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After 23 years, here is a major exhibition of René Magritte's work at the Jeu de Paume with a hundred paintings and other creations dating from his early Surrealist work (1925) to 1967.
In Magritte's world men are portrayed as office workers, 1950's fashion: they are bourgeois employees, their brains confined to the cylinder of their bowler hats, their bodies squashed into tightly buttoned suits, and they live in a dominantly gray minimalist world from which bright colors have been abstracted. They are often encased in weathered, cut-stone a sort of a rigidly cold stone jungle yet they have kept intact an essential part of their humanity: they imagine. "They are because they imagine" and their imagination is as fertile as a round ‘granny Smith’, while their spirit soars like a white dove.
The intimate world of 'bowler hat' men has a wartime, black-and-white movie atmosphere about it, but some oddities suggest that the culprit is the human brain. The personages are mostly portrayed from the back, suggesting that they are projected towards the future, or that they are partially blind and oblivious of the past, and they only have a frontal view of the world. The pictorial representation not only suggests a delight in creating an illusion of the three dimensional on the two dimensional canvas, but also in taking advantage of the brain's ability to make up for what is missing and imprecise. Moreover, Magritte takes this further by suggesting that the brain can accept any irrational or improbable image, deceiving itself into almost anything (e.g. 'Reproduction interdite' of 1937, where the image of a man in the mirror is not facing him but reflects his back). In fact the brain is not surprised by anything and finds a rational explanation to what seems odd, new, improbable or irrational. But then is this explanation truthful? Magritte creates a personal world full of mystery and far-reaching insight into the psyche, with apparently banal settings and everyday objects. In addition, through a misleadingly simplified and toned-down realistic technique of representational painting, he makes credible any unusual, surprising or irrational associations.
One thing one learns in this exhibition is to look first at the picture and just before passing to the next one, look at the title, noting that it does not match our brain's explanation of the visual experience we just received. This curious surprise over the title then unfailingly sends you back to the picture to contemplate why, for example, a pair of theatre curtains framing a piece of cloudy sky and what looks like a 'piggy bank' is called 'La Gioconde'. I found I could not stop myself thinking that perhaps what is meant if you associated the title to the painting is the enigma of the enigmatic a statement that 'La Gioconde' is not what you think (i.e. a masterpiece of Leonardo da Vinci) but what it has become in the modern world, i.e. a theatre setting to make money, with the artistic content evaporated into thin air. But you have to be careful when trying to establish a logical link between the two, since the painter himself said that "his problem is to find images for which no explanation can be found".
Similarly, one wonders why a cloud over a giant glass is entitled 'La corde sensible' (1960). Even if a picture generally does not need a title or a date, here the titles are not descriptive but have their own significance. Sometimes they give you a clue like a keyword to an enigma (picture entitled 'without family-1958' with a man portrayed from the back and a dirigible balloon with it's anchor in mid-air), and sometimes they are intentionally misleading ('Le Bon Exemple' is the title for the portrait of a man with hat and umbrella standing with the inscription 'sitting individual'). Magritte himself explains this well: "The titles of pictures are not explanations and the pictures are not explanations of the titles. The relationship between the title and the picture is poetic. This explanation retains certain characteristics usually forgotten by the conscience but intuited by extraordinary events that the reason could not elucidate." To create such 'events', after finishing his paintings, Magritte called in his friends to find a title for his works through 'collective invention'.
It seems that Magritte was using certain techniques later formalized by Dr. de Bono as ‘lateral thinking’ ('La bonne sense' of 1945 with still life standing vertically while it's frame is horizontal), and paradigm-shifting (1964 ‘Nightfall’ with a piece of the night outside the window fallen in the room together with the window pane). But whatever his technique of original thinking, he uses a way all artists seem to adopt to find their own original path; it is his exploration of the human mind and its illusory nature of interpretation of manifest phenomena that leads to his own poetic expression.
Magritte's exploration, therefore, takes illusion as the foundation of the expression of the human thought. Words and images are both illusory, hence the mutual play of words with pictures. The titles are words to which we give rational meaning, while the pictures are images that we accept, albeit intrinsically irrational, since the two-dimensional image already belies our perception of a three-dimensional world not to mention the four-dimensional universe.
Both images and words can lie and are not in the domain of absolute truth. In 'The treason of language' the famous 1938 painting of a pipe with the inscription 'this is not a pipe', it is both the treason of language and of image. We seem to question the written word but are subjugated with the image, yet they both point at how limited is our cognition of the real world, and how influenceable our brain. We are in Magritte's conception alone and 'sans famille' (i.e. without ascendance or descendance) in a world that deceives us and of which our only understanding is illusory. Our only anchor to a meaningful world is by means of our dreams or imagination (a synthetic process of explaining the world without recurring to rational explanation). But in order to communicate or express our imagination we have to use words or images, both of which are limited and untruthful media.
In an article published in the 'Surrealist Revolution' of 1929 called 'Les Mots et les Images' (words and images), Magritte wrote about some of his word-picture paintings such as 'l'usage de la parole' of 1928, where two bowler-hatted men pronounce the words 'violette' and 'piano' like in a cartoon. He thus confirmed his fascination with the interchangeability of words and pictures and his belief in how meaningless both can be. "One should not mistake the image for the represented object" he said while commenting on 'Trahison des images'.
In our purest 'personal imagination' the linguistic and imaginary symbols are strictly personal and primordial, and they are not fabricated by human history or culture; that is why they don't lie. They are not three-dimensional but indicate a fourth dimension (e.g. the 1955 work 'La Clef d'oeuvre ou les mystères de l'horizon' with three men and three moons). They have not been rationally fabricated and remain undeciphered mystery (in Magritte's words: "I cannot deduce anything from mystery; it will amount to the misunderstanding of its essence").
Resembling true poetry (e.g. the 1934 'La magie noire' representing a nude, colored ocean-blue up to the waist, and her flying imagination in the shape of a dove) our imagination has our conscience for ultimate judge. As a materialization in the present of the mystery of the future, it is the most truthful interpretation of the present or the past (e.g. the 1960 'The tomb of the fighter' with a giant rose that fills the room as homage to the courage of the fallen fighter).
Magritte was influenced essentially by Surrealism, although he did go through all the artistic currents of his time from Cubism to Dadaism. A member of the Surrealist inner group together with Breton, Aragon, Eluard and Dali, he nonetheless had his own refined conception of Surrealism. Magritte distinguishes between the 'imagined' and the 'imaginary'. "The Surrealist thought should be imagined not imaginary. It is a reality similar to the reality of the universe. This reality is irrational; it is not imaginary but should be imagined." Those of his paintings that are more 'illegible' and less dogmatic are nearer that imagination of his which found in the real world a magical place of coincidences in which the human mind is free to question or to believe: "Instead of thinking of another world, it is our own world with its astonishing coincidences that we should concentrate on."
Magritte’s thesis is built upon the premise that man, being a lone explorer and pioneer, has been given the possibility of experimentation; he is free to make mistakes and he has also the freedom to take his illusions for certitudes. For him, freedom is the focal point of man’s existence or, as he put it the heart is free to beat or stop beating. He also believed that, similar to the cosmos, the human brain is a universe in the making that has manifested itself to the world with a series of improbable coincidences. Incapable of revealing ‘the truth’, man’s mission is to reveal at least his own personal truth.
Meeting Monsieur Magritte in Paris was another magical coincidence. If Parrhasius was the author of the perfect illusion, Magritte used illusion to remove the veil of illusions from our eyes.
1898 (21st November): Birth of René Magritte in Lessines (Belgium)
1916: Student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels
1920: Part of the artistic and literary 'milieu' of Brussels, he experiments with Cubism, Fauvism, Abstraction and Futurism until he discovers the work of De Chirico and the early Surrealists.
1920-1927: Produces highly original work 'such as The Birth of the Idol' and 'The menaced Assassin' both in 1926, where ordinary objects or people are presented in a strange, unusual, intriguing, or mysterious manner.
1927-1930: Travels to France and befriends the Surrealists Breton, Aragon, Dali and Eluard. He publishes an article 'Les Mots et les Images' in the 12th edition of 'La Révolution surréaliste' in 1929, explaining some of his works such as 'The Mirror', the 'Treason of Language', 'La Clé des Songes' as well as his alphabet paintings with falsely tagged objects such as bag=sky, or leaf=table.
1928: Paints 'L'usage de la Parole' (with two men in bowler hats saying 'violette', 'piano'), and 'Le Paysage fantôme' showing his play of words and images on canvas, where the word mountain written on the forehead of a woman exists in her head only.
1929: Paints 'Menacing weather' which is a free association of a 'tuba', a 'Venus' and a 'chair' in the cloudy sky.
1930: Experiments with cutout images such as the beautifully framed pictures of parts of a woman's body in 'The eternal evidence'
1930: Returns to Brussels and makes only a few trips abroad, mainly to England (to visit Edward James, portrayed in the 'Reproduction Interdite', who was one of his most assiduous collectors), France and the US (his US dealer Alexandre Iolas made a significant contribution to his international renown from 1947).
1934: Constant exploration into the mystery of the imagination, with his beautifully executed picture of an ocean-blue Venus entitled 'La magie Noire' and the curious face made of sex parts called 'Viol' (rape), as well as 'Clairvoyance', his ambivalent commentary on the art of painting (a painter who looks at an egg but paints it's origin-result, i.e. 'a bird').
1936-1938: Participates in Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and London and illustrates the movement's publications ('Viol' makes the cover of the 'What is Surrealism' conference given by Breton at the Sorbonne in 1934; 'La Gacheuse' illustrates the 'International Bulletin of Surrealism' in 1935).
1943-1946: His 'Renoir' period of the German occupation leads him to use color in the Impressionist manner (the vividly colorful 'Bonne sense' though Surrealist in nature, is Impressionist in technique). Trying to make a total break from the past he experiments and wants to be totally free from even his own personal style, but the lack of success of these paintings brings him back to his old world.
1950: Words and images appear again in 'The art of conversation' with the word 'amour' cut into the sea. 'The false mirror' is also of this year; it again suggests that our eye is the source of all illusion. His parody 'Madame Recamier' is also of this year; it is not a visual illusion but more the illusion of existence to say that "she is no more".
1951: With this year comes the stone-jungle series ('Souvenirs of Travel' and 'Le chant de Violette') where everything, including his bowler-hatted men and the table-cloth, have turned into stone. His self-portrait with four arms ('Autoportrait à quatre bras') depicting himself while eating simultaneously with four hands, shows that his taste for irony stayed with him despite his success.
1953: This is the year of 'Le Bon exemple', which seems to suggest that the standing personage is in reality sitting since the inscription says so.
1955-1956: 'La Clef d'Oeuvre ou les mystères de l'horizon' that can be interpreted as an allusion to other dimensions and 'Goleconde' : the world is invaded by bowler-hatted men in which irony is replaced by imagination.
1956-1958: Paints 'Le Bouquet tout fait' and 'La Gioconde', both parodies of Renaissance works: Boticelli's 'Primavera' and Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa'.
1958: The painting 'Sans famille' dates from this year
1960-1961: With 'La corde sensible', 'Le tombeau des lutteurs', 'La Cascade' and 'L'Empire des Lumières' Magritte moves into a less-decipherable and more poetic phase of his production.
1963-1964: 'Les Princesses de l'Automne', 'La lunette d'approche', 'La reconnaissance infinie', 'L'homme au Chapeau-melon', 'Le fils de l'homme', ‘Le Soir qui tombe' are some of the unforgettable masterpieces that he produced in these years, all charged with mystery and executed with technical mastery.
1965-1967: Paints 'Le Blanc Seing' and 'Le Dernier Cri' (a play on words that means both the latest fashion and the last breath), which are his last works; everyone is free to interpret these, but they seem to be a clear perception of death and renewal.
1967 (August 15th): Dies in Brussels aged 69.
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