Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 15

N09596

MAGRITTES POETICS AND SURREALISM


1. THE INTERNAL MODEL
Magrittes paintings share some features which clearly distinguish them from other
contemporary artists creations. Having taken a look at some of his most famous works, it is
not difficult to identify his authorship in any given exhibition, even among surrealists. The
singular plastic technique usually does not achieve this prominent position of the artist
without the collaboration of other factors which participate in the work as deeper forces.
Magrittes art remained fairly consistent throughout his career and it is evident that his early
as well as his late works are conceived under the same convictions. The dominant spirit that
prevails in most of Magrittes creations can be easily associated with some general principles
expressed by Breton in his Manifesto of Surrealism. In addition, Magritte left a significant
amount of writings, articles, letters and interviews which confirm verbally his affinity at
some level with several of Bretons ideas.
In his 1928 essay Surrealism and Painting Breton expresses a particularly bold statement:
The plastic work of art will either refer to a purely internal model or will cease to exist 1. As
well as a symptom of historical awareness (the development of photography and cinema
would modify necessarily the scope of visual arts) this sentence could be taken as a succinct
description of character of the whole realm of art in the 20 th century. This tendency to
establish a rejection of mimetic art, to portray a non-visible or non-possible state of matter
would surpass greatly the boundaries of surrealism as a movement. Magritte brought into
action this sort of commandment in a very assertive way.
The internal model mentioned by Breton corresponds to what Magritte calls repeatedly in his
writings thought. The thought, the intended representation of thought, occupies a fundamental
1 Andr Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. by Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA
Publications, 2002), p. 4.

N09596

role in Magrittes aesthetics and in his fragmented attempts of theorization. Magrittes


conception of art starts from the notion of epistemology which states that there should be a
subject in order to perceive an object as such. The eye can view the object, the picture, but it
would not mean anything without the intervention of thought. The viewing of a painting with
no action of thought would not be an aesthetic experience. An image requires the interaction
with thought in order to claim spiritual value 2. As the image, the envisaged work of art, is
inextricably fastened to thought in the reception process, the creation act should involve
thought in the same degree. The thought behind the work of art is the origin of its possible
value; the technique is just a complementary component.
This veneration of thought present in many of Magrittes writings could be seen as something
entirely opposite of the main themes of the Surrealist Manifesto. Breton insists on the idea of
escaping the reign of logic to accomplish a more elevated experience of life. Art should avoid
at all cost following the trite and sterile path of rationalism. Logic leads to an emasculated
tendency in art: realism.
It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces
back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to emerge. It too leans for
support on what is most immediately expedient, and it is protected by the sentinels of
common sense.

Nevertheless, the form of thought which Magritte refers to is not exactly this unit of onedirection rationalism. Magritte often relates thought with his very own concept: La
Ressemblance.
La ressemblance sidentifie lacte essentiel de la pense: celui de ressembler. La pense
ressemble en devenant ce que le monde lui offre et en restituant ce qui lui est offert au
2 Ren Magritte, crits Complets, ed. by Andr Blavier ([Paris]: Flammarion,
2001), p. 374.

N09596
mystre sans lequel il ny aurait aucune possibilit de monde, ni aucune possibilit de
pense.3

The Ressemblance is a function of thought which has some attributes in common with the
intuition of epistemology systems. It is spontaneous in nature and determines the basic
apprehension of the world. But this communication with the world does not imply its rational
explanation. On the contrary, it leaves much of the sensations unexplained and the thought is
in the immediate obligation of tracing obscure links between the constituent objects of the
reality which the intellectual activity tries to interpret.
In consequence, Magritte builds his artistic domain from the gaps remaining in the
intersections between thought and the visible world. The articulation of these two entities is
impossible unless the faculty of comparing were active at a tangible extent. The connections
between dissimilar objects are not arbitrary or artificial, according to Magritte. There is a
mystery beneath the visible world and its network of coincidences. However, this mystery
cannot be explained explicitly: the painting is a possible manifestation of this mystery. The
mystery, when portrayed adequately, allows the expression of poetry, the unique purpose of
the aesthetic act.
Surrealism was not unfamiliar to the idea of a mysterious realm which should be elevated to
the category of art. But Breton and the signers of the Manifesto identified the mysterious
forces present in life with the unconscious, as it had been discovered and depicted by Freud.
On the other side, Magritte expressed in several occasions his negative view of
psychoanalysis, at least in relation with the sphere of artistic creation, e.g:

3 Magritte, p. 518.

N09596
La psychoanalyse est un systme trs intelligent. Mais elle nest quune interprtation parmi
dautres. Elle donne une valeur de symbole aux choses reprsentes, aux objets choisis par
lartiste. Moi, je pense quun nuage dans un tableau nest rien de plus quun nuage. 4

If the surrealists intended to bring into artistic manufacture the concrete images of the
unconscious and the dreams, the results could have been a code of symbols. In the Manifesto
the recommended operation (automatic writing) might deliver a decipherable outcome which
psychoanalysis mythology could elucidate. It has to be noted, though, that the poetry, the
literary creation, was supposed to be the artistic execution which could comply more
adequately the surrealist principles. It was even debated whether surrealist painting was
possible at all. Even though dreams cannot be painted, surrealist painting enjoys a much
livelier attention today than surrealist literature.
Magritte understands that symbolism is just a set of conventions which does not belong to the
artistic standards that he endeavours to achieve. The mystery behind a symbolist painting is
meant to be deciphered whereas the mystery he puts on canvas rejects exegetic approaches.
Marcel Paquet affirms the following in relation to the attitude of the viewer sought by
Magritte:
It is only through such a meditative attitude that the observer can gain access to Magrittes
subtle game of enigmas. This does not mean, however, that it is possible to grasp this mystery
as one would a possession. Reflection merely enables one to sense the mystery; it does not
offer any concept, any formula, any key.5

The mystery cannot be revealed but it constitutes a condition for any contact with reality.
There is not a complete understanding of reality if there is not a consideration of a surplus
4 Magritte, p. 544.
5 Marcel Paquet, Magritte (Kln: Taschen, 2006), p. 41.

N09596

that is neither in darkness nor light. There is something beyond comprehension hidden
beneath everything visible. The space from where rational impulse cannot extract anything
solid. The mystery which seems to be inherent to existence and that cannot be registered by a
photographic camera.6
The major coincidence of Magritte and the surrealist theory lies in the urgency of the praxis
of an art whose objects do not belong to the visible world. Art must obey to internal states.
The external world is not rich enough by itself to justify an aesthetic attempt. The surrealists
closest to Breton ambitioned a radical obliteration of the world of the positivism:
In the domain of poetry, Lautramont, Rimbaud and Mallarm were the first to endow
the human mind with a quality that it had entirely lacked: I mean a real Insulation,
thanks to which the mind, on finding itself ideally withdrawn from everything, can
begin to occupy itself with its own life.7
Breton devised a way of writing which ideally would break any ties with the exterior world.
The only thing that matters is located deep inside the artist. Magritte, on the other hand,
thought that the mysterious world, expressed artistically in conjunction with elements of the
visible realm, could provide an insightful, poetic perspective of life as a totality. The
interaction of both domains is compulsory; they require each other to exist. In an interview
Magritte comments about Breton: Breton aime linconnu par linconnu, non pas un inconnu
envisag comme un objet de connaissance, ce qui le ramnerait quelque chose de connu.8

6 Magritte, p. 603.
7 Andr Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. by Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA
Publications, 2002), p. 4.

8 Magritte, p. 536.

N09596

Some of the most famous pictures by Magritte are those that seem realistic at a first glance
but, when observed with some more attention, the viewer is astonished to discover that
something important is missing or placed out of order. The dislocated component is often a
vital element of everyday experience that, because of its omnipresence, its existence can be
forgotten easily. For example, Magritte plays with the absence of gravity (Golconda, 1953;
The Voice of the Winds, 1928), the intrinsic union of day and light (The Empire of Lights,
1954; Gods Salon, 1948), opacity/transparency (Transfer, 1966; The Large Family, 1963)
and identity (The Two Mysteries, 1966; The Month of the Grape Harvest, 1959; and his
numerous paintings where the expected showing of a mans face is somehow eluded, i. e. The
Son of the Man, 1964). Randa Dubnick says that these operations which maintain the
appearance of reality while changing its laws gives Magritte a special place among
surrealists: Perhaps his images are so satisfying because by presenting ordinary objects
realistically portrayed while manipulating spatial relationships and by making the figurative
seem literal, Magritte more closely imitates the dream world than any other surrealist. 9 The
representation of the realm of dreams worshipped by the surrealists and considered by Breton
at least as relevant to life as the waking state would not be possible without a figurative
approach. Following Freuds theories as closely as the surrealists tells us that dreams material
is residual of waking life: there is no creation of new forms in dreams. The artistically
inspiring feature of dreams is the free, not slave of logical coherence, interaction of the
elements. Magritte endows his paintings the freedom only possible in thoughts and dreams.
But, unlike the abstract painters, Magritte populates his paintings with objects actually
present within the sensuous, intellectual or hallucinatory activity of the human. Only thought
can establish a limit for the possibilities of behaviour of the elements depicted in painting.
9 Randa Dubnick, Visible Poetry: Metaphor and Metonymy in the Paintings of
Ren Magritte, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 21, No. 3, Art and Literature, pp.
418-419.

N09596

2. LANGUAGE AND POETRY


The thought works in Magrittes poetics as an instrument to reveal the sense of what
otherwise could only be taken as an absurd and dissociated matter. Closely tied with the
thought comes language which has a particular importance in Magrittes works. Traditionally
the canvas is not the background of letters, words and sentences; writing belongs to another
means of expression. Several pictures by Magritte contain verbal references and probably the
most famous case is the picture titled The Two Mysteries (1966) which includes the sign
Ceci nest pas une pipe. This painting is the origin of a well-known essay by Foucault. The
signs indicate the artificiality of the art and emit a decided statement against realistic
pretentiousness. The pipe portrayed twice on the canvas is certainly not a pipe. The pipes of
the painting only have in common with a pipe the shape. Similarities of shape, function or
appearance are found easily in the contact of the subject with the world. These relations may
be accidental but they are often the origin of a metaphor. The place occupied by metaphors
and similar kinds of tropes is extremely important in any history or theory of art.
Metaphor and metonymy are present throughout the works of Magritte. Although these terms
are normally related to literature, Magritte was able to render visible these abstractions. The
obsession in Magrittes pictures of exploring unseen affinities between heterogeneous objects
has been a fertile field of metaphors which are a sort of hybridation of visual and literary arts.
The metaphor, according to Roman Jakobson, occurs when there is a relation of similarity or
contrast between the compared objects, whereas the metonymy takes place when there is a
relation of contiguity. According to Jakobson A salient example from the history of painting
is the manifestly metonymical orientation of cubism, where the object is transformed into a
set of synecdoches; the surrealist painters responded with a patently metaphorical attitude10

10 Quoted in Dubnick, p. 408.

N09596

In Bretons opinion there is not such a clear difference between cubism and surrealism.
According to him the cubist label is not suitable for Picasso and Braque11 and these two artists
are among the most praised by the author of the Surrealist Manifesto. However, under
Jakobsons point of view cubism relies in metonymy and not in the resemblances that
Magritte exploits.
Magritte utilizes both resources at a similar extent. The juxtaposition was a technique
suggested by Breton in the Manifesto where he quotes Reverdy12 as his predecessor. This
aspect marks one of the most visible coincidences in a formal level between Magritte and the
surrealism theorized. The seemingly arbitrary juxtaposition of objects that belong to very
dissimilar contexts is one of the most striking features of Magrittes pictures. For instance, the
apple which can appear as a gravity-free obstacle hiding the face of the man in The Son of
Man (1964), on the floor interrupting the harmony in Beautiful World (1962), or occupying a
whole room in The Listening-Room (1958). The objects usually emerge in a familiar,
unadulterated manner but the random contexts determine their originality. According to
surrealist principles, randomness and chance are elements which should have an active
participation in the genesis of art. It is not possible to know the measure of the intervention of
randomness and deliberated representation of discoveries in Magritte. Also, it is worth noting
the frequency of appearance of eggs in Magrittes paintings (Elective affinities, 1933; The
Interpretation of dreams, 1930). It must be remembered that the egg is the central symbol of
the surrealist novel Story of the eye by Georges Bataille. The multiple atmospheres created
with the same recurring objects allows us to understand better the mystery of the visible
world; the one-functional object which we deal with everyday becomes extremely flexible
and rich when is incorporated in the works of Magritte.
11 Breton, p. 7.
12 Andr Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism.

N09596

In the picture named Perspective II: Manets Balcony (1950) the metaphor appears as coffins
occupy the place that, in a more traditional manner of assuming the motif, would have been
filled with humans. The inner harmony of the coffins, their position and the bending of the
one of the front produce a sort of humanization of the scene. The coffins are represented in
comparison to humans and this is where la ressemblance has performed his act of
expressing poetry. In the painting named Collective Invention (1934), which shows a
mermaid inverted, head of a fish and legs of a woman, it is through metonymy that the
associations are made. There is a displacement of attributes and functions and the resulting
figure is completely different from what is expected of the mythological being.
The titles of Magrittes pictures constitute also a distinctive trait and indicate another layer of
the relation between language and visual expression. The first instinct of the unprepared
viewer of a Magrittes painting concerning the possible interpretation of the work may be to
look towards the seemingly eloquent title. The titles of the Magrittes paintings do not work
as keys to reveal their arcane meaning but rather as verbal sparks capable of igniting a more
comprehensive aesthetical experience. They form a whole with the painting and provoke a
rational approach. The viewing process, which contains necessarily the thought, feels
immediately the need to relate the verbal component with the pictorial matter. The distant
relation between the objects juxtaposed in the picture begins to lose his apparent randomness.
For example, the famous painting Hegels Holiday (1958) (the title has contributed in its
popularity) proposes a way of seeing philosophical-dialectic. In reality, the subject of this
painting is not that complex: two objects useful as water controlling instruments, a glass and
an umbrella (one as container, the other as repellent), are together. The glass occupies the
place that should correspond to the rain, the logical correlative of the umbrella. Magritte

N09596

imagined that Hegel would be amused with such simultaneity and interaction, hence the title
of the painting.13
Foucault thinks that the complex of words in which the pictorial works of Magritte are
embedded deprives the visual realm of any solidity. The verbal element is even more
problematic than the visual and enlightens and darkens the pictorial outcome at the same
time: And yet in this split and drifting space, strange bonds are knit, there occur intrusions,
brusque and destructive invasions, avalanches of images into the milieu of words, and verbal
lightning flashes that streak and shatter the drawings14. The words present in Magrittes art,
whether actually painted on the canvas or just latent as a title contribute to build the mystery
and the poetry by discovering new affinities and new abysses. Magritte himself writes about
the nature of the titles as words that help to preserve the mysterious evocation intended by the
painting: Les titres des tableaux taient choisis de faon donner au spectateur une juste
mfiance envers la tendance mdiocre qui le pousserait se rassurer trop facilement.15
SEXUALITY
Magritte is the author of a series of pictures representing erotic and sexual images in a way
that confirm the aforementioned features of his aesthetic theory and the surrealist stance
concerning the subject. The core of the sexual vision portrayed in Magrittes paintings is the
female body which tends to overexpose its parts most related to sexuality and, especially, to
male sexual desire. Perhaps his most famous painting with sexual imagery is The Rape
(1934). This picture exhibits the feminine attributes superimposed on the womans face. The
13 Quoted in Dubnik, P. 14.
14 Michel Foucault, This is not a pipe, trans. and ed. by James Harkness
(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), p. 36.
15 Magritte, 143.

N09596

visual metaphors in this case are the eyes which become the breasts, the nose converted in the
navel and the mouth under the form of the pubis. Magritte seems to have taken to the extreme
the pictorial tradition of portraying the woman as an object for the pleasure of the viewer as
John Berger has interpreted the history of the nude in plastic arts 16. The female anatomy and
his effect on the beholders could be condensed in this rather subversive image, seems to think
Magritte, whose ideas on the matter have affinity with this statement of Berger: Presence for
a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical
emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura. 17 The rape works as a question mark on both
sides of the equation, the object and the viewer: the woman as a merely sexual object and the
man as a primordially lecherous creature. French artist and critic Ren Passeron describes this
painting in the following terms:
Love is approached via the face, and is fulfilled in the body. Hence the wonderful love which
superimposing upon the face of the trunk (the breasts look at you, the nose has atrophied into
the navel, the pubis/mouth seems distorted into a tormented grimace), far from being the
spiritualization of the corporeal, signifies rather the degradation to an object of sexual desire:
blinded, deaf and dumb.18

According to Berger, the classic artistic representation of the nude, since that biblical
description in the Genesis, required the willingness of the viewer and were addressed to his
pleasure in its conception: They became aware of being naked because, as a result of eating
the apple, each saw the other differently. Nakedness was created in the mind of the

16 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London, Penguin, 1972) p. 64.


17 Berger, p. 46
18 Quoted in Paquet, p. 51.

N09596

beholder.19 Magrittes approach seems to intend to involucrate the spectator more poignantly.
It is not about flattering him in a secretive manner but to reveal the dominant presence of
sexuality in his own mind.
Magritte and the surrealists consider that the subtle eroticism patent throughout classical
painting is the expression of an inhibited impulse. The erotic suggestions present in most
figurative art contain traces of hypocrisy. The sexual element has a prominent role in human
experience and its representations which try to evoke a distant, platonic, nature of it miss its
real strength and influence. The labour of removing the conventions surrounding the artistic
portrayal of sexuality requires a violent exhibition of the imagery which connects mind and
body in an erotic sense. Magrittes pictures representing the body naked tend to be very
fragmentary and offer a disrupted view of the human body: it does not function as an
organism. For instance in the series named Eternal Evidence (1930) each section displays a
part of the female body which could involve a sensual significance: face, breast, pubis and
two sections of the legs. A vertical montage of the pictures conform the frontal view of the
female body almost in its entirety. However, as presented as a non-continuum, each part
arouses the viewer in a different way. In The Acrobats Exercises (1928) the body parts are
shown dissociated and their sinuous forms induce a thought of coexistence of sensuality and
artistic-intellectual functions. The artistic suggestion is provided by the alien presence of the
tuba. The body fragments are portrayed as following a wavy, harmonic course. Again, the
breast and the pubis of the woman are without clothing. Intermission (1927/28) shows five
assemblages of an arm and a leg disposed in characteristically human states: the two central
figures are embraced.
The game of transparencies, things that hide or conceal in a non realistic manner, which
appear frequently in Magrittes pictures is relevant in some erotic-feminine paintings.
19 Berger, p. 48.

N09596

Philosophy in the Bedroom (1966) shows a hanged nightdress that displays ostensibly the
breast and the pubis of a woman over the zones that should serve to cover her. An indication
of the method used by Magritte to expresses the opposition of his aesthetical fundaments to
the vulgar functional world is to portray an object and to put it in a context that is contrary to
what the object in the visible world is useful.
---------------------------------This attitude of subversion against the visible world is what allows us to talk about the
adherence of Magritte to surrealism. Magritte proclaims this in ordered to be published in the
inaugural volume of a magazine called LInvention collective: Nous ne pouvons, nous
surralistes, cesser notra action qui nous oppose absolument aux mythes, aux ides, aux
sentiments et au comportement de ce monde equivoque.20Although Magritte declared in
numerous occasions his distance from Surrealism there was always a coincidence in spirit.
His detachment from surrealism as a movement is explained by circumstantial causes. For
instance, he considered surrealism had become exposed to Bretons whims and had entered a
path of propaganda and attention seeking21. Also, he felt an irreducible contempt for Dali, one
of the most representative painters of the movement.
Breton seems to admit that there is a difference of certain depth between Magrittes artistic
goals and his own objectives, which would become the directions of the whole movement:
Magrittes approach, which, far from being automatic was, on the contrary, perfectly
deliberate, offered support to surrealism from an entirely new direction. Alone in adopting
this particular method, Magritte approached painting as though it constituted a series of
object-lessons, and from this point of departure he has proceeded to put the visual image
20 Magritte, p. 135.
21 Magritte, p. 446.

N09596
systematically on trial, taking pleasure in stressing its lapses and in demonstrating the extent
to which it depends upon figures of language and thought. 22

The deliberate art of Magritte could be considered as a dissident of the Surrealisms set of
rules. But the thought which Magritte constantly mentions can be understood as a closer idea
to the intuition concept of many philosophical systems, than to rational, positivist thought
which according to Breton, were the procedures to avoid,.
The writings of Magritte abound in terms of the surrealist domain such as freedom,
marvellous, invisible, poetry. The reiterative use of these words indicates a strong
convergence of Magrittes and Bretons poetics.
The adjective surrealist has been broadly used in the history of art and it has permeated even
the context of popular culture. The range of artists who have been described as surrealists is
much wider than the group which identified itself as practitioners of surrealism by signing the
Manifestos. In Magritte, the surrealist label is not out of place.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972)
Breton, Andr, Surrealism and Painting, trans. by Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA
Publications, 2002)
------------, Surrealist Manifesto, < http://wikilivres.info/wiki/Surrealist_Manifesto>

22 Breton, 2002, p. 72.

N09596

Dubnick, Randa, Visible Poetry: Metaphor and Metonymy in the Paintings of Ren
Magritte, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 21, No. 3, Art and Literature (Summer, 1980), 407419.
Herding, Klaus, Ren Magritte and Surrealism The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 952
(1982), 468-471.
Magritte, Ren, 2001. crits Complets, ed. by Andr Blavier ([Paris]: Flammarion,
2001)