Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map


Rene Magritte





Images and Words



To sum up what we have ascertained so far, the painted image is no common reproduction, since it also depicts the person of the painter, his body, acquired through his way of viewing and technique of painting things, his eye and his hand. The painting does not deliver a means of identification, like a passport photograph; its intention is to draw attention, not to the external reality as such but rather to the unfathomable mystery behind this reality. In Magritte's output, the painted image is always the image of a thought and, as such, the painter demands that it reflect its inherent condition as an image. It is never a simple reproduction of appearances, in the sense of a visual illusion, intended to represent reality.

A painted pipe, as in the work The Treachery of Images, cannot be smoked. Accordingly, the painted pipe is no pipe, in the same way as other pictures by Magritte contain no apple, no woman, no wood and no hammer. The work reveals the inner distance to that which is visible, that space in which the art of painting can develop. One feels something like the impotence, the limitations, of painting, since its basic structure and fundamental nature mean that it is separated from reality, from its model. At the same time, however, this separation is the characteristic of a power that is surreal, magical, quite other in nature, namely the ability to betray reality, to allow a rock to hover in mid-air, or to depict an apple that fills the entire space of a room (The Listening-Room). It is the power to render visible the distance separating the picture from its model. Painting works in conjunction with the visible, functioning within the visible, never outside of it.

The Human Condition

Reality and reproduction mingle in Magritte' picture.
The work on the easel continues the view of sea and beach almost seamlessly.

La condicion humana


Euclidean Walks

The Pipe

Words also belong to the realm of what is visible, however, an aspect which in no way escaped Magritte's poetic astuteness. Only an abstract relationship exists between the "idea" of a horse and the creature known to everyone, for example. Expressed more precisely, this idea has of itself nothing of a horselike quality. Like images, words also play with the difference between their linguistic nature and the things to which it is intended that they should refer. The written words "the Seine", for example, take us in our thoughts to Paris; this is no real process, however, but merely an abstract one. We can thus speak in this case of a certain impotence of words compared with objects. At the same time, however, we discover in them an enormous power, a striking ability to be deceitful. Words are capable of such mendacious claims as "I am on the moon". Magritte's attention was lastingly occupied with and fascinated by this poetic capacity of language. On the canvas, painted words - not as descriptions but as parts of the picture - can release their powers of differentiation, as may be seen in Dangerous Liaisons, not only in the mirror but also in the body and its fragmentation through the portrayal within the picture. We can compare here The Two Mysteries, or The Interpretation of Dreams. An indefinable, mysterious space exists between the words and the objects - as between the images and their objects. When Magritte paints words or whole sentences, he is combining the differentiating power of that which can be read with the differentiating power of that which can be seen. In showing the respective freedom available to each of these two, in playing with the freedom offered by the two freedoms, so to speak, Magritte - like Borges - is undermining the common foundation through which they can mutually identify and communicate with each other. He is allowing a difference to develop between the differences, a separation between words and pictures, instead of leading us to believe that the surreal nature of the pictures and the words is identical with their real nature. Identities become unstable under the subversive touch of Magritte's genius; they are rendered fragile, begin to dissolve.

The Two Mysteries

The representation of a pipe is no pipe - an apparently succinct and banal conclusion which nevertheless
conceals all the more the mundane mystery to which Magritte refers again and again:
neither the word nor the picture of the object can assure us that the object really exists.

The Pipe

This is the only picture in which Magritte experimented with the application of paint.
Instead of using a thin coat, he applied the green paint so thickly that it stands out three-dimensionally from the canvas.
Despite the relief-like tangible nature which this gives the pipeform, however, it is still no pipe.

The Mask of Lightning

The Interpretation of Dreams (The Acacia, The Moon, The Snow, The Ceiling, The Storm, The Desert)

Magritte's combination of objects and labels could be understood as an infiltration of the existing order,
one which can and should prompt quite unexpected associations.

El museo de una noche


The Empty Mask

"The words which serve to characterize two different objects do not of themselves reveal
what it is that distinguishes one of the objects from the other."
  Rene Magritte

La clave de los suenos


El hombre del periodico


The course of development followed by his work proves that Magritte remained true to his principle, precisely depicting this distance between that which can be seen and that which can be read. It was never his intention to conceal the difference. Such a kind of common sense can plunge pure realists and humourless souls into confusion; however, it captivates those prepared to be drawn into poetry and intellectual involvement. The Explanation is simple. What Magritte is producing with the aid of a carrot and a bottle takes place merely within a surreal picture; it seeks to conjure up not the identity of two realities but the very impossibility of their synthesis. The same is true of another work: Magritte could have portrayed The Art of Conversation in his picture by means of an ugly balloon containing the characters' conversation, as in a comic magazine. Yet he has done without this, and so we are left in the dark as to what they are saying. The shape resulting from the appearance of the blocks of stone, however, piled up on top of and within each other, is such as to allow letters to emerge from the confused and unreadable jumble, forming the word "Reve" (dream). In other words, Magritte is not concerned with constructing through images and words an apparatus intended to capture reality and put a vice-like hold upon it through the alliance of two complementary systems. Rather, he makes use of the inner distance to the words and the outer distance to the images to cause a mystery to appear, a wide-awake, perceptive dream, that untouched, mysterious difference, original thought.

The Explanation

A painted bottle and a carrot are united to form a new, surreal signifier.

The Art of Conversation

 "... within a landscape from the beginning of the world or from the battle of the giants against the gods,
two tiny figures are speaking with each other - an inaudible conversation, mere murmuring,
instantly swallowed up by the silence of the stones, the silence of the wall,
the mighty blocks of which tower over the two mute chatterers..."  
Michel Foucault

La perspectiva amorosa


La perspectiva amorosa


La cuerda sensible


Personal Values


La facultad imaginativa


La escala del fuego


In so doing, Magritte is negating the traditional manner of depiction, and the observer finds himself wondering how anyone could ever have considered the picture of a pipe to be the pipe itself. Those people who hold that there is a correspondence between words or images and the objects themselves are doubtless those same people who believe nowadays in the veracity of the information provided by television and uncritically allow themselves to be impressed by a totalitarian propaganda disseminated under the cloak of freedom of information. When the Italian state sought to use the picture The Flavour of Tears for its perfidious anti-smoking campaign, Georgette Magritte refused, pointing out that her husband "had not painted the picture with the intention of hindering people from smoking". The seductive effect of his works, in which dream, thought, bodily desires and aspirations are so often united, has presented market-orientated plagiarists with an inexhaustible "treasure trove" into which they have dipped with neither restraint nor scruple in order that they might better further the sales of some product or other. Pictures by the painter of the metaphysical and the surreal have so often been copied and exploited for primitive, exclusively commercial purposes that one sometimes has the direct impression that he took modern reality as the model for his work. Magritte's poetic world seems to have anticipated the world of today, in which journalists are confused with men of letters and foolish daubers with painters.

The Flavour of Tears

"The sight of a felled tree simultaneously causes pleasure and gives rise to sadness."
  Rene Magritte

The Oasis

The Philosophical Lamp

This combination of snake-like candle of cognition and Magritte-resembling head, the latter seemingly smoking itself in the pipe, has the effect of an ironic replica of the light which one is said to see when engaged in deep thought.

"Consideration of a manic, absent-minded philosopher can prompt thoughts of a self-contained intellectual world, in the same way that the smoker here is the prisoner of his pipe."

Rene Magritte

The Philosophical Lamp illuminates two absurd sights, the first a closed circle of smoke with mouth, pipe, and nose constituting a single entity, the second formed by the candle, the wax of which, while soft and already melted at its lower end, is increasingly firm towards the burning wick, towards the light. The subversive humour with which Magritte destroys what one might suppose to be the most reliable certainties finds unusually clear expression in this picture. After the fashion of Dada, in the spirit of the Marx brothers or even in the spirit of true philosophy, he had no time for the presentation of objects or ideas in such a manner as to suggest they were inaccessible to any form of analysis, above thought, and entrenched behind Utopias and principles. His intention was merely to undermine the foundation of things, to question quite seriously that which is serious itself, as simply as possible, without any great fuss, harmlessly and almost anonymously. He overloaded the visible manifestation of the object to such an extent that it became more than obvious, thereby enabling its very own innermost mystery, its deceptive charms and seducing powers, to develop out of its own self. In using images and words in his function as a painter, he was bringing the appalling banality of things to light, turning the most common and everyday situations with which people are confronted into their opposite - and this in every moment, so to speak.

The Familiar Objects

Everything which is good is also simple - a viewpoint that also holds true for Magritte's art. He possessed the talent to slip between objects and their depiction, but also between pictures and words, between the threedimensional form of the figures and the graphic appearance of the letters. It is here that Magritte subtly and maliciously misleads the observer, making use of the freedom that painting offers to allow the very lack of relationship between what can be seen and what can be read, between seeing and reading, constantly to prevail. Furthermore, he turns this negation of a relationship inside out, rendering it a positive force, subversive poetics, one in the position to unsettle the imaginary itself. Most people, upon thinking of a mermaid, imagine a figure with a woman's upper body and the tail of a fish below. If this conception is turned on its head, if someone paints a fish-woman instead of a woman-fish, one might think this no great step, since we are anyway moving here in the realm of the unreal, in the sphere of the imagination. And yet the observer is quite clearly confronted in Collective Invention - in contrast to that which is called collective imagination - with an unreal situation, one which strikes and confuses in a different way to customary unreality or pure fantasy. Magritte is no visionary, no dreamer; he is an inventor, a thinker. He does not seek to lead us into some other, distant world. Rather, he would shed light upon the incoherence that is common to our habitual ways of thinking, be they imaginary and unconscious, as in the case of the mermaid, or more conscious and more symbolic, as with The Interpretation of Dreams, a work which separates images and words very clearly, thereby confronting the observer's intellect with the arbitrary nature of our signs and codes. His relentlessness has a frightening element to it: according to Magritte himself, the act of painting Pleasure was accompanied by a not altogether harmless tendency towards mental cruelty. It is quite possible that this aspect disturbs. Is the painter not preferring an artificial, abstract universe to life as he has experienced it? A world in which life is invented, is inorganic, is populated by new, strange creatures: the body of a leaf-bird, being devoured by a caterpillar (The Flavour of Tears), or a young girl biting with bared teeth into a living bird, surrounded by other birds, apparently further candidates awaiting the same fate - if not impatiently, then at least with a certain fearlessness and stupid curiosity? The cruel art of painting can reveal the full mysterious force of objects, describe the lightness of a dream with the aid of mighty boulders (The Art of Conversation), or concentrate the history of centuries in the depiction of two chairs, one of them of gigantic proportions and in existence since time immemorial, the other modern in style and minute in size... (The Legend of the Centuries).

Collective Invention

A back-to-front mermaid lying stranded upon the seashore - not with the tail of a fish and a woman's upper body,
as we normally encounter her in fairytales and myths, but with the head of a fish and a human lower body.


Magritte has intensified his pictorial pleasure from confusion to shocking depiction:
here we are confronted with a girl in a white lace collar who, enjoying a sheltered upbringing,
is holding a bird in her hands, into which she is apparently quite composedly biting, as the blood runs down.
The idea behind the picture is not so much the cruel element in children as the desire for what is unbelievable.

The Legend of the Centuries

Homage to the lack of moderation displayed by Victor Hugo, who wrote his work with the intention of rivalling the Bible,
wishing to record the history of Paradise Lost up to the twentieth century and beyond...


La ira de los dioses


The Man of the Sea

The shadow and his shadows, 1932

Far from being concerned with establishing a hierarchical relationship between model and reproduction, a relationship in which the one should be equivalent to the other, Magritte is instead playing a game of differences, not only those between sequences of writing and images, but also quite fundamentally the difference in the realm of the visible, pulling out all the stops and setting in motion the proliferating endlessness of every trick and every illusion. Two chairs suffice to establish a series; a small difference suffices to stage the whole infinite game of the differences between the differences. This game takes over the entire area of the picture, so as to reduce it to what it is, namely an abstract reality, "something in the mind", according to Duchamp, "nothing but visible thought", as Magritte would say. Both artists share the view that the painted work cannot be separated from thought, that there not only is a knowledge existing in the gesture of the painter but that this knowledge goes beyond the technical level of the work, actively penetrating the innermost layers of the aesthetic. The painter's knowledge is not merely simple technical ability, but is also an intellectual ability: in other words, it contains a moment of reflection.

Le siecle des lumieres

Magritte, with Vincy and Duchamp, believed that every image has a sense, a meaning; thus, a work cannot be reduced to the mere arrangement of materials. The material basis creates an immaterial effect which, while it cannot be reduced to the techniques employed, cannot be separated from them either. This effect cannot come about outside of or without the techniques. The meaning of the work, its aesthetic effect, bears the trait of the "as if; that is, its meaning emerges through its effect upon the body and intellect of the observer. For his part, however, the observer is compelled, if he is to experience the effect, to grasp the difference between the technical level, which is the basis of the work, and the aesthetic level. Even if thought - a matter of words and concepts - is of its very nature invisible, the fact remains that, within the context of painting, the invisible - meaning - falls in upon itself in that moment in which the visible disappears. The art of painting expresses the invisible by means of the visible, thoughts by means of images. People have often abstractly theorized about this form of articulation. Magritte's genius doubtless lies in the fact that he concretely reflected it, made it the subject of his pictures themselves. If he is to imagine the difference between what is visible and what is thought in his painting, the painter must render these thoughts visible, must render them so that they can be perceived by the eye. It is for this reason that Magritte introduced words into his pictures, uniting that which can be seen and that which can be read on one and the same surface.

The Ignorant Fairy


La memoria


La memoria


The Art of living

A Little of the Bandits' Soul





The Reckless Sleeper

Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy