth' of the real world? Is he implying that another dimension lies beyond our grasp, beyond the veil of our prosaic, habit-numbed appreciation of the world around us?

Magritte himself explained that the elements that comprise his works are not stand-ins for other meanings, are not products of the worlds of dream and the subconscious that had so fascinated other artists associated with the Surreal:

“In the images I paint, there is no question of either dream, escape, or symbols. My images are not substitutes for either sleeping or waking dreams. They do not give us the illusion of escaping from reality. They do not replace the habit of degrading what we see into conventional symbols, old or new.

I conceive painting as the art of juxtaposing colors in such a way that their effective aspect disappears and allows a poetic image to become visible. This image is the total description of a thought that unites- in a poetic order- familiar figures of the visible: skies, people, trees, mountains, furniture, stars, solids, inscriptions, etc. The poetic order evokes mystery, it responds to our natural interest in the unknown.

Poetic images are visible, but they are as intangible as the universe. These poetic images hide nothing: they show nothing but the figures of the visible. Painting is totally unfitted for representing the invisible, that is, what cannot be illuminated by the light: pleasure, sorrow, knowledge and ignorance, speech and silence, etc.

After having attempted to understand non-traditional painting, we admit that it cannot be understood. In any case, we are not assuming any serious responsibility: we do not have to know or to learn anything. Imaginary irrationality is futile and boring. However, we can understand poetic thought by making it a part of ourselves and by taking care not to remove from the known the unknown elements it contains.”

In ‘Spring,’ it is clear, then, that the bird, the eggs, the woodland are not symbols, but are there representing themselves, bringing to light their own particularities and peculiarities, making us all the more aware of their singular properties, in short, forcing the viewer to contemplate the ‘unknown elements’ that they contain.

The key to the fields, 1936

The domain of Arnheim, 1949

Magritte had a formative trauma that inflected his work, and even manifested itself directly in a number of paintings. His mother, suicidality depressed, drowned herself, and the young Magritte (allegedly) saw her body dragged out of the water, her wet nightgown covering her face. A woman with her face covered by a wet cloth appears in several of Magritte’s paintings. So of course they must be a sort of working-through process, painting his internal demons as a means of therapy, right? That’s what any psychologist or art critic would say, and certainly what Freud, the inspiration for the Surrealists, would have said. But Magritte remained coy about interpreting his own paintings. He took what might be called ‘The Roland Barthes’s defense.’€

Barthes was a French critic and philosopher who wrote a very famous essay that is required reading in literary and art classes worldwide, called ‘The death of the author.’ In brief, Barthes’s argument is that, from the moment a work of art leaves the artist’s hands and is presented to an audience, the author loses any possible power over the interpretation of the work. The interpretation is solely up to the audience, and in fact each viewer or reader of the work is entitled to their own opinion, untainted by the guidance of the author. Only the content of the work, without any supplementary material or commentary, can tell the audience how to interpret it.

To say that Magritte employed the Roland Barthes’s defense is to say that he refused to interpret any of his works. He created the paintings, gave them a name, and presented them to the public. Are his paintings of a woman with a cloth covering her face about his mother? Maybe; but that’s not for him to say. The burden of interpretation is on the audience, with the author receding into the background to watch, and perhaps smile, as people seek meaning in paintings by mining the biography of the painter.

‘The key to the fields,’ should not, therefore, require an exegesis. For an art historian to explain what the painting means defeats Magritte’s purpose. It shows just what you see: the broken glass from a window sill contains the view outside that window, as if the glass were a photographic plate.

How should this be interpreted? That what we see is transient? That our eye and memory act like window glass? That we do not, in fact, look at a window with broken glass, but at a painting of a window with broken glass? And how does the title pertain? Are those fields in the title, then, the fields that may be seen through the painted window, and this painting is the key? All are legitimate questions, but where are the answers?

Magritte loved visual puzzles that, coupled with evocative titles, drew his viewers into a vibrant mystery, begged them to solve it, and then left it unresolved. For many, this is a frustrating endeavor. Imagine an Agatha Christie whodunit mystery with the last chapter left out? Magritte would say that we need more mystery in our lives, to shake us out of our torpor. To present a mystery and then solve it cleanly defeats the purpose, as it only temporarily shakes up the viewer, and then lets the world settle back into place, loose ends neatly tied. But to leave the viewer wanting to solve the puzzle, when the author himself has not conceived of the solution, preserves the natural human desire for solution, but keeps it from ever being satisfied.

For art historians, who are trained to link allegories and artistic enigmas with specific Biblical scenes, Greek myths, or complex iconographic schemes, Magritte can be as frustrating as he is wonderful. Critics try to interpret away mysteries. The worst thing for critic is to admit that they don’t understand, that they haven’t the words, that the artist has won this tug-of-war. Magritte, up in Heaven, is smiling as are we on Earth, who are privileged to engage in the mysteries that his paintings provide.

I just want to add to this that the ‘Human condition’ as conceived by Magritte, the relationship between the human sphere of perception and the universe outside, took a very artistically wondrous and dramatic form, in his ‘obsession’ to solve (or fully express) the puzzle of human consciousness. One of the greatest, and most fundamental, mysteries of human knowledge is that, in fact, everything we know lies inside us, as a mere representation or interpretation of what we perceive about the world through our senses, and of what we consider ‘real’ (without having any other alternative), using some sort of axiomatic assumption of complete correspondence between the two words- the inner and the outer ones. This is just an assumption, a principle of analogy, which states that the universe and what we perceive as the universe is one and the same. But is it the same? Am I the same one with whom you suppose I am, based on what you are reading right now? Is Magritte’s ‘Domain of Arnheim’ the same world in his mind as the world depicted in the painting, or as the world perceived by anyone else?

Call of peaks, 1943

This dramatic (as well as marvelously depicted) juxtaposition was an obsession in Magritte’s life. Scientifically it could be related to some form of autism. But even so, a psychological trait only illustrates true physical phenomena. The separation between the ‘other universe’ and ‘ourselves’ becomes ultimate in autism but it really exists in everyone. This is why it is so important to be careful to draw the right conclusions from what we see, and to try to be as less ‘critical’ as possible, especially when the expression of others is concerned.

In the ‘Call of peaks’ one of the painter’s fixed ideas finally materializes. It is a certain landscape, familiar to the painter’s countryside, perhaps also combined with a landscape from what the painter had read or had seen elsewhere. The mirror-like, ‘Human condition-style’ window, together with the painter’s ‘illusive bird,’ fulfill the ‘Promise’ of ‘Return,’ to these high peaks. The painter listened to the ‘Call of peaks,’ and now he can be reassured that he found his place, together with his ‘Grand family’ of images, in the ‘Domain of Arnheim.’

The domain of Arnheim, 1938

The domain of Arnheim, 1962

‘The domain of Arnheim,’ 1950, (‘Arnheim’ in German translates ‘Home of the eagle,’) is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s lesser-known stories. The critics have taken little notice of it, and when they do, it’s generally interpreted in vague terms of death imagery, or- God save us!- as a treatise on gardening. This is a great pity… if more people understood the true meaning of the story, the world would be much the better for it. It is actually one of Poe’s most profound and beautiful works, and one of the very few where we are given a glimpse into his true inner self.

On the surface, ‘The Domain of Arnheim’ is a tale of a fantastically wealthy man the unnamed narrator calls only ‘Ellison,’ who desires to express “the true character, the august aims, the supreme majesty and dignity of the poetic sentiment.” He achieves his goal through creating ‘Arnheim,’ a castle and landscape-garden of supreme loveliness. As Ellison says, man can’t affect the ‘general condition of man,’ but must be ‘thrown back... upon self.’

As Poe narrates,

“Ellison became neither musician nor poet; although no man lived more profoundly enamored of music and poetry. Under other circumstances than those which invested him, it is not impossible that he would have become a painter… But Ellison maintained that the richest, the truest and most natural, if not altogether the most extensive province, had been unaccountably neglected. No definition had spoken of the landscape-gardener as of the poet; yet it seemed to my friend that the creation of the landscape-garden offered to the proper Muse the most magnificent of opportunities. Here, indeed, was the fairest field for the display of imagination in the endless combining of forms of novel beauty; the elements to enter into combination being, by a vast superiority, the most glorious which the earth could afford. In the multiform and multicolor of the flower and the trees, he recognized the most direct and energetic efforts of Nature at physical loveliness. And in the direction or concentration of this effort- or, more properly, in its adaptation to the eyes which were to behold it on earth- he perceived that he should be employing the best means- laboring to the greatest advantage- in the fulfillment, not only of his own destiny as poet, but of the august purposes for which the Deity had implanted the poetic sentiment in man…”

Ellison instead of becoming an artist of the paper or of the canvas, he became an artist of art, a landscape engineer, a ‘terraformer.’ Is this inferior to the common ways art is expressed? Ellison avoided becoming an imitator of nature, but became a ‘creator himself.’ Is imagination more powerful than nature? It is certainly more powerful than simple mimicry. But Poe believes that creativity can surpass even nature itself:

“Mr Ellison did much towards solving what has always seemed to me an enigma:- I mean the fact that no such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce… While the component parts (of natural landscapes) may defy, individually, the highest skill of the artist, the arrangement of these parts will always be susceptible of improvement. In short, no position can be attained on the wide surface of the natural earth, from which an artistical eye, looking steadily, will not find matter of offence in what is termed the ‘composition’ of the landscape… The mathematics afford no more absolute demonstrations than the sentiment of his art yields the artist. He not only believes, but positively knows, that such and such apparently arbitrary arrangements of matter constitute and alone constitute the true beauty. His reasons, however, have not yet been matured into expression. It remains for a more profound analysis than the world has yet seen, fully to investigate and express them.”

Therefore, artistic imagination can be stronger than mere physical reproduction. By recombination, the artist or scientist may produce new ‘landscapes’ for the viewer to watch, provided that the creator has a good knowledge of geometrical proportions.

In the second part of his story, Poe talks about Arnheim:

“It was not until the close of the fourth year of our search that we found a locality with which Ellison professed himself satisfied. It is, of course, needless to say where was the locality. The late death of my friend, in causing his domain to be thrown open to certain classes of visitor, has given to Arnheim a species of secret and subdued if not solemn celebrity… Floating gently onward, but with a velocity slight augmented, the voyager, after many short turns, finds his progress apparently barred by a gigantic gate or rather door of burnished gold, elaborately carved and fretted, and reflecting the direct rays of the now fast-sinking sun with an effulgence that seems to wreathe the whole surrounding forest in flames. This gate is inserted in the lofty wall; which here appears to cross the river at right angles… Its ponderous wings are slowly and musically expanded. The boat glides between them, and commences a rapid descent into a vast amphitheatre entirely begirt with purple mountains, whose bases are laved by a gleaming river throughout the full extent of their circuit. Meantime the whole Paradise of Arnheim bursts upon the view…

There is a gush of entrancing melody; there is an oppressive sense of strange sweet odor;- there is a dream-like intermingling to the eye of tall slender Eastern trees- bosky shrubberies- flocks of golden and crimson birds- lily-fringed lakes- meadows of violets, tulips, poppies, hyacinths, and tuberoses- long inter-tangled lines of silver streamlets- and, up-springing confusedly from amid all, a mass of semi-Gothic, semi-Saracenic architecture, sustaining itself as if by miracle in mid-air, glittering in the red sunlight with a hundred oriels, minarets, and pinnacles; and seeming the phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes.”

The domain of Arnheim (variation)

Villa d’ Este fountains

The Domain of Arnheim may be Poe’s greatest story. Poe himself held it in high esteem. He wrote, “‘The Domain of Arnheim’ expresses much of my soul.”

Incidentally, searching on the net for ‘eagle-mountain’ I fell across the Villa d’ Este, Tivoli, near Rome, Italy, and it is a fine example of Renaissance architecture and the Italian Renaissance garden.

One can see the eagle standing between the springs. Although it is a Renaissance garden, not a Surrealist, like Edward James’s, one, it well defines Magritte’s or Poe’s spirit of eagle-like, ‘elevated’ landscapes. The domain of Arnheim, no matter if it corresponds to a real place, is fantastic, secret, and must remain unspoiled.

Mount Clarence King, Ansel Adams, 1925

Domain of Arnheim (variant), 1967

By googling ‘eagle-mountains,’ I also run into this photo of Ansel Adams. He was more or less contemporary to Magritte. Nevertheless the coincidence is uncanny. Both of the previous pictures are black and white, and one may imagine Mount Clarence King opening its wings to become the mountain in Arnheim’s domain.

Ansel Adams was trying to create a more perfect landscape. Other artists have argued that natural landscapes are imperfect and can be improved. It is the theme of Poe’s story ‘The Domain of Arnheim.’

“And yet how unintelligible is this! In all other matters we are justly instructed to regard nature as supreme. With her details we shrink from competition. Who shall presume to imitate the colors of the tulip, or to improve the proportions of the lily of the valley?”

“Who shall presume…?” None other than Ellison, the protagonist of the story, who uses his immense inheritance to create ‘the perfect landscape.’ And yet, what is the perfect landscape that he imagines? Or is there such a thing? Could “…nature which is not God, nor an emanation from God, but which still is nature in the sense of the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God.”

The narrator asks again,

“…what we regard as exaltation of the landscape may be really such, as respects only the moral or human point of view. Each alteration of the natural scenery may possibly effect a blemish in the picture, if we can suppose this picture viewed at large from some point distant from the earth’s surface, although not beyond the limits of its atmosphere. It is easily understood that what might improve a closely scrutinized detail, may at the same time injure a general or more distantly observed effect. There may be a class of beings, human once, but now invisible to humanity, to whom, from afar, our disorder may seem order- our un-picturesqueness picturesque, in a word, the earth-angels, for whose scrutiny more especially than our own, and for whose death- refined appreciation of the beautiful, may have been set in array by God the wide landscape-gardens of the hemispheres.”

There is something endlessly puzzling about his imagery. Is the narrator describing something beautiful or horrific? Is this seemingly one-way trip down a river an excursion into Paradise or into Hell? Is the narrator mad, delusional or hopelessly imprisoned in Ellison’s odd vision? Is Ellison’s vision of Heaven more terrible than what we might presume to be a vision of Hell?

This is the terrible ambiguity of the story that I find endlessly compelling. It also brings us back to the vexing question of Ansel Adams’s despised alphabet letters- the hideous ‘L’ and the insulting ‘P.’ Dennis Purcell says that it was ‘unwanted.’ And so, the removal of the ‘L- P’ is a restoration of the landscape to a more primitive and more pristine state. The landscape before the advent of man.

I should refrain from any attempt to explain Magritte’s work. Isn’t the essence of his art an attempt to confound, to create ambiguity without resolution? Much like Poe. Has the granite bird been carved into the ridge? (By Ellison?) Are the nest and egg real? Isn’t it all just paint on canvas?

The fanatics (Les fanatiques), 1955
The spot on the map, 1955

Paradise or Hell? What makes the difference? Why Magritte’s peaceful imagery of ‘cloud-birds’ and ‘eagle-mountains’ transformed into ‘birds of fire’ in the previous two paintings? I would say that the main (and perhaps the only) difference is the painter’s mood to experiment with different ideas and colors on his familiar subjects. An eagle can be as scary as majestic. Here, the elements of fire and the night prevail. Eagles don’t usually fly at night, therefore this is the representation of an eagle in a world of dreams. If ‘The Domain of Arnheim’ is the dream, then ‘The spot on the map’ is the nightmare. This eagle hovers in the skies in order to attack and devour our soul. Is Prometheus lying somewhere behind the fire? Is this his suffering for stealing the secret of fire to give it to us? Perhaps; but the story wants to say that together with the gift of fire comes the martyrdom of its misuse. And this is the case for the ‘fanatics,’ either religious or political, throughout human history.

The fountain of youth (La fontaine de jouvence), 1958
Ready-made fortune (Fortune faite), 1957

The first painting reads ‘roseau,’ which means ‘reed.’ The word reed of course is irrelevant by any means, therefore it could be an anagram or a misspelling of another word (Jean-Jacques Rousseau could be a candidate for example). The second painting reads ‘a boire,’ ‘a manger,’ meaning ‘to eat,’ ‘to drink.’ This is a sarcasm, probably against those who had established a ‘ready-made fortune,’ spending their lives eating and drinking, without having the talent to appreciate fine art.

According to a letter Magritte wrote to André Bosmans in April 1959:

“For the development of ‘The fountain of youth,’ I can say that it began about 1933-34. I was trying to paint a mountain and thought of giving it a bird’s shape and calling this image ‘The domain of Arnheim, the title of one of Poe’s stories. Poe would have liked seeing this mountain (he shows us landscapes and mountains in his story). ‘Ready-made fortune and ‘The fountain of youth’ are stones bearing such inscriptions as ‘Coblenz,’ ‘Roseau’ or ‘à boire,’ ‘à manger.’ These stones can be seen as a little piece of ‘The domain of Arnheim.’

The smile (Le sourire), 1943

At the same time, the present work is a development of the idea that had been worked out in various versions of ‘The smile.’ Between 1955 and 1958, Magritte and his friend Maurice Rapin, who was associated with the Surrealist group, corresponded regularly. On 26 May 1957 Magritte sent Rapin a sketch of the present work saying: “I have just started on ‘Having made good,’ it’s an old stone with an inscription in a street under a starry sky. Scutenaire and Colinet are ill with pleasure about it.” Scutenaire later wrote about the image: “‘A boire,’ ‘à manger,’ thus does a street cry out, for streets cry.”

Magritte’s choice of a stone in the shape of a bird’s head stresses on the one hand the heaviness of the material but on the other hand it gives the image the appearance of weightlessness, invoking a poetic dimension in contrast to the physical dimension charted by science. As he wrote to André Bosmans in 1961: “It is heaviness that is suggested and not its laws; it is suggested without physics.”

Anyway, there isn’t such property of matter as ‘heaviness.’ Probably Magritte wanted to stress instead the ‘lightness’ of such paintings of his, painting tomb-stones with meaningless epigraphs on them. However, behind this hilarious mood, which dominated Magritte more than once in his career, one can discern a sentiment of bitterness. Magritte was hurt many times by many ‘idiots savants,’ therefore he would always take the opportunity to hit back, to get revenge, as well as to sell some ‘toute faite’ copies of his paintings, signed ‘Magritte’ by him. Is art intelligible either to the rich or to the famous, or only to those pure enough (and rich in the soul), who can really appreciate art, and may enter the ‘domain of Arnheim?’

The empire of lights

The name of the artist of this painting is Alex Andreev. He calls his style ‘hermetic,’ and his work is certainly compelling. Many of his (computer- aided) paintings, seem to imagine this very specific urban future, in which humanity has adapted to a new life in the clouds after having more or less ruined, then abandoned, the ground. For instance, here are a cluster of skyscraping apartments, at once desolate and whimsical.

These flying ‘kites’ could be pieces of paper, mutated people, flights of imagination, inspired by the wind- blown clothes on the balconies, while the block-of-flats look more like what the name implies: blocks of apartments. The high degree of ambivalence and multiple ways of interpretation certainly make the painting surrealist, ‘hermetic’ or not.

The empire of lights (L’empire des lumières), 1954

Between 1949 and 1964, Magritte made seventeen oils and ten gouache versions of ‘The empire of lights,’ one of his most famous and sought-after themes, each of which displays some variation on a dimly lit nocturnal street scene with an eerily shuttered house and glowing lamppost below a sunlit blue sky with puffy white clouds. Magritte explained the origin of the image in a radio interview in 1956, stating:

“What is represented in a picture is what is visible to the eye; it is the thing or the things that had to be thought of. Thus, what is represented in the picture are the things I thought of, to be precise, a nocturnal landscape and a sky scape such as can be seen in broad daylight. The landscape suggests night and the sky scape day. This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power: ‘poetry.’”

Magritte’s friend, the Belgian poet and philosopher Paul Nougé suggested the title for this image, playing on the double meaning of the French word ‘empire’ as both ‘empire’ and ‘territory.’ Nougé was undoubtedly sensitive to Magritte’s conviction that his paintings never expressed a singular idea, but rather were a form of stimulus that created new thoughts in the mind of the viewer:

“Titles play an important part in Magritte’s paintings,” stated the poet, “but it is not the part one might be tempted to imagine. The title isn’t a program to be carried out. It comes after the picture. It’s as if it were its confirmation, and it often constitutes an exemplary manifestation of the efficacy of the image. This is why it doesn’t matter whether the title occurs to the painter himself afterwards, or is found by someone else who has an understanding of his painting. I am quite well placed to know that it is almost never Magritte who invents the titles of his pictures. His paintings could do without titles, and that is why it has sometimes been said that on the whole the title is no more than a conversational gambit.”

Indeed, when Paul Colinet, one of Magritte’s closest friends, ventured a definitive explanation for the imagery of ‘The empire of lights,’ Magritte confided to another friend, “The attempt at an explanation (which is no more than an attempt) is unfortunate: I am supposed to be a great mystic, someone who brings comfort (because of the luminous sky) for unpleasant things (the dark houses and trees in the landscape). It was well intentioned, no doubt, but it leaves us on the level of pathetic humanity.”

By including day and night, two normally irreconcilable conditions, within a spatially continuous scene, Magritte disrupts the viewer’s sense of time. “After I had painted ‘The empire of lights,’” he recalled to a friend in 1966, “I got the idea that night and day exist together, that they are one. This is reasonable, or at the very least it’s in keeping with our knowledge: in the world night always exists at the same time as day (just as sadness always exists in some people at the same time as happiness in others). But such ideas are not poetic. What is poetic is the visible image of the picture.”

God’s salon, 1948

Magritte had already experimented with a similar theme in his 1948 ‘God’s salon.’ The painting depicts a night scene with a house brightly lit up by daylight. Clearly this experiment didn’t work as well. According to Roisin the painting ‘The empire of lights’ was inspired in Magritte by a poem of Lewis Carroll:

“... the sun on the sea was shining/ it shone with all its forces/ it did its best to reflect the sparkling and calm waves/ and it was very odd, you see, because/ it was in the middle of the night.”

The pink house, William Degouve de Nuncques, 1892

This painting is surely the inspiration of Magritte’s various ‘Empire of Light’ paintings. At first glance, Degouve de Nuncques’ painting looks to be quite normal but if you look at the house the exterior is magically lit up as if in daylight. His painting, The House of Mystery, or The Pink House, was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic tale ‘The fall of the house of Usher.’

Magritte’s house in ‘The empire of lights,’ even inspired horror films. The previous scene is from ‘The Exorcist,’ in which the character Father Merrin stands in front of the MacNeil family’s (whose daughter was possessed by the devil) house. It is the scene where Fr. Merrin steps out of a cab and stands in front of the MacNeil residence bathed in an eerie glow.

Meditation, 1936

Philosopher’s lamp, 1936

No matter if some people had been inspired by the ‘dark side’ of ‘the empire of lights,’ light is a force of ‘enlightenment,’ not of ‘obscurity.’ One may say that light was born out of darkness but its purpose was to illuminate everything. The power of light is not only physical but also (and mostly) metaphysical. It is interesting to note that despite light makes everything visible, light itself is invisible; we don’t see ‘light,’ only the illuminated objects. Even in modern physics light remains a ghost which has cast a lot of controversy, concerning the existence of the ‘ether,’ as well as the interpretation of space-time.

For Magritte light was the illuminating element making visible and combing different objects together. These relationships, occurring by what light reveals, look like some kind of snake-like candles, glowing their dim light, on a beach, by the sea-shore of a vast abyss. This scene is portrayed in Magritte’s ‘Meditation.’ The vast and dark sea represents our ignorance, while the dim light is our consciousness, trying to figure out the world that lies ahead of our little, worm-like, bodies, while the painter recycles this pleasurable idea with a pipe-like device connecting his mouth to his nose.

Our consciousness also tries to find some pleasure in everyday life. ‘The philosopher’s lamp’ is the painter’s inspiration of how this pleasure, joined with creativity, may be attained. The candle again is depicted with a snake-like twisted body, ending to a lighten fuse, instead of an ‘enlightened head’ (as in the ‘Pleasure principle’).

This recycling aspect of pleasure, similar to the self-referential nature of thought, is united in the eternal cycle of light and darkness, right and wrong, good and evil, and so on. But by removing any moral allusion from the subject, it is just night and day what remains; the succession of instants of light by instants when light disappears. Therefore, the accomplishment of the painter to depict both the light and the night in the same painting, as he did in ‘The empire of lights,’ portrays his ability to encompass the full cycle of light, and of the human experience at the same time.

The empire of lights, 1950

Magritte gradually increased the size of these works, and selected a vertical format, thus focusing attention on a single dollhouse-like residence whose tightly shuttered first floor is illuminated by lamplight. The glowing second floor windows are obscured by the lowest branches of the tall tree that stretches into the daytime sky. The markedly increased psychological tension of these works from the mid1950s illustrates Siegfried Gohr’s conviction that, by repeating and reinterpreting successful themes, Magritte was arranging and rearranging visual elements until they produced a shock like a blow from a boxer’s glove- whose force, however, remained purely visual and mental.

The empire of lights, 1954

The detailed brushstrokes give this painting the appearance of a photograph. They are smooth, so the individual brushstrokes are not seen. It seems almost as if the viewer were looking through a window rather than a work of art. The painting is very 3- dimensional in that there is a foreground and a background and a middle ground. The placing with the house in the center and the tree on the left of it with the sky on the top and the water below creates a calming atmosphere. The water looks as if it is moving because of the speckled reflections of the house and tree. The bright baby blue sky contrasts the dark gray house, trees and water. The foreground helps lead the viewer’s eye up to the light. The sky takes up almost half of the painting, causing the tall tree in the middle to stand out, and the tree leads the viewer’s eye down to the light by the door and water. The sky gives the appearance of daytime because it is light, while the rest of the painting seems to be night because it is dark and black. The painting is almost monochromatic, having only blue, white, black, and yellow/gold. The painting gives off a sense of serenity, and calmness because it is still and quiet. It gives the appearance of either a warm summer night because the sky stays lighter later, or a cold winter morning because the sky gets light earlier. The detailed sky, with the realistic clouds, could be representing heaven.

This painting represents Surrealism, because it is a mix of the real world (everything in it could be seen in real life) and the unconscious mind (the objects are placed in a non- realistic fashion). The scene could not possibly be depicted in real life, because the sky is a different time of day than the rest of the painting, which shows that it is definitely a surrealist painting.

The empire of lights, 1952

While the success of the title ‘The empire of lights’ lay in its expression of the ambivalent nature of reality itself, the title was often misunderstood and mistranslated to mean ‘empire’ rather than ‘dominion.’ As Breton wrote:

“René Magritte’s work and thought could not fail to come out at that opposite pole from the zone of facility- and of capitulation- that goes by the name of ‘chiaroscuro’ (the technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation, also called ‘claire-obscure’). To him, inevitably, fell the task of separating the ‘subtle’ from the ‘dense,’ without which effort no transmutation is possible. To attack this problem called for all his audacity- to extract simultaneously what is light from the shadow and what is shadow from the light. In this work the violence done to accepted ideas and conventions is such that most of those who go by quickly think they saw the stars in the daytime sky. In Magritte’s entire performance there is present to a high degree what Apollinaire called ‘genuine good sense,’ which is, of course, that of the great poets.”

Invariably Surrealist landscapes are wrought with contradictions that are intended to arouse wonder as they defy comprehension. Though they may seem to spurn suggestions of a future and an ultimate order, ‘The empire of lights’ succeeds in reminding the viewer of the recurring, inescapable paradoxes of life itself.

The empire of the lights, 1967 (unfinished)

Rene Magritte, two months before his death, wrote Sarane Alexandrian a letter in which he said:

“I conceive of the art of painting as the science of juxtaposing colors in such a way that their actual appearance disappears and lets a poetic image emerge… There are no ‘subjects,’ no ‘themes’ in my painting. It is a matter of imagining images whose poetry restores to what is known that which is absolutely unknown and unknowable.”

Magritte continued painting until 1967, the year of his death, leaving the above unfinished painting on his easel. The work had been commissioned by a young German collector from Cologne, who wanted “something in the nature of ‘The empire of lights;’” he was destined never to take possession of the picture he had ordered. The uncompleted painting would remain on its easel in the painter’s house in Brussels until the death of Georgette Magritte in 1986.

Magritte described his paintings by saying, “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

A lonely sky- tram stop
Waiting for the tram to arrive

Einstein once said that what is remarkable about the mystery of the universe is that we understand it. This is the difference between the ‘unknown’ and the ‘unknowable.’ The ‘unknown’ is something which completely eludes us (we don’t have even the slightest idea about it). The ‘unknowable,’ however, is something that we understand that we don’t understand; in other words, it is something mysterious but within the capacities of our perception. This is what Magritte portrays in his paintings- the mysteries of human thought illustrated in a canvas.

The two previous paintings, conceived by the aforementioned artist Alex Andreev, evoke such a ‘knowable’ mystery. The ‘sky-tram’ is a surrealist object because it can be conceivable (although in many different ways). Its shape and function seem to be familiar (although we don’t know exactly how the object functions). In the second painting, the artist seems to have been familiar with Magritte’s painting ‘The lovers’ (or at least I’d like such an explanation). The two ‘passengers’ do not wear hoods, like in Magritte’s painting, but their faces are turned away from the viewer. Dreams are not to be disturbed.

The son of man

“Life obliges me to do something, so I paint,” René Magritte.

The postcard, 1960

“It is now traditional that I do at least one ‘Name of village’ postcard every year, and this one seems, well, surreal. The choice of the word ‘loaf’ on the road might not strike anyone as obvious until you realize that I make the word by mixing up the letters from existing words, and I have a limited choice using ‘Slow’ and its Welsh counterpart, ‘ARAF.’ The location for the picture was Cragina, in Radnorshire.”

Man in bowler hat (L’ homme au chapeau melon), 1964
Good faith (La bonne foi), 1964-65

I guess Magritte uses the bowler hat as a substitute for his personality. I would say it’s a combination of modesty and dignity; or, in simple words, an element of surrealistic aristocracy.

The bowler hat is a hard felt hat with a rounded crown originally created in 1849 for the British soldier and politician Edward Coke. The bowler hat was popular with the working class during the Victorian era, and later on with the middle and upper classes in the United Kingdom. Later in the United Kingdom, it would come to be worn as work dress by the officers of the Queen’s Guard.

Hermes wearing a petasos hat, 380-370 BCE
Woman in a flowered hat, Pierre- Auguste Renoir, 1899

One of the first pictorial depictions of a hat appears in a Thebes tomb painting which shows a man wearing a conical straw hat. Other early hats were the Pileus, a simple skull cap; the Phrygian cap, worn by freed slaves in Greece and Rome; and the Greek petasos, the first known hat with a brim. Women wore veils, kerchiefs, hoods, caps and wimples. St. Clement, the patron saint of felt hatmakers, is said to have discovered wool felt when he filled his sandals with flax fibers to protect his feet.

Woman with Flowered Hat, Roy Lichtenstein, 1963
Dora Maar au Chat, Pablo Picasso, 1941

In the Middle Ages, hats were a marker of social status and used to single out certain groups. Extravagant hats were popular in the 1980s, and in the early 21st century, flamboyant hats made a comeback, with a new wave of competitive young milliners designing creations that include turban caps, trompe-l’oeil-effect felt hats and tall headpieces made of human hair. Some new hat collections have been described as ‘wearable sculpture.’ Many modern pop stars have commissioned hats as publicity stunts.

This 1899 advertising poster for a magician prominently features the hat-trick

The pilgrim (Le pèlerin), 1966

Top hats are associated with stage magic, in particular the hat trick. In 1814, the French magician Comte became the first conjurer on record to pull a white rabbit out of a top hat though this is also attributed to the much later John Henry Anderson.

In ‘The pilgrim,’ Magritte explores perhaps the notion of prayer, taking of his hat in a gesture of religious respect- to put it better, taking of his head in an act of magic.

The schoolmaster, 1954
Intimate friend (L’ ami intime), 1958

This is a similar setting as in ‘The golden legend,’ and but this time there’s just one loaf of bread and one wine glass and of course his bowler hatted man with his back turned blocks the view. In my opinion these are religious icons and Magritte used them frequently from the mid-1940s onward.

The Nightingale 1962

This is one of several paintings with religious themes. Magritte, a professed agnostic in keeping with his rejection of organized religion, was secretly religious. Later in life he painted several ‘religious’ paintings. Here God sits on a cloud above a train.

The wood, Max Ernst, 1927

It is however a caricature of ‘god.’- There isn’t any question that Magritte felt more indebted to the spirit of objects a la Marcel Duchamp than to the spirit of ‘The wood,’ by his friend Max Ernst, for example, for whom he painted ‘The Nightingale.’ It is important to underline the considerable emphasis of the intellectual, reason-orientated, reflective starting-point behind Magritte’s work, painting for philosophers or at least for lovers of philosophical thought. In Magritte’s art, the poetic shock, the aesthetic stimulation prompted by the picture, most definitely should not be separated from a love of thinking, an unrestrained pleasure in reflection and nimbleness of mind.

The mysteries of the horizon, 1955
The Earth rising from the Moon
The spirit of adventure ((L’ esprit d’ aventure), 1962
Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (1969)

It is interesting to note that Buzz Aldrin is reflected on Armstrong’s helmet, like Magritte’s companions are reflected on his back, in ‘The spirit of adventure.’ In ‘The mysteries of the horizon,’ again we see how visionary and prophetic Magritte was about the achievements of (art and) science, and of the human mind and efforts.

Was the Apollo 11 moon landing a hoax? Of course, it matters whether it is true or not. But in some ways it does not. What is important, now, is that young people learn about scientific method and process (which has links to legal process and human rights) and how to search for and interrogate different forms of evidence. Using the arguments and evidence (including a lot of visual evidence, which can be manipulated) of the issues around the moon landings brings into sharper focus not only a need for skills of presenting , analyzing and interpreting evidence but also an understanding about bias and prejudice within the media, and how people’s views and understandings can be manipulated.

In science this is called falsifiability- an inherent possibility to prove a statement to be false. A statement is called falsifiable if it is possible to conceive an observation or an argument which proves the statement in question to be false. In this sense, falsify is synonymous with nullify, meaning not ‘to commit fraud’ but ‘show to be false.’ Some philosophers argue that science must be falsifiable.

Religion, on the other hand is based on dogma, therefore it is not falsifiable. However, Magritte’s ‘religion’ is always falsifiable, as his images are so transparent that it seems they almost don’t exist, therefore his art is more like a kind of ‘meta-art.’ Magritte’s art is also extremely genuine- despite drawing some lovely pictures, for example, of the Earth and the Moon, he prefers to ‘decompose’ the notions, to offer instead a completely new picture of the ‘earth and the moon,’ as in ‘The mysteries of the horizon.’ This way the mystery of nature becomes a common object for everyday experience and use.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is known for its portrayal of a split personality and has become synonymous with multiple personalities in both lay and scientific literature.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder (MPD), is a mental disorder characterized by at least two distinct and relatively enduring identities or dissociated personality states that alternately control a person’s behavior, and is accompanied by memory impairment for important information not explained by ordinary forgetfulness. These symptoms are not accounted for by substance abuse, seizures, other medical conditions, nor by imaginative play in children. Diagnosis is often difficult as there is considerable comorbidity with other mental disorders. Malingering should be considered if there is possible financial or forensic gain, as well as factitious disorder if help-seeking behavior is prominent.

DID is one of the most controversial psychiatric disorders with no clear consensus regarding its diagnosis or treatment. Research on effectiveness of treatment has been concerned primarily with clinical approaches and case studies. Dissociative symptoms range from common lapses in attention, becoming distracted by something else, and daydreaming, to pathological dissociative disorders. No systematic, empirically-supported definition of ‘dissociation’ exists.

‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’

‘Half- Magritte’

It is interesting (also amusing) to note that there isn’t any certain definition for a ‘multiple personality disorder,’ which means that probably there isn’t any disorder of this kind at all. I personally believe that psychic diseases are always expressed in a social context (therefore they truly are social diseases). For example, let’s suppose someone is crazy. So, what’s the problem? From the moment we treat this person badly, psychopathology appears. Was Salvador Dali crazy? What are the limits between madness and genius? Should we kill all ‘abnormal’ babies even before they are born, depriving thus society from its future Mozarts even before they are born?

As far as Magritte is concerned, I guess he was lucky that his mother gave birth to him before she committed suicide. This is a mother’s ultimate sacrifice (almost archetypal), which Magritte transformed into pure art. In fact, I don’t believe that there are ‘multiple’ personalities; it’s just one person (with a single personality) facing multiple solutions to the same problem. But even one bad solution is enough to bring a dead-end.

Friend of order (L’ ami de l’ ordre) 1964
The happy donor (L’ heureux donateur) 1966

It’s certain that Magritte was a person with a ‘multiple personality,’ meaning that he used to find many ways to solve a problem. But Magritte approached his problems not psychologically but mentally. In the previous paintings, we see that Magritte’s preoccupation was not that of a dissociated personality, but that of a holistic one, trying to unite the opposites; both the inside and the outside. It seems as if the human body was a cave which one could look through- just to find out what had already been inside. This is unification in full scale.

Taste of the invisible, 1964
Kissing Magritte

In the ‘Taste of the invisible,’ the apple represents (the taste of) the part of the face which is hidden by the apple. Therefore, the apple is an ‘object of absence,’ not of presence. Strange as it may seem, we often find missing things more imposing. It is as if things left behind a sort of shadow. which is more powerful than the original body. Again, things which haunt us are those we don’t possess, or which don’t even exist. But it is not correct to say that ghosts don’t exist. Apparently (phenomenologically) they are real.

In ‘Kissing Magritte’ printed collage, Joe Webb removes the bowler hat wearing gentleman’s face to reveal Magritte’s signature clouds in the background. It is an acknowledgement that although the artist is no longer with us his influence continues.

The Son of Man, 1964

Magritte painted ‘The Son of Man’ as a self-portrait. The painting consists of a man in an overcoat and a bowler hat standing in front of a low wall, beyond which is the sea and a cloudy sky. The man’s face is largely obscured by a hovering green apple. However, the man’s eyes can be seen peeking over the edge of the apple. Another subtle feature is that the man’s left arm appears to bend backwards at the elbow.
About the painting, Magritte said: “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.”

‘The Son of Man’ is Magritte’s alter-ego, seemingly innocuous but really a Fantômas character with a touch of danger lurking under his facade. Magritte strongly identified with Fantômas in his early work and it becomes his Jungian animus, his diabolical subconscious.

The present picture is one of only five self-portraits that Magritte ever painted. It was commissioned by Harry Torczyner, who first proposed the work to Magritte in a letter written in 1963. In Magritte’s reply, he explained to Torczyner:

“Your idea for ‘a portrait of the artist’ raises ‘a problem of conscience:’ it has happened (three times) that I have put myself in a picture, but the intention at the start was to paint a picture, not to do a portrait. I am able (or rather have been able) to paint a few portraits which were intended as such, but if the subject is myself, my visual appearance, this raises a problem that I am not sure of being able to resolve. I will of necessity have to think about it, since the problem has arisen. I cannot promise to get the better of it by the end of this year! However, it would be in the order of things for inspiration- which happens spontaneously- to occur before then.”

According to Sylvester and Whitfield, Magritte in fact only discovered a solution to this problem in 1964 when he made the gouache ‘Taste of the invisible;’ Magritte did not initially conceive of the gouache as a self-portrait, but soon realized it provided the perfect imagery for Torczyner’s commission.

Agritte painted only four self-portraits: ‘Attempting the impossible’ (1928), ‘The philosopher’s lamp’ and ‘Clairvoyance’ (1936), and ‘The magician’ (1951). In addition, ‘The therapist’ (1937) may be a kind of self-portrait, since Magritte posed for a photograph based on the picture. It is striking that the titles of all these paintings refer to magical powers. Throughout his career Magritte repeatedly emphasized his fascination with the shamanistic force of art. For example, in his famous lecture ‘Lifeline,’ he stated that he was attracted to art as a child because “painting seemed to me magical and the painter to be gifted with superior powers;” and he also said that in art “it is the power of enchantment which matters.” ‘The Son of Man’ is the most enigmatic and mysterious, the most haunting and magical of all his self-portraits.

Like other members of his Surrealist circle in Brussels, Magritte chose to dress and live in a deliberately staid and bourgeois manner. The bowler hat was a key part of his conservative costume. As he explained to Life magazine in 1965:

“The bowler is a headdress that is not original: it poses no surprise. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularize myself. If I wanted to create a sensation in the street, I would dress for it. But I don't want to.”

Magritte typically asked his close friends to suggest titles for his works. Concerning ‘The Son of Man,’ he explained to Bosmans:

“For the picture of ‘the apple in front of a man’s face’ Scutenaire and I tried to find a title, and it was his wife Irene who thought of ‘the son of man,’ which was recognized as being excellent and definitive.”

‘The Son of Man’ is, of course, a name for Jesus Christ in the New Testament, but Magritte repeatedly said he did not intend its use here to have any theological meaning. Nevertheless, David Sylvester has written:

The fact is that the objects he chose to attach to the bowler-hatted men are often irredeemably symbolic objects. The son of man has a symbol of the Fall before his eyes, another the symbol of the Holy Ghost... It is fitting. Magritte behaves like God. He makes fire burn without consuming, puts boulders in the sky, pins clouds to the ground, turns men to stone, makes stone birds fly, forbids us to look upon his face, etc.

Golconda (Golconde), 1953

‘Golconda’ depicts a scene of nearly identical men dressed in dark overcoats and bowler hats, who seem to be drops of heavy rain (or to be floating like helium balloons, though there is no actual indication of motion), against a backdrop of buildings and blue sky. The men are spaced in rhombic grids facing the viewpoint and receding back in grid layers.

Magritte lived in a similar suburban environment, and dressed in a similar fashion. Charly Herscovici, commented on Golconda:

“Magritte was fascinated by the seductiveness of images. Ordinarily, you see a picture of something and you believe in it, you are seduced by it; you take its honesty for granted. But Magritte knew that representations of things can lie. These images of men aren't men, just pictures of them, so they don't have to follow any rules. This painting is fun, but it also makes us aware of the falsity of representation.”

One interpretation is that Magritte is demonstrating the line between individuality and group association, and how it is blurred. All of these men are dressed the same, have the same bodily features and are all floating/falling. This leaves us to look at the men as a group. Whereas if we look at each person, we can predict that they may be completely different from another figure.

As was often the case with Magritte’s works, the title ‘Golconda’ was found by his poet friend Scutenaire. Golkonda is a ruined city in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, near Hyderabad, which from the mid-14th century until the end of the 17th was the capital of two successive kingdoms; the fame it acquired through being the center of the region’s legendary diamond industry was such that its name remains a synonym for ‘mine of wealth.’ Magritte included a likeness of Scutenaire in the painting- his face is used for the large man by the chimney of the house on the right of the picture.

Rene Magritte at MOMA, 1965; Photograph: Steve Schapiro

According to the photographer, “In 1964, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) to shoot René Magritte. There he was inside, sitting on a bench. His wife and dog were with him, and they were surrounded by his pictures. I was doing Magritte, one of my favorite artists, for ‘Life’ magazine and I only had an hour and half; but for each photograph, Magritte decided to become part of, or connected to, one of his works.

There was a painting of a big rock with a castle, so Magritte lay down on a bench in front of it, with his head on his hat; my photograph then looked like he was dreaming the picture. The one above works because Magritte actually resembles the protagonists in many of his pictures, especially the ones wearing that trademark hat. The challenge- always- is how to make a picture special. If you’re working with someone imaginative, an artist operating at Magritte’s level, it can turn into a collaboration. In this case, it definitely did. We were all in high spirits. We didn’t talk much: our relationship was basically based on smiling. We did another shot of Magritte and this painting, with a hand coming in from the side holding Magritte’s bowler hat over his head. It added our own surreal touch…”

“To be a surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been.”

Meeting pleasure (A la rencontre du plaisir), 1950
Meeting pleasure, 1962

In ‘Meeting pleasure,’ the bowler-hatted man who has featured in so many of his works and which even during his own career was to become an icon associated with him is shown striding from a desolate landscape scene against the backdrop of a curtain while another man looks across the wasteland towards some houses and what may be the dawn, his back to the viewer. The painting was included by the author Alain Robbe-Grillet in his anti-novel ‘La belle captive,’ which weaved a plot through 77 of Magritte’s pictures:

“It looks as though morning might be sunny, and I’ll be sitting without my cane and moustache on the terrace of the ‘Rudolphe’ café, facing the sea, having exchanged the dark overcoat and bowler hat for a light-weight suit more in keeping with this place and the time of year. It will enable me all the better to pass unnoticed among the strollers.”

In ‘Meeting pleasure,’ there is little that is overtly Surreal about the composition: on the ground stands a grelot, a carriage-bell. Meanwhile, the curtain, so reminiscent of Old Master paintings where such items were often included as a display of trompe-l’oeil adds a sense of mystery, ensuring that the space shown appears both interior and exterior.

Indeed, this recalls Sigmund Freud’s notion of the ‘uncanny’ (heimlich). Freud himself explored the concept that the word ‘heimlich,’ homely or familiar, and ‘unheimlich’ in fact overlap in their meanings. Certainly in Magritte’s ‘Towards pleasure,’ the homely interiority of the curtain is shown in direct tension both to the barren scene beyond and the activities of the striding, bowler-hatted man as he spirits away an object that appears vase-like yet barely unidentifiable.

Sunset (Brothers), Caspar David Friedrich, 1835

With his back turned to us and the crepuscular sky, bruised with the pinks and oranges of the rising or setting sun, ‘Meeting pleasure’ appears to evoke the works of Caspar David Friedrich, for instance his image of brothers in his ‘Sunset.’ There is a sense of projection, as the viewer places him- or herself in the position of the main protagonist, who becomes a shell, an everyman as well as an anchor plunging us into the world of this landscape. That everyman status is all the more intriguing as it appears to continue the practice of oblique self-portraiture in which Magritte reveled throughout his career.

The identification of the main figure - the one not wearing a bowler hat - with Magritte appears confirmed by comparison with a photograph, under the title ‘La vertu recompense,’ taken in 1934 showing the artist himself with his back turned to the camera against a similar, sparsely-built backdrop. That photograph appears to have inspired ‘Meeting pleasure.’

To the modern viewer, it may appear ironic that the figure based on Magritte in ‘Meeting pleasure’ is the one not wearing a bowler hat. However, Magritte himself explained that he had selected the bowler hat as a motif in part because it was so endemic: at the time that he started painting them in the 1930s, they were worn by many people. For Magritte, they were a disguise that allowed him to blend into the world: “The bowler... poses no surprise. It is a headdress that is not original. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularize myself.” It was only later that his use of this headwear in his paintings would become so specifically associated with his own image, a notion underscored by its recurrence in modern popular culture.

Meeting pleasure… It’s an extension of the ‘pleasure principle,’ which Magritte was very familiar with, and which he had also painted in his ‘The pleasure principle.’ There is some sense of ‘self-satisfaction,’ or better ‘self- fulfilment,’ in all Magritte’s paintings with bowler hats, or even with missing heads. It’s not the body which stays; it’s the spirit which leaves. This goes beyond the pleasure principle. As the photo suggests, Magritte is enjoying a cigarette (not a pipe) with his body turned sideways, implying the direction which the smoke of the cigarette should take, which is also the road beyond pleasure- and beyond reality, in fact.

Memories of a journey

By 1950 Magritte started his petrification (turning live objects into stone) period, including the ‘Memory of a journey’ series of paintings. He had already experimented turning birds and leaves to stone in the 1940s, but now the entire scenes are petrified, and according to Magritte in the 1955 version of ‘Memory of a journey,’ “only the light of the candle is real.” Edgar Allen Poe was also interested in petrification, adding long foot notes on the subject to “The thousand and second tale.”

The pledge (La parole donnée), 1950

‘The pledge’ is part of Magritte’s ‘petrification’ period. Sometimes referred to as his ‘stone age pictures,’ these works celebrate Magritte’s love of paradox; The giant stone apple seen here, for example, has a leafy stem which underscores both its arrested growth and its incongruous presence amongst forebodingly angular outcroppings of mottled grey stone. Indeed, Magritte regarded the state of petrification as a visual expression of disaster and death. As Abraham Hammacher has stated, “One can trace this preoccupation with a petrified world in all. Magritte’s works did not regard petrification as a process, but as a kind of catastrophe, like that at Pompeii, when lava transfixed the world and brought all movement to a halt.” The theme of objects transformed or transforming into stone also reprises the inherent violence of Magritte’s earlier series of paintings in which figures in famous works such as Manet’s ‘Balcony’ or David’s ‘Mme Récamier’ are replaced by coffins, or the metamorphic paintings of 1927 in which landscapes, and figures are changed into wood.

The great table, 1962-63
The great table, 1965

‘The great table,’ is an extension of Magritte’s petrified objects. Here it’s just a giant apple and a pear.

Memory of a journey, 1962-63

Petrification served a more literal purpose in Magritte’s paintings, as observed by the physicist Albert V. Baez: “The force of gravity, which we dismiss as commonplace in our daily lives, becomes powerful and awesome here. We can step on an ordinary stone any day without giving it a second thought, but the stone in the paintings is compelling. The artist has made it extraordinary. It reminds us that all stones are extraordinary.”

Magritte’s own thoughts on the matter were more philosophical, likening the solid nature of the stone to the mental and physical constitution of the human being. For others, his paintings of the monolith were signifiers of time, place and permanence. As Roger Shattuck comments, “I know of no painting that conveys so totally the sense of a universe in suspense, a universe in which everything is waiting and nothing moves.”

Sixteenth of September (Le seize Septembre), 1956

The ‘Memory of a journey’ series also revolves around the conceptual relationship between day and night that figures so prominently in Magritte’s most celebrated compositions, such as ‘The empire of lights.’ The delicate crescent moon that rises above the apple is subtly incongruous with the day lit sky. The evocation of night and day is precisely the sort of reconciliation of opposites prized by the Surrealists, as in, for example, the opening line of Breton’s poem ‘L’ aigrette’ (The egret): “Si seulement il faisait du soleil cette nuit…” (“If only the sun were to come out tonight…”).

Memory of a journey, 1961
Memory of a journey, 1952
Memory of a journey, 1950
Memory of journey, 1951

I believe that the ‘petrification’ Magritte used is an extension of still life paintings. Still lifes have been one of the most common subjects in art. They revolve around nature, but also around a timeless aspect of life. Perhaps deep in the unconscious of the artists there is the need to conquer time, together with conquering the secrets of art by using the trompe l’ oeil effect, which is commonly found in still lifes.

The magic potion (Le philter), 1951

The horns of desire (Les cornes du désire), 1960

This is another example of Magritte’s paintings where he uses petrification. In ‘The magic potion,’ there is a statue made out of stone of a man wearing a suit. The trick is that the man is missing, or he is invisible.

The same holds for ‘The horns of desire.’ There isn’t any ‘horns’ here. But the ‘horns’ are imaginary extensions of deeper desires, and probably they have a different form and meaning at that level. What statues don’t possess is a soul. They are representations of beings who used to be alive (either as mortal or as gods). But the statue, also regarding its eternal perspective, is something neither alive nor dead. It is one of the best artistic expressions of the ‘uncanny,’ and of a ‘still life.’ Therefore, the statue needs not possess a soul. It is a vessel itself, coming from antiquity, from the depths of time, offering us the opportunity to fill it with our thoughts and emotions- fulfilling at the same time our own lives.

The wasted footsteps, 1950
The idol, 1965
The smile, 1951
The great tide (La grande marée), 1951

In the ‘Wasted footsteps’ a hawk emerges from the rock, as if the rock had the shape of the bird. The bird is the guardian of the passage: “None shall pass.” This is the secret mountainous land of the highest thoughts and desires. But you may enter if your heart and your mind are as brave and as swift as those of a hawk.

‘The idol,’ on the other hand, looks more like a pigeon, although a petrified one. It is captured in time hovering above a sea shore full of stones. The sea however is looking vibrant. The bird therefore serves as a ‘flying statue,’ capturing the passage of time in eternity.

In the first version of ‘The smile,’ there is the enigmatic inscription on the stone: ‘An 192370’ (Year 192370). In the second version, there are some dates inscribed on the stones, reading ‘Anno’ (‘year’ in Latin) and numbers, some of them serving as calendar dates and others, perhaps, as street numbers.

In ‘The great tide,’ the sea is missing; instead there is a painting (within the painting) depicting the sky with clouds and ‘bells,’ while the landscape is filled with rocks, some of which seem to be hanging on the painting. This is a ‘rockslide,’ a secret tide which left behind a transformed landscape, with rocks and a canvas on the beach.

The vibrant model (Le modele vivant), 1952

The malicious sack (Le sac à malice), 1959

‘The vibrant model’ is one of Magritte’s best examples of distortion. The material is wood, although it seems it follows its own lines. ‘The malicious sack’ is an ‘anatomy’ of the human heart, petrified, and put into a stone vase.

Song of violet, 1951

Memory of a journey, 1955

‘The song of violet,’ is another painting in which everything appears to be made of stone. In ‘Memory of a journey’ (1955), the poet Marcel Lecomte stands next to a stone lion. Magritte had said that only the flame of the candlelight is real. “The indifference of stones is the same as not existing,” Magritte added.

Is this light able to escape ‘still time?’ This is interesting: No matter what happens, light never stops. It also intensifies its effect on ice-like stone. Even if we manage to capture a snapshot of passing time on a film or on a canvas, time has passed away, together with the light, which enabled us to develop the caption.

It is this realistic ‘indifference’ of what we don’t consider what makes unobserved objects equal to inexistent things. Think about it: The sun and the moon, for example, are there whether we like it or not. But when the artist depicts these heavenly bodies on a canvas, on the wall of a cave, on a piece of paper, or anywhere else, the object depicted is not the heavenly body but an image in the artist’s mind. It is a symbol representing the physical object but it shouldn’t be confused with the object itself.

Memory of a journey, 1952

Depicting the leaning tower of Pisa ‘supported’ by a feather, this ‘Memory of a journey’ is a remarkable example of the way in which Magritte’s art appropriates images from popular culture, and turns them into fantastic compositions. Reproductions of famous paintings, travel brochures, postcards and other souvenirs were often seized upon as sources for his paintings and gouaches, as is the case in the present work. Since the leaning tower of Pisa holds the same mystifying appeal within architecture as Mona Lisa does in painting, Magritte would have certainly relished its status as a popular icon. By adding the feather as a support for the famously unstable building, the artist seeks to subvert the laws of physics, as well as to question the viewer’s perception of an image so deeply rooted in common culture.

The title Magritte chose for the present work was conceivably inspired by J.A. Gobineau’s book ‘Souvenirs de voyage,’ which Magritte had in his library. Its more poetic resonance certainly struck a chord with the artist and his inclination for unusual titles, and emphasizes the ubiquitous appeal of the image.

Memory of a journey, 1955

The obelisk and the fountains in Place de la Concorde, France

There is a certain similarity between these two pictures, and probably Magritte’s inspiration was the Place de la Concorde.

The center of the Place is occupied by a giant Egyptian obelisk, one of two the Egyptian government gave to the French in the 19th century. The other one stayed in Egypt, too difficult and heavy to move to France with the technology at that time. In the 1990s, President François Mitterrand gave the second obelisk back to the Egyptians.

The straight path (Le droit chemin), 1962

Dol de Breton

‘Dol de Breton’ is currently the largest standing stone in France, on the borders of Normandy and Brittany. The nearby ‘Mont Dol’ is the place where St. Michael is said to have fought Lucifer. The syllable ‘dol’ is also used in the Breton word ‘dolmen,’ which means ‘stone-table.’ It has been dressed (from pink granite) so that it is almost square at the bottom. The menhir stands 9.5m high with an estimated weight of 150 tons.

Therefore, the ‘straight path’ is found by following the direction suggested by these huge monoliths, both erected as monuments and depicted in art.

Still life with a skull and a writing quill, Pieter Claesz, 1628

The tradition of still lifes goes far beyond Magritte’s ‘petrifications:’ Still-life painting as an independent genre or specialty first flourished in the Netherlands during the early 1600s, although German and French painters were also early participants in the development, and less continuous traditions of Italian and Spanish still-life painting date from the same period. Still-life motifs occur fairly frequently in manuscripts, books of hours, and panel paintings of the 1400s and 1500s.

Many of the objects depicted in these early works are symbolic of some quality of the Virgin or another religious figure (for example, the lily stands for purity), while other objects may remind the viewer of an edifying concept such as worldly vanity or temperance. Moralizing meanings are also common in independent still-life paintings of the seventeenth century, which range from such obviously didactic works as Pieter Claesz’s ‘Still life with a skull and a writing quill’ to rich displays of luxury items like Abraham van Beyeren’s ‘Still life with lobster and fruit.’ In the latter work, the pocket watch, which symbolizes the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures, may be considered more of an intellectual conceit than a sober warning against the desire for material things like the objects depicted or the painting itself.

Still life with lobster and fruit, Abraham van Beyeren, 1650s

Lobster telephone, Salvador Dali, 1936

Therefore we see that even Dali’s famous lobster telephone was not his own inspiration but had its precursors in still life paintings of the past. Even Magritte’s still lifes depicting statues (such as the head of the statue in ‘Memory’) had their precursors:

The attributes of painting and sculpture, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 1728

Chardin, who was French, is considered a master of still life. His influence on the art of the modern era is wide-ranging, apparent in Manet and Cézanne. He was also one of Matisse’s most admired painters; as an art student Matisse made copies of four Chardin paintings in the Louvre.

Marcel Proust, in the chapter ‘How to open your eyes?’ from ‘In search of lost time’ (À la recherche du temps perdu), describes a melancholic young man sitting at his simple breakfast table. The only comfort he finds is in the imaginary ideas of beauty depicted in the great masterpieces of the Louvre, materializing fancy palaces, rich princes, and the like. The author tell him to follow him to another section of the Louvre where the pictures of Jean-Baptiste Chardin are. There he would see the beauty in still life at home and in everyday activities like peeling turnips.

Still life with plaster cast, Paul Cezanne, 1894

Still life with skull and candlestick, Paul Cezanne, 1866

This work is often seen as one of the most radical compositions that Cézanne produced due to its abstract tendencies that heralded the coming of the Cubist movement. In ‘Still life with plaster cast’ there is a clear distorting of the image. A dirty white colored plaster cast of a young boy with no arms is stood on a table among some fruit. Cézanne’s ‘Still life with plaster cast’ was also unusual because of its subject matter choice. Not only was it a still life diverging from reality, but it was also mixing the mystical with the ordinary.

Of all artists of his time, it is perhaps Cézanne who had the most profound influence on twentieth century art (Matisse admired his use of color and Picasso developed the flattened structure of Cézanne’s compositions to create the Cubist style.) During his time he was unknown as a painter, had few friends, mistrusted critics and exhibited very rarely. He demonstrated antisocial behaviors such as not washing and refusing to shake hands. Many of his early works were painted with deep pigments and dark tones, reminiscent of romantic and melancholic expressionism of previous generations and reflective of his own self-doubt and depression.

Modern abstract art also attributes its influences to the great still life or surrealist artists of the past:

Paintings that fall off their canvases; it’s clear, reviewing selected works by Daniel Borins and Jennifer Marman, that to them art is never quite what it seems. The Toronto duo has made a career out of binding familiar with unfamiliar- Led Zeppelin band members into a dry, diagrammatic print, for instance, or a balcony from the terror-laced Munich Olympics into Smurf-scale.

Escape into reality

‘Escape into reality’ is a painting/sculpture from Czech artist, Michael Trpák. It is made of cement, wood, and acrylic paint. In the description of his work, Michael tackles two of the biggest questions in the art world: What is art, and why does art matter?

“Escape into reality is a combination of a painting, a relief and a sculpture, it outlines a transition between real and virtual world, between 2d and 3d form, between sensed and tangible … Art tries to be new and discovering, so is an artist a scientist or an inventor? Modern art is a conceptual one and it can seldom defend itself, so does it make an artist a rhetorician or a philosopher? If art needs a form to convey an idea, should an artist be a skillful craftsman? If art is supposed to be digital, is an artist due to be an expert on information technologies? Is an artist a diplomat or a strategist who can present nothing like something and make the viewers believe in it? Who actually is still an artist and who is not? As long as an artist can be all and exercise anything, why everybody is not an artist? Will any object become a piece of art being exhibited in a gallery and will a person who places an object in a gallery become an artist? What is then the purpose of art? – To convey an idea or draw attention by means of a special, ingenious or more sophisticated form to things around us? Or should art be made use of as an aesthetical supplement and is more likely to be the design? If art is supposed to be another form of communication, does it need any commentary? Or- is art something what is useless and that´s why there are galleries to make it usable? As it is difficult to find a boundary between real and virtual, it is impossible to limit the art. I don’t know what a painting thinks about itself if it does think anything at all, nor I know if form is important for art. Supposing there is no form, energy, which can be turned into form, remains… Boundaries don’t exist…”

Sculptures and paintings

“This may be one of the most exciting projects I’ve gotten to work on in my studio so far... working on a tall oil painting of the figure while watching a very talented sculptor build a piece at the same time. As Matt (the sculptor) explores different angles and searches for the perfect s-curve on the figure, spontaneous outbursts of ‘yes!’ resonate from his corner as he realizes he has gotten it just right.”

I believe there is a huge gap between ‘classical’ and modern art, if we consider surrealism not modern anymore. But I don’t think surrealism has been surpassed yet. Will ‘modern’ art become ‘classical’ in the future? I really don’t know. But it is certain that something will spring out of the modern era to create a new revolution (which is probably evolving right now). People tend to be romantic about the past and pessimistic about the future. This may be natural. I don’t believe that Magritte was a precursor of pop art. I believe that pop art used Magritte as its ‘father’ to lean on. However, one thing is certain: Artistic talent is neither ‘classical’ nor ‘modern.’ It is always revolutionary and innovating, fighting against contemporary paradigms in order to change the world view, therefore the world itself. Whatever ‘still life’ paintings will be in the future, the point is the same: To capture time is always an act of immortality. And the good artist becomes the best of them (immortals) all.

Ceci continu de ne pas être une pipe

The treason of images, 1952

“People question images before listening to them; they question them with rhyme or reason. And then they are amazed if the expected answer is not forthcoming. Thus a word of advice is in order. A sunset, a river, a town, a woman, can be looked at in all simplicity; and in silence. A silence that -something- will fill. So it is with the paintings of Rene Magritte. The expression ‘wait and see’ sometimes takes on a profound meaning.”
Paul Nougé 1944

“Who suspects that this triangle of canvas may perhaps contain something that will permanently alter the meaning of justice and love, the meaning, manner and tension of a human existence? Here are all our familiar objects... but presented in such a way that if we then turn back and look at the world again, something that was so banal that it no longer existed for us, suddenly acquires such formidable and fascinating density that we cannot even guess what new relationships we may form with it. The universe is changed; nothing is ordinary anymore.”
Louis Scutenaire, 1942

“Rene Magritte’s paintings- whose conditioning and objective make them unique in the history of painting- were created for the discovery, the preservation and the multiplication of the adventurous reality which is both the most elating and the nearest to us: the unknown.”
Paul Colinet, 1953

“I would also like to remind you that what would appear to be the framework of Magritte’s daily life is humor, and that this is to be found in his work- sometimes- almost imperceptibly, but at other times in a far more precise fashion. Moreover, it is not entirely without a spirit of mystification. Magritte is not averse to people misunderstanding him, and he himself provokes these misunderstandings with obvious pleasure.”
Camille Goemans, 1949

“My Dear Rene,
I have always felt that your paintings reverse the usual procedure: before one can look at them they are already scrutinizing the distracted onlooker. I shake your steady hand.”
Man Ray, 1937

“Magritte paints in the mirror the positive image of fiction, points the finger in reverse towards the hand, pierces the eye through which the cranium is flooded with broad daylight by night... affirming the endless truth of the absurd.”
Roland Penrose, 1958

“Would you like someone who can turn night into day? Would you like to be sure that desires are often struck by lightning? Would you like to walk through a transparent door? Would you like poetic order from chaos? And fire, wouldn’t you like to control fire, and gravity and air and the stars? Would you like someone who could make things seem what they really are? Then you will like Rene Magritte.”
Dorothea Tanning, 1961

“If the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of ‘common sense,’ then he realizes something obvious. I want nonetheless to add that for me the world is a defiance of common sense.

There is a mistaken idea about painting that is very widespread- namely that painting has the power to express, something of which it is certainly incapable. Emotions do not have any concrete form which can be reproduced in painting. To the fine man who asked me “Which is the picture which ‘expresses’ joy?” I can only say “That one which gives you joy to see.” I particularly like this idea that my paintings say nothing.”
Rene Magritte, 1945

In comparison to his earlier Futurist painting style, Magritte became increasingly ‘realistic’ after 1925. That is to say, he turned away from arbitrary color, distortion, and bold brushstrokes in favor of a highly descriptive method of painting. Magritte relied on the illusion of space and the clarity of contours to create tactile forms that appear familiar and lifelike. The art historian Roger Shattuck describes this phenomenon wonderfully in his 1966 article entitled ‘This is not Rene Magritte:’

“He takes the entire Western tradition of optical likeness, perfected through two and a half thousand years of subsidized research, and applies it scrupulously to challenge the act of thought. Every separate item in his paintings looks like something we know. Yet no painting as a whole looks like anything we ever saw or conceived before we stood in front of it and looked.”

Most art historical discourses refer to Magritte as a Surrealist even though this leaves out a great deal of the story. Magritte did not even view himself as a Surrealist, stating in a letter to his friend Andre Bosmans, “I’m neither a ‘Surrealist’ nor a ‘Cubist’ nor a ‘Patawhatever’ even though I have a fairly strong weakness for the so-called Cubist and Futurist ‘schools.’” In reality, he only stayed in Paris for three years (1927- 1930) and had problems with certain Surrealist philosophies. He was interested in their ideas concerning the layered dimensions of reality and the power of dislocation, but did not share the group’s enthusiasm for chance, the fantastic, or the intuitive creativity of trance-induced states.

The artist spent the majority of his life collaborating with a small band of friends in Brussels where he lived until his death in 1967. They called themselves the Belgian Surrealists and worked together for over thirty years. Committed to group activity, they drew up manifestoes, organized exhibitions, made films, edited reviews, and stimulated the art community in Brussels with their various projects. Magritte’s personal philosophy of art fits better into this context than it does with the Paris Surrealists.

Magritte chose not to have a studio, but instead worked in a small corner of his living room, as if to hide the fact that he was a full-time artist. This attitude is best summarized by a statement Nougé wrote to Andre Breton in Paris, warning the French poet about the narcissism he saw creeping into artistic circles with the words, “I would quite like it if those of us whose names are beginning to make their mark were to erase them.”

Magritte searched postcards, illustrations, children’s books, and medical manuals for what he termed ‘neutral or indifferent’ images and copied them in his paintings. He wanted to undermine the idea of uniqueness in a work of art. Magritte professed indifference to quality in his art and the work of others; he claimed to have no talent, no originality, no artistic aptitude, just ideas he sought to express in visual form. He once told an interviewer:

“I always try to make sure that the actual painting isn’t noticed, that it is as little visible as possible. I work rather like the sort of writer who tries to find the simplest tone, who eschews all stylistic effects, so that the only thing the reader is able to see in his work is the idea he was trying to express. So the act of painting is hidden in my work.”

Magritte had a major impact on 20th-century art. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg (1925- ), Jasper Johns (1930- ), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), and Andy Warhol (1928-87) were greatly influenced by his approach to art. Indeed, many of the ideas he embraced-appropriation, word-imagery, dislocation, collage, satire, and contradiction-continue to be explored by many artists today. What is more, Magritte’s art is familiar to a mass audience. His images have been used extensively by the advertising industry. As we look at Magritte’s work, it is important to realize the ways in which his voice resounds in our contemporary culture. Fifty years ago he commented, “I don’t want to belong to my time,” but then added, “or for that matter, to any other.”

Not everyone likes Magritte however. Some people try to find forgery in almost all of his works. According to Patricia Allmer, Blavier and Mariën draw attention to similarities between passages of Magritte’s most autobiographical of his writings, ‘Lifeline,’ and passages from Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘Berenice’ (1835), and also with Max Ernst’s celebrated text ‘Le 10 Août 1925 …’ which was published in 1936, a year before Magritte’s first version of ‘Lifeline.’ These similarities suggest Magritte’s possible appropriation and adaptation of these past texts for his own autobiographical writings. For example, Magritte describes, in ‘Lifeline:’

“Therefore, I decided around 1925, to paint the objects only with their apparent details, because my research could only be developed under these circumstances. I gave up on all except one way of painting, which brought me to a point which I had to transgress. This decision, which allowed me to break with a by then comfortable habit, was eased by the way, through long observations, in which I found an opportunity in a popular Brasserie in Brussels. The psychological state I was in, caused the decorative molding on a door to appear as if it would have a mysterious existence, and I was long in touch with its reality.”

Blavier suggests that these lines can be compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Berenice,’ in which the hero narrates:

“To muse for long unwearied hours with my attention riveted to some frivolous device on the margin, or in the typography of a book; to become absorbed for the better part of a summer’s day, in a quaint shadow falling aslant upon the tapestry, or upon the door; to lose myself for an entire night in watching the steady flame of a lamp, or the embers of a fire; to dream away whole days over the perfume of a flower; to repeat monotonously some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind.”

However, Blavier also notes that Magritte’s text might also bear comparison with Ernst’s writing, pointing to Marcel Mariën’s citation of Magritte’s passage, following a citation of Ernst’s text ‘Le 10 août 1925 …,’ in his book ‘Les Corrections naturelles:’

“On August 10, 1925 an intolerable visual obsession made me discover the technical means that enabled me to put Leonardo’s lesson… into practice. It started from a childhood memory in which a panel of false mahogany across from my bed provoked a vision in my mind while I was half asleep, and, being in an inn by the sea during a rainfall, I became obsessed and irritated with the patterns of grooves in the floor, accentuated by thousands of washings.”

Ernst’s text, which is influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Treatise on painting’ (c. 1500), in which the author recommends that artists should stare at stains on walls until figures appear, shares significant similarities with Magritte’s text. The date, the place of the experience (Brasserie/Inn), the experience of marveling at mundane features of domestic spaces (decorative molding/floor) and its influential, revelatory effect on both artists seem to point towards more than just an accidentally similar experience. Ernst’s statement seems reworked and appropriated by Magritte into his own autobiographical outline.

Force of habit (La force de l’habitude), 1960

Another incident which Allmer notes is the ‘This is not a Magritte’ case: In Max Ernst’s dining room in Paris there was a painting by Magritte, entitled ‘Force of habit,’ in which a heraldic image of a large green apple is inscribed, in English, ‘This is not an apple.’ Max and Magritte had exchanged pictures, as artists often do. And Max, in the middle of the apple, had painted a cage with a bird inside. Below this cage, Max had written, ‘Ceci n’est pas un Magritte,’ (This is not a Magritte) signed Max Ernst.

Magritte’s only comment on Ernst’s ‘joke’ was ‘forced laughter,’ perhaps because he knew too well what Ernst was aiming at. Ernst’s signature appropriates, becomes a further item in the play and multiplication of ‘ceci, but also in the multiplication of names- Magritte as signature, Magritte as label, Max Ernst as counter-signature. Ernst’s inscription unearths the subversive character of Magritte beneath his appearance as a commercial artist, revealing him as being ‘like a worm in the apple… changing what is within, without touching the surface.’ Whilst Magritte saw this painting and its title as ‘another version’ of the ‘problem of the pipe,’ of the ‘problem of the ceci,’ complying with the art market which wanted to see endless reproductions of the same theme, Ernst teases out a different meaning, a different ‘Magritte,’ allocating the ‘problem of ceci’ to its rightful, subversive place. ‘Force of habit’ is exposed, not as the re-painting of the same motif, but as the inability not to forge, to plagiarize, the inability to keep one’s hands off the other’s artworks.

Magritte’s window, Nicole Caulfield

As far as the apple is concerned, it is one of the most frequent and recognizable of Magritte’s motifs, appearing in various guises such as a floating orb in the sky, a masked entity, and perhaps most famously hiding the face of a man wearing a bowler hat. The ambiguity of its role in the present scene invites the viewer to contemplate possible interpretations without ever offering a definitive meaning, sustaining a sense of enigma that the painter prized above all else. For Magritte, the apple came to symbolize this perpetual tension between the hidden and visible, and he even used it to obscure his own visage in some of his self-portraits. The painter stated:

“Those of my pictures that show very familiar objects, an apple, for example, pose questions. We no longer understand when we look at an apple; its mysterious quality has thus been evoked. In a recent painting, I have shown an apple in front of a person's face At least it partially hides the face. Well then, here we have the apparent visible, the apple, hiding the hidden visible, the person’s face. This process occurs endlessly. Each thing we see hides another, we always want to see what is being hidden by what we see. There is an interest in what is hidden and what the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a fairly intense feeling, a kind of contest, I could say, between the hidden visible and apparent visible.”

Suzi Gablik suggests that Magritte’s paintings are a systematic attempt to disrupt any dogmatic view of the physical world. By means of the interference of conceptual paradox, he causes ordinary phenomena to inherit extraordinary and improbably conclusions. What happens in Magritte's paintings is, roughly speaking, the opposite of what the trained mind is accustomed to expect. His pictures disturb the elaborate compromise that exists between the mind and life. In Magritte's paintings, the world’s haphazard state of consciousness is transformed into a single will.

The ‘Ouroboros’ (= ‘Tail-eater’), a dragon that continually consumes itself, is used as a symbol for self-reference

Regarding the incident with Max Ernst, the ‘Ouroboros,’ uncunningly enough, reminds, at least in shape, Magritte’s apple. There’s certainly a self-referential aspect here: ‘This is not an apple,’ is in fact a ‘cannibalistic’ statement- it is a sentence which eternally consumes (by referring to) itself.

-‘This is not a sentence’-

In philosophy and logic, the liar paradox is the statement ‘this sentence is false.’ Trying to assign to this statement a (classical binary) truth value, leads to a contradiction (paradox). If ‘This sentence is false’ is true, then the sentence is false, but then if ‘This sentence is false’ is false, then the sentence is true, and so on.

Well, is ‘This is not a sentence’ true or false? It certainly is a sentence. But its falsity doesn’t cancel its reality. Therefore a statement contains ‘truth’ either it is valid or not. The same goes for a liar; In fact he is a real person and perhaps a very successful one. But is it lies what we finally prefer to listen to?

According to Wikipedia, the self-reference effect is a tendency for people to encode information differently depending on the level on which the self is implicated in the information. When people are asked to remember information when it is related in some way to the self, the recall rate can be improved.

Therefore, not only our mind works by infinite repetitions of ‘true’ or ‘false’ statements, but also it is often put aside by deeper desires, which make us follow dreams and lies, although deep inside we know it’s ‘wrong.’

The game of mora (Le jeu de mourre), 1966

Popular interest in Magritte’s work rose considerably in the 1960s, and his imagery has influenced pop, minimalist and conceptual art. The Beatle’s Apple logo was directly inspired by Magritte. In an interview with Johan Ral in 1993, Paul McCartney (who bought ‘The game of mora’) remembers:

“I really loved Magritte. We were discovering Magritte in the sixties, just through magazines and things. And we just loved his sense of humor. And when we heard that he was a very ordinary bloke who used to paint from nine to one o’clock, and with his bowler hat, it became even more intriguing. Robert used to look around for pictures for me, because he knew I liked him. It was so cheap then, it’s terrible to think how cheap they were. But anyway, we just loved him... One day he brought this painting to my house. We were out in the garden, it was a summer’s day. And he didn’t want to disturb us, I think we were filming or something. So he left this picture of Magritte. It was an apple- and he just left it on the dining room table and he went. It just had written across it ‘Au revoir,’ on this beautiful green apple. And I thought that was like a great thing to do. He knew I’d love it and he knew I’d want it and I’d pay him later…

So it was like wow! What a great conceptual thing to do, you know. And this big green apple, which I still have now, became the inspiration for the logo. And then we decided to cut it in half for the B-side!”

Young love (Les jeunes amours), 1963

The painting’s title was found by Magritte’s friend Scutenaire, and is probably a play of words on ‘Les jeunes amours.’ The game of mora is played with one of the players rapidly displaying a hand with some fingers raised, the others folded inwards, while his opponent calls out a number, which, for him to win, has to correspond to the total of the raised fingers.

In 1961, Magritte was an internationally acclaimed artist. He was identified by his paintings of bowler hated men, a persona of his hero Fantômas that he created when he was a young radical. Magritte still considered himself to be a secret agent, a mysterious figure identified by his dark attire and bowler hat. His hobbies were amateur cinematography and chess, and he enjoyed taking walks with his wife and his dog, Lou-Lou. Now 63 he said, “I’m getting older; I get toothaches and headaches, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Magritte lived in a comfortable unbohemian house near Brussels, quietly damning a good deal of what other artists were doing. Although famous, his paintings did not command the high prices in the 1960s as some other leading surrealist artists like Dali.

The mysterious barricades (Les barricades mysterieuses), 1961

In 1961 he continued doing murals and designed a mural for Palais de Crogress titled ‘The mysterious barricades.’ Around this time he began doing limited editions of lithographs. With sales from his lithographs and paintings he was finally financially secure and he said, “I have everything I need.” Magritte painted regularly until his death. Around 1963 he discovered he had cancer and his health began to fail. Despite his health problems, he traveled with Georgette spending some time in Ischia, Italy, in 1965, and in the same year the Magrittes took their first trip to the U.S.A. on the occasion of the retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art of New York.

The last word (Le dernier cri), 1967

‘The last word’ was Magritte’s last painting before his death in 1967. Of this work Jacque Meuris states, “‘The last word’ is a highly emblematic picture, particularly in view of the place it occupies in the complete catalogue as the last finished work. Against a background of the kind of rugged mountains seen in many of the artist’s best-known paintings, suspended in an aperture of which we see only the right-hand edge, is an enormously magnified leaf. In the center of the leaf is a tree (where the leaf came from?) with exposed roots. Again, these are retrospective quotations, references back to other subjects that the artist had tackled, other problems of advanced poetics that he sought to solve during his lifetime.”

Mont Blanc, Alps

The eagle and the hawk, John Denver

‘The last word’ is a painting (also a statement) with a heart within a heart. Probably Magritte loved the idea of a room with a view to the mountains. There are so many mountain tops in the world which resemble an eagle. It is not just our imagination. It is the eagles themselves which testify this truth. The mountains were created for the angels to occupy them in the form of eagles. We can feel it deep in our soul. The harmony between humans and the divine, manifested all around us, for those who can see it, is transported onto the canvas by the artist who can paint it. It is this everlasting effort of the human spirit to capture majesty and eternity. But just for a while; after that we move on, as demands the last word of our soul.

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 4.0 International License
05-Jul-14, Chris Tselentis, Athens, Greece

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