For some reason that I have yet to understand, when I first accidentally encountered Surrealism as a young teen ager looking through the art books in the school library, the images I saw of paintings by Salvador Dalí and Rene Magritte just hit me like a lightning bolt, flashing a giant “Whoah! What is this?!” on my cranial billboard.
That was it. I was hooked, a helpless Surrealism Junkie. How could something so utterly and amazingly cool and strange and non-school-like exist on the shelves of the school library as if it were just as innocent as all of the other stuff that school managed to make so boring? Within weeks I was haunting the school and public libraries devouring every book on Surrealism I could find, with a particular fascination for Dalí and Magritte.
I would later come to enjoy the subtle brain-vibrating pleasures of Ernst, Duchamp, Man Ray, and other less well known Surrealist and Dada artists and also come to enjoy the writings of Andre Breton, Benjamin Peret and other Surrealist writers, but it was the “big two”, with their other-worldly, dream-like, disorienting and endlessly fascinating images that really had a hold on me. (Contrary to the popular assumption, Surrealism was primarily a literary movement, not an art movement, and Breton, who wrote the Surrealist “manifestos” and was good friends with Magritte, was its center.)
Dalí, with his impressive old-master level of painting skills, propelled his fantastic images into hyper-real dream-state orbit, casting shimmering spells of wonder over my hungry teenage brain, but Magritte… ah, Magritte was more subtle. Never the accomplished painter or draughtsman that Dali was (but then, how many are?), Magritte’s ability to fascinate me lay in the psychological power of his imagery. His paintings just grab you.
His images are directly painted, with little fuss or ostentatious display of technical virtuosity. Unlike Dalí, who set out to shock, dazzle and bewilder, Magritte casts his spell more like a poet, with juxtapositions of images and scenes that don’t make sense on the surface, but do, undeniably, unfathomably, make sense unconsciously.
Magritte is about connections and disconnections. He takes a seat in the back of your brain and, like a 1940’s wire-and-plug telephone switchboard operator, begins to reroute associations between the expected and the unexpected. Suddenly your subconscious snaps its mental fingers and says “Ah-ha!”, but what the “ah-ha” actually is remains unclear.
Magritte invites you into a mystery with bizarre clues, hints of meaning and tantalizing associations and then makes a connection that turns your throbbing little brain upside-down in its brain pan and gives it a good cooking (with a dash of pepper). All the while, of course, old René is laughing up his bowler hat. Pulled another one on you. Gotcha!
In painting after painting the conventions of reality, visual perception and representational art – time, space, gravity, proportion, perspective – one by one are turned on their heads.
Some of his images have become familiar, but still have the power to give that delightful mental “twist”, and have in large part come to define what people think of when they use the word “surreal”.
The Castle of the Pyrenees sits atop a great stone mountain, except that the mountain is egg-shaped and suspended over the sea in absolute defiance of gravity; and the castle itself is made of the same stone as the mountain as if simply carved from the top of it. A man gazes into a mirror, his back turned to you, but his reflection also has its back turned to you. A large eye gazes at you from the canvas, its iris filled with sky and clouds. English businessmen with their traditional overcoats and bowler hats hang in the sky like stop-motion raindrops.
Magritte often visited the same themes many times, I think of them as series although I don’t know if he ever considered them as such. Some of them are:
– paintings in which objects and/or people turn to stone, or are filled with the sky, often in the same work
– his strange floating slotted spheres (which some designer appropriated for the Geffen Records logo)
– the series in which the well dressed businessmen with their bowler hats have objects like apples or doves suspended in front of their face, or Flora, from Botticelli’s Le Printemps hovering in mineature behind their backs
– articles of clothing sitting in closets begin to take on elements of their human owners, a chemise and a nightgown posses human breasts, boots end in toes
– paintings in which a giant apple or enormous rose takes up the entire volume of a room (or is it, in fact, the room that is miniature?)
– the series in which he copies the compositions of famous canvasses by David and Manet, not unusual except that the figures in the paintings have been replaced with coffins – in the positions of the original figures, bent in half to sit up in bed or bent twice to sit in a chair
and his beautifully poetic images of Empire of Light, not too far removed from reality, in which houses at street level are in darkness, lit by street lamps, but above the line of dark trees, the sky is midday blue.
Ah, the wonderful perfect strangeness of it all!
At the time of this post, two Magritte exhibits are running concurrently in Paris (how much is that plane fare?): Magritte and Photography, photographs of or by the Belgian artist at Maison EuropÃ©enne de la Photographie from March 15 through June 11, 2006, and René Magritte Tout en papier an exhibit of Magritte’s rarely seen works on paper including drawings, collage and gouache (in which his approach and color palette are much different than in his oils) at Musée Maillol from March 8 through June 19, 2006.
There is a site at magritte.com that has some biographical information and a few images, but it seems to exist mostly to promote a CD-ROM collection. The Magritte Foundation has an interesting virtual gallery, but the images are small. I give some other resources for Magritte images on the web below.
Most fascinating of all for me of Magritte’s repeated themes is a series of paintings within paintings, in which canvases sit on easels in front of windows, inextricably seamless with the view behind them, all of which are named “The Human Condition”. There is a related series of images of windows, broken or open to show that the scene that is apparently outside the window is, in fact, painted on it, sometimes revealing an identical scene outside the window. Wonderful images that suggest the magical connection between art and reality.
No post on Magritte would be complete without mentioning the definitive Magritte image of a pipe, simply and directly rendered, on which Magritte has written in paint: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”, “This is not a pipe.”, and, of course,… he’s right.