The Schirn-Kunsthalle Frankfurt presents the first retrospective of Belgian Surrealist René Magritte in Germany since twenty years. The show curated by Didier Ottinger which could be visited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris before and had to be reduced slightly for the rooms at the Schirn presents more than 70 works by Magritte from all his creative periods. On display are paintings from public and private collections in Europe, Northern America and Australia.
The title of the exhibition La Trahison des Images, in English The Treachery of Images was adopted from the presumably most famous painting by Magritte, the image of a pipe, with the sentence written underneath “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe”. In this work the entire imagery by René Magritte, his philosophy of painting, is put in a nutshell. “Stupid as a painter” has been a saw in France and Belgium at the beginning of the 20th century, allegedly it had been spread by Marcel Duchamp, that other art-philosopher who was to revolutionize modern art. Painting was said to be a mere copy of reality and the image inferior to the word of poetry and philosophy, this mindset established since ancient times and supported by Hegel René Magritte didn’t want to accept without contradiction. In the debate with the poets of the Surrealist movement which had its origin in poetry Magritte attempted to prove that painting was equal to poetry. In order to liberate painting from its spiritual bonds René Magritte used irony as a superior sort of consciousness which scrutinizes the mystery of the world with its unfathomable absurdity in a humorous manner.
René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928
René Magritte was born in Lessines in the Walloon part of Belgium in 1898. His childhood was overshadowed by the tragic suicide of his mother who drowned herself in the river Sambre one night, when he was fourteen years old. When her body was retrieved from the water, her face was enveloped in her nightdress. This sight of the veiled face was to return in Magritte’s later work again and again, like in the picture The Lovers with two kissing lovers whose faces are enshrouded in a blanket. Also the collapse of a captive balloon onto the house of the family was an incisive experience which René Magritte kept picking up in his images. The suspension of gravity and the contradiction between the outer visible shell and its invisible content, as well as the apparent shape of objects as a bare transfer picture of reality became central themes in Magritte’s aesthetics.
His penchant for the mysterious was fed by the cinema, he was arrested by Fantômas, the master of disguise, but also by slapstick comedies with Laurel and Hardy. The somewhat ridiculous looking man with bowler hat who shows up on many of his images is the alter ego of René Magritte, emerged from the silent films of his youth and his bourgeois environment which he caricatured with subtle humour and made a fool of with pretended piety. Later in the 50s Magritte bought one of the first Super 8 Cameras and made little home movies for fun in which he satirized his imagery.
Wallonia, where Magritte grew up, was shaped by coal mining and the steel industry and hasn’t been a broad-minded place far away from the intellectual centre Brussels. The flat landscape was lacking points of interest and forced René Magritte early on to focus on his own inner imagination which he captured on canvas evoking cool spaces painted in the manner of the old masters in his later career.
The Lost Jockey marks the beginning of René Magritte’s Surrealist work.
In 1916 he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, but his enthusiasm was soon undermined by the conservative academic class. At the beginning of his artistic development René Magritte began to deal with Cubism and Futurism, until he got in contact with the group of the future Belgian Surrealists in Brussels and was given the decisive push for his own work by them: a reproduction of the Love Song by Giorgio de Chirico was an awakening for him just like other images by de Chirico had been for André Breton, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. After the incubation with Pittura Metafisica in 1925 René Magritte created his first surrealist painting, The Lost Jockey who was to rush through his absurd image spaces again and again later on. The Brussels Surrealist group was formed by E.L.T. Mesens, Paul Nougé and Camille Goemans with René Magritte as the leading figure and were in loose contact with the Surrealists in Paris around André Breton.
Magritte’s early pictures of the 20s, such as his large-sized painting The Secret Player are still narrative und committed to the exploration of the subconscious. A pulled back curtain opens the view onto a forest of giant chessmen, with two baseball players in action. Their movements appear frozen, because a match ball can’t be seen, instead there is a strange flying object which reminds of a black sea turtle without head. The object seems to float or to swim which submerges the scenery with the baseball players like into the water, it stands for the immersion into the own psyche. A woman is standing in a kind of opened cabinet with closed eyes and a surgical mask, as if she was dreaming and sentenced to silence.
René Magritte, The Secret Player, 1927
In order to earn a living Magritte painted flower patterns in a wallpaper factory and worked as a graphic designer in advertising which strongly influenced the development of his visual motifs. Both the oversized roses which are growing in his interiors and the symbiosis of word and image which is common in advertising became important subjects in the imagery by René Magritte. But he knew that he could make his way at the art market and live on painting only, if he settled in Paris. He sought a closer collaboration with the Surrealist group around André Breton, however, Magritte always has been anxious to keep his independence. A life as a Bohemien, as led by his friends in Paris, didn’t mean anything to René Magritte, instead he coquetted with his bourgeois lifestyle and his strong Walloon accent which revealed his provincial origin. He considered himself as a thinker who was disgusted by any affectations typical of artists. Therefore he did without a studio deliberately and preferred sitting in front of his easel in a suit in the dining room to paint.
Magritte detested travelling and didn’t like to visit exhibitions or museums. Even the Uffizi in Florence couldn’t arrest him for longer than 15 minutes, he didn’t want to see anything more than the Botticellis. When he didn’t paint, he played chess or occupied himself with philosophy, especially he preferred Heidegger, Hegel and Kant. The stories by Edgar Allan Poe fascinated him throughout his life.
A crucifix disrupted the friendship between René Magritte and André Breton.
Magritte’s bourgeois lifestyle was a thorn in the side of André Breton. In 1929 a quarrel with Breton who was a fundamentalist nonbeliever about Magritte’s wife Georgette wearing a necklace with a crucifix during a Surrealist meeting made them break their friendship. The relationship between Magritte and Breton remained difficult throughout their life despite their mutual appreciation, after a cautious rapprochement in 1943 there was another disrupture. With his manifesto Le Surréalisme en plein soleil – Surrealism in Full Sunlight Magritte sought to reform the sombre art of Surrealism using the colors of Impressionism, inspired by Auguste Renoir, which understandably challenged André Breton to an angry reaction.
René Magritte, The Harvest, 1943
Also his philosphical approach made him move away from the French Surrealist group. Surrealism, as it had been formulated by André Breton, was about psychic automatism and the magic of coincidence in order to reveal the hidden images of the subconscious by abandoning reason. However, René Magritte wasn’t a dreamer, but a thinker who sought to use logic in order to decipher the great mystery of existence whose absurdity can be encountered only with humour. Concerning this point Magritte was closer to the Dadaistic world view by Tristan Tzara or Francis Picabia than the depth psychological approach by André Breton.
What has been there first, the hen or the egg? In his image A Variation on Sadness with a hen being absorbed in contemplating an egg cup in front of a mountain in the evening light, he mystifies the viewer with the unanswerable enigma of the origin of life. René Magritte has always painted familiar objects of daily life which can be turned into their contrary meaning and create a paradoxical context nonwithstanding their banal appearance: the apple, the hat, the curtain, the cloud. To suppose a symbolism in his motifs was strictly rejected by him, in his view sensations, concepts and ideas could not be depicted.
René Magritte, A Variation on Sadness, 1957
His pictures painted in the manner of the old masters have an effect like advertising messages, with the implementation of words in the compositions being obvious due to his experience as a graphic designer. Often the pictorial space is broken up by blanks that got stuck like spots somewhere between the figurative and the abstract and cannot be associated with any object. Into these notional place holders there are written words of objects which aren’t connected with the other visible and familiar objects in the picture in any way and question the reality of them. The word gives the unpainted object a meaning, whereas the painted object evokes the word linked to it. Magritte declared that an object was not so attached to its name that there couldn’t be found another one that would suit it better. The complex relationship between language, real things and their images which the brain needs to bring into a logical order is disintegrated in a subversive way.
René Magritte, The Palace of Curtains III, 1928/29
“The art of painting is an art of thinking”.
The image of an object isn’t a real object yet, neither its description of it, by renaming them René Magritte destroys the viewer’s chain of associations and takes the depicted objects out of context. So to speak this represents the reverse Surrealist procedure by André Breton who stages the coincidental encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table in order to put things alien to their nature in a new context. The word image Ceci n’est pas une pipe became Magritte’s most famous creation, at the Schirn Frankfurt the English version This is not a Pipe of the motif executed in several variations is on display. The painted canvas pretends to depict reality which is an error, however, as it represents only the notion. The linguistic denotation of an object already implies its interpretation which, however, misses to come up to objective reality. This is not a Pipe isn’t only a questioning of human perception, but also a reaction to the phrase by his Surrealist friends André Breton and Paul Eluard who described poetry as follows: “La poesie est une pipe” – “Poetry is a Pipe”.
René Magritte, This is not a Pipe, 1935
Plato’s ancient Allegory of the Cave was consistently on René Magritte’s mind. Here Plato describes a group of people held captive in a cave, with the consequence that they can recognize objects only by their cast shadows which are projected onto the wall of the cave by a fire. Thus their understanding of the world is considerably limited and distorted. Therefore the vision of truth is the result of a limited sensory perception, which is able to capture only a section of reality. As a consequence the objectivity of a visual description in questioned generally. René Magritte has chosen the Allegory of the Cave as subject matter in his picture The Human Condition. Candle, flame, shadow, silhouette and image section are constantly recurring subjects in Magritte’s Platonic imagery.
The motif of the curtain is based on an ancient myth which was delivered by Pliny the Elder. This legend is about the mastership in illusionist painting which brings realism to such a perfection that the human eye is deceived. The painters Zeuxis and Parrhasios compete with each other about who is the better painter. Zeuxis presents a picture with grapes that are painted in such a realistic way that the birds come near to pick from them. Zeuxis considers himself to be victorious and pushes Parrhasios triumphantly to pull the curtain from his picture at last. But the curtain is painted, so deceptively real-looking, that Zeuxis is forced to acknowledge Parrhasios as winner, as he had been able to fool even the human eye.
René Magritte, The Human Condition, 1935
René Magritte, The Memoirs of a Saint, 1960
For René Magritte reality was just an illusion that concealed multiple truths.
René Magritte was in a constant exchange of ideas with the post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault about the discrepancy between the human perception of reality and the essence of reality. Foucault postulated language not to be just a narration of reality, but to create it. Magritte declared his art to be “the description of an absolute thought, that means a thought, the meaning of which remains so unrecognizable, as the one of the world”. The mystery of existence doesn’t include any concealed matter, its only meaning is the nonsense which emerges from it. This nonsense he seeks to express in equations that reveal the congruity between seeing and thinking. Throughout his life Magritte was denied the recognition by official representatives of philosophy, not before 1973, six years after his death, Michel Foucault dedicated his script Ceci n’est pas une pipe to him and appreciated his philosophical efforts.
Magritte’s ambition to see behind the curtain is expressed in the most impressive way in his picture-in-picture motifs. Often there is a painting on an easel which is congruent with the image section behind which is hidden by it. But is really behind the image what it seems to depict? The eye is easily settled with prefabricated truths, the truth could also be completely different, multiple realities could exist behind the illusion. The visible wasn’t the real for Magritte, for him the visible was abundant enough to shape the poetic, ambiguous language of the mystery of the invisible and the visible. Man never sees things the way as they are and the painter never depicts them the way as he sees them. Thus painting isn’t capable of illustrating reality, as the complex transmission of meanings between sender and receiver constantly distorts truth bit by bit.
René Magritte, The Anger of the Gods, 1960
René Magritte fixes the superimposed visual layers of reality in his images that way that the laws of logic are suspended and create an absurd multidimensional space. As a result, the immobility of the illustrated objects becomes obvious, as if time stood still. Even the galloping jockey seems to be frozen like a snapshot, and when Magritte places him on the roof of a (only seemingly) driving car, he will become a truly immobile object. This raises the question, if the mystery of the world is subject to a determinist principle, with a defined course of things and an only relative motion, depending on the position of the viewer. The material of objects is relative and exchangeable as well, since finally they appear fossilized and come to the irrevocable ending of a transforming process which makes them migrate through different states of matter. And what about death? “Let’s not talk about it…”, said René Magritte.
He challenges mystery again and again, by thwarting the order of things and the trust in the logic of the universe through sleights of hand. The seriousness Newton and Einstein showed in decoding the laws of physics is held up to ridicule. The inanimate is brought to life, incombustible things catch fire, gravity is suspended. In an endless metamorphosis parts are turned into the whole thing and vice versa, the leaf becomes the tree, content and shell are swapped, such as the shoe Magritte makes grow toes from it. Inside and outside cannot be discerned from anymore, if the viewer looks through a window into a room, he will see the façade he is standing in front of. Foreground and background are swapped, the visual references of the viewer are confounded, when a lady is riding through a forest and her horse is hidden by the gaps between the trees. Also the proportions are turned upside down, objects of daily life appear oversized, or is it maybe just the surrounding space that is shrinking?
René Magritte, The Red Model, 1935
René Magritte, The Blank Signature, 1965
René Magritte keeps the voyeuristic viewer at distance, his female nudes keep their secret.
The female nude plays a major role in the ouevre by René Magritte, he treats the woman with unobtrusive respect, like Aphrodite she radiates chaste eroticism. Her poses and complexion remind of ancient statues, possibly a reminiscence of Magritte’s role model Giorgio de Chirico. Her marmoreal immobility turns the woman into an unreachable and invulnerable object in the eyes of the voyeur by transfiguring her into a mythical figure. Explicit erotic hints always refer to fragments of the female body only, to attributes that are presented separately from the portrayed person. That’s way Magritte stays on an abstract level that doesn’t get too close to the personality of the woman and equates her with a goddess. She doesn’t give up her secret that the voyeuristic viewer had hoped for, thus becoming guilty.
René Magritte, The Marches of Summer, 1938
As calculated as Magritte’s image creations may be, their titles are all the more poetic. They always didn’t come about before the painting was finished and partly had to pass a complicated identification and examination stage. On some canvas back sides there are several titles crossed through, until finally the appropriate one was found. Also friends of René Magritte’s took part in the search for the right title which had to result in a poetic unity with the image. In doing so he beat the Surrealist poets at their own game, as the titles of his pictures are pure poetry.
In the era of fake news and alternative facts the work by René Magritte appears more relevant than ever. In the competition for dominating communication in the digital media images have outstripped words, a late satisfaction for the “stupid” painters the poets had looked down upon at the beginning of the 20th century. However, in a society that places appearance above reality and has legitimized lying as an instrument of the elites in their struggle for the preservation of power, it seems appropriate to mistrust images. They smack of treachery, the autonomous viewer is well-advised to question them and debunk their tricks, no matter, if they serve to cover up reality or to pretend non-existing aesthetics.
Reality is splitting up into more and more parallel universes independent from each other, if it will turn entirely into a surreality in the 21st century, the viewer should decide for the most poetic option at least. Once André Breton asked himself the rhetorical question “What is Surrealism?” and answered himself: “The cuckoo’s egg, that’s placed in the nest, with the complicity of René Magritte”.
10.02. – 05.06.17 Schirn-Kunsthalle Frankfurt