Rene Magritte’s paintings tell us more about reality than his Surrealist label lets on
There are moments when reality makes itself rudely apparent. We go about our lives not thinking much about the matter around us. Our consciousness is unreflective, all our interactions are merely a means to an ends in the flow state of everyday life.
Sometimes we momentarily wake up to the strangeness of our existence. The flow of everyday consciousness is disrupted. This happens in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea to the protagonist Roquentin. During one scene, Roquentin is riding a trolley car when he suddenly loses the context of his situation. The buildings outside the window rather than the trolley car itself seem to be moving.
He lays a hand on his seat to ground himself, but he doesn’t feel the seat, he feels its existence. He pulls his hand away and tries to reassure himself that he is on a seat. The word “seat” stays on his lips and does not apply itself to the thing. The seat, he thinks, could just as well be the bloated belly of a dead donkey. Language has failed. “I am in the midst of things,” he says, “nameless things. Alone, without words, defenseless, they surround me, are beneath me, behind me, above me.”
The world of language, of habit, of human artifice and assumptions had suddenly collapsed for Roquentin. The hero of Nausea is struck by the fact that “existence had unveiled itself… It was the very paste of things.” Human institutions like language camouflage “the real” through mediation. All things exist as-something to us in our everyday lives.
But language cannot account for existence itself and the objects that make up the world prior to human understanding. When we are momentarily confronted with real as it is before human mediation, we are confronted with mystery. When objects no longer exist as something, they become estranged from us.
Magritte the Surrealist
Magritte is an artist that evokes this mystery like no other artist. The brush-wielding sphinx’s paintings have haunted, taunted and tormented us since the early 1920s. Magritte is labelled as a Surrealist, his work is at face-value dream-like and disorientating. But is that label justified, or was Magritte more than a painter of dreams? His work evokes a mystery that cuts deep not so much into the psyche, but into our actual experience of the world.
The Surrealist movement had been born of the fall out of the First World War. The absurdist Dada movement, formed as a reaction to the war, had fizzled out by the early 1920s. The movement’s followers sought a new, more constructive programme to rejuvenate European culture. Surrealism was more than an artistic movement like Cubism, it had inherited from Dada ambitions to transform society.
The aim of the movement, as stated by its leader Andre Breton, was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality” or “Surreality”. The ends of this project was to liberate the psyche of the masses from the constraints of capitalist social conformity.
The Surrealists developed techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself by abandoning conscious control. The techniques included using chance, surprising juxtapositions, dream imagery, hypnosis and psychoanalysis.
Certainly, Magritte was a card-carrying Surrealist. He took part willingly in a number of surrealist shows. He was friends with Andre Breton, the Surrealist group’s uncompromising leader. He was also a beneficiary and sometime lodger of Edward James, one of the movement’s rich cheerleaders.
But new developments in the way philosophers think about reality throw a new, transformative light on Magritte. The popular perception of this “painter of dreams” is wrong if we consider that any representation of reality could never be “right”.
The prisms of Magritte’s vision perhaps tells us more about reality—it’s fundamental truths—than we have given the artist credit for. It is rare – perhaps impossible – to truly experience reality in an unmediated way like Roquentin in Sartre’s novel, but Magritte’s paintings at least point to the reality behind appearances.
Magritte’s images could be seen as analogous to—or illustrative of—a new understanding of reality that has its origins in his contemporary, the philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Magritte, it could be argued, is the painter of “reality” more so than any realist painter. Heidegger’s philosophy is key to understanding why his oeuvre, in varying intensities, excavated the very nature of reality as we understand it. Magritte was less a Surrealist than a painter-philosopher of the real.
Let’s first take a look at Magritte’s style. There are two principal strands of Surrealist painting. Each style was a means of achieving the Surrealist goal of surfacing the imagery of the unconscious.
The most familiar is “Oneiric” (dream-like) Surrealism. This style is the realistic depiction of dreamy imagery typified by Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Just like a dream you may have with yourself in it, the world is depicted as strange by these artists, but a recognisable world nevertheless.
This strand of Surrealism found its prototype in the work of Georgio De Chirico, a Greek painter working in Italy in the 1910s. Chirico’s enigmatic and sparsely populated landscapes and cityscapes have a dream-like quality. They are realistically depicted scenes scarred by long shadows cast by early dawn or dusk. Each dramatises the enigmas of odd juxtapositions amidst classical colonnades and piazzas.
The other Surrealist style is “Automatism”. This is a loose-handed, sometimes chance-dependent suppression of conscious control to unleash the imagery of the unconscious. This method is typified by André Masson and Joan Miró. The style is analogous to the Surrealist writers’ technique of the same name by which the writer lets their words flow without conscious thought.
At face-value, Magritte would seem to fall into the Oneiric category of Surrealist style. His style is ultimately indebted to the pictorial template set by Giorgio De Chirico.
However, from the mid-1920s Magritte’s style departed from Chirico and fellow Oneiric painters like Dalí and Ernst. Magritte worked at the time as an advertising illustrator and the straightforward illustrative style of advertising made its way into his body of work. His painting became ordinary and prosaic, as opposed to dream-like and dramatic.
Everyday things began to populate his paintings—the bowler-hatted businessmen, apples, trombones, bells, loaves of bread, fluffy clouds and too-clear, too-blue skies. These paintings were remarkable in their bland visual language: almost always frontal, central, unfussy, set at mid-distance, shallow-spaced and lit either well, or dimly. Time is always truly still, even the flames of a tuba on fire look frozen.
The paintings he produced from the late 1920s are never scenic, fantastical nor particularly dramatic. Instead, the drama – or rather the mystery – can be found in the rigour of their associative logic. This is all underpinned by the prosaic visual language: Night is day, the portrait of an egg is a bird, the rock floats, the cloud sinks to the ground.
Magritte became disinterested in the absurdities and free associations of Surrealism. The beauty that the poet Comte de Lautréamont found in the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” was often cited by surrealists as a paradigmatic statement that made him the “veritable initiator of the modern marvelous”.
Chance was fetishised by the Surrealists but couldn’t satisfy Magritte. His body of work mined our conscious experience of reality rather than the imaginative novelties of the unconscious. Magritte dealt not in the merely implausible, but in the outright paradoxical, the contradiction and the misnomer. It’s unfair to consign him among the painters of dreams, other worlds or the unconscious like Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst. The objects and scenes are the objects and scenes of our shared world.
Magritte began to seek deep “affinities” between certain objects. The combinations of which, while surprising (or disconcerting), had a certain inevitability.
‘We are familiar with birds in cages; interest is awakened more readily if the bird is replaced by a fish or a shoe; but though these images are strange they are unhappily accidental, arbitrary.’
The bird replaced by an egg, an object with an obvious affinity to birds, for Magritte, had ‘something right about it.’
Magritte shunned the investigation into the convulsive beauty and marvellous that had been the thrust of Surrealism since the 1924 manifesto. The artist instead embraced an investigation into a deeper associative logic that is woven through our most fundamental experience of reality.
On juxtaposing related opposites, Magritte wrote:
“It is 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.”
This is why David Sylvester likened contemplating a Magritte to “the sort of awe felt in the presence of an eclipse.” The fundamental workings of the universe seem to be the real subject of a Magritte painting: the mystery of objects before language mediates them.
Only a year before Magritte’s turn to words and objects and eventually affinities, Martin Heidegger published Being and Time (1927). The book was an audacious attempt to tackle what philosophy had been avoiding for hundreds of years: existence itself.
At the heart of our understanding of things, Heidegger held, is the way care (the German word Heidegger uses is “Sorge” which is somewhere between care and the verb concern) structures our interaction with the world and its objects: the mediation of things in experience.
Our experience of reality is dispersed into different activities where we have care or concern for objects. So long as there isn’t a hitch in these activities, objects around us and in our use are transparent to our consciousness. Being is divided into “ready-to-hand” (“Zuhandenheit”) and being that is “present-to-hand” (“Vorhandenheit”). By making this distinction, Heidegger drew attention to the way reality was ensconced in our consciousness until it made itself rudely apparent.
The hammer, for example, is transparent to the carpenter’s consciousness as he hammers away. It is “ready-to-hand”. His care towards the task makes the objects he uses as tools transparent because they are taken for granted and part of the everyday flow of the carpenter’s experience. It’s only when the hammer breaks that its “be-ing” becomes apparent to the carpenter, it becomes “present-to-hand” an object of study in itself.
To give a more basic interpretation of the care-structure of experience, there is an “as” to how any object presents itself to us in any moment depending on how that object fits into our care. More recently, philosopher Graham Harman has generalised Heidegger’s ideas around reality and its visibility and invisibility in using tools.
In Harman’s interpretation, care gives an object an “as-ness” of its being, but not its being in its entirety. For example, a bowler hat could be a bowler hat as a head covering, a bowler hat as an object of aesthetic beauty, a bowler hat as a signifier of the inter-war conservatism or of the banking industry, a bowler hat as a vessel for liquid, and so on.
Everything exists as something at any one moment, but never as what it entirely is.
This “as-ness” is structural because there is a simultaneous unveiling and veiling of the object’s many guises and purposes as it is apprehended by our care for it.
Objects, be they anything from rainbows and soundwaves to trees and bowler hats, are best negatively defined in this way: things that, via the “as-structure”, withdraw from all theoretical and practical contact in the whole, things with always and forever more to them than can be expounded upon or felt by anything else.
But: by the necessity of the “as-structure” we know these objects are. As Graham Harman explains, ‘Being is what withdraws from all access, while the “as” is what has emerged into access.’ What Harman is describing is the mysterious being before we mediate it into purpose (which he describes as “access”).
In the case of Sartre’s character Roquentin, being suddenly revealed itself. The seat was only accessible as something (as a seat), when Roquentin has his epiphany, the seat could have been anything at all.
Like the carpenter’s broken hammer or Roquentin’s seat on the trolley car, Magritte disrupts the as-structure of objects by “breaking” the laws of nature with paradoxes and non-sequiturs. These laws are responsible for causation (cause and effect) – the cosmic glue that holds our existence together.
In doing so the painter obliquely articulates the being behind the as (it’s impossible to do so directly). He takes Heidegger’s care-structure to an absurd parody and, in doing so, the objects he depicts make themselves known to us in their most sensuous, non-mediated, being.
No image is more parodic in Magritte’s body of work than his Treachery of Images from 1929.
This is a work commonly read as a commentary on language and representation. But embedded in the context of his later word and image paintings, the Key to Dreams series, with their mis-pairings of names and images, it is clear we’re in a mise en abyme (a recursive circle) of the way we incorporate things into the as-structure of mediation.
Magritte’s return to his seminal pipe thirty-eight years later, The Two Mysteries (1966), shows a version of the little painting on an easel next to a giant pipe simply floating in the air of a room without casting a shadow. It’s a painting fiendishly designed to layer mystery upon mystery.
By comparing these images with an earlier painting, The Apparition (1928), we get a clearer idea that Magritte was trying to convey the mystery of reality. The painting, shortly preceding The Treachery of Images, shows one of Magritte’s generic bowler-hatted men, back to the viewer, negotiating a dark horizon dotted with black blobs of matter – either floating or grounded and casting shadows.
Words are emblazoned on them, perhaps describing what they are supposed to be to the man. While the blob in the sky emblazoned with “nuage” is shaped like a cloud, the blob labelled “Cheval” is almost circular and the blob, in the distance, labelled “horizon” sits on the painted horizon itself, casting its own shadow into the darkness beyond.
What we’re seeing here is a translation into paint of what Sartre’s Roquentin experienced, but the experience is untranslatable into paint. It seems to attempt to depict the feeling that his more successful paintings entail for the real viewer — the man seeing reality for what it is.
It is an interesting painting, being a juncture between Magritte’s early and mid-career styles, yet less satisfying as a departure from Magritte’s form for mystery.
Magritte’s profundities are best communicated in simplicity. Sixteenth of September (1955) shows a lone tree at dusk, centred and foregrounded against a distant copse. Either through or superimposed on the tree’s canopy shines a crescent moon.
This alignment, so elegant in its simplicity, stills the beholder to witness the cosmological “event” of the painting.
It’s a divisive moment, when the “cosmic glue” of causation is melted and permits us to at least consider the universe we inhabit from its own, inhuman, perspective.
All images are low resolution, for non-commercial use and subject to fair use law as essential to this critical commentary.