Richard's Blog

Part 2: Magritte's "Window" paintings 

Friday, March 13, 2009 10:29:48 PM


This blog is the second in the series featuring window paintings by Rene Magritte. Check out the article on the symbolism of window in art at the end of this blog. Here's the first window painting by Magritte, done in 1925, from Magritte's Cubo-Futurist period that ended around 1926.

The Window- 1925

Clearly the view outside is the only glimpse of reality that Magritte offers. He uses a curtain one of his iconic props from the stage and turns the foreground into geometric shapes with a bird being released.

The next window painting, one that uses the "broken glass" illusion, we'll examine is The Key to the Fields (1933):

Key to the Fields (La clef des champs) - 1936
Oil on canvas 80 x 60 cm

 "Anyone who looks for symbolic meanings in my paintings will not grasp the poetry and the mystery inherent in the image." For Magritte painting contained the mystery of poetry, the poetry of the incongruous. Although he was one of the major exponents of Surrealism, the Belgian artist deliberately avoided the world of the unconscious. Through the visual enigmas which he painted Magritte succeeded in creating a body of work of great originality. Using simple images which are comprehensible in themselves and are painted in a realistic manner, he conveyed complex meanings by which spectator uncovers the most mysterious side of the everyday world.

The Key of the Fields (La clef des champs) was painted in 1936 when Magritte's work was already known on the international art scene. That year Alfred Barr included him in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), as a representative, along with Dalí and Tanguy, of Photographic Surrealism. In this work Magritte depicts a landscape framed by a broken window caused by some impact from outside. The shards of glass on the floor are painted with fragments of a landscape indentical to the one outside. In this way the painter seems to wish to reveal that what we saw through the window was not a real outside landscape, but rather an image painted on the glass, albeit identical to the landscape outside. The Key of the Fields was painted at the time Magritte was influenced by Lewis Carroll, substituting the mysterious Surrealist formulae for the meaningless laws of the world of Alice. Using the traditional device of the painting within the painting, in the manner of painted collages, Magritte entered into the world of absurd associations as Max Ernst had done earlier in his own collages.

As David Sylvester has pointed out in the catalogue raisonné of the artist (1992), Magritte aimed to raise questions regarding the problem of the representation of the image, and in this sense the present painting can be seen as the continuation of the problem of the window which he had already raised three years earlier in his painting The Human Condition. Jose Pierre analysed the relation between the two paintings in his study of the artist (1998), in which he wrote: "In La condition humaine I (1933), the painted landscape on the canvas on the easel exactly matches the landscape which it reproduces. So the question arises: if we take the canvas away, will there be a hole in the landscape? An indirect answer to this question is to be found in La clef des champs (1936): if a stone breaks the window, the reflected landscape smashes into fragments while outside the real landscape remains unchanged."

   Evening Falls

The painted landscape on broken glass shows that illusion and reality are one and the same. In other words, Magritte posed the problem of the window not only as an allusion to the Renaissance concept of the perspective of painting, but the window as the problem of representation of the exterior and the interior. "The main point was to eliminate the difference between what is seen from outside the window and what is seen from inside," Magritte wrote to Breton in 1934.

Christopher Green (1995) thought that the present painting also included the quintessential Surrealist theme of the mirror, thus the broken window would be an invitation for the spectator to enter inside it. Bearing in mind that for Breton the window and the mirror were images of freedom, and that in French la clef des champs colloquially means liberation, the window thus becomes the path to freedom.

       The Domain of Arnheim
The Domain of Arnheim, a principal work which exists in different versions on canvas and in gouache, emphasizes in another way the unreserved admiration which Magritte evinced for Edgar Allan Рое. The artist borrowed the title from Рое, depicting a mountain with the form of an eagle, while two bird's eggs in the foreground refer to the lightness of poetry, to the affinity of the latter's nature to that of air. In so doing, he was establishing a lasting monument to his greatest source of inspiration.

The story of "The Domain of Arnheim", by Edgar Allan Рое, the American writer, contains some passages with descriptions of landscapes and mountain ranges. Рое, renowned for his stories dealing with "that which is uncanny, gruesome, supernatural, in oppressive suspense", writes in this work: "... no such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce."

                          In Praise of Dialectics- 1936

"Window" by Julia Orell
Department of Art History; Winter 2003

The ordinary windows in our houses demarcate a pervious boundary between inside and outside, between private and public - this boundary can be crossed by looking through the window from either side. The transparent glass panes of the windows are vulnerable to both physical attacks and to the curious gaze of the passer-by or the person living across the street, and we try to prevent the look inside by putting up curtains. At the same time, we appreciate the sunlight falling through the windows, are ready to pay a higher price for a home with a nice view, and decorate our windows, thereby exemplifying the window above all as a place of the visual, and as a place of visual display (most obviously in the shop-window). This intimate relation between the window, seeing, and perception (cf. eye/gaze) has become part of everyday language: the eyes as windows to the soul (or heart, or mind) [1] point out the possibility of looking inside a person through the opening of his eyes, where an inner state is reflected; a window is called 'blind', when we cannot look through it; accordingly 'window-blinds' are used to cover the transparent window. While the actual window can be understood as mediating between spaces, and thus as a site of communication, it is mainly its metaphorical use for other (visual) media like painting, television, or computer interfaces that link it to media theories. Looking closer at these metaphors reveals that the seemingly familiar window might actually not be transparent, but rather concealing what is on its other side.

The notion of seeing is already implied in the term window itself , which derives from the Middle English vindauga, eye of the wind (vindr = wind + auga = eye) replacing the Old English eyethurl. In the Latin term fenestra (from which French, Italian, German and others derive their terms for window) notions of opening, showing, and light are implied. [2] In its most general definition a window is an "opening in a wall or a side of a building, ship or carriage, to admit light and air, or both, and to afford a view of what is outside or inside." [3] The window as an opening in a wall refers to an absence which can be filled - by a material (glass, wood, paper, stone), by that which is seen through it, or by something rather immaterial like light or air. If defined as an absence, the window becomes a frame for its variable content, a marker of difference between what is inside and outside.

As the window has been closely related to the visual, it was taken up as a metaphor in the realm of visual media, such as painting. In his treatise on painting, the 15th century architect, sculptor, painter, and theorist Leon Battista Alberti described painting as the construction of an image that resembles a window: "First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen;..." [4]. On this basis, Alberti formulated the method of one-point linear perspective, which marks a turning point in the development of naturalistic representation. The window could serve as such a convincing simile for painting, because of its formal resemblance, and, more importantly, because it enabled illusionist representation of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface by value of its transparency, thus denying the material surface of the canvas. Painting as a view through the window became an extension of the natural world, where the beholder's space and the picture space are meant to form a continuum, connected by the gaze of the beholder penetrating the 'transparent' canvas - an illusion depending on the construction of (and looking at) the painting from a single, stable point of view. This method was illustrated by Albrecht Dürer in his Instruction on Measurement (fig.1), where the draftsman is shown looking through a transparent screen with a grid on his model, while stabilizing his eye with the help of a stick  - this illustration also reveals the artificiality of linear perspective. [5]  Beside the transparent screen are two more windows shown in Dürer's woodcut opening onto a landscape outside the draftsman's room - they might be understood as another hint to the painting-as-window equation. Since the Renaissance, windows were frequently depicted and can often be understood as a painting-within-a-painting (or a window-within-a-window), reflecting on the nature of painting as a window, therefore functioning as a 'meta-picture.' This is still the case in the OEuvre of René Magritte, who employed the confrontation of a painted canvas with a (painted) view out of a window, such as in La Condition Humaine I (fig. 2), playing out the ambiguity of a painting within a painting and the painting-as-window, of inside and outside, and of perception itself: "The problem of the window led to The Human Condition . (...) Thus the tree depicted in the painting hid from view the tree situated behind it, outside the room. The tree existed for the spectator inside the room in the painting, and, simultaneously in his mind, outside, in the real landscape. That is how we see the world: we see it existing outside ourselves, and yet we have only a mental representation of it inside ourselves." [6] [see screen, (2)]

In architecture, windows have taken on all kinds of forms (rectangular, square, curved, pointed) and come with all sorts of decoration or framing (pillars, pilasters, pediments, sills). Besides their functional aspect of allowing light and air into the building, windows and their frames have been the most important structuring element of the facade, pointing out the inner structure of the building on its outside. But also the view to the outside has been carefully considered, for example when gardens and parks were designed at least partly to correspond with what could be seen of them from inside the house. Glass windows have only been widely used since the 15th century; before, they were seldom used in secular architecture but employed in Gothic churches, where the stained glass windows could penetrate the wall to such an extent that only a skeletal stone framework would be left to support them. The stained glass windows played a two-fold role: "The visible reality of a gothic church window can be defined as the specific treatment of an iconographic theme and as details of its 'style'; (...), but the visual reality of the same church window is first of all the mode of conceptualizing picture matter in the Middle Ages, so that the persons entering a cathedral perceived themselves as walking through light and colour: a mysterious colour, let in high above through the windows within a disparate network of hardly identifiable zones, which were conceived as holy... " [7]   (cf. Show & Tell on Stained Glass). Besides colour, transparency and reflection were the properties of glass most valued in architecture. Since the early twentieth century, windows have become larger in size -  a development that culminated in houses such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House (fig.3).  In this case, wall and window collapse into each other, the window is no longer a hole in the wall but the wall itself, thus merging interior and exterior. At the same time, the effect is that the interior of the house becomes a framed image when viewed from the outside, while the surrounding becomes a framed image when viewed from the inside. According to Beatriz Colomina, Le Corbusier was mainly interested in framing views with his horizontal windows (fig.4), which he understood "first of all (as) communication" [8]:  "The house is a system for taking pictures. What determines the nature of the picture is the window." [9]. Colomina further relates this interest of Le Corbusier to his engagement with the reality of mass media, where "the window in the age of mass communication provides us with one more flat image. The window is a screen." [10]

This relationship is also discussed by Lynn Spigel, who describes the coincidence of the big glass window  (called 'picture window') in postwar American architecture with the moving in of the television into domestic space. [11] Television has been called a 'window on the world,' [12] thus, similar to painting-as-window, the materiality of the TV screen and the technology producing a picture on it are denied, stressing the view on far away places within the living room. Both the big 'picture window' and the television screen, can be understood as creating a "spatial ambiguity between public and private space"; at the same time both were perceived as dangerous, because they could allow the view into the private. Though TV could not look back, this exact anxiety was a repeated issue in TV shows, magazines, and literature, such as in George Orwell's 1984. [13] The controlling gaze in relation to the glass window is also mentioned by Marshall McLuhan, who treats the whole house as a medium because it is one of the many 'extensions of man': "Not many ages ago, glass windows were unknown luxuries. With light control by glass came also a means of controlling the regularity of domestic routine, and steady application to crafts and trade without regard to cold or rain. The world was put in a frame." [14] But the transparency of glass could also take on a positive political connotation, such as in German post-war-architecture, where the transparency of glass stands for the transparency of the democratic government, which is still the case for the glass reconstruction of the dome of the former Reichstag in Berlin by Norman Foster (fig.5).

Recently, even more windows have appeared in our environment: on the computer screen we can open yet another 'window', looking 'through' the computer screen on several, sometimes overlapping windows, each presenting another document (a text, images, music files, websites etc.). The use of the term 'window' for a part of the computer screen is related to the development of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) [see graphic], which replaced the typing of keyboard commands with the mouse's pointing at icons, thus transforming our interaction with the computer from a text-based to an image-based 'language,' which is conceived to be more intuitive. The first attempts for the development of a GUI were made in the mid-1970s by Xerox, but the first commercial system which became popular was the Apple Macintosh in 1984.  One year later, Microsoft followed with the release of Windows 1.0 as an extension of its former DOS operating system. [15]  Different from painting or television, the window on the computer screen is less an illusion of looking through the screen onto the 'real world' but serves to hide the actual operations of a binary system; instead it contains the familiar old media of text and images. The form of screens has, in the last few years, approximated the form of older media, such as painting or the actual window. Television and computer screens have become increasingly flat, and can be hung on the wall. At the same time, attempts are being made to move away from graphic interfaces through introducing speech recognition and other forms of interaction.

The window as a concept has been, throughout the ages, related to the senses, especially to seeing and visual perception - apparently easy was its transfer from the 'old' medium of painting to the newer ones of television and the computer - but maybe the window, understood as a condition, or a model, for seeing and interacting with the world has also influenced how we give shape to these media.


1 The notion of  the 'eyes as the window to the psyche' goes back at least to a text by the Skeptic philosopher Sextus Empiricus (2nd century A.D), who might be citing an even earlier text. Cf. Carla Gottlieb. The Window in Art. From the Window of God to the Vanity of Man. A Survey of Window Symbolism in Western Painting (New York: Abaris, 1981), pp.49f.

2 Oxford English Dictionary Online 2003. entry on Window, and Alois Walde. Lateinisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg, 1910), p.282 for the etymology of the Latin fenestra.

3 Oxford English Dictionary Online 2003. Window

4 Leon Battista Alberti. On Painting and On Sculpture. The Latin texts of De Pictura and De Statua with a translation by Cecil Grayson (London: Phaidon, 1972), p.55. Beside the treatises on painting and sculpture, Alberti also wrote about architecture. The importance of Alberti's treatises lies in their theoretical nature, rather than being manuals or histories as most other texts on painting, sculpture, and architecture of his time.

5 The art historian Erwin Panofsky in his essay on perspective starts out by undermining the notion of naturalness of Renaissance's linear perspective, looking at it as a rather arbitrary form, and as being interdependent with much more general contemporary ideas, thus bringing it close to the notion of a 'style.' But in the end, although not corresponding with 'natural' perception, he asserts linear perspective's superior status. Cf. Erwin Panofsky. Perspective as Symbolic Form (New York: Zone Books 1997), originally published as Die Perspektive als Symbolische Form , in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg 1924-25 (Leipzig/Berlin, 1927) pp.258-330. Panofsky's essay is discussed for example by Christopher Wood in the Introduction to the English translation mentioned before, and by Hubert Damisch, L'Origine de la Perspective (Paris: Flammarion, 1987)

6 Carla Gottlieb. The Window in Art. From the Window of God to the Vanity of Man. A Survey of Window Symbolism in Western Painting (New York: Abaris, 1981), p.358. Cf. also Gablik, Suzi. magritte ( New York: Thames and Hudson, 1970), p.87.

7 Georges Didi-Huberman. Vor einem Bild (München/Wien: Carl Hanser 1990), p.38, my translation.

8 Beatriz Colomina. Privacy and Publicity:Modern Architecture as Mass Media. (Cambridge/MA: MIT Press, 1996), p.332.

9 Ibid., p.311.

10 Ibid., p.334.

11 Lynn Spigel. Make Room for TV. Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), p.102.

12 "A simple twist... a pull...a moment's wait... and then - abracadabra, the magic window opens on the world. This is television." Cf. Charles I. Coombs. Window on the World. The Story of Television Production. (Cleveland & New York: The World Publishing Company, 1965) , p.13.

13 Lynn Spigel. Make Room for TV. Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp.118f.

14 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (New York: Signet Books, 1964), p.121. A similar issue is discussed by Foucault in his description of Bentham's Panopticon, where power is exercised through the dissociation "see/being seen dyad". The Panopticon makes use of two different kind of windows: The windows back-lightning those to be seen and the windows used to look at them, without the possibility of them looking back. Cf. Michel Foucault. Surveillance and Punishment. The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977 ), pp.200-209.

15 For a history of the GUI cf. Computer History. (accessed February 21, 2003) and for a more Microsoft-orientated view of this history cf. Windows Operating Systems Family History: (accessed February 1, 2003)

Books: Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting and On Sculpture. The Latin texts of De Pictura and De Statua with a translation by Cecil Grayson. London: Phaidon, 1972

Colomina, Beatriz. Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media. Cambridge/MA: MIT Press, 1996

Computer History. (accessed February 21, 2003)

Coombs, Charles I. Window on the World. The Story of Television Production. Cleveland & New York: The World Publishing Company, 1965

Didi-Huberman, Georges. Vor einem Bild. München/Wien: Carl Hanser, 1990 (originally published as: Devant l'image. Questions posée aux fins d'une histoire de l'art. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1990)

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punishment. The Birth of the Prison (translated by Alan Sheridan). New York: Pantheon Books, 1977

Gablik, Suzi. magritte . New York: Thames and Hudson, 1970.

Gottlieb, Carla. From the Window of God to the Vanity of Man. A Survey of Window Symbolism in Western Painting. New York: Abaris, 198

Groves Dictionary of Art. Window, Glass, Lightning

Kultermann, Udo. Architecture in the 20 th Century. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993

Levine, Steven Z. "The Window Metaphor and Monet's Windows." Arts Magazine LVI/3 (November 1979), pp.98-103

McLuhan, Marshall: Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. New York: Signet Books, 1964

Myers, Brad A. A Brief History of Human Computer Interaction Technology. ACM interactions, vol.5, no.2, march 1998, pp.44-45 (also accessed February 21, 2003)

Oxford English Dictionary Online 2003. Window

Panofsky, Erwin. Perspective as Symbolic Form. (translated by Christopher Wood) New York: Zone Books 1997 (originally published as: Die Perspektive als Symbolische Form , in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg 1924-25. Leipzig and Berlin, 1927, pp.258-330

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV. Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992

Stromberg, Kyra. "The Window in the Picture - The Picture in the Window." Daidalos 13/1984, pp.54-63

The Window in Twentieth Century Art, exhibition catalogue Neuberger Museum, State University of New York/Purchase, 1987

Windows Operating Systems Family History: (accessed February 1 st 2003


Part 1: The Human Condition 1933 & 1935 with articles 

Friday, March 13, 2009 10:20:41 PM


The next series of blogs features article Magrittes painting within a painting series. These paintings typically use an eisel with a canvas in front of an open window. The first painting within a painting was the 1931 The Fair Captive (La Belle Captive) series followed by the 1933 The Human Condition (La condition humaine) series. In both series Magritte investigated the paradoxical relationship between a painted image and what it conceals. Magritte might have learned the theme from illustrations in A. Cassagne's Traité pratique de perspective (1873), a book used at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts when Magritte was a student there. Magritte did a similar type of investigation with windows. Sometimes the window is broken and image outside is also shattered. Let's look at Magritte's 1933 painting, The Human Condition:

         The Human Condition- 1933

This is how Magritte himself explained the painting, "The problem of the window let to La Condition Humane. In front of a window as seen from the interior of the room, I placed a painting (canvas and easel) that represented precisely the portion of landscape blotted out by the painting. For instance the tree represented in the painting displaced the tree behind the painting outside the room. For the viewer the tree was simultaneously inside the room, in the painting outside the room, in the real landscape, in thought."

Magritte continues, "Which is how we see the world, namely, outside of us; although having only one representation of it within us. Similarily we sometimes remember a past event as being in the present. Time and space lose meaning and our daily experience becomes paramount." [Reworded from a 1951 printing]

"This is how we see the world. We see it outside ourselves, and at the same time we only have a representation of it in ourselves. In the same way, we sometimes situate in the past that which is happening in the present. Time and space thus loose the vulgar meaning that only daily experience takes into account."

"Questions such as 'What does this picture mean, what does it represent?' are possible only if one is incapable of seeing a picture in all its truth, only if one automaically understands that a very precise image does not show precisely what it is. It's like believing that the implied meaning (if there is one?) is worth more than the overt meaning. There is no implied meaning in my paintings, despite the confusion that attributes symbolic meaning to my painting.

How can anyone enjoy interpreting symbols? They are 'substitutes' that are only useful to a mind that is incapable of knowing the things themselves. A devotee of interpretation cannot see a bird; he only sees it as a symbol. Although this manner of knowing the 'world' may be useful in treating mental illness, it would be silly to confuse it with a mind that can be applied to any kind of thinking at all." -excerpt from Magritte's letter to A. Chavee, Sept. 30, 1960

"I have a great idea (not earth shattering) about the naive question, 'What does this picture represent?' My idea is that the questioner sees what it represents, but he wonders what represents the picture, and faced with the difficulty of figuring it out from this direction, he finds it easier and more fitting to ask what the picture 'represents.'

What represents the picture are our ideas and feelings--in short, whoever is looking at the picture is representing what he sees. This idea is not, some say, within the realm of knowledge, so it won't help me protect myself when the occasion arises."--excerpt from Magritte's letter to Paul Colinet, 1957

Below is an abstract by Eric Wargo:

Infinite Recess: perspective and play in Magritte's La Condition Humaine
by Eric Wargo 

ABSTRACT: The paintings of Rene Magritte, with their unsettling of common-sense relationships among objects, images and words, have been compared by many critics to the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The 1933 painting La Condition Humaine, for instance, depicts a painting that exactly covers a 'real' landscape outside a window – thus raising questions about the 'location' of perception and thought. But Magritte's uncanny use of perspective, and his depictions of spaces that have ambiguous depth, suggest that an equally helpful interpretive framework to that of Wittgenstein may be that of psychoanalysis, particularly the object-relations theory of D.W. Winnicot and the latter's concept of 'transitional phenomena'. La Condition Humaine, for example, exemplifies how, by both negating and affirming the opacity of the picture plane, perspective transforms the painting into a transitional object that is both 'there' and 'not there' simultaneously. Many of the painter's works, his 'window' series in particular, suggest approaching Albertian perspective itself as a question of object-relating, the simultaneous search for autonomy and ontological security through play. An understanding of how Magritte's ambiguous spaces suggest both security as well as open-ended possibility can help to link his work not only with the traditions of Renaissance perspective and its modernist critics, but also with the aesthetic of the sublime and its iconography of colossal, indifferent nature. Sublimity may be interpreted psychoanalytically as nostalgia for the scale of childhood experience – for the world viewed as an enormous room in which small objects assume monumental physical and symbolic proportions.

Suzi Gablik in her books on Magritte affirms, “For example, The Human Condition I actually formulates the contradiction between three-dimensional space, which objects occupy in reality, and two dimensional space of the canvas used to represent it. The ambiguity in Magritte’s image suggests that something is irreconcilable in the confrontation between real space and spacial illusion. In this single image he has defined the whole complexity of modern art— a complexity which has lead to a devaluation of the imitation of nature as the basic premise of panting.”

                            Human Condition II- 1935

Here's an article about the second 1935 version: Magritte liked to pull the same stunt in several of his paintings. He painted the room, the ball on the floor, and the artist's easel realistically and then used an internal framing device (that of the painting on canvas being in perfect horizontal line with the horizon of the actual ocean) to deny that this latter item was an accurate representation of the ocean view. In these Ceci n'est pas works, Magritte seems to suggest that no matter how closely, through realism-art, we come to depicting an item accurately, we never do catch the item itself, per se, as a Kantian noumenon, but capture only an image on the canvas. We, as humans, are always striving to duplicate (connect with) what we see in reality (such as on canvas) and it's impossible to do so.

1947  Fair Captive (La Belle Captive) Another Series of Magritte's paintings within a painting

Magritte based a lot of his works on the concepts put forth by the philosopher Immanuel Kant and that is: "Humans can make sense out of phenomena in various ways, but can never directly know the noumena, the "things-in-themselves," the actual objects and dynamics of the natural world. In other words, our minds may attempt to correlate in useful ways, perhaps even closely accurate ways (such as through a painting), with the structure and order of the various aspects of the universe, but cannot know these "things-in-themselves"(noumena) directly."

                            The Delights of the Landscape


In so much of his work, Rene Magritte wittily plays with these perceptions by adressing the problem laterally. In the Human Condition II, Magritte exemplifies the contraditions between the three-dimensional space and the limits of a two-dimensional canvas. More importantly the title refers to the relationship that humans have with those contraditions as part of the “the human condition”. As such Magritte continues the process of questioning the assumptions of Renaissance ideas of painting being a ‘Window on reality’, which had already begun to be debunked by Picasso and Braque in their CUBIST ‘laboratory’. For Picasso ‘reality was in the painting’, replacing trompe-l’oeil for what he called trompe-l’esprit.

The Human Condition II, was a variant of a painting executed in 1933, in which he began to explore the ideas around the theme of inside and outside. In the first version the painted canvas is placed in front of a glazed window. The second version adds another playful twist to the original, by siggesting that the viewer is already outside, looking through a trompe-l’oeil archway.

         The Call of the Peaks  (
La Llama de la Cimas) 1943

Here's an article about an 1987 exhibiton, "The Window in 20-Century Art", that mentions Magitte's window painting Evening Falls:

By VIVIEN RAYNOR Published: Friday, January 2, 1987

On view at the Neuberger Museum of the State University of New York at Purchase, ''The Window in 20th-Century Art'' sounds like but is not an inventory. On the other hand, the project may well have started out that way, for it has the feel of an idea that grew and changed shape in the course of its realization.

Organized by the museum's director, Suzanne Delehanty, the show consists of about 80 paintings and sculptures, most of them done by Americans working in the second half of the century. Its range is, nevertheless, remarkable - from a small Vuillard, circa 1900, of a window looking out onto a garden, to a couple of Joseph Cornell boxes; from Edward Hopper's voyeuristic ''Night Windows'' to Marcel Duchamp's ''Fresh Widow,'' a miniature set of French windows with panes ''glazed'' in black leather that is a 1964 replica of the 1920 original.

There are windows reflected on the grass at night (Robert Berlind), and on a polished wood floor in the daytime(Sylvia Plimack Mangold); windows implied - a classic Mark Rothko - and a splashy blue rectangle on a white ground that was done by Gene Davis in his Abstract Expressionist period. Add to these, analogies for windows such as Roy Lichtenstein's painting of a stretcher frame, complete with wedges, and Eva Hesse's wash drawings of positive and negative grids.

With his ''Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even'' painted on glass, Duchamp shares - with Christo, who is represented by one of his 1960's storefront mockups - the prize for the most real window. Competing for ''most realistic'' window are the photographic painters Richard Estes and Don Eddy with, respectively, a row of telephone booths outside a glass and metal diner, and a store window crammed with awful shoes. The shoes seem to rivet the attention of Henry Geldzahler, whose 1968-69 portrait by David Hockney hangs opposite.

But they won't do so for long since it's obvious that the then-champion of Pop, who sits at the exact center of a voluptuous pink sofa with Manhattan visible through the dusty window behind him, is about to give audience to young Christopher Scott, who stands at attention to his left. Balthus's young woman seems ready to leave her room by way of the window, perhaps to elude the assailant who has bared one of her breasts. Magritte's green apple, on the other hand, has grown too large to escape its space -through either the window or the door that it is presumably obstructing.

A show that encompasses Robert Delaunay, Richard Diebenkorn, Neil Jenney, Ellsworth Kelly, Matisse, Robert Motherwell and Picasso, among others, it is essentially a survey of individualism, and as such resists grading. But as far as the theme is concerned, Magritte is the star with his ''Evening Falls.'' This is the famous canvas that would have been a picture of a sunset painted on a window, except that the window has been shattered. Accordingly, the simulacrum lies in pieces on the floor, while the original outside remains intact.

A verbal-visual pun that brings on intellectual vertigo if contemplated too long, the work is the anthology's clincher. Still, only those privy to the catalogue essays by the curator and by Shirley Neilsen Blum, who teaches art history at the state university, would know it and therefore realize that the exhibition actually stands for the denouement of a drama that began with the Renaissance. For it was then that the canvas was first treated as a window and that artists, intoxicated by the invention of perspective, painted the world as if they viewed it through a window. And, as Ms. Blum points out, it's a tidy little world with a place for everything, human and divine, and an abundance of windows, most of which frame peep shows replete with moral implications.

The canvas-as-window concept persisted until the late 19th century, but by the Baroque period, the windows depicted are less likely to enclose moral lessons than to be the sources of the light that illuminates morality, as in the work of Rembrandt and Zurbaran. Languishing during the 18th century, the image made a comeback during the romantic era, but its trail is hard to follow. Ms. Blum cites Caspar David Friedrich for treating the window as a kind of partition between the real and the ineffable, but doesn't comment on romantics such as Delacroix and Turner, who, more or less his contemporaries, seem to have ignored its significance altogether.

Their essays overlapping, the writers differ slightly as to the window's importance to the Impressionists and their successors. But they agree that while perspective, already moribund by the late 1800's, died well before World War I (its tyranny replaced by that of the artists, notes Ms. Blum), the window lives on.

The question is whether the device has any special significance today -with or without perspective. Not surprisingly, Ms. Delehanty says it has and, in her essay, charts the ups and downs of its survival in some detail, taking note of its rejection by some though not all of the Cubists, its transformation by Matisse, its rejection again by the Formalists and, finally, the acceptance it is currently enjoying. She also takes care of a myriad of loose ends, including those contemporaries who take the Renaissance tradition seriously and those who use it to ironic ends.

The historian who would impose order on chaos risks tortuousness, and Ms. Delehanty is no exception. There are moments when the reader is hard put to tell whether she is discussing the format or the object itself. More perplexing, though, is that both writers, having given the familiar story of disintegration a new twist, should resort to the convention of an upbeat ending, as if the very individualism that had caused the chaos will some day, somehow cure it.

A show that is as stimulating as the arguments for it, ''The Window'' closes at the Neuberger on Jan. 18. It then reopens at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum in April. Also of interest this week: John Alexander (Marlboro Gallery, 40 West 57th Street): John Alexander is a figurative Expressionist who keeps a foot in the Abstract Expressionist camp. Which is to say that his scenes - a banquet, a dance, a cockfight, tropical swamps inhabited by brightly colored birds and fish - are deliberately composed. And for all their apparent spontaneity, his impastoes of rich color are consciously and skillfully applied. The automatism is in the slanting lines with which the artist garnishes the finished work. In images such as the crucifixion - where the figure, a black man wearing little more than tribal markings, is surrounded by baboons similarly adorned - the mannerism works if only because the lines, despite the birds perched on them, suggest spears. It also heightens the menace of the dark woods filled with bogymen that are closing in on a white woman in full bridal fig. She appears not to have all her oars in the water, which may explain the scene's title, ''Waiting in the Wrong Woods.'' But in ''Christina's World,'' which features a black queen who, attired in sumptuous yellow robes, sits on a throne holding a green monkey on her lap, the lines are a tiresome distraction.

Alexander paints and draws animals with genuine affection, but, like Donald Roller Wilson, he also uses them to emphasize the satirical thrust of his figure compositions and frequently cartoons his black figures for the same purpose. Each of the black priests watching monkeys advance on the corpse of a white burgher-type man lying in state has the same all-purpose caricature for a face. The artist himself is black, and it is black subject-matter (if not always black subjects), animals and in particular the skull of a deer that have inspired the best paintings. (Through Saturday.) Justen Ladda (Museum of Modern Art): The third in the museum's Projects series, Justen Ladda's installation is titled ''Art, Fashion and Religion.'' Ladda is yet another young artist impelled to expose the self-evident - in this case, that consumerism makes the world go round. But visually, at least, he does so with a touch of humor.

Visitors enter the installation through a mazelike passage, the white walls of which are divided at waist height by a continuous band of Greek-key ornamentation made of wood painted black. Every few feet the frieze is interrupted by a frame containing a bunch of pale green grapes painted on a white ground. The bunch diminishes grape by grape until nothing is left but the black stalks - ''a souvenir of the act of eating,'' according to the brochure statement contributed by Wendy Weitman, who is assistant curator in the museum's department of prints and illustrated books.

By now, the spectator has reached the semicircular room containing the main attraction. This is a tableau deployed on a floor paved with asymmetrical wood crosses - chunky variations on the swastika, painted bright colors. The white walls are patterned with lines of regular crosses in black and are flanked with plain white columns. In the middle is Michelangelo's Pieta sprayed in gray over a pile of empty white cardboard boxes. Lurking between the columns, meanwhile, are female store-dummies clad in black or gold lame suits, and the whole scene is illuminated by spotlights and fluorescent bars of deep purple.

Once again, Miss Weitman comes to the rescue. ''The fast changing trends we have come to accept in fashion,'' she says, ''have become the norm in contemporary society's attitudes toward art and religion.''

The giant housefly that Ladda installed in an empty swimming pool for a 1982 show at Wave Hill may or may not have been a comment on what he calls ''belief systems.'' But the Museum of Modern Art production leaves no doubt that the artist is now one of a growing band intent on using Pop Art to didactic ends. It is enough to make survivors of the original Pop feel like old Regency rakes confronted by the dawn of the Victorian era. (Through Tuesday.)

Querelle des universaux 

Thursday, March 12, 2009 12:38:20 PM


This blog is one featuring a word and image painting of Rene Magritte.

René Magritte, Querelle des universaux, early 1928 Oil on canvas 53.5 x 72.5 cm

This painting is one of the first in the series of "alphabet paintings" or "word paintings" produced by Magritte in the course of his time in Paris from 1927 to 1930. These works form a basis for establishing a new relationship between words and painting, thus disclosing the ambiguity of the connections between real objects, their image and their name. This problem is also tackled by Magritte in "Les mots et les images" (Words and Images), an article published in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1927 and showing a picture comparing linguistic statements with illustrative vignettes. For example, the first sentence tells us that "an object is not so attached to its name that we cannot find another one that would suit it better".

The Querelle des universaux might well illustrate this other statement taken from the article: "sometimes the name of an object stands for an image". Indeed, the words "foliage", "horse", "mirror", "convoy", written on the canvas, replace the image they designate. Placed at the tip of the points of a mysterious star and each inscribed on a brown stain, "any form whatsoever that can replace the image of an object", these words play a full part in the spatial composition of a new fantasy image. This painting undoes the connection that we spontaneously establish between objects, images and words.


Strategies of Fame: The anonymous career of a Belgian surrealist  

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 10:13:28 PM

Here's an article by An Paenhuysen on the Belgium surrealists:

Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative     
Issue 12: Opening Peter Greenaway's Tulse Luper Suitcases
Strategies of Fame: The anonymous career of a Belgian surrealist  
Author: An Paenhuysen; Published: August 2005

Abstract (E): This article examines the often tenuous relationship between art and fame in the history of the Belgian surrealist avant-garde. The surrealist code of behaviour, and certainly the Belgian one, debunked fame and public recognition. Yet, the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte has become a star in both high and popular culture. He is even the only internationally known Belgian avant-gardist at all, thereby implicitly dissociated from the rest of the Belgian surrealist group. This paper seeks to place Magritte as international icon of avant-gardism in the 'local' Belgian context. The surrealist E.L.T. Mesens plays an important part in this success story. The focus is on the juggling of the avant-garde between the roles of artist, revolutionary, entrepreneur and art dealer.

Strategies of Fame
The portrait photographs and paintings that depict the Belgian surrealist group, are always composed and arranged in accordance to the conventions of the genre. These figurative depictions do not seem to reveal the avant-garde status of the protagonists. Quite the contrary, the pictures are mostly mere variations on a traditional, stereotypical family portrait. No new innovative techniques are used to picture the surrealist revolutionaries. Everyone wears his best Sunday clothes, the composition is ordinary and the depicted body language of the surrealists reveals a passive smiling person, free from obvious emotions. The hand gestures are restricted. At first sight, there is nothing surreal or extreme about the pictures. Nevertheless, the arrangement of the picture is not without purpose. This underlying purpose reflects the wants, thoughts and ideals of the Belgian surrealists. The composition, the fashioning, the gaze and the background - all has its share in expressing the meaning that the surrealist group portrait wants to convey.

An example of this may be found in the group portrait Drop of water, painted by the Belgian surrealist female artist Jane Graverol in the 1960s. The figures are shown in a very recognizable, realistic way. The reasons for which the people were brought together here do not offer much difficulty of interpretation. The elderly, mostly grey-haired men belong to the first surrealists of the interwar period. Only two youngsters in the front, seen from the back, and Jane Graverol herself belong to the post-war neo-avant-garde. The surrealists are clearly represented as a group. It seems to be a solid circle of friends who treat one another graciously and kindly. No one person seems to be the centre of attention and the leadership of a particular person is not obvious. The formal composition, moreover, underlines this group identity. The circle emphasizes a closed and even secretive entity, as if it had been looked at through a spy-hole. A sort of secretive society seems to be suggested with this scene. However, the Drop of water indicates as well that there can be a sea of other people around it who support the surrealistic project. The two unidentifiable figures in the background suggest a broader audience and constituency.

The Belgian surrealists never cast themselves as bohemian artists. As for the Drop of water by Graverol, they look as if they are attending an official reception. This impression is reinforced by the dapper clothing, which implies confidence, prosperity and control. The Parisian surrealists too followed this very respectable, elegant dress code.[1] The surrealists clearly did not view themselves as cheap revolutionaries. It may be as well that they are disguised as secret agents who use their subterfuge to infiltrate without detection into bourgeois reality, that they intend to form a 'counterculture' within bourgeois culture.

The self-display and the dress code of the Belgian surrealists refer through their theatrical form to the method of work used to carry out the surrealist revolution. In the first place there is the strong group identity that is used as a strategy in validating the project. The subversive action was to be carried out by teamwork. Secondly, the revolution was supposed to be carried out anonymously. The Belgian surrealists liked to call themselves 'accomplices'. Patrick Waldberg named them afterwards the 'Society of Mystery'. The strategy of anonymity did not allow public recognition. The anonymous tactic was instead a way to intervene in the bourgeois world without being corrupted by her rules and laws. An artistic career was rejected. Work, Name and Art had to lose their capital letters.

Take for example the person on the right of the picture Drop of water. It is indeed René Magritte. A lot of the poetic titles and even the subject matter of René Magritte's paintings were the result of creative collaboration, invented on discussion evenings together with his friends. He himself led a very typical life in a traditional middle-class household with a conventional interior that would not easily be distinguished from any of his neighbours' homes. His suits were standardized, his wife wore a necklace with a cross, and his dog was a toy keeshond.[2] While André Breton was the most significant figure, the anchor of the Parisian surrealist group, Magritte did not form the centre around which the Belgian surrealists revolved. Yet, Magritte is the only Belgian surrealist artist of the discussed group portrait who is still widely known today. He is even the only internationally known Belgian avant-gardist at all, thereby implicitly dissociated from the rest of the Belgian surrealist group. Together with Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, he belongs to the most renowned painters, represented in every museum. Unquestionably, Magritte has now become a star in both high and popular culture.

This rise of Magritte's fame, however, contradicts the forementioned rule of anonymity. After all, the surrealist code of behaviour, and certainly the Belgian one, belittled fame and public recognition. This essay seeks to spot the Belgian avant-garde in the interwar period and to place Magritte as international icon of avant-gardism in this 'local' context. How does Magritte's fame fit into the picture of Brussels surrealist group's discipline and secretive society? This essay will explore the often tenuous relationship between art and fame in the history of the Belgian surrealist avant-garde. The focus is on the transposition of the avant-garde between the roles of artist, revolutionary, entrepreneur, fundraiser and art dealer. Magritte will not play the leading part in this success story of Belgian surrealism alone. There is Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens as well - the man with the fine, brilliantine combed black hair at the back in the group picture by Graverol, who, although he took an active part in the success of Magritte, is sadly forgotten himself.

A matter of chance 
In a letter to the Belgian avant-gardist Michel Seuphor in 1956, the (former) dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck reacted against an article of Seuphor about the origins of Dadaism. Seuphor had stated that Dadaism started with the founding of Cabaret Voltaire on 8th of February 1916 and that Huelsenbeck only arrived in Zurich on the 26th. By this statement, Huelsenbeck saw his position threatened as the founding father of Dadaism, and he blamed the 'constant lies and falsifications' of Tristan Tzara for this confusion. Huelsenbeck had contributed to the finding of the name 'Dada' - which was due, he argued, to the discovery of him and Hugo Ball in the French dictionary before the 17th of February - a symbolic meaning. 'One may be in doubt,' Huelsenbeck wrote to Seuphor, 'whether a name makes a movement but I think it did in our case because only after we had found the symbol we became aware of "Dadaism". It is important too, as I always stated that the finding of the word was a matter of chance and not the invention of one person, considering the rather mysterious fact that chance played such an important part in our concept of art.' [3] Huelsenbeck added that he would have appreciated it if Seuphor had not accentuated his radical, communist sympathies during the founding years of dada.[4]

Letters like the one from Huelsenbeck to Seuphor seem to be an excellent source for finding out the strategies, the pragmatism, the manipulations, the sometimes not very noble, but earthly pettiness of the motives of the avant-gardists. The hidden agenda, which does not appear in the revolutionary language of manifests and magazines, often comes to the surface in letters. Letters repeatedly 'desecrate' the avant-garde artist instead of confirming the myth of avant-garde artistry. Whilst talking about surrealism and fame, it is necessary to refer to this correspondence of surrealists. The urge for fame was not manifestly promoted. On the contrary, the surrealists were extremely critical of fame. To analyse the strategies of fame, applied by the surrealists, would be to write the history of anti-surrealism.

In the second place, the letter from Huelsenbeck reveals the paradoxical aspect of the aspiration for fame amidst the avant-garde. On the one hand there is the importance that seems to be attached on giving the 'right' history of the avant-garde. In his letter Huelsenbeck pointed to the fact that historians in the future might take such texts as the one from Seuphor literally. Besides, there seems to be the urge to shed more light on his own, significant avant-garde position in this true history. Yet, it must be said that the status of the pure avant-gardist was not supposed to affect the current comfortable situation of the (former) avant-gardist. Therefore, some aspects, although essential aspects, had to be, if not falsified, at least kept silent. On the other hand Huelsenbeck emphasized in the letter that the naming of the avant-garde movement Dada was 'a matter of chance' and not 'the invention of one person'. The self was of no importance in the theory of the avant-garde and had actually to be set aside. Dada was not to be used to further one man's career. This paradoxical attitude towards fame is not only a phenomenon of avant-gardists of an advanced age who start to worry about reputation and money. Those sorrows of fame occupied the avant-gardists already in the 1920s and 1930s.

The addressee of Huelsenbecks letter was Michel Seuphor, a Belgian avant-garde artist who broke through internationally and spent most of his life in Paris . Seuphor knew how to combine several artistic activities: he was a writer, a poet and a painter. Also Seuphor was proud of his 'pure' avant-garde status, he apparently believed himself to have obtained during his life, and detested fame. His books were all published in bibliophile editions. In 1939 he stood a good chance to win the Prix Goncourt. The outbreak of the war however made his editor withdraw, and afterwards Seuphor considered this a stroke of luck. 'No doubt,' he argued, ' I would have come to a pitiful end if I had been absorbed by the establishment.'[5] The artist had to stay anonymous.[6] In his later writings and interviews there is nonetheless a certain bitterness one notices about the lack of recognition that he got for those different aspects of his avant-gardism. In fact, Seuphor earned his reputation primarily as a privileged eyewitness to the international avant-garde happening in the interwar period - memories he wrote down in several historical studies and monographs after the Second World War when the cult of the historical avant-garde first began.

A comparable figure is E.L.T. Mesens, a Belgian avant-gardist who stayed a convinced surrealist until the end of his life. "Me, I stay," he wrote in a letter in 1960, "proudly surrealist."[7] Also Mesens broke through internationally. From the end of the 1930s he stayed in London and was a musician, a poet, a painter, but known finally not because of these several artistic activities, but as the art dealer of the surrealist avant-garde, and more specifically the propagandist of Magritte. Thus, Mesens was mainly considered as an art dealer who constantly occupied himself with the promotion of surrealism in an elitist society world. Still, this did not prevent him from identifying himself completely with surrealism and the surrealistic lifestyle. According to Mesens, surrealism was 'a universal attitude to life - not an "art style": I am not a painter but a surrealist can be said'. Mesens was also frightened to be absorbed by the establishment, but lacked the recognition. In 1967 he tried to obtain a prize for 'fin de carrière'. 'I have never received any subsidy,' he wrote to the Belgian art historian Emile Langui, 'the honours in the form of decorations are unacceptable for me because of moral and philosophical reasons: the academies frighten me [...], but the Prix de fin de carrière, which was obtained by Delvaux and Magritte...: after all, except for my work as a poet and an artist, I worked enormously and benevolently for the Belgian art abroad.'[8]

Art without an artist 
Glorification and fame did not belong amongst the ambitions of the avant-garde in the beginning of the 1920s. The avant-garde opposed the long-established conventions, and rejected the materialism of the capitalist system with its striving after wealth and fame. Academies and museums were, if not to be burnt, at least to be avoided.[9] The ambition was not to achieve public and artistic success, as much as to accomplish a revolution in society. For the Belgian avant-garde, which only took its start after the First World War, 'community art' was the keyword in the formulation of ideals. It was a concept that had different meanings and only vague explications, and it was used by a variety of artistic movements. Yet, the common feature of 'community art' was its opposition. It was directed against the individualism and decadence of the former generation of impressionists. Not the artistic self, but the 'community' was to be the origin, the medium and purpose of this avant-garde art.

The expressionist movement, around the Brussels gallery and magazine Sélection, used to associate the concept of 'community art' with premodern times like the Middle Ages - when collaboration eliminated the individual for the sake of a common faith - and with contemporary, so-called 'primitive' cultures, who considered art as a ritual act and never as a game 'for the glory or as means of enrichment'. In the abstract art of the Antwerp movement around Jozef Peeters, 'community art' was set in opposition to the cult of the individual. In his declaration of 1922 on the founding of an 'artistic council', inspired by the German Worker Council for Art and the November group, Peeters wanted the 'art products' to be anonymous, in order to nullify the work of art dealers and journalists.[10] This would, according to him, finish off the cult of the artist. In this way only the work of art was left behind as a common good for society. His target was art without an artist.[11] For the Brussels constructivists of 7 Arts, the machine was the symbol of the new society. Designed by an 'anonymous artist', the engineer, operated by the worker and based on principles of pure utility and logic, the machine was the expression of democracy where the collective prevailed over the individual. Also the anonymous architecture was highly appreciated. Thus, articles in the magazine 7 Arts were not signed. Paintings were situated next to furniture. And the works of art got abstract titles such as 'opus' and 'construction'.

The strive for fame was as a negative feature often attributed by the Belgian avant-gardists to Parisian artists. It was frequently used as a tactic to differentiate them from the dominating 'Capital of Art'. It was even seen as a typical difference between the Latinate and the Northern. The abstract painter Peeters thought of French cubists as artists who were totally entangled in the art world of deals. In his opinion this was a typically Latin phenomenon. The Belgian artist Franz Masereel - famous for his woodcuts - lived in post-war Paris , but disliked both the lack of interest of the Parisian artists for society and their collaboration with a kind of art dealing that purposefully confused market value with quality. So in 1926 the expressionists of Sélection organized an interview about the influence and quality of Parisian painting. The overwhelming success of the French school could, according to the participants of the interview, be attributed to the well functioning art dealing. The well-organized art trade attracted the wealthy patrons and offered the artist the opportunity to get rich. However, this art business was also the cause of a commercialization that had a baleful influence on art production. Hasty and slovenly work, overproduction, snobbery and inflated egos were the consequences . Sélection reiterated that obvious the attraction of Paris , with its artistic reputation and cultural expansion, could end in a disaster for the artist.

It should not be overlooked that several Belgian avant-gardists were themselves hoping to benefit from recognition in the art market. Although he found the commercial orientation distasteful, he tried hard himself to organize both a commercial and critical system for his new aesthetics. An alternative circuit of galleries was set up in Brussels and Antwerp . Especially the expressionist painters, represented in the Brussels galleries/magazines Sélection and Le Centaure , were commercially promoted and could profit from the system they actually criticized.[12] A sort of international 'network' of connections was constructed.[13] The Belgian avant-garde maintained an intensive correspondence with the international avant-garde and tried in this way to infiltrate international magazines, exhibitions and the market. Paris with its mythical status was of course the goal for a lot of Belgian artists in search of glamour. The ultimate accolade was to have one's own exhibition in Paris . Berlin , as the location of Herwarth Waldens' gallery Der Sturm, was also highly prised.

The paradoxical attitude of the Belgian avant-garde towards public success is most manifest in the case of the 'dadaïst' Paul Joostens.[14] In his opinion, museums smelled like cemeteries, and art dealers and critics were a bunch of filthy crooks. In his diary he reproached the latter. 'Merde pour l'art' was a favourite statement of Joostens. He wanted to destroy his artwork, but lacked the courage to do so. With his art he did not seek personal pleasure. It was anti-art. But still, his dream was to be a 'dadaist-capitalist'. He wrote desperate letters to the same critics he ridiculed, in which he begged for attention and money. He even tried to become a member of a Catholic artistic group by convincing it of his 'neocatholicism' and in the late thirties he went so far as to pretend his work was the result of race, tradition and territory.[15] Joostens disliked surrealism not only because the surrealists prophesized the advent of a heavenly U.S.S.R., but mostly because one had to be a millionaire to be a surrealist. The surrealists pretended to be outside of society, which was only possible, according to Joostens, if one had the money to do so. And where, Joostens asked himself, did the surrealists get the money from?[16]

Striking surrealism 
Unlike Joostens , the Belgian surrealists were not fulltime artists, but 'worked' in daily life to survive. Paul Nougé was a chemist in a Brussels laboratory, Jean Scutenaire worked at the bar and from 1941 onwards at the civil service. Achille Chavée and Fernand Dumont were also lawyers. In the 1930s Magritte worked in publicity and Mesens was a secretary in a Brussels cultural center. Private and public life was in this way more separate for most of the Belgian surrealists permitting them 'to take time off' from the surrealist occupation.[17] Of course, the daily job also allowed the surrealists to infiltrate into daily life. Nougé compared the Brussels surrealist group with a mite that feeds itself with other mites and then inject his opponents with a poisonous liquid.

Although group identity was an important factor in the validation of the surrealist project, there was no such thing as 'Belgian' surrealism. In the 1964 groups portrait Goutte d'eau by Graverol Brussels, Walloon and the neo- surrealist avant-garde are shown together in a harmonic symbiosis. Yet, both Brussels and Walloon surrealists distinguished themselves in the interwar period as distinct groups. Group portraits of this period only depict them separately. The surrealist group Rupture was created on the 19th of March 1934 in a small city in the Walloon Provinces. The key figure of this Rupture was Achille Chavée. Fernand Dumont, André Lorent, Marcel Parfondry and Albert Ludé 'flocked to the cause'. They used the strategies of group photograph, magazine and manifestoes to portray themselves as a solid, surrealist group. 'The more I think about it,' Dumont wrote to Chavée in 1935, 'the more it seems indispensable to open the magazine with a collective manifest in which we situate our position and relate it to surrealism and dialectical materialism.'[18] After Chavées departure with the International Brigades to Spain in 1936, the group became less active and, finally, the Stalinist indications of Chavée led in 1939 to a schism with the foundation of a new group: Groupe Surrealiste de Hainaut .

The Brussels group had its origins in the mid 1920s. The magazine Correspondance , first published in 1925, can be called its first surrealist manifestation. It was the work of Paul Nougé and his accomplices Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte. Mesens, influenced through his friendship with Tristan Tzara, and Magritte were at that time still occupied by the more dada orientated Oesophage and Marie. With an Adieu à Marie in 1926, they approached the surrealist group of Nougé. Later on, the poet-writer Jean Scutenaire and the two musicians Paul Hooreman and André Souris joined the Brussels group. Contact with the Parisian group was already established when André Breton and Paul Eluard travelled to Brussels in 1925 and approved Correspondance as a surrealist magazine.[19] Correspondance was not meant as a magazine as such. It was more a sort of pamphlet, numbered from one to twenty-three, and each of them in a different colour. This colourful pamphlet was not commercialized, but only numbered 100 copies, and was sent free to friends and the interested public. It did not contain 'original' material either. Correpondance was based on the concept of rewriting great literature. Texts by Aragon, Conrad, Eluard, Proust, Gide and Paulhan were reinterpreted, put into another context and in this way recontextualised.

Nougé did not only compare the Brussels surrealists with mites, but also with parasites, whose favourite place was in old paper and books. Not only did the surrealists appropriate pre-existing books, they also constructed their own (pre)history by selecting some figures from history, invariably anti-heroes, who could figure as the precursors of interwar surrealism. In this way, an antithesis was established in opposition to the official history. Those precursors of surrealism, who were often anti-rationalist and personally 'scandalous' figures, were chosen because of their lifestyle, their eroticism, their anti-clericalism and anti-aestheticism. Favourites were the autodidacts, who were too 'naive' or too 'primitive' to belong to the official approach. To this proto-surrealist tradition belonged 'heroes' like Sigmund Freud, Charles Baudelaire, Comte de Lautréamont, Hieronymous Bosch and Facteur Cheval. Also, artists from the conventional paradigm, who were not recognized at first sight to fit the alternative prospectus, could be appropriated by the existence of a latent surrealist presence.[20]

The Brussels surrealists also came up with some of their own heroes. In a special edition of the Brussels magazine Variétés, entitled Surrealism in 1929 , the painting The Ascension of Prince Baudouin by the Belgian artist Louis de Laetre, a 'naive' painter from the nineteenth century, was depicted. This painting shows prince Baudouin, above his gravestone, flying into the air supported by a throng of angels. This De Laetre had designed some strange objects during his lifetime, like a flying machine that never flew. In 1929 Mesens sent to Breton a picture of The Outrage of a Belgian Woman by the eccentric, megalomaniac Belgian nineteenth century painter Antoine Wiertz. The cruel scene shows a woman, in plain panic and hysteria, firing a pistol into the face of a military assailant. 'Of particularly interest,' Mesens wrote to Breton, 'for a surrealist publication in Belgium .'[21] The surrealists from the Walloon Provinces always photographed themselves around the bust of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was also praised by the French group. Rimbaud's poems contributed to this glorification, but more important it was Rimbaud's life that inspired devotion. Rimbaud had given up poetry at the age of nineteen to travel around the world and died as a coffee exporter at the age of thirty-seven. The voluntary sacrifice of such a genius was an act the surrealists admired the most.

The surrealists turned against the concept of the 'genius'. Surrealism was universal and present in each person. Therefore, the surrealists considered themselves as merely the receivers of a myriad of echoes, as nothing more than modest recording apparatus. 'We don't have any talent,' stated the First Surrealist Manifesto. Challenging the notion of genius, the practice of anonymity belonged to the basic principles of surrealism. But it was Brussels surrealism that drew the most extreme consequences from this rule. In the first place they used the tactic of depersonalization in their surrealist writings, paintings, photographs, mind games and music. 'Commonplaces' - famous texts, popular music, and daily objects - were divorced from their context and 'reused'. But above all, they refused to score public success. Unlike the Parisian surrealists, no Bureau de Recherches surréalistes to attract visitors and give publicity to the movement was formed. Also the Parisian Galerie surréaliste of 1926 and the Galerie Gradiva of 1937 had no following in Belgium . Marcel Mariën, a young surrealist of the post-war neo-avant-garde, considered himself important, because he could convince the surrealist pioneers to publish their texts. Except for Magritte, according to Mariën, nobody did a lot in the interwar period. Scutenaire did not show anything, Nougé refused to publish.[22] As for the magazine Correspondance , it refused public recognition and, in any case, the rewritten texts were unreadable.

The reader would not be spared. Flaws of the pen were not revised by the Brussels surrealists, and literary 'correctness' was to be avoided. This was also the moral code of the poet-writer Scutenaire who did not want to be recognized as a 'man of letters'. Using the method of plagiarism, he led 'in a poetical manner enterprises against literature'.[23] Mallarmés elegant phrase 'La chair est triste, hélas, et j'ai lu tous les livres' was in this way transformed to 'La chair est ce qu'elle est et sans fin sont les livres'.[24] A name meant nothing to Scutenaire. 'What is my name?' he provoked, 'What is a signature? Belongs everything and everyone not to everybody?'[25] His books Boulevard Jacqmain and La Cuve infernale were published under the name of his wife Irène Hamoir (depicted as well in the group portrait Goutte d'eau ). This falsification of identity was an impressive act to Brussels surrealism and kept secret till after the death of Hamoir and Scutenaire.[26] However, it was not a 'falsification' in the opinion of the Brussels surrealists. Hamoir made comments, she criticized and corrected Scutenaires texts and was in this way the archetypal representative of Brussels surrealism. Scutenaire and Hamoir were so pleased with their transposition of identities, that when they wrote their memories of Belgian surrealism in 1982, they referred to themselves as 'She' and 'He' and refused to call figures or documents by name.[27]

Not only names, but also the label 'surrealism' had to be wiped out. 'Exegetes, to see clearly, strike the word surrealism,' Paul Nougé declared.[28] After all, Nougé was the theorist of the Brussels surrealist group. It was he who set up the rule of anonymity. Like Scutenaire, Nougé was opposed to the creation of a 'work', but Nougé was even more extreme in executing this 'anti-work'. He did not want to end up in the 'strange gallery of fossils of history'.[29] So, in 1924, he burnt all his young work, leaving his life's work to amount to only a couple of sketches, loose fragments and a handful of letters. In his opinion, the achievement of public success demanded corruption, which Nougé was not willing to give in to. 'We consider public opinion to be negligible,' he wrote in a letter of 1932.[30] He pretended he could not care less about the criticism of surrealism as literary, snobbish, failed or dead. 'At the right moment,' Nougé explained, 'we will give sufficient information so that we can allow ourselves the silence and the contempt when we prefer.'[31] For the exposition Surrealism just after the Second World War, Nougé's fear of the corruption by the public would find an echo in Breton's 1942 Third Surrealist Manifesto of Not : 'Every great idea is perhaps subject to being seriously altered the instant that it enters into contact with the mass of humanity, where it is made to come to terms with minds of a completely different stature than that of the mind it came from originally.'[32]

What action then did Nougé propose when he wanted to avoid the public? In an interview of the Parisian surrealists in 1929 about the choice between collective or individual surrealist activity, Nougé suggested that the figures whose names were becoming too well known had to renounce their fame. Only by this selfless act could a genuine freedom be obtained. According to Nougé, appropriate examples of this were thieves, murderers and those individuals operating in illegal political parties who waited for a moment of terror to come. It was about secret spiritual preparations, either of isolated individuals or of organized political parties. Yet, in clear opposition to the Parisian group of the 1920s, Nougé did not want to become a member or a 'fellow traveller' of any official political party. Neither did he want to make propaganda for surrealism in the way several political parties did.[33]

In 1934 the Brussels surrealists - Magritte, Mesens, Nougé, Souris , Scutenaire - published a manifesto 'L'action immédiate' in which they - actually, primarily Nougé - formulated proposals for action outside the communist party. One of the possibilities was to influence people by suspecting them to unknown events and by introducing them to unexpected concepts. In this way the limits of accepted thought could be expanded and they would become aware of the 'evidence' that ' everything is always possible'.[34] Even more violent action - invariably unspecified - was considered effective to influence even the most indifferent people. This subversive action had to be put into operation secretly and anonymously. 'Anonymity,' it was emphasized, 'was a new working instrument at the disposal of those who think of the coming of the world revolution as a vital obligation.'[35]

Surrealist star 
Nougé's strategy was not appreciated by every member of the Brussels surrealist group. Mesens for example, did not entirely agree. According to him secret and anonymous action carried the risk of ending in passive inactivity. The latter's disagreement with Nougé became obvious by 1934 with the foundation of a surrealist group in the Walloon provinces. Mesens was very enthusiastic about it and wanted to create a stable 'Belgian' surrealist group. The Belgian surrealists had to take this opportunity to accomplish a strong, united front. In 1934, Fernand Dumont reported his encounter with Mesens in Brussels to Achille Chavée: 'He [Mesens] thinks that the politics of abstention, of restrictions and stubborn silence, fashioned by Nougé, leads to nothing. I think he is right and I believe I have already confessed to you my disillusionment in seeing that basically we were dealing with isolated people.'[36] In 1935 Mesens intensified the connections between Brussels and Walloon surrealism by organizing an international surrealist exhibition in the founding place of Walloon surrealism, La Louvière . And 'Le Couteau dans le Plaie' was the first manifesto signed by both Walloon and Brussels surrealists. Mesens considered himself to be of vital importance to the Belgian avant-garde. The Belgian surrealist group, 'you know it,' he wrote to Breton in April 1937, 'doesn't do anything , absolutely anything without me. All those people sleep the most provincial sleep.'[37]

It was definitely true that Mesens played a central role in the 'public relations' of the Brussels surrealist movement and, as such, took over the leading position of Nougé in the 1930s. In fact, Mesens was the 'entrepreneur' of the Brussels surrealists. First of all, he had the looks. Contrary to his Belgian surrealist friends - all very unexceptional and common looking men - Mesens surprised: he was outrageous in clothing and lifestyle. He was the dandy of Brussels surrealism. He partied a lot, drank too much and spent hours in front of the mirror trying to look like the movie star Maurice Chevalier.[38] His great example was Paul-Gustave van Hecke, a central figure of Flemish expressionism, not as a painter, poet or writer, but as an organizer and maecenas - and the husband of the fashion designer Norine. In Van Hecke's early fiction the characters smoked expensive cigars, drank champagne and had powdered noses. In his manifesto 'Fashion' from 1922, he ranted against the long, black coat as a symbol of male Flemish backwardness.[39]

Mesens admired Van Hecke's wit and charisma. But Van Hecke did not just teach Mesens how to strike appearances. Together with his friend André De Ridder, Van Hecke possessed the most successful avant-garde business in Belgium . It is not without reason that Flemish expressionism was already institutionalized in the 1920s. Van Hecke's propaganda machine consisted of a gallery, a magazine and a publishing house. Mesens did not feel committed to Flemish expressionism however, and the purposes and the functioning of Van Hecke's gallery alone would be the sole source of inspiration for him. At the beginning of the 1920s, Mesens was a very enthusiastic young man, who was not scared to offer - although without success - his contribution to Aventure from Marcel Arland, the Italian magazine Il Pianoforte and The Sackbutt in London . He became involved in avant-garde magazines such as Ça Ira and 391, and acquired experience in the galleries Manteau and La Vierge Poupine. In 1927, he then became the manager of Van Hecke's new gallery L'Epoque and organised the promotion of Van Hecke's magazine Variétés . In the early 1930s, Mesens became the secretary of the Brussels modern cultural centre Palais des Beaux Arts. In short, Mesens had by the 1920's received a training 'in a way complicated trade full of secrets and science'.[40]

Mesens did not merely acquire expertise in art dealing but, furthermore, established a network of important international contacts. More than any other Brussels surrealist, Mesens was orientated towards Paris . It had been Erik Satie who first took him there in 1921 for the first time and introduced him to the dada movement. In the summer of 1923 he started corresponding with Tristan Tzara and a year later he met Francis Picabia, after which he was invited to participate in 391 .[41] He sent a poem and some of the aphorisms of Magritte.[42] In the meantime he met Hans Arp, René Crevel, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and Marcel Arland. After his friendship with Tzara had declined, Mesens started to approach the surrealist circle and a new correspondence was set up with Paul Eluard. This relationship with Eluard was so intense that it took on the features of a love affair. Eluard even thought in 1934 about moving to Brussels .[43] As for Breton, Mesens kept him informed about the (in)activity of Belgian surrealism and even carried on business with him. In 1937 Mesens offered Breton a few of Magritte's paintings for next to nothing: 'I do it to help you with your enterprise [gallery Gradiva], and for the sake of friendship.'[44]

As for the 'visibility' of Belgian surrealism in Paris , it was especially Mesens and Magritte who featured. When Man Ray made the photo collage Surrealist chessboard in 1934, only the portraits of Mesens and Magritte were included as representatives of the Belgian surrealist group. Obviously, within the Belgian surrealist group, Mesens was the 'oiled pivot', as Scutenaire described him, 'where everything revolved around, an irritating hornet, in short, troublesome but indispensable'.[45] As much as Mesens believed enthusiastically in the working power of the surrealist project, he was also equally convinced that the art of Magritte was going to play a significant part in it too. He believed this to such an extent that Magritte even had to warn him not to have inflated expectations: 'I, for my part, even on moments of the most beautiful promises, always restrain myself.'[46] Mesens' role in the development of Magritte to a star both in high and popular culture, was not insignificant. During the economic crisis of the 1930s, when many Brussels art galleries crashed, he bought the entire stock of more than 150 works of Magritte, to protect it from devaluation. It was Mesens too who introduced Magritte to the international art world- in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition of London - and the same year in the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art of New York.

Mesens' successful promoting of Magritte's work seems at first sight difficult to reconcile with the Brussels surrealist group ethos. The strict surrealist 'moral' code tended to provoke disagreement, alienation and even rejection. In October 1939, for example, the Groupe Surréalist en Hainaut of Chavée and Dumont attacked Mesens commercial activity and accused him of selling surrealist painting to the rich bourgeois.[47] According to them, the essence of an authentic surrealist was ambiguous. These accusers themselves, ironically, were being blamed by other participants of the former group Rupture for 'the mania for publishing everything under the sun' and for weighting each evening the importance of their books.[48] Strangely enough, Mesens too displayed a strong aversion to fame. Approving Breton's rejection of his dearest friend Eluard, he denigrated Eluard's role in the resistance during the Second World War as 'heroism of the facade'.[49] At the end of the 1930's, Scutenaire, pressurised by his wife to write more accessibly, was criticized by Mesens for his candidature for the Prix de la Pleiade and his collaboration with the anthology revealingly titled L'Eternelle .[50] And in 1940 even Magritte was being renounced by Mesens for his 'petit bourgeois mentality' to which Breton answered: 'I do not want the track of surrealism to be covered with dead bodies.'[51]

The history of anti-surrealism 
In 1951 Mesens again wrote a letter to Breton, declaring that he was fed up with his surrealist friends and announcing that he had given up the London Gallery and wanted to return to the continent. He felt like writing the 'History of Anti-Surrealism' - 'a beautiful story full of human trickery of good models in the style of 'royal anarchist', 'religious automatic painters', 'national-feudal avant-garde artists, etc.... You know them, they were OUR FRIENDS'.[52]

The business-side of the art market must have clashed regularly with the aspirations of Mesens. Undoubtedly, he got to know another side of his avant-garde friends that might better have been left in the dark. In a letter from 1947 to Van Hecke, Mesens expressed his doubts about the art trade: 'My small slave labour in the sales for snobs and ambitious or greedy speculators starts to "weigh me down a little" and people from all sides seem to play dirty tricks on me.'[53] To sell beauty and truth on the commercial, capitalist market would not have been an easy job for a surrealist, especially when it was done out of friendship and conviction. Van Hecke knew well what Mesens was talking about. He shared the same worries. In the 1940's he participated in the cult of the historical avant-garde and was writing the history of Flemish expressionism. His own role in those 'heroic years', however, was being questioned. Van Hecke was not only suspected of opportunism, but was accused of having precipitated, by his restrictive system of gallery contracts, the unproductiveness of the Flemish expressionist painters in the late 1920s. Those accusations were tough for Van Hecke, considering the fact that he had 'ruined' himself 'for the benefit of his friends' art'. He was caught between the urge to tell the truth about his petitions for money in the 1920s, and the wish not to harm their fame and glory. 'Everything was done for the sake of the most unselfish friendship,' Van Hecke wrote desperately, 'and who will still believe that now?'[54]

Van Hecke also had to defend Mesens against insulting gossips. Philip Laski, who in 1961 organized an exposition of Magritte in the small gallery Obelisk, apparently depicted Mesens as a profiteer in the catalogue. A furious letter to Laski was written by Van Hecke, passionately defending Mesens' sincerity. Mesens himself did not bother and only asked Van Hecke to forward this correspondence to Magritte. This letter often refused to listen when it concerned his interests, his publicity or his success.[55] Actually, Mesens implied that Magritte tended to forget the role Mesens had played for former's career in the 1930s. Magritte on the other hand thought that Mesens exaggerated his own contribution far too much and neglected the reciprocal benefit - the possession of Magritte's artwork had definitely not done Mesens' career any harm.

Mesens saw no contradiction between his commercial activity and the wide surrealist ethos. As for his dealing in the art market, it only spoke of his surrealist 'belief'. Being an 'entrepreneur-surrealist' did not place him in the 'history of anti-surrealism'. In 1937, in a letter to Breton, he explained why this was indeed the case. In his opinion, if his surrealist friends had themselves incurred a similar level of sacrifice as his own, the landscape would have been totally different. The Belgian surrealist magazines, the manifestoes, and many editions of their dedicated publishing house Nicolas Flamel had almost entirely been sponsored by Mesens. Even when times were 'bad', moreover, Mesens never failed to support Magritte. By his own account, he had organized at least five expositions for Magritte in Brussels and had paid the transport costs for the movement of artworks to foreign galleries. All those 'sacrifices' had been done, whilst Belgian friends - no names were mentioned - earned a lot more money than Mesens did, only to give themselves comfort, which was not intrinsically a very surrealist attitude.[56]

Thus Mesens believed he had sacrificed himself for the sake of surrealism, exemplified best in the figure of Magritte. Both Mesens and Magritte were convinced that an attitude of anti-opportunism was necessary for a surrealist, which also seems to be a good starting point for a liaison between art dealer and painter.[57] The relationship between Mesens and Magritte was nevertheless not without its problems. Magritte could act in a rather furtive way with art dealers. In the 1920s he had a contract with Van Hecke and the gallery Le Centaure, but he knew to by-pass its strict rules, by secretly selling paintings to other art dealers. Such intrigue sometimes had bizarre consequences. On an exposition in New York in 1954, two versions of Die Traumdeutung, created in the late 1920s, turned up; one had been sold to Van Hecke-Le Centaure, the other one to a Parisian art dealer.[58] In 1938, after a lot of negotiations a contract between Mesens and Magritte was established but only sustained for a short time. Mesens was furious with Magritte who took no concern over the price a painting was sold for. Magritte's wife made the negotiations even more complicated, but finally Magritte agreed to forward every painting that was produced to Mesens, who would set the price, which would then be equally split. Each month Magritte would receive 2500 Belgian francs, so he would be able to live a conventional life.

The correspondence from Magritte to Mesens seems to have concerned financial and commercial matters in particular, a feature which sometimes annoyed Mesens. In 1938, when discussions on the contract were ongoing, Mesens wrote that his English friends were shocked by the fact that Magritte's letters were constantly focused on matters of money and private interests, and never on what was of primary importance: revolution. Neither could Mesens appreciate the rumours Magritte had circulated about Mesens, such as the story that Mesens had kept most of the money for himself from wall paintings that Magritte created for the English collector Edward James.[59] In the 1940s things were not getting any better. Mesens was disgusted by Magritte making duplicates of his successful paintings for the petit bourgeois. In 1940, Nougé and Mesens seem to have disengaged with Magritte.[60] After the Second World War, the pseudo-impressionist 'Renoir-period' of Magritte did not please Mesens either and he refused to sign the manifesto 'Le surrealisme en plein soleil', which wanted to lead surrealism into another, more optimistic direction. Magritte's egocentrism in relation to his first solo exhibition in Paris soured their relation in such a way that Magritte wrote in 1949: 'I also wish that one day, a friendly relationship with you will not be completely impossible.'[61]

In the 1950s Magritte's fame started to grow internationally. Thanks to Mesens' enterprise, his 'word paintings' were shown on an exposition 'Word vs Image' in the Sidney Janis Gallery of New York. In the same year, 1954, the first important retrospective exhibition of Magritte's artwork was held in Brussels . Again, it was Mesens who organized, selected and promoted the works. Yet more complaints about Magritte poured in: 'Magritte,' Mesens wrote, 'does not tolerate any critique: he's a totalitarian.'[62] But gradually, the promotion of Magritte became unnecessary anymore. Instead, Magritte had to be saved from himself - when he thought about accepting the title of baron[63] -, and protected from critical speculation. What ostensibly might still be justified as an act of surrealism - exhibitions in commercial galleries to provoke scandal[64] - could no longer be done without regard to the consequences; his 'word paintings' were sold to stars of capitalist commercial art such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

One great rule 
'One great rule,' Mesens taught his pupil George Melly in 1948, 'is never to buy a work of art which one does not like for one reason or another. It is true also that the great names do not always sell with the greatest speed but it is good to stick to them.'[65] And Mesens was right, he was so right that in 1962, with the opening of a retrospective of Magritte's artwork in Belgium, a bank note was published with Magritte's portrait on. An alleged text of Magritte denounced the commercialization of the mystery; his paintings were sold as a piece of land, as jewels and fur coats. The bank note was the satire of the young surrealist Marcel Mariën, who wanted to denounce the working on command, the making of duplicates and the fads of rich artists, who suddenly bought sports cars. Magritte did not appreciate the joke. Moreover, the sudden success had not made Magritte a happier man, as Scutenaire declared after Magritte's death in 1967. Magritte felt as if he had made a mistake; he had created enough paintings to throw down the 'Chinese throne', but all he got was a lot of money in his pocket.[66]

And Mesens? Was he happy about the success? Certainly, Mesens too did not like Magritte buying a sports car. In a tribute to Kurt Schwitters in September 1958, he deplored the aspiration to fame and glory of the contemporary modern artist: 'Not one week goes by but the Art-gossip column of one or another literary French paper informs us that some known artist has acquired a Rolls-Royce, that another has been buying his fifth high-speed racing car, that a third is proprietor of one or two castles which used to belong to old aristocratic families, or that a fourth has added to his already well filled stables some specially remarkable and expensive race-horse!' To Mesens' astonishment it was no longer the mundane-academical-portrait-painting which got the interest of capitalists looking for a good investment, but the figurative or non-figurative ultras. Kurt Schwitters appeared to him then as a far removed romantic personage, belonging to the legend of the 'disinterested, careless, ever poor and idealistic exponent of something which had no material value or counterpart in the world in which he lived'.[67]

By accentuating the 'pure' avant-garde status of Schwitters, Mesens also wanted to spotlight his own 'purity'. As mentioned above, this claim for 'purity' was a favourite strategy, also applied by Seuphor and Huelsenbeck in the 1950s and 1960s, to ensure the avant-garde artist of a place in the canonization of avant-garde history. On the one hand, the surrealists turned against the idea of the artist as a 'genius'. On the other hand the notion of 'purity' just as well reinforced the cultural and social distinction of the avant-gardist. First, it was opposed to the neo-avant-garde artist of the postwar period who had decided to rebel against the materialism of Western society by directly focusing on the public. By bringing art and life together, the social and cultural distinction between artist and mass public had to vanish. The neo-avant-garde got in return an excessive amount of attention by the mass media, not because of their revolutionary content, but because of their entertainment value. Second, their own 'pure' avant-garde status was set against the compromised position of some fellow artists. After the construction of an alternative paradigm of history by the surrealists during the interwar period, it was now necessary to construct a 'history of anti-surrealism', which involved the own friends.

Nonetheless, the 1964 group portrait Goutte d'eau by Jane Graverol displayed the old friends together in an almost symbiotic community. Was it keeping up appearances? André Souris on the last row of the picture was already 'excommunicated' by the Brussels surrealists in 1936, Marcel Lecomte 'retired' from Brussels surrealism in the 1920s and Camille Goemans did the same in the 1930s. Mariën and Magritte quarrelled and also the relation between Mariën and Scutenaire was also unstable. Marc Eemans recognized himself in the unidentifiable figure at the back of Graverol's picture, characteristic, according to Eemans, of the elitist attitude the Brussels surrealists adopted towards him.[68] It appears that there was no longer a strong group identity in the 1960s to validate the surrealistic project. Breton, though, was touched by Graverol's Goutte d'eau . He appreciated, as he wrote to Graverol, the poetic title and the depiction of the Brussels surrealists in harmony without losing their individuality. Breton even underlined the 'historical value' of Graverol's group portrait.[69] However, the historical value of Goutte d'eau, to which Breton pointed, suited more the canonization than the anti-canonization of the surrealist.

Ironically, despite his objections to Nougé's rule of anonymity, Mesens had a successful anonymous career and was not absorbed by the official line. He had an important position in the art world, but was and remains uncelebrated. In this way, Mesens applied the moral code of Brussels surrealism, as did Nougé and Scutenaire. Nevertheless, even Nougé, the die-hard of Brussels surrealism, ultimately was unable to resist the publication of his work in the postwar period.[70] Yet, the restricted publication and the lost actuality of his prose and aphorisms did not further Nougé's fame. In the end, Magritte is the only Belgian surrealist who remains recognized. What was the secret of his fame? With regard to Magritte's artwork, the method of anonymity clashed with the reality of the art market. A basic need for money forced him to consider concessions. The method of anonymity furthermore seemed to be a tactic par excellence to achieve fame. After all, nothing is so mysterious as anonymity. Apparently, it is not self-promotion, visibility or glamour that matters, but the element of mystery that is one of the most important criterion to achieving eternal fame. Besides, fame is also a question of being there at the right time and the right place. The golden years of the 1960s with it's claim for 'all power to the imagination' had a stimulating effect on the commercialization of the mystery. And, last but not least, a good art dealer can prove an effective promoter too.


[1]Kirsten Strom, Making History. Surrealism and the invention of a Political Culture , Lanham , New York and Oxford , 2002, 2-4.

[2] José Vovelle, Surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels, 1972, 71.

[3] Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, Richard Huelsenbeck, 910082.

[4] Huelsenbeck did not want his statement in En avant Dada - 'Dada is the germanic form of Bolshevism' - to be accentuated: 'I cannot denie that I did so, but considering the great danger to make such statement (I was falsely accused of communism in this country [United States] and nearly got into serious trouble) it would have been good if you had said that I left the radical side of Dada for a long time, much earlier than many, [...] but that Tzara still today is an active member of the Communist Party.' On Huelsenbecks inclination to selfmystification: Hubert van den Berg, 'From a New Art to a New Life. Avant-garde Utopianism in Dada'. Paper presented at the seminar Ismer og Avantgarder organized by the Center for Modernismeforskning of Aalborg Universitet, 25-26 November 2002 (in publication).

[5]'Ongetwijfeld zou het zielig met me afgelopen zijn als ik was ingehaald door het establishment.' Pascal Verbeken, 'Leven en werk van Michel Seuphor. "De avant-garde ligt ver achter ons"', De Standaard, 3 December 1998.

[6] Michel Seuphor, Un renouveau de la peinture en Belgique flamande , Paris, 1932, 47; Pascal Cornet, 'Twee uren in de eeuwigheid', De Standaard , 4 May 1996.

[7] 'Moi, je reste, en 1960, fièrement SURREALISTE.' Letter from Mesens to Roland Penrose, 27 July 1960. Brussels, private archive, E.L.T. Mesens.

[8] Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to Emile Langui in 1967: 'Je n'ai jamais reçu aucun subside; les honneurs sous forme de décorations sont inacceptables pour moi pour des raisons morales et philosophiques ; les Académies me font peur (...) mais le Prix de fin de carrière qu'ont obtenu Delvaux et Magritte... : après tout, outre mon oeuvre de poète et d'artiste plastique, j'ai fait énormément et bénévolement pour l'Art belge à l'étranger.' Brussels, private archive, E.L.T. Mesens.

[9] Of course the futurists were the most manifest opponents of museums and academies. Also the artistic genius was rejected. See for example the manifesto 'Poids, mesures et prix du génie artistique' of B. Corra en E. Settimelli, reedited in Giovanni Lista, ed, Futurisme. Manifestes. documents. Proclamations. L'age d'homme , Lausanne, 1973, 357.

[10] Joan Weinstein , The end of expressionism. Art and the november revolution in Germany, 1918-19 , Chicago and Londen, 1990.

[11] Jozef Peeters, 'Kunstenaarsraden', Vlaamsche Arbeid , 12, 1922, 423-428.

[12]Not only was the Belgian expressionist artwork more 'realistic' than that of the abstract and the surrealist movement, and therefor more accesible for the public, expressionist art was also promoted as being authentically 'flemish', and was favoured by the government. Virginie Devillez, Kunst aan de orde. Kunst en politiek in België 1918-1945 , Gent, 2003.

[13] In the abstract avant-garde magazine Het Overzicht from Jozef Peeters and Fernand Berckelaers (alias Seuphor) a column about this 'network' was published.

[14] Although Paul Joostens did not belong 'officialy' to any dadaïst movement, he shaped a sort of dada of his own. Jan Cools, Er werd een lijkje geborgen. Over Paul Joostens , Gent, 1984.

[15] Antwerpen, Archief en Museum voor het Vlaamse Cultuurleven (AMVC), Paul Joostens, J4453/B.

[16] Antwerpen, AMVC, Paul Joostens, Journal Z, 1935, ML6166.

[17] 'Puisqu'il en est temps encore, permettez-nous de prendre congé. Sans doute reviendrons-nous - ailleurs.' Paul Nougé, Histoire de ne pas rire , Brussels, 1956.

[18] 'Plus j'y pense, plus il me paraît indispensable d'ouvrir le cahier par un manifeste collectif dans le quel il s'agit de situer notre position, de la justifier et de la rattacher au surréalisme et au matérialisme dialectique.' Letter from Fernand Demoustier [pseudonym of Fernand Dumont] to Achille Chavée, 20 June 1935. Brussel, Archief voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Achille Chavée, 4298.

[19] In August 1925 Correspondance signed together with the French surrealists the manifesto ' La Révolution d'abord et toujours'. Gérard Durozoi, Histoire du mouvement surréaliste , Paris, 1997, 132.

[20]Strom, Making History , 55-71.

[21] Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to André Breton, 7 April 1929. Paris, Bibliothèque Litéraire Jacques Doucet, BRT c. 1178.

[22] Cit. in: Olivier Smolders, Paul Nougé. Ecriture et caractère. Et l'école de la ruse , Brussel, 1995, 117.

[23] Louis Scutenaire, 'Le Cygne d'étang', Phantomas , 115-117, 1972, 18: 'Je ne fais jamais un travail d'écrivain mais conduis poétiquement des entreprises anti-littéraires, usant, par exemple du collage, du plagiat, contre l'invention facile, contre l'inspiration à bon compte.'

[24] Catherine Daems, 'Scutenaire - Hamoir et la littérature', Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque, Irène, Scut, Magritte and C°. " Ce qui est attirant est beau ", Brussels, 1996, 131.

[25] 'Qu'est-ce que mon nom ? Qu'est-ce qu'une signature ? Le monde et tout le monde ne sont-ils donc à tout le monde ?' Louis Scutenaire, 'Le Cygne d'étang', Phantomas , 115-117, 1972, 19.

[26] The correspondance between Scutenaire and Hamoir is revealing in this aspect. While Hamoir worked in the Netherlands , Scutenaire informed her in his letters about the progress of his work. (Daems, 'Scutenaire - Hamoir et la littérature', 131.)

[27]René Magritte en het surrealisme in België , Brussels, 1982.

[28] 'Exegètes, pour y voir claire, rayez le mot surréalisme.' Nougé, Histoire de ne pas rire , 6.

[29]Louis Aragon and André Breton, 'A suivre. Petite contribution au dossier de certains intellectuels a tendances révolutionnaires', Variétés, June 1929, I-XXXII.

[30] 'Nous tenons pour assez négligeable l'opinion publique.' Letter from Paul Nougé to Pierre Fontaine, 15 April 1932. Marcel Mariën, ed, Lettres Surréalistes (1924-1940), Brussels, 1973, 104-105.

[31] 'Nous savons en temps opportun donner des précisions suffisantes pour pouvoir nous permettre le silence et le mépris quand bon nous semble.' Letter from Nougé to Fontaine, 15 April 1932. Mariën, Lettres Surréalistes (1924-1940), Brussels, 1973, 104-105.

[32] 'Toute grande idée est sujette à gravement s'altérer de l'instant où elle entre en contact avce la masse humaine, où elle est amenée à se composer avec des esprits d'une tout autre mesure que celui dont elle est issue.' André Breton, 'Prolégomènes à un troisième manifeste du surréalisme ou non (1942)', Breton, Manifestes du surréalisme, Saint-Amand, 1967, 161-162.

[33] 'Nous tenons nullement à faire de la propagande à la manière des partis politiques.' Letter from Nougé to Fontaine, 15 April 1932. Mariën, Lettres Surréalistes (1924-1940) , 104-105.

[34] 'Elles ['les tâches immédiates'] visent d'abord à toucher les hommes d'une manière qui nous semble souhaitable : les mêler à des événements inconnus, leur faire entendre des paroles insoupçonnées, rompre les limites de leur pensée - pour qu'ils soient enfin capables de concevoir cette évidence  : tout est toujours possible.' 'L'action immédiate', Documents 34 , 1, June 1934, 33.

[35] 'L'anonymat est un instrument de travail nouveau à la disposition de ceux qui pensent à l'avènement de la révolution mondiale comme à une oblgation vitale.' 'L'action immédiate', 3.

[36] 'E.L.T. Mesens, - qui sous des dehors 'bruxellois' est le plus charmant garçon du monde -est très partisan d'organiser en Belgique un vaste groupement des sympathisants surréalistes. Il estime que la politique d'abstention, de restrictions et de silence obstiné mise à la mode par Nougé ne peut mener à rien. Je pense qu'il a raison et je crois déjà t'avoir confié ma déception de voir qu'au fond on avait affaire à des isolés.' Letter from Fernand Demoustier to Achille Chavée, 2 okt 1934. Brussels, Archief voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Achille Chavée, 4285.

[37] 'Je suis si occupé qu'il me n'est pas possible de conduire ce groupe belge qui, tu le sais, sans moi ne fait rien , absolument rien. Tous ces gens dorment du sommeil le plus provincial.'Letter from Mesens to André Breton, 21 April 1937. And in a letter to Breton in August 1936: 'Ici, il fait archi-misérable. Bruxelles est assez désert ... Mes amis n' ont rien abdiqué de leur provincialisme.' Paris, Bibliothèque Litéraire Jacques Doucet, BRT 1196 and 1192.

[38] George Melly, Don't tell Sybill, An intimate memoir of ELT Mesens , London, 1997 and Strange encounters, E.L.T. Mesens talks to George Melly, Broadcasting Tuesday, 29 February 1970 (Brussels, Archief voor Hedendaagse Kunst, E.L.T. Mesens, D .N.). Scutenaire described Mesens as 'un oiseau des îles, il va nu-tête, les cheveux bien lissés, rasé de frais, manucuré. Sa cravate est de tissu et de nuances que l'on rencontre guère, sa veste est d'une coupe et d'une étoffe rares, son gilet et son pantalon aussi, quoique différents par les tons, les chaussettes sont inattendies; quant aux manteaux !' (cited in Christiane Geurts-Krauss, E.L.T. Mesens. L'alchimiste méconnu du surréalisme. Du dandy dadaïste au marchand visionnaire , Brussels, 1998, 68.)

[39] Van Hecke himself ordered Mesens to bring him a blue marine shirt and a plastic cigaret case from London Letter from Van Hecke to Mesens, 29 June 1937 and 30 April 1946. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 920094, box 4, folder 6 and box 5, folder 11.

[40] Letter from ELT Mesens to George Melly, 20 March 1948. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 920094, box 6 , folder 4.

[41]Dada Terminus, Tristan Tzara - ELT Mesens, correspondance choisie 1923-1926, ed. Stéphane Massonet, Brussels, 1997.

[42]391 , 19, 1924.

[43] Letter from Paul Eluard to E.L.T. Mesens, 14 September 1934 : 'J'aimerais rester à Bruxelles.' Brussels, privat archive, E.L.T Mesens.

[44] Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to André Breton, 12 July 1937: 'Ces prix sont faits de façon à te permettre de prélever sur ceux-ci au moins 33 % de bénéfice, libre à toi d'ailleurs d'en tirer ce que tu peux, mais je tiens à te signaler que les peintures à l'huile de Magritte que je t'ai confiées sont des oeuvres dont j'obtiens en Angleterre, des prix qui correspondent à francs belges: 6 à 7.000. - Il est évident que ces prix-là sont toujours plus favourables et voilà pourquoi tu t'expliqueras que je te fixe des prix 50 % moins cher que ceux que j'obtiens. Je le fait pour t'aider dns ton entreprise, et à titre purement amical. J'ai appris que ta galerie était fort belle et que tu connaissais un succès espéréré [sic].' Brussels, Archive Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, E.L.T. Mesens.

[45] Cited in 'E.L.T. Mesens', in Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque, ed, "Ce qui est attirant est beau". Irène, Scut, Magritte and Co , Brussels , 1996, 380.

[46] Letter from René Magritte to E.L.T. Mesens, June 1937: 'Pour ma part, même au moment des plus belles promesses, je me réserve toujours (...).' Los Angeles , Getty Research Library, E.L.T. Mesens, 940097, box 9 , folder 11.

[47] Letter from Fernand Dumont, Louis van der Spiegele, Marcel Lefrancq to E.L.T. Mesens, 18 October 1939. Brussels , Privat Archive, E.L.T. Mesens.

[48]'Tous les soirs, Chavée et Demoustier pesent le poids de leur livres et l'importance de leur oeuvre. L'atmosphère encourageante dont notre presence était exempte, devait être pour eux, cette atmosph ère d'admiration mutuelle et d'en ceux que nous leur refusions. [...]La valeur de Rupture provenait précisement du fait que chacun aplliquait a ses recherches personnelles ce 'Plus de conscience', que les resultats de tous se complétaient, guidaient les uns, renseignant les autres, nous formeraient tous mutuellement. [...] Nous nous fuitons de gens qui prennent toujrous soin de se reserver des portes d'entrée dans le monde bourgeois.' Letter from André Bovy to E.L.T. Mesens, 19 November 1939. Los Angeles , Getty Research Library, E.L.T. Mesens, 940097, box 4 , folder 11.

[49] 'Rien ne me répugne plus que la course au succès public dans une époque où tous les publics ont perdu ma carte. [...] L'héroïsme de façade satisfait tout au plus les besoins des centrismes gouvernementaux, trop enchantés de pouvoir passer l'éponge.' Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to Paul-Gustave Van Hecke, 18 November 1944. Brussels, private archive, E.L.T. Mesens.

[50] Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to René Magritte and Paul Nougé, 7 October 1946. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 940097, box 13 , folder 3.

[51] 'Je ne veux pas que la voie du surréalisme soit encombrée de cadavres'. Letter from André Breton to E.L.T. Mesens, 30 April 1940. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 940097, box 4 , folder 14.

[52] 'C'est une belle histoire, pleine de tricherie humanitaire de beaux modèles du genre " anarchiste royale ", " peintres automatique religieux ", " avant-gardistes national-féodaux " etc.... Tu les connais, ils furent nos amis.' Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to André Breton, 6 March 1951. Paris, Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, BRT 1205. 

[53] 'Mon petit métier de forçat à la solde et de spéculateurs ambitieux ou avides commence à me peser un peu et les gens semblent de tous côtés, me réserver leurs tours de cochon.' Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to Paul-Gustave Van Hecke, 26 March 1947. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 940097, box 6 , folder 2.

[54] 'Zelfs in een roman à clef of in mijn 'mémoires' zouden zulke dingen zelfs moeilijk te zeggen zijn, zonder den schijn te hebben eer te willen halen uit daden die alleen door de vriendschap mogelijk werden gemaakt. Daar steekt juist het kruispunt: alles stond toen in het teken van de meest inbaatzuchtige vriendschap. En wie zal dit nu nog geloven!?' Letter from Paul-Gustave Van Hecke to Emile Langui, 26 October 1943. Brussels, Archief voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Emile Langui.

[55] Letter from Paul-Gustave van Hecke to Philip M. Laski, 27 October 1961 and letter from E.L.T. Mesens to Paul-Gustave van Hecke, 30 October 1961. Brussels, private archive, E.L.T. Mesens.

[56] Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to André Breton, 21 October 1937. Paris, Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet, BRT. c 1197.

[57] Two lectures from Magritte and Mesens point to this. Mesens stated at the opening of the exposition 'Young Belgian Artists' in February 1937 in London: 'Notre attitude anti-opportuniste absolue, dont quelque faiblesses ne devaient cependant tarder à nous apparaître, eut l'énorme avantage de maintenir un certain nombre d'entre nous dans un état offensif permanent, à l'abri de toute séduction intellectualiste ou littéraire, et nous révéler, en cours de route ceux qui, cédant à des soucis trop personnels, devaient être rejetés dans les camps dont ils auraient mieux fait de ne jamais sortir.' (Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 940097, box 12, folder 12) Magritte announced in ' La Ligne de Vie', a conference given on 20 November 1938, that 'il nous faut nous défendre de cette médiocre réalité façonnée par des siècles d'idôlatrie pour l'argent, les races, les patries, les dieux et j'ajouterai d'idôlatrie pour l'art'. (René Magritte, Ecrits complets , ed. André Blavier, Saint-Amand-Montrond, 2001, 103.)

[58] David Sylvester, Magritte , Antwerp , 1992, 156-157.

[59] Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to René Magritte, 27 November 1938. Brussels, Privat Archive, E.L.T. Mesens.

[60] 'Nougé et moi, nous avons complètement rompu avec Magritte.' Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to Breton, 18 April 1940. Paris, Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, BRT. c. 1198.

[61]'Je souhaite aussi qu'un jour, des relations amicales ne soyent pas complètement impossibles avec toi.' Letter from René Magritte to E.L.T. Mesens, 24 June 1949. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 640097, box 9 , folder 12.

[62] Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to Robert Giron, 27 March 1954. 'Magritte ne tolère evidement aucune critique : c'est un totalitaire.' The answer of Giron, 30 March 1954: 'Je crois cependant qu'il est impossible de faire la rétrospective d'un peintre vivant tenir compte de ses désirs tout en essayant cependant de les corriger.' Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 940097, box 7 , folder 3.

[63] In a letter from E.L.T. Mesens to Paul-Gustave van Hecke, 30 October 1961: 'Il y a un an ou deux, quand il était "menacé" de barronage! Si je ne lui avais pas fait éclater le ridicule devant les yeux.'

[64] In a letter to Roland Penrose , 27 July 1960, Mesens refused Magritte's participation in a exhibition in the London Institution of contemporary art : 'La seule manifestation qui puisse être utile à Magritte, à Londres, dans l'immédiat [...] c'est une simple exposition où l'on vend dans une galerie commerciale.' Penrose answered: 'Je te vois donc en 1960 te classifiant parmi les commis voyageurs du surréalisme qui se réfugient dans les chambres d'hôtel. En conséquence tristement je ne vois plus moyen de revenir aux jours d'action des interessées quand nous étions des surréalistes ensemble - et voilà tout.' Magritte justified in a letter of 1 th of August 1960 Mesens decision by stating that the London Institution of Contemporary Art is the defender of abstract art, so: 'C'est un peu, comme si dans une église catholique, on remplaçaient la messe de tous les jours, par deux ou trois messes noires. Une exposition surréaliste serait plus scandaleux dans un institut moins " à la page " que celui dont Penrose dirige l'activité, par exemple dans un musée d'antiquités,, patronné par des veuves de guerre.' Brussels, Private Archive, E.L.T. Mesens.

[65] Letter from E.L.T. Mesens to George Melly, 28 March 1948. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, E.L.T. Mesens, 940097, box 6 , folder 4.

[66] Sylvester, Magritte , 406-407.

[67] E.L.T. Mesens, Memories on K.S. (Kurt Schwitters), 16 September 1958. Brussels , private archive, E.LT. Mesens. Also published in Art New and Review , 10, 11 October 1958, 19.

[68] Marc. Eemans, De laatste surrealist , Antwerp, 1984, 44.

[69] 'L'intérêt historique d'une telle oeuvre ne sera pas surpassé de longtemps.' Letter from André Breton to Jane Graverol, 14 February 1966. Brussels, Archives et Musée de la Littérature française, Marcel Mariën, FSXLVII 11/20.

[70] In 1956 Histoire de ne pas rire was published. 
An Paenhuysen is Phd-student at the University of Leuven, Belgium. She is currently working on a book that examines the cultural criticism of the Belgian artistic avant-garde in the interwar period.

Le Jockey Perdu (The Lost Jockey) 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 8:32:38 PM


This blog we'll look at one of Rene Magritte's first surrealist paintings The Lost jockey (Le jockey perdu).  Inspired by the collages of Max Ernst and the paintings of Giogrio De Chirco, Magritte began his new direction in art around 1924. Magritte was an active participant of Dadaism and the Belgiam branch surrealism which united in 1925. The Lost Jockey (Le jockey perdu) was one of a series of collages that contained the bibloquet or balluster that Magritte created in 1925-1926. He considered The Lost jockey to be his first surrealist work although several of his earlier collages would certainly qualify.  

Rene designed theatre sets in Brussels in the early 1920s for Theatre du Groupe Libre. The Lost Jockey is one of many theatre settings with a curtain that Magritte produced in his early works. It also uses bilboquets that resemble trees with musical notation as bark, possibly as a tribute to Mesens, the pianist and composer and his brother Paul, a musician who studied with Mesens.

Le jockey perdu- 1926 Collage

The jockey is clearly riding on a wooden stage with curtains. The stage is covered with a white cloth with geometric patterns that are umbrella-like. The bibloquet on the right is an impossible object,existing behind and in front of the right curtain.

Le jockey Perdu- 1942: oil

Magritte revisited some of his paintings many times; most likely to paint a copy as a request for a patron. When he would redo the painting he would usually change the new version slightly from the earlier version. 

Lost Jockey- 1948 gouache on paper - 25 1/2 x 19 7/8 in. (64.8 x 50.5 cm.)

Provenance: Galleria Internazionale, Milan (no. 166).
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1960s.

Notes: Le jockey perdu is one of the largest format gouaches by René Magritte, a variation of one of the artist's favourite themes, the crazily displaced horse racing with its rider through an incongruous landscape. In this gouache, Magritte has introduced several other motifs as well: floating above the lost jockey of the title is a mysterious sphere, while the entire scene is shown through a strange, rocky portal, as though the viewer were in a colossal cave at the edge of this flat scrubland.

Magritte first tackled the theme of Le jockey perdu in 1926, a watershed period for the artist, in which he suddendly found a means of exposing the mysteries of the world, the poetic associations between the objects that form our reality and which we take all too much for granted. His strange juxtapositions challenged the viewer, demanding that we consider afresh the properties of the everyday elements of the world around us. So, in this gouache of Le jockey perdu, it can be seen the racetrack that would usually play host to a jockey is absent, the racer taken out of context. At the same time, a strange new planet hovers as though within the atmosphere of the Earth; this ball has replaced the sun and the moon; its looming presence adds a cosmic oddness to the entire picture.

It is a tribute to the importance of this theme that Magritte himself would write, with reference to his original oil of the subject, that 'Le jockey perdu (The Lost Jockey) is the first canvas I really painted with the feeling I had found my way, if one can use that term' (R. Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, translated by R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 48). Magritte's own revelation had occurred when he had seen a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. Presenting the viewer with an eccentric assortment of seemingly unassociated objects, de Chirico's Le chant d'amour introduced the viewer to a realm in which another hidden logic appeared dominant. While the mysticism of de Chirico did not influence Magritte, the break with perceived reality and the use of juxtapositions did. For this reason, Magritte denied the open influence of de Chirico, making specific reference to his first version of Le jockey perdu:

'If one takes into consideration what I've painted since 1926 (Le jockey perdu-1926-- for example, and what followed), I don't think one can talk about 'Chirico's influence' I was 'struck' about 1925 when I saw a picture by Chirico Le chant d'amour. If there is any influence it's quite possible there's no resemblance to Chirico's pictures in Le jockey perdu. In sum, the influence in question is limited to a great emotion, to a marvellous revelation when for the first time in my life I saw truly poetic painting. With time, I began to renounce researches into pictures in which the manner of painting was uppermost. Now, I know that since 1926 I've only worried about what should be painted. This became clear only some time after having 'instinctively' sought what should be painted' (R. Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 258).

As in several of Magritte's strongest works, Le jockey perdu is made all the more visually striking by the contrast between stillness and dynamism, here articulated by the difference between the speed of the jockey and the emptiness of the landscape around him. Where de Chirico's works were often marked by an intense sense of poise and stillness, Magritte has prompted the viewer into a profound investigation of everyday elements, items and qualities from the world around us such as movement, horses, gravity and the celestial bodies.





Wednesday, March 11, 2009 12:24:38 PM


This blog we'll look at one of Magrittes early influences- Fantômas. Magritte takes his narrative images from the movie series directed by Louis Feuillade in 1913-14. "The only way to capture Fantômas is to enter his dreams." [Magritte-from his writings]

Magritte as Fantomas posing with his painting Le barbare, 1928

Fantômas — a figure of unmotivated evil, moral transgression and diabolical perversity — exerted a powerful fascination for French avant-garde painters and poets for three decades:

The books and movies that came out in quick succession anticipate by nearly one century the current production methods of Hollywood, in two respects: First, the authors distributed the writing among themselves; their "working method was to draw up the general plot between them and then go off and write alternate chapters independently of each other, meeting up to tie the two halves of the story together in the final chapter". This approach allowed the authors to produce almost one novel per month. Second, the movie rights to the books were immediately snapped up. Such a system ensured that the film studio could produce sequels reliably. One of the most popular characters in the history of French crime fiction, Fantômas was created in 1911 and appeared in a total of 32 volumes written by the two collaborators, then a subsequent 11 volumes written by Allain alone after Souvestre's death. The character was also the basis of various film, television, and comic book adaptations. His importance in the history of crime fiction cannot be overestimated, as he represents a transition from Gothic novel villains of the 1800s, to modern-day serial killers.

Fantômas's background remains vague. He might be of British and/or French ancestry. He appears to have been born in 1867. In the books, it is established that c. 1892, the man who later became Fantômas called himself Archduke Juan North and operated in the German Principality of Hesse-Weimar. There he fathered a child, Vladimir, with an unidentified noblewoman. In circumstances unrevealed, he was arrested and sent to prison. Fantômas was introduced a few years after Arsène Lupin, another well-known thief. But whereas Lupin draws the line at murder, Fantômas has no such qualms and is shown as a sociopath who enjoys killing in a sadistic fashion.

Fantômas is a fictional character created by French writers Marcel Allain (1885–1970) and Pierre Souvestre (1874–1914). He is totally ruthless, gives no mercy, and is loyal to none, not even his own children. He is a master of disguise, always appearing under an assumed identity, often that of a person whom he has murdered. Fantômas makes use of bizarre and improbable techniques in his crimes, such as plague-infested rats, giant snakes, and rooms that fill with sand.

René Magritte returned to the iconography of Fantômas repeatedly. The composition of a 1926 painting, The Threatened Murderer or Menaced Assassin (L'assassin menacé), in which two detectives, Juve and Fandor, lie in wait for Fantomas on either side of a doorway, is taken from Louis Feuillade's third Fantômas film Le mort qui tue (The Murderous Corpse).

The Threatened Murderer (L'assassin menacé)-1926

Here's my analysis: Magritte provides this narrative- Fantômas has just killed a woman, and having placed a pure white cloth over her upper chest, pauses to listen to a record on the phonograph. Outside the room, three witnesses stare into the inner room. Juve and Fandor (two detectives closest) threaten to capture Fantomas, one with a cudgel, the other with a net. Clearly Fantômas is surrounded (threatened) but is he worried? No..."because he always escapes and even passes through walls." [The Beribboned Bomb By Robert James Belton]

Belton relates that Magritte's painting may be based on the case of murderer Henry Landru who in 1922 was executed for murdering several women for their money.


Narrative: Juve is missing presumed dead from the house explosion and Fandor is investigating on his own. Fantomas imitates an old woman who trades stolen goods and Juve is made up as a hapless homeless man who helps her. A nam is framed for a murder, then killed in prison, then abducted from the prison.  Fantomas makes gloves out of the man’s hands and commits more murders leaving the dead man’s fingerprints behind. The detectivess are mystified, but Fandor comes across a list of the murder victims in the order they’re killed. He finally visits Juve again, Lady Beltham reappears for a minute. Our heroes end up tracking Fantomas to a house and cornering him in the one place where there was a secret trap door. Whoosh, through the trap door and our heroes are empty-handed except for the skin-gloves.

Photo from Louis Feuillade's third Fantômas film Le mort qui tue (The Murderous Corpse) 1913-1914
Note the skin gloves in the right hand

In his 1926 painting Man of the Open Sea (L'homme du large) Maggrite employs elements from the final scene of Feuillade's second Fantômas film Juve contre Fantomas, in which the Man in Black raises his arms in triumph after throwing the lever that destroys a house in which Juve and Fandor are trapped. In the painting below we see that Fantomas in his black garb is preparing to pull the lever to blow up the house.

Man of the Open Sea (L'homme du large)- 1926 


Narrative: The main actors crossfade into their characters-in-costume (Juve changes into a hat, a fake mustache and a suit). At the start, Lady Beltham is presumed dead - but actually she’s organizing a gang of bandits who rob passengers on a train car then cause a train accident to cover up their crimes. Our reporter is on the train and escapes with another passenger. He and Juve are lured into a gun trap, but they escape and tail the woman, getting her to lead them to Fantomas, who escapes by putting on his suit with false arms then simply running away, leaving Juve and Fandor each holding an arm! Fantomas has a list of people he’s having mysteriously squeezed to death, so Juve wears spiked bands over his body when he goes to sleep and has Fandor hide in the room - wakes up being choked by a boa constrictor. Later, they’ve figured out where Fantomas hides out, so they storm the house and kill the boa but the criminal mastermind Fantomas was hiding in a tank of water in the basement, escapes, and blows up the house!! Will the cops survive??

Fantomas in the final scene blowing up the house (1913-1914)

In The Savage (Le barbare, 1928) (see first pic above- top of page) Magritte painted a portrait of Fantômas fading in and out of a brick wall. Both Difficult Crossing (La traversée difficile, 1926) and One Night's Museum (Le musée d'une nuit, 1927) prominently feature severed hands, an image from Gino Starace's cover for La main coupée (The Severed Hand).

(Le retour de flamme, 1943)

The Backfire (Le retour de flamme- 1943) is a copy of the original cover (below) for the first novel in the series, only in Magritte's painting Fantômas grasps a flower instead of a dagger.

Original cover copied by Magritte

Magritte also wrote several texts featuring the Lord of Terror; this one was published in the journal Distances in March, 1928:

A THEATRICAL EVENT. Juve has been on the trail of Fantomas for quite some time. He crawls along the broken cobblestones of a mysterious passage. To guide himself he gropes along the walls with his fingers. Suddenly, a whiff of hot air hits him in the face. He comes nearer...His eyes adjust to the darkness. Juve distinguishes a door with loose boards a few feet in front of him. He undoes his overcoat in order to wrap it around his left arm, and gets his revolver ready. As soon as he has cleared the door, Juve realizes that his precautions were unnecessary: Fantômas is close by, sleeping deeply. In a matter of seconds Juve has tied up the sleeper. Fantômas continues to dream — of his disguises, perhaps, as usual. Juve, in the highest of spirits, pronounces some regrettable words. They cause the prisoner to start. He wakes up, and once awake, Fantômas is no longer Juve's captive. Juve has failed again this time. One means remains for him to achieve his end: Juve will have to get into one of Fantômas's dreams — he will try to take part as one of its characters. (Translation by Suzi Gablik, from Magritte. Boston: New York Graphic Society 1976)

La Reproduction Interdite: René Magritte and Forgery 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 10:19:55 AM


Here's an exellent article by Patricia Allmer. In this case the word "Forgery" in her title refers to the reproduction or copying of images by Magritte. Most realistic art is in a way a forgery of reality.

La Reproduction Interdite: René Magritte and Forgery
by Patricia Allmer© Patricia Allmer, 2007
Papers of Surrealism Issue 5 Spring 2007

Money, paintings and even reality are open to forgery and, according to Marcel Mariën, have been forged by René Magritte. This essay explores the intricate routes, entanglements and developments of Magritte’s alleged forgeries as subversive strategies against his official oeuvre, which he at the same time constructs and demolishes, placing the viewer as well as the reader of his biographical writings in eternal uncertainty. Drawing on theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida, these alleged forgeries will also be related to his application of trompe l’oeil techniques as a way to undermine the aesthetic sublime. Through these strategies, Magritte invites comparison with his hero Fantômas where the moment of (in Magritte’s case canonical) capture becomes the very moment of his escape.

What would a mark be that one could not cite? And whose origin could not be lost on its way? [1]
(Jacques Derrida)

The first monograph on René Magritte’s art, entitled Magritte, was published in 1943. Marcel Marïen wrote the introductory essay for the book and Magritte himself chose twenty images which were reproduced in colour. As David Sylvester writes: ‘There was one highly significant difference in the book as published from the book as originally planned – that all the reproductions were in colour. This was a surprising development given the cost involved and Magritte’s precarious financial position…’ [2]

Marcel Mariën’s autobiography Le Radeau de la mémoire states that the funds for this book, and for other projects, stemmed from Magritte’s production and sale, between 1942 and 1946, of artistic forgeries. Mariën cites Magritte to illustrate his relaxed attitude towards forgeries stating ‘that buying a fake diamond without knowing will cause the same degree of satisfaction [as buying a real one], due to the fact that one has paid a high price for it.’ [3] Sylvester has reproduced some of the forged images in question in the Magritte Catalogue Raisonné; however, there is as yet no real, substantial evidence that Magritte ever forged paintings: therefore these images will be referred to in this essay as ‘Magritte’s alleged forgeries.’

An exploration of Magritte’s work in relation to forgery evokes a ‘Magritte’ who differs markedly from the conventional art-historical establishment conception of him as a coherent, even if somewhat eccentric, surrealist artist, producer of a mostly coherent oeuvre, from which his Vache period (which parodies fauvism) and his impressionist period of the 1940s, as well as other identifiable periods and occurrences such as his alleged forgeries, are regarded as mere accidents, mostly marginal to his oeuvre. However, as will be argued, Magritte’s alleged forgeries, far from being extrinsic to a central body of work that constitutes his ‘genuine’ artistic production, are part of a central and wider concern evident throughout the artist’s career with issues of authorship, authenticity and, ultimately, with his avowed subversion and exposition of the fakeness of capitalist ideologies and realities. As Marcel Mariën states in that first monograph of 1943: ‘The particular point of [Magritte’s] painting … is a permanent revolt against the commonplaces of existence.’ [4]

Magritte’s forgeries are part of a wider method intended to disrupt Western bourgeois capitalist ‘habits of thought.’ As he wrote in 1935: ‘My art is only valid insofar as it resists bourgeois ideology, in the name of which life is extinguished.’ [5] These apparently ‘marginal’ elements continually threaten to undermine and to dissemble the ‘coherence’ of the established oeuvre and its canonical artistic creator ‘Magritte.’ Magritte’s alleged forgeries, like his different, often critically ignored, periods, are instances from which a much more interesting Magritte emerges.

According to Mariën, Magritte’s forgeries were produced to fund colour plates for the 1943 monograph and included, it is alleged, imitations of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Titian and Meindert Hobbema. [6] However, the first monograph of 1943 on Magritte is also interesting because it differs from the canonical and popular image of Magritte represented in exhibitions and literature on him – it neglects to mention ‘surrealism’ at all, and Magritte’s chosen images also differ from the works which might, at that time, conventionally have been included. This idiosyncratic choice was noted in a review comment by Gille Anthelme in 1943, who states: ‘There is a “Treasure Island” as strange as a tale by Edgar Allan Poe, and a “Lost jockey” which has the force of a nightmare. But the proportion of successful pictures in this choice of reproductions is small. It would not have been difficult to make a better choice.’ [7]

Magritte deliberately selected less typically ‘Magrittean’ images for this monograph – his ‘impressionist’ paintings are particularly prominent, occupying ten of the twenty plates and three drawings, and Mariën was specifically encouraged to write about these images. For example Magritte included his painting Le Traité de la Lumière (1943), based on the large late Renoir Les grandes baigneuses from c.1918-19, which initiated Magritte’s ‘impressionist’ period. Mariën elaborated on this work of Magritte:

Fired with enthusiasm, Magritte immediately went on to make other versions, including ‘The dance’ (a standing nude), and ‘The harvest’ (a reclining nude), and then concluded the experiment by taking the solution to its peak of refinement, since he performed the same transformation on Ingres’s La Source, an ‘academic’ representation if ever there was one, by not only adorning the young girl’s body with different colours, but by re-creating the whole picture according to the technique of the Impressionists! And Nougé, who had already supplied the titles for the previous versions, was to name this last experiment, the subversive profundity of which remains as usual unnoticed by everyone else: Monsieur Ingres’s good days. [8]

The appropriation and subversion of existing canons, and their re-creation through imitation or copying, a form of artistic plagiarism, all figure heavily in the named artworks – art here is not the product of a mythical creative individual, but is a ‘collective invention’ made out of plagiarism of as well as collaboration with other artworks. Magritte’s alleged forgeries are part of a ‘counter-oeuvre’ existing in opposition to the official, art historical ‘Magritte’ as constructed by Suzi Gablik, Sarah Whitfield, A. M. Hammacher and others. This counter-oeuvre subverts and undermines any simple summary of ‘Magritte’ as a coherent, self-consistent figure. These acts of canonical sabotage are precisely at the heart of Magritte’s art. Magritte’s oeuvre pretends to offer reliable, endless repetitions of a restricted  number of iconic images and motifs, instantly recognisable. Yet there is an uncanny discord which remains, a ‘crack’ or ‘rift’ in the texture of the art historically asserted reality of Magritte as individual and as oeuvre. Magritte and his oeuvre, like his popular cultural hero Fantômas, masquerade as reliable icons, whilst carrying with them, at every step, the potential to disintegrate this very same oeuvre and persona.

Counterfeiting banknotes
Mariën’s allegations of forgery were contested by Magritte’s widow, Georgette, in the Brussels and Paris courts. The allegations were based on citations from postcards and letters by Magritte in La Destination, which is Mariën’s collection of letters between himself and Magritte, making the reader reliant on the former's claims about the authenticity of the letters he provides. This reliance on narrators stretches still further, since, as Sylvester explains: ‘It may well be that Mariën has not neglected to follow his mentor’s [Magritte’s] lead. The reproductions in Destination include, on the one hand the drawings within Magritte’s letters, on the other, a number of drawings unconnected with the letters, which are not actually ascribed to Magritte but are not ascribed to anyone else either and which are in a style closer to that of the set of drawings made by Mariën for Louis Scutenaire … than the style of any Magritte drawings known to us.’ [9]

La Destination seems to be haunted by the question of authorship – the first image in the book is a portrait by Magritte, which has the word L’Auteur inscribed on its left. This assertion is, perhaps ironically, mirrored or even counter-acted by an alleged self-portrait which closes the textual part of the book – is this a Magritte or is it a forgery by Mariën? Here already authorship and authority, even if not necessarily forged, are placed in limbo, are challenged, their reliability questioned. The two portraits embrace and surround the writings, like parentheses they open and close the scene – perhaps the scene of a crime, the scene of forgery.

Given Mariën’s unreliability, are we facing after all, a double-bluff? Whilst it has been established that the artworks Mariën addressed are forged, whether Magritte was their forger remains questionable. Is there a double-bluff going on – the paintings are fake, but so might Mariën’s claims be? The reader/viewer is denied a final conclusion and is left in absolute uncertainty. This notion of ‘absolute uncertainty’, however, is not something that prohibits us from understanding an important aspect of Magritte’s images – quite contrarily, it is integral to them. Negation, the ‘ceci n’est pas’ and uncertainty are central to his art.

The images in La Destination were not the only instance where Mariën could have produced work that was subsequently attributed to Magritte and where Mariën could have forged Magrittes. Another instance is the spoof advertisement 'Grande Baisse' from 1962. It was produced by Mariën, but ascribed to Magritte. The leaflet was sent out the morning before the private viewing of Magritte’s retrospective at the Casino in Knokke. It was headed by a caption showing a 100 Francs banknote with Léopold I’s head replaced by that of Magritte [fig. 1]. The title that appeared below this, Les Travaux Forcés, was taken from the warning printed on Belgian banknotes: ‘La loi punit le contrefacteur des travaux forcés’ ('the law punishes the counterfeiter'). [10]

This photomontage was clearly attributed to Magritte. Another double-bluff, a double forgery where not only the banknote is forged, but also the forger himself. And what exactly is forged, counterfeited in this picture? Is it a banknote? Is it Magritte’s portrait in a military uniform? Or is it the false provenance of the forged banknote through the writing of ‘Magritte’ underneath the photomontage?

{image of banknote featuring Magritte}
[Figure 1: Marcel Mariën and Leo Dohmen, Les Travaux Forcés, detail of 'Grande Baisse,' photo-collage, 1962 ©
ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2007.]
See image at:

Under Belgian law the reproduction of a current banknote in any form constitutes forgery unless it is printed over with the word ‘specimen.’ The photomontage led the Director of the Banque Nationale Belge to call in the police who immediately phoned Magritte. André Blavier, in a letter to Raymond Queneau, explained the incident: ‘Very important gentlemen of the police are said to be dealing with the case. And Magritte, when interviewed on the telephone, thought the call was part of the joke and, not appreciating it, started bawling out the director of the STD, or whatever its equivalent is in our dear mother-country.’ [11]

Leo Dohmen, a photographer and art dealer, was Mariën’s accomplice. He was, following Mariën’s suggestion, the actual producer of the photomontage. According to Dohmen the image and its title Les Travaux Forcés were deliberate allusions on Mariën’s part to another, much more serious forgery, namely five hundred copies of counterfeit 100 francs banknotes allegedly made by Magritte and his brother Paul in 1953 and which Mariën helped to distribute. Given all this evidence, the title Les Travaux Forcés takes on a further meaning in which Magritte and forgery, as well as Magritte’s relation to the market value of art, are brought into intimate proximity. This is also clear from the ironic text that was published underneath the image in ‘Grande Baisse,’ again presented as being written by Magritte, which stated: ‘Moving from mystery to mystery, my painting is coming to resemble a form of merchandise subject to the most sordid speculation. People now buy my painting as they buy land, a fur coat or jewels. I have decided to put a stop to this unworthy exploitation of mystery by putting mystery within reach of all purchasers.’ [12]


[Figure 2: René Magritte, Le Spectre, 1948 or 1949, private collection, Brussels © ADAGP, Paris and
DACS, London, 2007.]

Although ‘Grande Baisse’ is a critique of Magritte, connecting him closely with forgery, it also seems to be based on, and imitates (or perhaps even plagiarises), another artwork depicting a banknote incorporating the manipulation of the King’s head, namely Magritte’s painting Le Spectre (1948 or 1949) [fig. 2]. This detailed image of the obverse of a Belgian 500 Francs banknote stretches across the picture’s dark background, and the image is signed, underneath on the left, by Magritte. According to Sylvester the banknote is ‘a virtual copy of a Belgian 500 franc [sic] banknote.’ [13]

Only one small detail in relation to the currency is added – in Magritte’s portrait Leopold II, second King of Belgium, smokes a pipe. Money here reveals its spectrality – like the spectre, it stands in for and marks the ‘return’ of something which is absent, namely value. The signature in the painting also reveals its ghostly character, as marker of the absent presence of the artist. Money, the image and its signature – all are open to forgery, revealing the unreliability of the very elements of bourgeois reality which relies so heavily on conventional assumptions about the authority of presence guaranteed by representation, money and signatures. Magritte’s aim is to create pictorial experience, which, as he states, ‘questions the real world.’ [14]

Through repainting, and forging in the strict sense of the word (since also here the word ‘specimen’ is not written on the note, the banknote, onto which is added the small detail of a pipe), Magritte dissects bourgeois reality and its value system through its own authoritative iconography. As he states, his aim is to ‘render reality doubtful through reality itself.’ [15] A further twist to this narrative of forged banknotes and paintings occurred in 1998, when a new, and real, Belgian banknote came into circulation. It was a 500 Francs banknote with Magritte’s head on the front, underneath which, on the left hand side, looms a copy of his signature.

The trompe l’oeil

Figure 3: John Haberle, One Dollar Bill, 1890.

Magritte’s Le Spectre draws together two forms of representational currency, art and money. It seems to imitate or copy (forge) not only money, a 500 Francs banknote, but also art, as indicated in the work from 1890 by nineteenth-century American trompe l’oeil artist John Haberle, entitled One Dollar Bill (with which Magritte may have been familiar) [fig. 3]. Trompe l’oeil and forgeries share an intention to deceive the viewer, and, simultaneously, to question the aura of originality. The counterfeit is, like the forgery, a constitutive part of the trompe l’oeil, since, as Célestine Dars states, the trompe l’oeil is designed or placed in such a way as to ‘draw the real world into a counterfeit one.’ [16]

Indeed the etymological meaning of the word counterfeit reveals the closeness between forgery and representation: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, earlier meanings of the word also included, amongst ‘imitation’ and ‘forgery’, ‘represented in a picture …’; ‘portrayed’ and ‘a representation in painting, sculpture … an image, portrait.’ The trompe l’oeil, like the forgery, blurs the boundaries between reality and artifice, or rather it makes the fragility of these boundaries apparent. Magritte’s exploitation of, and pre-occupation with, trompe l’oeil paintings demonstrates how the logic of forgery constitutes the basis of his artistic exploration of the relationship between representation and reality. Magritte’s art repeatedly embraced the trompe l’oeil tradition, ranging from his use of elements such as shattered glass (e.g. in Le Soir qui Tombe, 1964), to simulated frames in paintings (e.g. La Clef des Songes, 1935), and the meticulous representation of wood (e.g. Le Modèle Rouge, 1935) to suggest different levels of reality within the image. His grisaille paintings, such as Souvenir de Voyage (1951), also derive from trompe l’oeil traditions which employed the technique since classical times to produce highly deceptive imitations of marble statuary. Flemish painters used grisaille to decorate the backs of their polyptych wings, as can be seen in Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation (c. 1436).

Magritte’s La Condition Humaine (1933) is repeatedly cited in books on trompe l’oeil as an example of the tradition. From 1933 onwards he painted a number of these ‘window views.’ In these images he worked with three significant elements of trompe l’oeil simultaneously. Firstly, he showed a painting of a painting, a classical theme of trompe l’oeil. Secondly, he employed the trick of opening a wall up to the landscape behind. Thirdly, he employed the obligatory curtain as often used by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. Here reality and fiction, interior and exterior, image and imagination, all flow into one another. Negating the aesthetic sublime In a well-known allegory from Classical Greek literature, the impossible surface of representation is demonstrated in a way that resembles that of Magritte’s painting. Pliny the Elder recounts the tale as follows:

The contemporaries and rivals of Zeuxis were Timanthes, Androcydes, Eupompus, Parrhasius. This last, it is recorded, entered into a competition with Zeuxis. Zeuxis produced a picture of grapes so dexterously represented that birds began to fly down to eat from the painted vine. Whereupon Parrhasius designed so lifelike a picture of a curtain that Zeuxis, proud of the verdict of the birds, requested that the curtain should now be drawn back and the picture displayed. When he realised his mistake, with a modesty that did him honour, he yielded up the palm, saying that whereas he had managed to deceive only birds, Parrhasius had deceived an artist. [17]

The trompe l’oeil seems to be, in one sense, something that deceives the eye, a forgery of reality that in the process of deceiving also reveals something. As in the tale of Zeuxis, the important moment is not the moment of deception, but the moment of the revelation of this deception. As Eckhard Hollmann and Jürgen Tesch argue, ‘to deceive the eye also means to open it.’ [18] Like the forgery, the trompe l’oeil produces a moment where, according to Jean Baudrillard, it ‘turns upon itself and negates itself’ [19] – producing a moment of aesthetic negation, a moment of ceci n’est pas.

According to Jacques Lacan, Parrhasius’s example makes it clear that: ‘...if one wishes to deceive a man, what one presents to him is the painting of a veil, that is to say, something that incites him to ask what is behind it.’20 The forgery, like the trompe l’oeil, radically undermines notions of the sublime, of the aesthetic aura, since it asserts that the specific aesthetic ability to evoke the sublime can be imitated and reproduced. What Parrhasius’s image demonstrates is less the astonishing similarity of his painterly representation to reality, than the ‘human condition’ which Magritte described as ‘our gaze always [trying] to go further, to see the object, the reason for our existence.’ [21]

Magritte asserts that his painted canvases and curtains, as in La Condition Humaine, do not hide anything. He famously replied, when asked what was behind one of his paintings: ‘The wall.’ [22] La Saignée from 1939 also draws on the tradition of trompe l’oeil through the representation of a painted frame and a brick wall [fig. 4], exploring the trompe l’oeil’s subversion of the sublime since ‘the trompe l’oeil artist will not leave anything to the imagination. He will not allow any interpretation beyond what he represents.’ [23] Sarah Whitfield recalls Magritte’s reply, when asked by a journalist what was the reason for painting a brick wall: ‘I think I was wondering at the time what would be absolutely forbidden to show in a picture.’ [24] What is absolutely forbidden to show is the nothingness and the bareness behind the painting. Magritte comments: ‘Behind the colours in the pictures is the canvas.

Behind the canvas there is a wall, behind the wall there is … etc. Visible things always hide other visible things. But a visible image hides nothing.’ [25] The nothingness of the ‘absolutely forbidden’ is revealed in Magritte, through allowing the viewer to risk the ‘gaze’ into nothingness. As effective as a forgery, Magritte’s artwork counteracts and subverts the Western ‘privileged position of the gaze.’ [26] Typically for trompe l’oeil tradition, there is no horizon, no horizontality in La Saignée. The gaze is abruptly stopped before a brick wall, like the trompe l’oeil described by Baudrillard as an ‘opaque mirror held before the eye, and then there is nothing behind it. Nothing to see.’ [27] This radically undermines Western insistence on the sublime, on that which is behind and beyond representation. As Baudrillard states:

When the hierarchical organisation of real space … is undone, something else emerges … . What is more, this shock that is the miracle of trompe l’oeil … reveal[s] to us that ‘reality’ is never more than a world hierarchically staged (mise-en-scène), an objectivity achieved according to the rules of depth; that reality is a principle the observance of which regulates all the painting, sculpture, and architecture of the time. But it is a principle and a simulacrum and nothing more, put to an end by the experimental hypersimulation of trompe l’oeil. [28]

Figure 4: René Magritte, La Saignée, 1939, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2007.

Magritte’s forgeries and use of trompe l’oeil methods reveal reality’s simulated nature. His art does not try to ‘create’ or use a ‘new language’ – this would reinforce the capitalist myths of ‘originality’ and ‘individual creativity.’ Rather, through plagiarism and forgery, he reinvents, changes and interferes with the language of those who exert aesthetic and representational power, ranging from the previous canon to the art market. Magritte’s attraction to forgery is motivated by the same factors as his attraction to trompe l’oeil – both negate Western notions of the authenticity, originality and genuine meaning of the work of art. 

As Mark Jones argues, in Fake? The Art of Deception, forgeries challenge the authenticity of our responses to works of art: ‘Why, if what we value from a work of art is the aesthetic pleasure to be gained from it, is a successfully deceptive fake inferior to the real thing?’ [29] The phrase ‘real thing’ appears both in Jones’ book and David Phillips’s writing in the exhibition catalogue encompassing the Arts Council exhibition on forgery of 1986, Don’t Trust the Label. Phillips states: ‘However good the imitation or reproduction, it is not the same as the ‘real thing.’30 Both, the forgery and the trompe l’oeil, situate themselves within a neither-nor space, denying any kind of resolution in Western terms – they are neither real, nor do they convey conventionally seen ‘higher meanings.’ Both are depthless and both mark the failure of reality and the failure’s mocking of reality.

These counterfeits are, in Baudrillard’s words, Western reality’s ‘ironic simulacrum’;[31] they are not the ‘real thing’ but the ‘thing of the real,’ which denies reassurance and reveals artificiality as reality, as Baudrillard argues:

In fact a complete reversal of the rules of play occurs – which might lead one to suppose, or at least permit the supposition, that the whole exterior space … , even the space of political power, is perhaps nothing more than the effect of perspective. … Somewhere or other, since Machiavelli, politicians have perhaps always known it: the mastery of a simulated space is at the source of power, politics is neither a territory nor a function nor a real space, but a simulated model of which the manifest actions are no more than a realized effect. … A ‘blind spot’, a ‘hole in reality’, a simulacrum hidden at the heart of reality and which reality depends on for its entire operation. Thus the Pope himself or the Grand Inquisitor or the great Jesuits and theologians alone knew that God did not exist – that was their secret and their strength. Similarly … the secret of the bank is above all others. Its initiates transmit it one to another – these priests, these theologians of figures, they alone know it and laugh in their sleeves. But I will reveal it to you: money does not exist. [32]

This is not …
Notions of the betrayal of the viewer, of mistaking and thereby misreading one thing for another, are at the core of Magritte’s art. Perhaps one of the best-known of these images is La Trahison des Images (1928) in which the betrayal is already present in the title. In front of the orangeybrown background of the painting, a clearly outlined realistic depiction of a pipe floats in the air. The painting is reminiscent of a school blackboard. Underneath the pipe there is some handwriting – which, as Michel Foucault states, seems a ‘steady, painstaking, artificial script, a script from the convent, like that found heading the notebooks of schoolboys, or on a blackboard after an object
lesson. The writing says “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe”.’ [33]

We are looking at this image and call the image ‘pipe’; we trust it to resemble something which we’ve learnt is a pipe. Is this not the same belief, the same trust, which forgery latches onto and turns against itself? Is it not our
trust in style and in scholars who have studied certain styles by certain artists, which aids the forger ultimately to be treacherous? Does the ‘treachery of images’ not belong to the same category as the ‘treachery of forgery’?
The painting interrogates the very character of language, representation, communication and reference. The painting utters the question through the simple device of the word ‘Ceci,’ ‘This.’ A word so mundane and ordinary, used in everyday communication, yet Magritte achieves with this insertion the questioning of the very ability of the signifier to refer – to communicate accurately. The viewer is confined, through the simplicity of the painting and through the restricted number of constituents: image, sentence, signature and the word ‘pipe.’ Michel Foucault notes in his discussion of the painting:

A painting ‘shows’ a drawing that ‘shows’ the form of a pipe; a text written by a zealous instructor ‘shows’ that a pipe is really what is meant. We do not see the teacher’s pointer, but it rules throughout – precisely like his voice, in the act of articulating very clearly, “This is a pipe.” From painting to image, from image to text from text to voice, a sort of imaginary pointer indicates, shows, fixes, locates, imposes a system of references, and tries to
stabilize a unique space. … scarcely has he stated, “This is a pipe,” before he must correct himself and stutter, “This is not a pipe, but a drawing of a pipe,” “This is not a pipe but a sentence saying that this is not a pipe,” “The sentence ‘this is not a pipe,’ is not a pipe,” “In the sentence ‘this is not a pipe,’ this is not a pipe: the painting, written sentence, drawing of a pipe – all this is not a pipe. [34]

The deictic ‘this’ in Magritte’s painting sets off boldly into every direction, naming every item in the painting, aiming at nothing, referring to all of them, yet to none. Dylan Evans describes such words as ‘shifters’ to ‘refer to those elements in language whose general meaning cannot be defined without reference to the message.’ [35] ‘This,’ in Magritte’s painting, performs precisely this function – it shifts  and defers any certainty of meaning and the possibility of reference, as Derrida writes: ‘… this about which we have failed to say anything whatsoever that is logically determinable, this that comes with so much difficulty to language, this that seems not to mean anything, this that puts to rout our meaning to say ….’[36]

It does not allow the confinement of meaning to one item, it does not allow certainty of meaning, but eternally places and displaces it, away from the image of the pipe and into the realm of linguistic signification – from icon to symbol. A newly established hierarchy between text and image emerges which is immediately deconstructed since image contains text and text contains image, leading to an aporia in how we read the painting.

Counterfeiting signatures
Conventionally the signature asserts authenticity – it stands-in for the author’s absence. Forgery undermines this reliability of the signature, of the label, as is stated in the exhibition catalogue of the 1984 exhibition Seeing is Deceiving: ‘The point is fundamental: to what extent do we rely on the name and on the label in formulating our response to a painting?’ [37] Magritte repeatedly subverts the reliability of the signature, through, for example trompe l’oeil methods which hide the artist’s signature on an object or on a painting within a painting – in Le Modèle Rouge (1937) Magritte’s signature vanishes beneath gravel, and resembles the stones, in Le Fils de l’Homme (1964) it is an inscription in stone and in L’Air et la Chanson (1964) it is two-levels removed from reality, being positioned in the frame within the frame, rendering problematic the reference to a ‘Magritte’ outside of art. Magritte uses trompe l’oeil’s ability to ‘dispense with an artistic signature, a fact that further underlines its character as an object, lending the picture a quality that is almost autonomous.’ [38]

The word ‘signature’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has its etymological root in signatura, which means 'to mark out or designate.' It means to 'mark with a sign,' to 'acknowledge or guarantee [through] affixing or having affixed one’s name or initials or recognized mark.' As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue, the essence of society is not exchange but inscription: ‘the essential thing is to mark and to be marked.’ [39] In La Trahison des Images Magritte’s act of signing the painting, through the application of the word ‘this,’ is rendered problematic, questioning the status of the signature as being able to refer to a referent outside of the painting. The signature is a representation of the artist, a mark of the artist. The signature as écriture connotes writing as interplay of presence and absence in that ‘signs represent the present in its absence.’ [40]

Conventionally it asserts the artist’s presence in his/her absence. Magritte’s signature cannot resist the slipstream effect of ‘this.’ If ‘this’ distorts reference, pointing out the very inability of reference actually to refer to, then it also renders the signature’s referent outside of the painting, ‘Magritte,’ uncertain. Magritte’s use of ‘this’ constructs a similar scenario to Derrida’s use of shifters such as ‘here’ and ‘there’ in his verbal, deictic play on the
final page of his essay ‘Signature Event Context,’ challenging the reliability of his own signature:

‘Remark: the written-text of this – oral – communication was to have been addressed to the Association of French Speaking Societies of Philosophy before the meeting. Such a missive therefore had to be signed. Which I did, and counterfeit here. Where? There. J.D.’[41]

The signature ‘Magritte’ is not the same as the person who bears this name, yet the signature is presumed as that which asserts the authenticity of the painting. The signature no longer marks, but becomes integral to the artwork. The signature, conventionally, is the mark or trace of the artist as author or creator, asserting presence in the artist’s absence; Jacques Derrida remarks that the signature operates in order to ensure ‘the presence of the “author” as the “person who does the uttering,” as the “origin,” the source, in the production of the statement.’ [42]

Magritte’s integration of the signature into the artwork, the challenge of the signature as referring to something outside the artwork, begins to deconstruct these various themes of the original, the source and the author. Conventional notions of the value of the work of art, and its belonging to a particular producer are organised around notions of author – authority – authenticity, and through these words hierarchies of value and degrees
of genuineness are established. According to Derrida, every sign, every mark is, after its production, ‘abandoned to its essential drifting’:

This is the possibility on which I wish to insist: the possibility of extraction and of citational grafting which belongs to the structure of every mark; … as a possibility of functioning cut off, at a certain point, from its ‘original’ meaning and from its belonging to a saturable and constraining context. Every sign, … can be cited, put between quotation marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely non-saturable fashion. [43]

Still more importantly, what Derrida describes as this potential citationality, this duplicability of a signature is not its ‘abnormal’ state, but is at the very heart of its existence. The signature, in order to be valid, recognisable and ‘unique’ to a certain person, must be recognisable through its repeatability. I have to be able to duplicate my signature in order for it to stand for me. In order for the signature to function as singular, it must have a repeatable and imitable form – in order to be singular it is based on doubling and repetition. As Derrida states: ‘This citationality, duplication, duplicity, this iterability of the mark is not an accident or an anomaly, but is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could no longer even have a so-called ‘normal’ functioning.’ [44]

One of the colour images included in the monograph, to fund which Magritte forged artworks, was Le Retour de Flame from 1943 – another instance of painterly ‘plagiarism.’ The painting shows Fantômas, the master criminal, reigning over Paris. Sylvester calls this painting a ‘translation of the famous Fantômas poster,’ whilst Georges Marlier dismisses it as ‘the Fantômas poster, painfully transposed onto canvas.’ [45] The painting is indeed a repainting, a plagiarism of a poster where the only changes are the style of the painting and the flower in Fantômas’s hands.

Counterfeit and forgery are also present in Magritte’s identity. The remnant of ‘Magritte’ the person is a fictional, almost cartoonlike, bourgeois figure, coupled to an oeuvre which has been shaped by art history into a ‘coherent’
whole. As is stated in the catalogue to the exhibition Seeing is Deceiving: ‘It is characteristic of 20th century needs that art historians have attempted, purely on stylistic grounds … , to isolate a group of works produced by the same artist. This "artist" is essentially the creation of art historians.’ [46]

Figure 5: Photograph of Magritte with Le Barbare (1927), 1938 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2007.

A photograph taken in 1938 shows Magritte standing beside his painting Le Barbare [fig. 5]. The photograph itself is a phantom, an apparition of the painting, which no longer exists. Le Barbare shows Fantômas wearing a cylinder and an evening gown in front of a fragile wall – fragile, because it metamorphoses into transparency. According to Sylvester there is ‘a remarkable similarity … between this image and a music-hall poster of the period, showing the popular illusion of transparency known as Pepper’s Ghost effect’ [47] – another trompe l’oeil, another forgery.

In the photograph, Magritte mimes the posture of Fantômas in the painting as well as his clothing through wearing a bowler hat and evening dress. Magritte mimes and parodies Fantômas, thereby reversing the conventional preeminence of reality – here reality follows fiction. However, he mimes a character whose main feature is that he can slip in and out of roles and appear in different, but mainly bourgeois, identities. Fantômas is the master criminal who subverts the everyday, by slipping into the role of its actors. Fantômas films are obsessed with forgery, depicting its prevalence in scenes, motifs and actions ranging from fake jewellery to the forgery of letters, signatures and other documents, as for example in the first Fantômas film in 1913. In this film Fantômas steals a baroness’s jewels and leaves her with a blank name card on which, after he has gone, his name magically appears. In the same episode different letters and signatures are shown, and people are not who they seem to be; so the bourgeois gentlemen Gurn turns out to be Fantômas himself, thereby allowing Fantômas to enact the meaning of
the word ‘Phantom’ embedded in his name, by repeatedly becoming ‘something that has only an apparent existence; an apparition, a spectre; a spirit, a ghost.’ Fantômas is like a linguistic ‘shifter’ where the moment of capture becomes the very moment of his escape, recalling Derrida’s deictic play: ‘Where? Here. There.’

Biographical writing
Magritte’s writings resist, on any level, the stable, reliable coherence – the consistency of argument, of logic, of tone – so much desired by the reader and especially by the interpreter of his works. Forgery, plagiarism and doubling, citational grafting, are the basis on which Magritte’s autobiographical writings are built. Magritte introduces the author, himself, as unreliable, as unstable.

The most autobiographical of his writings, ‘La Ligne de Vie’ (‘Lifeline’), exists in two versions. The first was written in 1938 for a lecture at the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp, and ‘La Ligne de Vie, II’ was revised and edited by Magritte in collaboration with Louis Scutenaire, in order to be published in L’Invention Collective in 1940. [48] The similarities between the two texts are undermined by the evident changes that the author has made in producing the second version of the text.

However, André Blavier and Mariën draw attention to similarities between passages of Magritte’s ‘La Ligne de Vie’ and passages from Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘Berenice’ (1835), and also with Max Ernst’s celebrated text ‘Le 10 août 1925 …’ which was published in Au-delà de la peinture in Cahiers d’art in 1936, a year before Magritte’s first version of ‘La Ligne de Vie.’ These similarities suggest Magritte’s possible appropriation and adaptation of these past texts for his own autobiographical writings. Most importantly Magritte describes, in ‘La Ligne de Vie, I,’ an experience in 1925, which led him to paint objects exclusively in possession of their obvious details:

Therefore, I decided around 1925, to paint the objects only with their apparent details, because my research could only be developed under these circumstances. I gave up on all except one way of painting, which brought me to a point which I had to transgress. This decision, which allowed me to break with a by then comfortable habit, was eased by the way, through long observations, in which I found an opportunity in a popular Brasserie in
Brussels. The psychological state I was in, caused the decorative moulding on a door to appear as if it would have a mysterious existence, and I was long in touch with its reality.[49]

Blavier suggests that these lines can be compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Berenice,’ in which the hero narrates: [50]
To muse for long unwearied hours with my attention riveted to some frivolous device on the margin, or in the typography of a book; to become absorbed for the better part of a summer’s day, in a quaint shadow falling aslant upon the tapestry, or upon the door; to lose myself for an entire night in watching the steady flame of a lamp, or the embers of a fire; to dream away whole days over the perfume of a flower; to repeat monotonously some
common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind. [51]

However, Blavier also notes that Magritte’s text might also bear comparison with Ernst’s writing, pointing to Marcel Mariën’s citation of Magritte’s passage, following a citation of Ernst’s text ‘Le 10 août 1925 …,’ in his book Les Corrections naturelles: [52]

On August 10, 1925 an intolerable visual obsession made me discover the technical means that enabled me to put Leonardo’s lesson … into practice. It started from a childhood memory in which a panel of false mahogany across from my bed provoked a vision in my mind while I was half asleep, and, being in an inn by the sea during a rainfall, I became obsessed and irritated with the patterns of grooves in the floor, accentuated by thousands of washings. [53]

Ernst’s text, which is influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting (c. 1500), [54] in which the author recommends that artists should stare at stains on walls until figures appear, shares significant similarities with Magritte’s text. The date, the place of the experience (Brasserie/Inn), the experience of marvelling at mundane features of domestic spaces (decorative moulding/floor) and its influential, revelatory effect on both artists seem to point towards more than just an accidentally similar experience. Ernst’s statement seems reworked and appropriated by Magritte into his own autobiographical outline.

Magritte’s methods of obscuring the ‘truths’ behind and sources of his autobiographical writings conform to an important but often forgotten part of his lifelong project to undermine bourgeois ideology. His devices of self-contradiction and narrative or factual inconsistency, and the adaptation or assimilation of Ernst’s professed experience into his own autobiographical outline, are used to undermine the ideological notions of authorial reliability and notions of originality, authenticity and the implicit assumption that events presented with such qualities are therefore ‘real.’ Magritte’s aim is to withdraw the comfortable veil of security and certainty from any one thing in order to introduce us to the human condition, a condition of uncertainty and insecurity that requires the constant, unsettling effort of decipherment. Here conventional meaning is rendered unstable – Magritte’s ‘incoherence’ is the deconstruction of our world as a coherent whole. Magritte shows us the fragility of the supposed ‘coherence’ which we comfortably inhabit.

Ceci n’est pas un Magritte

Figure 6: René Magritte, La Force de l'habitude (Force of Habit), 1960, private collection © ADAGP, Paris and
DACS, London, 2007.

However, Magritte’s writing seems not to be the only plagiarism of Ernst. As David Sylvester writes, Magritte’s forgeries for the monograph published in 1943 included ‘imitations of Picasso, Braque and de Chirico and, in particular, Max Ernst’s Forêt of around 1927 [formerly in the Graindorge collection and included in several major post-war retrospectives, but with no record of having been shown before the war – which is no. 1167 in the Ernst catalogue raisonné by Werner Spies. Spies reaffirmed to us in 1984 that he considered this piece to be  authentic].’ [55]

Ernst never publicly commented on or denied his own authorship of this work, however, he did produce a possible ‘reply’ or ‘statement’ on this matter, in the most appropriate way possible – on a canvas [fig. 6]:

In Max Ernst’s dining room in Paris there was a painting by Magritte, entitled Force of Habit (1960), in which a heraldic image of a large green apple is inscribed, in English, ‘This is not an apple.’ Max and Magritte had exchanged pictures, as artists often do. And Max, in the middle of the apple, had painted a cage with a bird inside. Below this cage, Max had written, 'Ceci n’est pas un Magritte – signé Max Ernst.' [56]

Magritte’s only comment on Ernst’s ‘joke’ was ‘forced laughter,’ perhaps because he knew too well what Ernst was aiming at. Ernst’s signature appropriates, becomes a further item in the play and multiplication of ceci, but also in the multiplication of names – Magritte as signature, Magritte as label, Max Ernst as counter-signature. Ernst’s inscription unearths the subversive character of Magritte beneath his appearance as a commercial artist, revealing him as being ‘like a worm in the apple… changing what is within, without touching the surface.’ [57]

Whilst Magritte saw this painting and its title as ‘another version’ of the ‘problem of the pipe,’ of the ‘problem of the ceci,’ complying with the artmarket which wanted to see endless reproductions of the same theme, Ernst teases out a different meaning, a different ‘Magritte,’ allocating the ‘problem of ceci’ to its rightful, subversive place. Force of Habit is exposed, not as the re-painting of the same motif, but as the inability not to forge, to
plagiarise, the inability to keep one’s hands off the other’s artworks. The phrase ‘Ceci n’est pas’ takes on the specific discourse of forgery. Of course, Magritte countered, for a last time, as Fantômas would do.

Marcel Mariën narrates that three months before Magritte’s death in 1967, the forged La Forêt reappeared in Brussels at an exposition of six surrealist painters where Ernst’s and Magritte’s paintings hung next to each other. Christian Bussy reported to Mariën that Magritte, in passing by the painting, called out: ‘This is a famous Max Ernst!’ [58]

The ‘other’ side of Magritte’s art insists on what Isidore Ducasse, himself a fervent plagiarist, stated, that ‘plagiarism is necessary’ in order to overthrow Western bourgeois myths of the artist and ideologies. As another notorious plagiarist, Stewart Home, explains, plagiarism, and, by extension, forgery, ‘enriches human language. It is a collective undertaking … Plagiarism implies a sense of history and leads to progressive social transformation’ [59] – or, to close with the wisdom of a true forger, as Tom Keating stated:

‘Some people might argue that to work in another artist’s style automatically precludes originality or ‘inspiration’. But they do so at their peril, for the history of art is a history of borrowings and adaptations.’ [60]

I would like to thank Professor Hilde van Gelder and the Lieven Gevaeert Centre for inviting me to give a guest lecture on this topic, thereby allowing me the chance to focus my research on it. The Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies at Manchester University also allowed me to present a version of it, for which I am grateful. I would also particularly like to thank Professor Allen Fisher, Dr John Sears and Dr Simon Ford for their valuable suggestions. [Patricia Allmer, 2007]

1 Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass, Brighton and New York 1986, 320.

2 David Sylvester (ed.) and Sarah Whitfield, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné II, London 1993, 98.

3 Marcel Mariën, Le Radeau de la Mémoire, Breteuil-sur-Iton 1983, 102 (‘ … qu’achetant un faux diamant sans le savoir, la satisfaction se trouvera être la même du fait que l’on y a mis le prix.’)

4 Mariën, Le Radeau de la Mémoire.

5 René Magritte, ‘Réponse à l’enquête SUR LA CRISE DE LA PEINTURE’ (1935), in André Blavier (ed.), René Magritte, Paris 2001, 85 (‘Le point de vue communiste est le mien. Mon art n’est valable que pour autant qu’il s’oppose à l’idéologie bourgeoise au nom de laquelle on éteint la vie.’)

6 Styles evoking different periods and influences appear in Magritte’s oeuvre; they include futurism, cubism and impressionism. Magritte seems repeatedly to cross the boundaries between being influenced by and copying another artist, for example in his Girl at the Piano (1924) compared with Albert Gleizes Femme au Piano (1944), his Jeunesse (1924?) compared with Robert Delaunay’s La ville de Paris (1912) and, particularly, his La Pose Enchantée (1927) which obviously derives, as Magritte’s alleged Picasso forgery, from Picasso’s neo-classical nudes from the early 1920s.

7 Sylvester, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné II, 98.

8 Sylvester, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné II, 309.

9 Sylvester, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné II, 99–100.

10 David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield and Michael Raeburn, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné III, London 1993, 119.

11 Sylvester, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné III, 121.

12 Sylvester, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné III, 119.

13 David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield, and Michael Raeburn, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné IV, London 1994, 125.

14 Magritte, ‘La Ligne de Vie II’ (1940) in Blavier, René Magritte, 145 (‘met le monde réel en cause’).

15 Magritte, ‘Je pense à…’ (1952) in Blavier, René Magritte, 327 (‘La mise en doute de la réalité par la
réalité elle-même’).

16 Célestine Dars, Images of Deception, Oxford 1979, 7.

17 Pliny’s Natural History, in Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting, London 1985, 1.

18 Eckhard Hollmann and Jürgen Tesch, A Trick of the Eye, London and Munich 2004, 7.

19 Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Trompe l’OEil’ in Norman Bryson (ed.), Calligram, Cambridge and New York 1988, 57.

20 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller and translated by Alan Sheridan, Harmondsworth, [1977] 1987, 112.

21 René Magritte in Harry Torczyner, Magritte, New York 1977, 260.
22 René Magritte in Sarah Whitfield, René Magritte, London 1992, 139.
23 Dars, Images of Deception, 7.
24 René Magritte in Whitfield, René Magritte, 141.
25 Whitfield, René Magritte, 141.
26 Baudrillard, 'The Trompe l’OEil,' 58.
27 Baudrillard, 'The Trompe l’OEil,' 58.
28 Baudrillard, 'The Trompe l’OEil,' 58–9.
29 Mark Jones (ed.), Fake? The Art of Deception, London 1990, 15.
30 David Phillips, Don’t Trust the Label, London 1986, 13.
31 Baudrillard, ‘The Trompe l’OEil,’ 57.
32 Baudrillard, ‘The Trompe l’OEil,' 60–62.

33 Michel Foucault, This is not a Pipe, trans. and ed. James Harkness, Berkeley 1983, 15.

34 Foucault, This is not a Pipe, 30.

35 Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London 1996, 182.

36 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, London and New York 1994, 172.

37 Seeing is Deceiving, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 1984, 7.

38 Hollmann and Tesch, A Trick of the Eye, 2004, 7.

39 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, London 1990, 142.

40 Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. and ed. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Oxford 1977, 119.

41 Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 330.
42 Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 328.
43 Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 320.
44 Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, 320.
45 Sylvester, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné II, 319.
46 Seeing is Deceiving, 7.
47 David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield (eds), René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné I - Oil Paintings
1916 – 1930, London 1992, 250.
48 René Magritte, ‘La Ligne de Vie, II’, L’Invention Collective, 2 (February 1940), 11–14.

49 Magritte ‘La Ligne de Vie, I’ (1938), in Blavier, René Magritte, 107 (‘Je décidai donc vers 1925 de ne plus peindre les objects qu’avec leurs détails apparents, car mes recherches ne pouvaient se développer qu’à cette condition. Je ne renonçais guère au’à une certaine manière de peindre, qui m’avait conduit à un point qu’il me fallait dépasser. Cette décision, qui me fit romper avec une habitude déjà devenue confortable, me fut d’ailleurs facilitée à cette époque par la longue contemplation qu’il me fut donné d’avoir dans une brasserie populaire de Bruxelles. La disposition d’esprit où j’étais me fit paraître douées d’une mystérieuse existence les moulures d’une porte et je fus longtemps en contact avec leur réalité’).

50 Other passages from Magritte’s text share similarities in narratives and their moods with Poe’s ‘Berenice.’ For example: ‘Dans mon enfance, j’aimais jouer avec une petite fille, dans le vieux cimetière désaffecté d’une petite ville de province. Nous visitions les caveaux souterrains … .’ Blavier, René Magritte, 105 ('In my childhood, I liked playing with a little girl on the old, abandoned cemetery of a small provincial town. We roamed the underground vaults … .’). Similarly, the narrator in Poe’s story, Egæus, solitary in character, spends his childhood playing only with his young cousin, Berenice.

51 Blavier, René Magritte, 105.

52 See Marcel Mariën, Les Corrections naturelles, Brussels 1947, 82–84.

53 Max Ernst, ‘Au-delà de la peinture,’ Cahiers d’art, Paris 1936, 28 ('Le 10 août 1925, une insupportable obsession visuelle me fit découvrir les moyens techniques qui m'ont permis une très large mise en pratique de cette leçon de Léonard … . Partant d'un souvenir d'enfance au cours duquel un panneau de faux acajou, situé en face de mon lit, avait joué le rôle de provocateur optique d'une vision de demi-sommeil, et me trouvant, par un temps de pluie, dans une auberge au bord de la mer, je fus frappé par l'obsession qu'exerçait sur mon regard irrité le plancher, dont mille lavages avaient accentué les rainures').

54 Magritte possessed a copy of Leonardo’s Treatise, as Sylvester’s records of Magritte’s library show.

55 Sylvester, Catalogue Raisonné II, 99.

56 Daniel Filipacchi, Surrealism, New York 1999, 24.

57 Stewart Home, Plagiarism: Art as Commodity and Strategies for its Negation, London 1987, 10.

58 Mariën, Le Radeau de la Mémoire, 103 (‘Ça, c’est un fameux Max Ernst!’).

59 Stewart Home, Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis, Edinburgh 1995, 51.

60 Tom Keating, Geraldine and Frank Norman, The Fake’s Progress, London 1977, 200.

Patricia Allmer is Research Associate at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD). She has published widely on René Magritte and Surrealism. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming book Collective Inventions: Surrealism in Belgium and is the curator of the 2009 Manchester Art Gallery exhibition Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism.

Georgette with Bilboquet 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 9:01:22 PM


This blog we'll look at one of Magritte's lesser known paintings, his portrait of Georgette with Bilboquet from early 1926.  

Georgette with Bilboquet Jan. 1926

This is one of the early paintings using one of Magritte's favorite icons, the bilboquets or balluster. It's also an early example of another of Magritte's common settings- it is a painting within a painting.

At first I thought the ballusters or "bilboquets" as Magritte called them were wooden dowls put on a lathe that resembled table legs or bed posts. Then remembering Magritte was an avid chess player the "bilboquets" looked like the bishop of a chess set. According to one source: A little like mannequins in the work of Giorgio de Chirico, these biboquets that Max Ernst called "phallustrade" signify the erection of the mysterious, the desire that the invisible - retired in to itself - has to be seen. The mystery of Being concerns us, encircles us and calls us towards it. The retreat of Being atrracts us, it is our first pre-occupation and regards us before the secondary regard that we turn toward it when we are guided by resemblance. The picture resembles Being as Being, in the measure that the painting assembles or directs our view upon the regard, the regard that comes from Being and is not invented by us.

This small portrait of Georgette as a picture within a picture, painted in the first weeks of 1926, the bilboquet standing on the table is partly within the painting/photo- an impossibilty. There is another famous icon on the right; the curtain.

In 1960 Magritte in response to a questionairre talked about his famous object of mystery, the "bilboquet."

Question: Why is it that in some of your paintings bizarre images appear like the Bilboquet?

Magritte: I don't think of a bilboquet as being bizarre.  It's rather something very banal, as banal as a pencil holder, a key or teh foot of a table. I never show bizarre or strange things in my paintings... not bizarre but ordinary things that are gathered and transformed in such a way that we're made to think that there's something else of an unfamiliar nature that appears at the same time as the familiar.  

In some paintings the bilboquets are trees at other times they are human, surely they are mysterious beings. In Georgette with Bilboquet, the bilboquet stands like a sentry both in front and behind her. Personally I think it's a subconscious joke Magritte was playing without even's a bishop. 

Your move Rene. 

Hegel's Holiday- 1958 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 7:55:54 PM


This post we'll look at Magritte's 1958 painting Hegel's Holiday. This painting owes its title to Paul Nouge, the poet. It should be pointed out, however - and in contrast to the obstinately persistent legend -that it was extremely rare for Magritte's pictures to be given their titles by others. While it is true that the artist loved to gather with friends in front of his completed pictures and enjoyed finding titles for these works in their company, we know of only a few examples indicating his actually taking up their suggestions: Georgette, his wife, tells us how "It often happened that, come the next day, he was no longer satisfied with their inventions, and would then choose a name with which he himself was happy." This is the case with Hegel's Holiday, for instance. The picture portrays an object whose function is to repel water - an umbrella -juxtaposed with an object which contains water - a glass. We should probably talk here not so much of a contradiction as of a contrast, since the idea behind the picture is not very profound. And indeed, it is for this reason that Hegel is on holiday, going without the rigorousness of logical demonstrations so as to devote himself to pictures of an entertaining nature.

                                  Hegel's Holiday- 1958

Hegel, the exponent of philosophical dialectics, is the inspiration behind this picture. Magritte sums up:

"I... thought that Hegel ... would have been very sensitive to this object which has two opposing functions: at the same time not to admit any water (repelling it) and to admit it (containing it). He would have been delighted, I think, or amused (as on a vacation) and I call the painting Hegel's Holiday."

Here's an article:

Let us begin with René Magritte's Hegel's Holiday (1958). There is a wonderful letter written by Magritte to the critic Suzi Gablik explaining the genesis of the work:

"My latest painting began with the question: how to show a glass of water in a painting in such a way that it would not be indifferent? Or whimsical, or arbitrary, or weak – but, allow us to use the word, with genius? (Without false modesty.) I began by drawing many glasses of water, always with a linear mark on the glass. This line, after the 100th or 150th drawing, widened out and finally took the form of an umbrella. The umbrella was then put into the glass, and to conclude, underneath the glass. Which is the exact solution to the initial question: how to paint a glass of water with genius. I then thought that Hegel (another genius) would have been very sensitive to this object which has two opposing functions: at the same time not to admit any water (repelling it) and to admit it (containing it). He would have been delighted, I think, or amused (as on vacation), and I call the painting Hegel's Holiday."

What is fascinating here is to watch how the work progresses almost beyond or against Magritte's will, as though he can only look at it unfold before his eyes. The subject of the painting begins as a kind of "stain" in the water that repeats itself from drawing to drawing before taking on its final form as an umbrella. It is as though there is some unconscious force at play of which Magritte is only an effect, which precedes him and which he can only trace out or follow.

Magritte at first draws without knowing what he is doing, then sees what he has drawn and tries to draw it again. He makes a mark before he knows what he has done and then attempts – unsuccessfully – to repeat or imitate it. But it is through this continuous process of imitating a previous imitation – of, we might say, imitating nothing or, as Magritte might say, imitating water – that the umbrella is unfurled, and something is created out of nothing. Magritte does not know at any stage what he is imitating or what his series of drawings has in common – or he could only say what it is by means of another drawing. But the extraordinary thing is that out of this series of comparisons something is produced that – perhaps – has nothing in common with that original line with which he began.

That umbrella is almost infinitely different from that "linear mark on the glass" he began by imitating. And what about the final comparison between the umbrella and the glass of water? Here too, as Magritte notes, there are two opposed things: an umbrella that does not admit or repels water and a glass that admits or contains it. But, again, the strange thing is that we somehow find something in common between these two opposites – or, at least, the problem is raised for us: what do these opposites have in common, what do both resemble, the one transparent and admitting water and the other opaque and repelling it? Is this not, however, the very problem of painting itself, this bringing together of two opposed qualities? The opaque and the transparent, that which admits light and water and that which excludes them, the canvas as a window and the canvas as a wall? Can we not say that Hegel's Holiday is a painting of painting itself, an attempt to show or represent the very thing that allows painting – painting as the transformation of unidentifiable blobs of paint into identifiable and nameable objects? Is not that passage from the mark or stain to the object we see there the very passage implied in all painting?

Now, we might ask: what allows this miraculous transformation from the shapeless blot to the finished and defined object? What guarantees the possibility– whose assumption Magritte was working under as he did these drawings – of the stain becoming a thing? In fact, these working drawings already contain the answer within them. For what we can see Magritte doing there is trying to catch up with a knowledge that already sees the line as something else. It is as though each drawing was done by another, which Magritte then attempts to make over in his own terms, only to discover that once again it has gone beyond him, contains something he has not seen before. And the pauses and hesitations in Magritte's method – the 100 to 150 sketches he took to get it right – arise because at the same time the line is both. It is both an attempt to copy that line which appears before him and what moves him beyond himself, forcing him to make another copy. It is almost – but, as we shall see, not quite – as though there is some pre-existing, unconscious knowledge that Magritte is trying to recapture, some memory he is endeavouring to evoke.

But, again, what explains this delay, the time it takes for that final "solution" to be found, is that, if he has to wait until he recognises that line which expresses this memory, he also cannot know what this memory is until he sees it as this line. And the impossible equivalence each drawing attempts to make – the two opposing things it brings together – is just that between this knowing and this seeing. We would say that each of these drawings is this equivalence, but that it would always require another drawing for him to recognise this, a comparison of it to something else. Or, as Magritte said about another painting we shall be coming to in a moment, if what is produced finally has the "unequivocal character of an image", it is still in the end "not a cigar that one sees but only an image of a cigar".

It is this relationship between the painter's own experience of the picture as he paints it and the feeling that he is already his own spectator looking back at it after it is painted that Lacan spoke of as the "gaze". It was the "gaze" for Lacan– that which sees you from the picture before you see it– that for him explained the possibility of the painter making his stains on the canvas, which, after all, resemble nothing, are mere patches of pigment, recognisable as objects or the images of objects. It is the gaze itself that Magritte is trying to represent in this series of drawings for Hegel's Holiday. As he retraces the line he sees before him on the glass, he is getting closer, he thinks, to what originally inspired the painting or he is seeing the painting as though it were already finished. He is engaged in the process of trying to represent the painting as it already appears to the other. He is attempting, in other words, to represent this gaze of the other. But the paradox is that, at the very moment he captures this gaze – makes an equivalence between the painting he sees and the painting as seen by this other– it reveals itself as a mere umbrella, something that seems to bear no relationship to anything else, to hover inexplicably in the air supported by nothing.

Our look is inescapably drawn towards the umbrella as the solution to the painting or as that in which the solution to the painting is to be found; but, as Magritte says, this umbrella does not admit or repels our look at the same time. What is demonstrated in the end is that there is no secret to the painting – that the umbrella does not unfold and support itself – but that it is only through our very looking at it, through its capturing and containment of our look, that it exists at all (like its opposite, the water). That is, what is shown is that, if the umbrella is the unconscious origin of the painting, as though Magritte has somehow forgotten it – and it is that prior gaze which allows him to remember it – this umbrella also only comes about at the end of the painting, after we ourselves have seen it.

We might speak of this peculiar temporality of the painting, a kind of future anterior or "as if", in terms of the suspension of disbelief – that suspension of disbelief Surrealist paintings are so famous for. In the Magritte "portraits" where an object hovers mysteriously in front of the sitter's face, we have the uncanny feeling that, if we are unable to see the person behind it, they are certainly able to see us. [1]

In other words, if the object in front of their face is opaque to us, a mere splotch or blob on the canvas, it is transparent, a figure, for them. (This is undoubtedly strange because the object must be much too close for them to see clearly.)  But what is also remarkable about these pictures – and this is just what we mean by that suspension of disbelief guaranteed by the gaze – is that we sense that it is only the gaze of this other that keeps the object suspended in the air, which  makes it weightless or transparent, not a real thing but only the image of a thing. In fact, it is really only our own transfixed and helpless look, attracted by this unaccountably levitating object that keeps it up. And Magritte would in a way speak here of the canvas itself – and in this we can understand these pictures too as representations of representation – as just this peculiar hovering object, suspended by nothing.

Magritte's pictures – think here of the rock in the air of The Glass Key (1939) or the train steaming out of the fireplace in Time Transfixed (1939), but also of the earlier dramas where a group of robbers is hunched around a doorway about to strike as in The Murderer Threatened (1927) – are all about this "suspense" or "suspension of disbelief", this pause or caesura between seeing and knowing, which is the mystery of painting and of appearance in painting. And this "suspense" should remind us of what Foucault says about Magritte's work – and particularly about his This is Not a Pipe (1926), another painting which, like Hegel's Holiday, tries to unite opposites. Foucault's argument about Magritte is that what we see in his pictures is the disappearance of the common ground between objects and between objects and the language that designates them.

Indeed, he goes further and says that it is this disappearance, paradoxically, that allows them to be compared. That is, words and things can be compared, but we cannot say what both resemble. He writes in his book on Magritte: "The incisions that draw figures and that mark letters communicate only by a void, a non-place hidden beneath a marble solidity”. [2]

Or, to put it another way, where could we stand in Magritte's paintings to see this comparison they make? As with the objects in Borges' heterotopia of which Foucault speaks at the beginning of his The Order of Things, it would take place only in an imaginary, fictitious place from which all ground has disappeared. This is why we cannot decide in Magritte's paintings– despite their critics and despite even Magritte's own statements – whether the objects brought together are the same or different, whether their metaphoric spark arises because it reveals a hidden affinity or a secret opposition. For this would require some outside measure or standard against which to compare them, which is precisely what we lack there. But this would also mean that, if we cannot say what third thing those other two resemble, we cannot say what either of them is before this comparison.

For it is only through its comparison with another that we can say what any object is or means. This is why Magritte emphasises so strongly – despite perhaps the evidence of his working drawings – that he did not begin by comparing any particular object to make his work. He was not, for example, inspired by a bike in his State of Grace (1959). It was not some pre-existing bike that was successively compared, before finally selecting the match that would best bring out the "essence" of the bike. Rather, it was, he said, with the very comparison between the bike and the cigar that the painting began. It was only after the original nexus of the bike and cigar that those other alternatives were possible. As he wrote: "The bicycle is not a subject that inspires me. It is inspiration that gives me the subject to be painted: a bicycle on a cigar" (letter to Andre Bosmans, October 23, 1959).

But, if everything begins with comparison in Magritte, if we can only say what something is through another, Foucault's point is not that there is simply no connection between words and things, that language is an arbitrary imposition upon the world. Rather, he argues that words and things do match and are not arbitrary – but that we cannot say what they have in common or what allows us to compare them. Take, for example, one of Magritte's "word" works, The Key of Dreams (1932). It might be said that by painting the words "the bird" next to a water pitcher, Magritte reveals that words have nothing in common to their object or that we can apply any word to any object. But the metaphor that is produced there – for the pitcher is in a way like a bird – demonstrates that their connection is not non-existent or arbitrary, but indeed no better or worse than our word "pitcher". It merely brings out certain qualities in the object, and the word "pitcher" would do likewise. And it is not as though there is anything behind these two predicates that can be named non-metaphorically, some underlying referent of which it can be said that it is both a pitcher and a bird, except by producing another metaphor for it. (This is perhaps Foucault's problem when he wants to compare different systems of representation in The Order of Things. For, even in his own terms, he would be unable to do so because he could not say what each of them has in common. They would all belong to or construct different worlds. This is perhaps why this monumental and magisterial book begins with laughter: because it knows from the beginning that the task it has set itself is impossible or self-contradictory, that it could only be accomplished by a "man" who, at that very moment, was already disappearing or dying.)

However, if the world is metaphorical, if its possible systems of classification might be otherwise – this is also Foucault's point – it is not as though we can simply think or speak this otherwise. We cannot but experience the connections we make as real. This would be as Magritte could only understand the union of the cigar and the bicycle in State of Grace as the only possible one, as though it were the memory of something that had actually happened. As he wrote in another letter to Suzi Gablik: "Lately, I've been trying to figure out how to paint a window picture, and how to paint a picture showing a bicycle [...] As you might be aware, a bike sometimes runs over a cigar thrown down in the street". But, again, as with the working drawings for Hegel's Holiday, if this series of comparisons can take place only after that initial memory of the bike and the cigar, it is also true that this memory itself would be possible only insofar as it reminded Magritte of something else or, to put it another way, only insofar as something else reminded Magritte of it – say, of another of those objects to which he compared the bike in those preparatory drawings.

The point is that we finally cannot say what Magritte's memory and the objects that evoke it for him have in common, why these objects remind him of something or why his memory is caught up with these objects. We can only say this: that neither his memory nor its objects would be possible without the other, and that precisely what both might be trying to recall is the memory of what both originally had in common. It is this memory which forms a kind of stain in Magritte's work, and we might say that the role of metaphor there is to turn this stain into a figure, to give it a fictitious depth, to lift it off its support, to suspend it (as the umbrella and cigar do respectively in Hegel's Holiday and State of Grace). [3] We can henceforth name or represent this memory, but only at the cost of not finally knowing what we name or represent, of only be able to speak of it metaphorically or through comparison – as the memory of another. [4]

And there is another great painting that takes up, like Hegel's Holiday and State of Grace, this balance of opposites (for do not Hegel's Holiday and State of Grace form a kind of balance? In the Hegel's Holiday, it is that of the glass of water on top of the umbrella; in State of Grace, it is that formed by the two wheels of the bike across the fulcrum of the owl on the cigar): Jan Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance (1662-4). Here too, everything pivots around an empty point, a stain that allows the four quadrants into which the painting has been divided to communicate with each other, initiating a measure or scale between them. And, as Michel Serres says in his analysis of the picture, we can understand the whole of the painting to be the blowing up or inflation of this point. He calls this process – so similar to Hegel's Holiday where we saw that small line expand in the water to become an umbrella, and to State of Grace where we saw the bike like a monad implicitly contain every other object in the world5 – by the Leibnitzian term "puncta inflata". [6]

Serres, that is, understands the painting as the blowing up or inflating of an always imaginary or virtual point or, more accurately, he sees the problem of painting as how to pass from the point as a non-figurative and all-too-material stain to a figurative and idealised image of an object.

Where is this point in Vermeer's painting, this point around which the rest of the painting turns, for which the rest of the painting stands in? It is precisely the fulcrum of the scale the girl holds in her hand. It is this which divides the painting into its four quadrants and allows us to pass from one quadrant or section of the painting to another. It inaugurates a kind of metaphor or scale which allows us to compare what would otherwise be incomparable. Now, what is it that is in fact joined in Woman Holding a Balance? If we look closely at the top right hand corner of the picture, we find there a tapestry of a Last Judgement, a scene depicting the weighing up and measuring of those weightless and immaterial things, souls.

The aim of this scale is thus to form a passage from this world to that other, from the microcosm of this world to the macrocosm of that other. To make the connection with Magritte's painting clearer, we would say that it is what allows the passage – or state – of grace. It is because of this metaphor or transport in Vermeer's painting that we can go from one world to another, from the prosaic and fallen things of this world with which the girl is surrounded to their secret and spiritual equivalent in either word or representation (for example, as tapestry) in another. But, as Foucault would say, this possibility has been lost in Magritte. We can go from one place to another, but we cannot say how we got there or there would be nothing at stake – no spiritual redemption or grace – in doing so.

There is no escape from the confines of this world, from the endless comparison of the same, which Foucault calls similitude. This is what we see in what we take to be Magritte's remake of Woman Holding Balance, representation (1962). It precisely makes the point that that other world is only, as it were, a representation of representation, set mise en abime within this one. To put it another way, it is only in and through representation that we are able to imagine some final concordance between words and things, some Last Judgement as to what things are or mean – a representation that would always defer this final moment. But in another way, of course, the painting is also saying that it is just this Last Judgement – which is also a kind of memory – that occurs not in some other world but at every moment in this one, every time we speak or name anything.

And is this not what we see finally in Hegel's Holiday? For what is it in the end that allows the balance there between the water and the umbrella, this bringing together of opposites? What is it that the water and the umbrella have in common? It is, of course, that line from which the umbrella sprang, which was, as Magritte says, at first "in the water and then underneath it". But, if we look closely at the painting, it is just this line – the point or spur at the top of the umbrella – which is missing. More precisely, then, it is because this line which they have in common is now missing that the water is allowed to balance on top of the umbrella, that the two can be compared. And it would be this line that we have called the stain. It is exactly through the disappearance of this stain that everything comes into being in the paining. It is through its exclusion that everything else is able to be balanced around it and compared to it. It, as it were, annunciates itself. [

It cannot be refuted because its very absence only proves it all the more. This is what representation is:
that which is proved in its absence, which appears without warning and which we cannot close our ears to. It is like the point of those scales in Vermeer: it suspends our disbelief; it makes the stain seem figurative or the painting seem real. It miraculously holds things up – as the water is held up or balanced by the glass. We might ask, again, how it is that this glass remains balanced on top of the umbrella?

If the painting were two dimensional, the glass would undoubtedly topple either backwards or forwards. That umbrella on which it rests would only be, after all, a thin, curved black line on which the glass would be precariously balanced like a tightrope walker. It is only because this line is three dimensional that the glass remains perched on top. In other words, it is by excluding that line they have in common – the fact that they are both in fact just flat stains, paint – that Magritte is able to balance the glass and to compare this water and umbrella that otherwise would have nothing in common.

And this, to conclude, might be what we mean by Surrealism: that more than real thing suspending our belief, which is neither simply fictional nor real, but surreal, above the real, sitting on top of the real – which creates the real, that series of comparisons or resemblances that make up the real. And is this not what Magritte meant by speaking of his painting in terms of resemblance and the of power of painting lying in its ability, like thought, to resemble anything, which is, of course, just what strikes us about Surrealism – the fact that this stain is able to transform itself into anything: flaming giraffes, rocks suspended in the air, shoes made of flesh and birds made of leaves. Foucault writes about this stain or similitude which allows these resemblances and which "like a sovereign makes things appear".
[10] Perhaps we see this sovereign crowned in Hegel's Holiday, crowned precisely with the transparent ring of a glass of water, testament to his power to make things appear by himself disappearing. And we must not forget that in French Hegel's Holiday is translated as Les vacances de Hegel - that Hegel who understood better than anybody the power of the "vacancy" of the king, the king as that "placeholder of the void", for whom everything and everybody stands in. That is, a king who works even when – and perhaps especially when – he is not working, who is always and never on holiday.

With thanks to Keith Broadfoot


1 See on this Son of Man (1964). To the side of the green apple held in front of the man's face there, we find a slice of slice of his pupil and iris, which is also green. This would be a marvellous illustration of what Lacan spoke of as the "gaze hidden behind its very organ" – that is, the eye. Also interesting in this regard is the intriguingly titled The Glass House (1939), where the idea of being "gazed" at without being able to look back is made clear. We also think the similarly significantly titled Not to be Reproduced (1937) is another beautiful exemplification of this "gaze".

2 Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, p. 41.

3 See on this The Place in the Sun (1956), where precisely the role of comparison is to give both of the objects there a kind of depth. And on this idea that comparison both allows us to say what an object is and means that we can never say what it is as such, we might consider Magritte's distinction between the hidden and the invisible, the object which hides something and the object behind which there is nothing. We would say that comparison obscures something in the object, but it is not something that could ever be represented as such, that could be brought out nonmetaphorically. In other words, it would be an example of what Magritte speaks of as the invisible as opposed to the hidden. And on this question of superimposition and comparison, we would want to refer here to Jean Clair's comments on "marquetry" and "intarsia" in his reading of Magritte in terms of Renaissance perspective in 'Seven Prolegomenae to a Brief Treatise on Magrittean Tropes', October 8, Spring 1979.

4 Intriguingly, in his Magritte: The Silence of the World, Abrams, New York, 1992, David Sylvester tries to trace the original impulse behind Magritte's work back to a childhood memory of his drowned mother, as represented in his early painting The Meaning of Night (1927). But precisely this memory is only a kind of "stain" there, a passing flutter of petticoats and gloves to which the protagonist remains blind. Also on this connection between metaphor and memory, we would want to read Clair's taking up of Magritte's art in terms of Athanaius Kircher's machine far the fabrication of metaphors, which comes out of a long history of similar devices for the production of memory (for example, Raymond Lull's), the whole tradition of images for things in mnemonics.

5 See on this also The Traveller (1935), in which we have a kind of “stain” made up of a conglomeration of other objects.

6 Michel Serres, 'Ambrosia and Gold', in Calligram: Essays in New Art History from France, ed. Norman Bryson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p. 121.

7 It is interesting that Representation was once going to be called Endless Holiday. Also on this relationship between Hegel and the mise en abime of representation – the complex question whether this "post-Classical" world of Magritte as opposed to Vermeer is Hegelian or anti-Hegelian – see In Praise of the Dialectic (1936).

8 See on this Annunciation (1930), in which the image is broken open to reveal a kind of "stain", which is perhaps the very weave of the canvas or representation itself.

9 And it is interesting to note that The Glass Key was once going to be called Representation.

10 Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, p. 46. The distinction between resemblance and similitude originally comes from Foucault's book The Order of Things and was taken up by Magritte in a series of letters he wrote to Foucault in response to it, though not perhaps in quite the same sense Foucault used it there. Magritte wrote:

It will interest you, I hope, to consider these few reflections relative to my reading of your book The Order of Things. The words Resemblance and Similitude permit you forcefully to suggest the presence – utterly foreign – of the world to ourselves. Yet, I believe these two words are scarcely ever differentiated. Dictionaries are hardly enlightening as to what distinguishes them. It seems to me that, for instance, green peas have between them relations of similitude, at once visible (their colour, form, size) and invisible (their nature, taste, weight). It is the same for the false and the real, etc. Things do not have resemblances. They do or do not have similitudes. Only thought resembles. It resembles by being what it sees, hears or knows; it becomes what the world offers it (letter to Michel Foucault, May 23, 1966).

La Sabbat 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 2:31:06 PM


On June 17, 2007 Rene Magritte's 1959 "Le Sabbat,'' featuring an upside-down easel in a landscape, took 4.5 million pounds from a European bidding on the phone. It was once owned by Monaco-based dealer and collector David Nahmad, who said he sold it in 1975 for $100,000. 

One of my paintings, Reflections, (see: New Paintings- above right) is a painting on an eisel upside down- there's even a guy with an umbrella! Maybe there's hope for my paintings yet- lol. There are several paintings in my Driftwood Series that can be turned upside down, viewed either way!

Le sabbat

Title: Le sabbat by René Magritte

Description: Le sabbat signed 'Magritte' (upper right); titled '"Le Sabbat"' (on the reverse) oil on canvas 19¾ x 24 in. (50 x 61 cm.) Painted in February 1959

Alexander Iolas, New York, by whom acquired from the artist (no. 59.1.1; despatched by the artist to Paris in February 1960).
Patrick O'Higgins, New York, by whom acquired from the above.
Mayor Gallery, London (no. 5040).
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, 2 December 1970, lot 57.
Galleria Medea, Milan.
Private collection, by whom acquired from the above.
Galleria La Bussola, Turin, by 1986 (no. 8A313).
Private collection, Italy.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.

Charleroi, Palais des Beaux-Arts, XXXIIIe Salon [du] cercle royal artistique et littéraire de Charleroi, March 1959, no. 120.
Brussels, Musée d'Ixelles, Magritte, April - May 1959, no. 102.
Paris, Galerie Rive Droite, René Magritte, February - March 1960, no. 3.
Little Rock, Arkansas Art Center, Magritte, May - June 1964.

A painting sits on an easel, a landscape beyond it. And yet the two have little in common: the night-draped landscape that spreads before us has, it is implied, been represented in the picture-within-a-picture by a still life. And it is upside down. In Le sabbat, painted in 1959, Magritte has turned his strange and surreal gaze towards perception and painting itself. This most natural of themes for someone who had chosen art as a vocation is here exposed in all its splendour and mystery.

Ever since Zeuxis painted an image of fruit that managed to confuse birds to the extent that they tried to peck at his image, the concept of art has been a source of reflection and interest to artists. Sometimes this is a result of their own awe at the act of representation, the mini-creation with which each art object is dragged into existence. This mystery is potent enough that the act of representing the world figuratively has been proscribed in some religions. But when it came to Magritte, an artist known for revealing the mystery that is apparent in the everyday objects of the everyday world, it is intriguing to note that one of his first works that tackled the subject of representation itself was La trahison des images. In this, Magritte acted as the anti-Zeuxis by representing a pipe on canvas, and painting under it the now-famous words, 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe'.

By creating that juxtaposition between words and text, by stating the obvious and declaring that an image is not an equivalent for the object that it represents, Magritte appeared to be removing the mystery. And yet... there was in fact more mystery invoked, as Magritte was pointing to the strange reactions that are reflexes in the viewer, to the bizarre and almost magical process through which usually we do believe that a picture of a pipe represents a pipe. In Le sabbat, Magritte evokes the mystery of representation in a different way, by showing a picture on an easel that is both impossible-- in its being upside-down-- and wholly incongruous, because of its apparent lack of relationship with the scenery behind it. There is no room even for a game of disjointed association. There are no links. This is a realm of magic, and it is through this jarring magic that the viewer perceives all the more the mystery of painting. For it is the painting on the easel that is the main theme, the main motif, in Le sabbat.

This theme had been explored two years earlier in a pair of works both entitled Le réveille-matin, or 'The Alarm Clock'. In these works, an upside-down still life is shown upon an easel before a sprawling day landscape. In Le sabbat, the moonlit night heightens the mystery. And the fact that the picture within Le sabbat is smaller than in those works emphasises the landscape behind, ensuring that the viewer's attention is focussed on the seemingly discordant relationship between what has been seen and what has been painted. The painting is only truly 'revealed' by Magritte through its association, or lack thereof, to the landscape. And in this, the artist manages to illustrate the strangeness of perception itself. It is not the act of painting alone whose strange pitfalls and bizarre, even illogical, mechanics are exposed, but also the very act of seeing. And this seeing is focussed upon both in terms of looking at a landscape (and seeing a still life?), and in terms of looking at paintings, looking at art. Should this picture hang in a gallery filled with 'normal' still life and landscape images, would it not pull the rug from under those paintings' figurative feet?

Adding an extra layer of the mysterious to Le sabbat and heightening this sense that perception itself should not be taken for granted and should not be so rigid as we all to often allow it to become, Magritte has not only inverted the still life image, but has also included within it a vase that appears to be made of stone, lending it a monumentality that itself adds to the visual drama of the gravity-defying ceiling-hugging still life. Despite this, there is nothing strictly impossible within Le sabbat-- yet an atmosphere of the unreal nevertheless pervades the work. And this atmosphere is increased by the fact that Magritte himself, in painting Le sabbat, has painted something that clearly was not before him in any literal sense. He has, instead, tapped into his own unique vision in order to bring through the discreet poetry that exists in our everyday lives and to which we are all too often oblivious. It is for this reason that he shunned so many of the terms that were applied so freely to his painting not least 'Surreal'. 'I must inform you however that words such as unreal, unreality, imaginary, seem unsuited to a discussion of my painting,' he explained.

'I am not in the least curious about the 'imaginary,' nor about the 'unreal'. For me, it's not a matter of painting 'reality' as though it were readily accessible to me and to others, but of depicting the most ordinary reality in such a way that this immediate reality loses its tame or terrifying character and finally presents itself with its mystery. Understood in this way, that reality has nothing 'unreal' or 'imaginary' about it' (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 70).

Magritte's pictures, then, are revelations, little epiphanies that still reverberate with that initial moment of lucidity that the artist himself had felt when seeing Giorgio de Chirico's Le chant d'amour in reproduction for the first time. That sudden awareness of the almost alchemical poetry that somehow exists in our world-- just beyond the layer that our eyes see-- is forcefully brought to our attention in the deliberately discordant lyricism of Le sabbat.



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