Friday, September 27, 2013

Magritte Is Not a Surrealist

The new Magritte exhibition, opening at the Museum of Modern Art, offers a welcome opportunity to reassess the artist's place in the history of 20th century art.  Magritte was affiliated with the surrealists, and is often regarded as a paradigm exemplar of that movement--perhaps even it most recognizable exemplar.  That, I think, is a mistake.  Magritte comes into contact with surrealism and borrows aspects of the surrealist idiom, but he does not fit the surrealist mold.  Surrealists were concerned with alternate realities and dreams, with turning the ordinary into something bizarre, unstable, and irrational.  Surrealism was an assault on logic, and as escape from rationalism, fueled by an impression that reason had brought the world to war.  In his surrealist manifesto, Andre Breson defines surrealism as "Psychic automatism in its pure state."  He says it concerns "the omnipotence of dream," and he cites Freud as a central inspiration.  Magritte finds inspiration in Freud too, as we will see, but his agenda is very different.

As Michel Foucault observes in his short book on Magritte, Magritte is concerned with the nature of representation.  Foucault is impressed by the Belgian painter's canonical "ceci n'est pas une pipe," which reminds the viewer that pictures are not real.  When looking at a paining, we tend to speak of objects: there's a horse, that's Napoleon, look at the stormy sky.  When we talk that way, we implicitly endorse a mimetic or illusionistic theory of art, according to which art recreates or duplicates reality.  This idea about art's function was called into question by abstraction in the early decades of the twentieth century, but Magritte does something even more radical.  He suggests that even so-called representational art is not a mere copy of the world.  To make this case, he often asks about the relationship between art and language.  Language is widely recognized to be a set of arbitrary signs (the word "pipe" could represent anything).  Magritte draws attention to the possibility that mimetic images are also symbols.  The painting at the top is called The Palace of Curtains III.  Here image and language are directly compared.  We naively think that just one--the word--needs mastery of learned conventions to decode.  We think pictures give us the world more directly.  Magritte invites us to see both as curtains.  

 Curtains also appear in the next painting, called The Empty Mask (above).  Here we have a frame, which houses pictures rather than words.  The lower right contains a curtain (rideau), then we have the sky again above it, and a facade in the lower right.  Most intriguing is the upper right which contains the words "human body" in French, but then, parenthetically, "or forest."  Words can represent anything, recall, but so can pictures.

This point is made more directly and charmingly in Clairvoyance (above).  The title suggests that artist can see the future of the egg.  But the image of an artist faithfully copying an object and producing an image that bears no resemblance reminds us that the meaning of an image may depends on the artists intentions.  Consequently, we cannot read meaning off of a painting.  Meaning is not there to be seen. Pictures are as opaque as words.

Clairvoyance is not Magritte's only painting about the artistic process.  In another Attempting the Impossible, he depicts himself painting a nude woman (his wife, Georgette Berger).  This is clearly a Pygmalion allusion, but with a twist.  As the title indicates, the artist cannot in fact create anything real. The exhibition also includes a photograph taken while Magritte was making this work.  It serves as a reminder that the painter in the painting is no more real than his unfinished model.  They are equally impossible objects.

These paintings show Magritte's abiding concern with the nature of representation and the nature of art--hardly a central concern for most surrealists.   Other examples abound in the show.  One display case contains a palette with sky painting on it, as if the artist's raw material were the world itself, there are also two paintings of eyes, suggesting that artists paint ways of seeing, and a partially colored replica of the Venus de Milo, which may be a further commentary on the process of attempting to render things into reality.

Clouds are a pervasive theme in Magritte's work.  One work disrupts the illusion of painting by breaking a cloudy sky into four framed panels.  Another shows a cloudy sky next to suspended pink bells.  Magritte's interest in bells and music can also be found throughout the show.  Here bells stand in for sky, suggesting the music of the spheres, but also reminding us that sound is invisible.  These bells will never be heard.  This raises the question about whether all pictures contain invisible elements as well.


Also on display is The Human Condition, which depicts a painting canvas in front of a landscape; picture becomes indistinguishable from depicted.  Though clearly a comment on mimetic painting, the title also indicates that human beings are trapped in a semiotic web, which we habitually mistake for reality. This reading finds support in a BBC interview (in full here), which Magritte conducted in 1967:

MAGRITTE: The actual tree in the landscape—you can’t see the tree itself. You can see the tree in the painting—right there. But you know the real tree is there behind the painting, because your mind projects it out there in the real landscape. The logic of the painting demands this. You picture it in your mind. And that is also how you see the real world in everyday life: you see the world as being outside yourself, but what you actually experience is a mental representation—(he taps his head)—a mental event, inside, in here.

BBC: I get it now. The painting is a metaphor about how we see. A visual pun...

MAGRITTE: Indeed. Because it’s also a metaphor about how we don’t see. What’s out there— really?

Another intriguing painting is called The Alphabet of Revelations (below).  This one also contains two panels, or rather two halves separated, as Magritte likes to do, by a trompe l'oeil frame.  The use of frames, and especially merely painting frames, reminds us not to mistake painting for reality.  On the right the painting contains four ordinary objects from Magritte's lexicon in stat silhouette, as if to suggest these are important symbols.  The lower portion of that panel contains a trompe l'oeil rip.  The "real world" behind the rip is as black at the painted objects.  The panel on the right contains a tangled wire-like form.  This may be a comment on abstract art, placed here along side recognizable forms as if to say both are fundamentally the same.

Many of Magritte's painting contain cryptic collections of symbols.  Below, I've reproduced the Key of Dreams (left) and the Reckless Sleeper (right).  The form offers another quartet of ordinary objects, each inexplicably mislabeled.  Or are these labels accurate?  Perhaps the words have unconventional meanings in this context, or the pictures are being used as arbitrary signs.  The Reckless Sleeper contains a constellation of symbols embedded in an amorphous stone stella under the night sky.  These include Magritte staples like a bowler hat, an apple, a bird, and a mirror.  The sleeper, is nestled in a wooden box above.  Both these concern the interpretation of dreams (the former suggests this theme by its title, and the later more obviously).  This brings us back to Freud.  But unlike other surrealists, who who saw dreams as phantasmal alternate realities that defy reason and reveal secret desires, Magritte uses dreams as another opportunity to contemplate the nature of representation.  Dream interpretation becomes a special case of an overarching theme: the idea that meaning is never transparently given.  As with dreams, pictures aren't windows with transparent glass that we can simply peer through.

This, I submit, is the crux of Magritte's project.  He wants to raise questions about the nature of representation in art by reminding us that pictures are symbols and thwarting interpretation at every turn.  Where surrealists want to open up the door to other worlds, Magritte tries to close off all worlds, and leave us with symbols and surfaces to contemplate.

It must be added that representation is not the only theme in Magritte's work.  The MoMA exhibition also includes other works that show off Magritte's range and his intelligence as a painter.  For the most part, these other works reinforce my thesis that he is not primarily a surrealist.  Consider, for example, his wonderful Man With a Newspaper (above, left).  One panel shows a man reading at a table, and then three successive panels show his absence.  The first panel is taken from a turn of the century German health manual, according to the Tate website (above, right).  The subsequent panels suggest a narrative.  The man has disappeared, never to return.  Had one of these panels been painted in isolation, we would see it as a mere interior, but here they are conceptualized as pictures of absence, and the repetition suggests the passage of time.  They represent non-existence and duration -- two features that are normally thought to defy depiction.

Another canvas, The Menaced Assassin which MoMA owns, is more overly narrative in content.  It shows a murder scene.  The nude body of the victim is viewed by three identical men peering through the window.  Another man cavalierly plays a phonograph (might he be the killer?).  Two other men (the first appearance of bowler hats in Magritte's oeuvre) lurk behind an entrance way, waiting to to pounce with a cudgel and a net.  These figures are said to be inspired by Louis Feuillade's Fantomas films (see the still from episode 3), and the other elements may derive from true crime magazines or crime fiction.  Indeed, the image might easily be mistaken for an instance of those genres, but the three men outside the window suggest otherwise.  On one reading, this is a picture about viewing art.  Many pictures depict sex or violence, yet we watch casually. The bowler-wearing men (who are also identical) may stand in for Magritte himself, reduplicated and setting a snare.

Magritte's interest in the pornography of viewing can also be found in other works, like the two classics above.  In The Gigantic Days (above, left), we see a clothed man projected onto a nude woman's body who tries to push him away with the futility that some people experience when trying to rid themselves of traumatic memories.  The Rape (above, right) is even less subtle.  Here a woman's face become a nude torso, making viewers complicit in an act of sexualizing objectification.  Like other paintings I've mentioned, these are about viewing, but they are more overtly political.  They push even further and more chillingly on the idea that there is no innocent eye.

I will end with one last image, that is a bit of an outlier in the MoMA show.  Young Girl Eating a Bird is a grizzly image of a female figure biting into a bird, with blood covering her fingers and dripping down her lacy collar.  Behind her stands a tree with other exotic-looking birds, monochrome and improbably poised, like illustrations from a field guide.  One has the impression that each will be consumed one by one.  The girl has a doleful expression as if her feast were a tiresome obligation or mourning right.  This takes on special irony given the picture's subtitle: The Pleasure.  Here at last one might think we have found the surrealist in Magritte: the painting seems to be an essay in bizarre incongruity, an image taken from a nightmare, inexplicable and otherworldly. 

But there is another interpretation more in line with the themes adduced above.  Perhaps the activity of feeding on brightly colored exotic birds is a metaphor for seeing art.  We are encouraged to take pleasure in that aesthetic repast, but it can also be a mechanical activity, foisted on us by the demands of class identity.  Seeing itself can also be a brutal act.  As Magritte teaches, eyes can distort reality; eyes can even rape.  In this image, the violence of seeing may even be part of a subtle revenge plot.  Think of images like the one of the left, from a turn of the century crime magazine, which Magritte might have seen.  The world of things is a hostile place (Magritte's mother committed suicide).  Through paintings, we can regain a kind of control.  Paintings may cut us off from reality, but in doing so, they can also be empowering.  If this reading has any merit, Magritte has not given us a dreamscape here, but rather a further commentary on the function of images.  Where surrealists seek an alternate reality, Magritte keeps us firmly planted in the gallery, drawing attention to the nature of art itself.