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Magritte at the Edge of Codes  

Friday, March 6, 2009 5:55:03 PM


This is the last of a series of articles in Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative: 
Issue 13. The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924

Magritte at the Edge of Codes 
Author: Silvano Levy; Published: November 2005

Abstract (E): What distinguishes Magritte's œuvre is that it is positioned at the interface of distinct systems of codes. The sign straddles and oscillates between discordant meaningful conventions. As opposed to Apollinairean calligrammatic amalgamation of signifiers into a cognitive middle ground, Magritte puts forward the binarity of incompatible readings. Diverse significations do not merge but simply clash. Even when codes are not transgressed Magritte prompts a defection from fixed meaning through non-sequitor. Space is destabilized and unitary components are dismantled. Integrality is violated and reconfigured. The code is at once asserted and subverted, thus curtailing the message. Semantic fragmentation and deformation erodes the codification of the message. Interpretation is inhibited so that meaning is deferred .

The reason why a military aircraft is so manoeuvrable is that it just about manages to fly. It is designed to be so aerodynamically unstable that a slight adjustment would cause it to drop out of the sky. That is what effectively happens: one barely viable flight configuration is abandoned so as to allow an alternative trajectory to be assumed in seconds. The aircraft is therefore always at the edge of flying. In military jargon, it is 'pushing the envelope'.

The essence of this modus operandi is revealing when considering the deep structure of Magritte's paintings, which is analogous. What marks Magritte's pictorial composition is that it is consistently pictorially unstable. It pushes the envelope of representation. Typically, what appears to be a reliable and wholly comprehensible message turns out to be semantically volatile, often being destabilised and, even, cancelled out by a disruptive element. The meaning is momentarily annulled. As in the case of the military aircraft, the instability that makes this possible also allows an alternative configuration to be assumed with ease. Magritte's work sits, as it were, at the edge of the representational code.

The process is far from straightforward and the ways in which this 'switching' between pictorial trajectories occurs is, in fact, macrocosmically twofold. There are, of course, sudden switches between representational scenarios: one meaning is suddenly transformed into an alternative reading, just as a jet can suddenly change direction. But, that is where the analogy runs out. As well as semantically flitting within representation, that is to say within a delimited code, Magritte also alternates between codes themselves. It is not so much the direction of flight that is in question, but more whether, at times, it is a matter of flying at all. That is the conceptual point at which Magritte's work emerges as most disturbing. Our visual mores cannot but be perturbed when Magritte positions his messages at the interface of distinct systems of codes. The sign straddles and oscillates between discordant meaningful conventions. As opposed to Apollinair ian calligrammatic amalgamation of signifiers into a cognitive middle ground, where the verbal is orchestrated so as to resemble the visual signified, Magritte puts forward a binarity of incompatible readings. Diverse significations do not merge or follow on: quite simply, they clash. Moreover, even when he does not transgress codes, Magritte prompts a defection from predictable legibility by means of non sequitor . In a general sense, he puts two separate but correlated structural mechanisms into motion: on the one hand he destabilizes space, whilst on the other he dismantles unitary representational components are dismantled.

Magritte's dismantling of the represented object, the deconstruction of anatomy, as it can be termed, is effected in gradual stages. It begins by tentatively moving away from the finiteness of form in a way that destabilises the individual shape: the unity itself of the object, however, is still respected. In Les Pipes amoureuses de la lune (1928) the represented pipes are not 'taken apart' but simply denied a fixed form. It is as though a process of mollification were beginning and the pipes had not had time to melt away beyond recognition. Yet the instability of their configuration suggests that this is inevitable: the pipes become increasingly elastic and so seem to portray different stages of a progressive dissolution. Ultimately the process could be imagined to lead to the state of liquid viscosity seen in La Sortie de l'école (1927), where form is reduced to an irregular and unrepresentational amorphousness. In Les Pipes amoureuses de la lune though, the object is by no means as distorted as this. The context, though, is agrammatic: the setting remains vague. Nothing rests on the ground and the pipes are floating in mid-air. The setting is further confused by the blurred horizon line, which makes it difficult to distinguish the horizontal from the vertical. Without these fundamentals of orientation there can be little spatial cohesion and it is not clear what the correlation is between the foreground objects and the more remote areas. Even the illusion of a sky, stretching beyond the immediate scene, is somewhat contradicted by the three broad horizontal strokes of dark colour below the level of the moon. These superimposed patches remain outside the pictorial illusion and emphasize that the sky is actually a flat surface of paint. The space of the painting is essentially insubstantial.

The distortion in Les Pipes Amoureuses de la lune is an example of a development that was to be characteristic of many works of the late 1920s. Since, however, the painting treats the simplest of objects, the process is shown in a limited light. The true taxonomy of Magritte's 'dissolution' only emerges when he systematically disassembles the composite form of the human body, which he subjects to a tortuous form of maceration. What, in Albertian terms can be described as the 'anatomical module', is subjected to the equivalent of an assault course. In an unrelenting manner, Magritte delves into the notion of instability in form. He conjures up degenerative and disfiguring situations that place figures on the boundary between remaining whole and disintegrating. A type of threshold is established that opens the way for what is to be the eventual total 'dissolution' of the body.

The most striking way in which Magritte edged the body towards the limit of its potential is by a form of test of endurance, a type of sportive trial. The idea of gruelling gymnastics is precisely the subject of Les Impatients (1928), in which figures that look like muscular athletes are engaged in strenuous and uncomfortable movements. These are contortionists, twisting and stretching. A similar and more extreme form of twisting and warping emerges in Les Idées de l'acrobate (1927-8), which goes further along the path of 'fragmentation'. The question of uncertainty about the feasibility of a particular contortional pose does not even arise, however, as it had in Les Impatients . The body here is stretched, elongated, misshapen and deformed beyond credibility and, at times, recognizability. Not only are the members altered in size and shape, but they are also disordered and, in places, joined together in an incorrect sequence.

This process of distortion and its accompanying 'mollification' of form gradually give way to the next stage of the dissolution of anatomy, its 'fragmentation'. Magritte's approach to this procedure is twofold. In some cases the solid object is broken up by a physical sectioning: forms are shattered or dismantled. Alternatively, there is a deconstruction of the formal aspects of representation. It is more a question, in this case, of contradicting the formal constituents of a depicted object such as reception of light and circumscription. In many works the complex form of the body is resolved into simpler components by means of the detachment of limbs or the slicing of the torso into portions. The body becomes a unit comprising independent and removable parts. The body is treated like the then novel Art Deco mannequin, which had a great potential for disassembly and the interchangeability of body parts. Indeed, mannequins frequently appear in Magritte's work at this period: in La Naissance de l'idole (1926) an artificial arm severed at the shoulder hangs limply on the side of a giant skittle. As was the case for the shop window mannequin of the twenties, the implication is that the detached parts can be reassembled. Accordingly, Magritte introduces prongs and sockets that could secure together the separated members. In the case of Le Supplice de la vestale (1926-27) there are rods protruding from a headless torso. What is significant is that Magritte makes the point that form is being torn apart by leaving the parts starkly disjointed. The division of form is unambiguous, if straightforward: the outer shell of a form is simply broken up.

A secondary, more complex, form of fragmentation, however, turns the spotlight onto 'anatomy' in its stricter, technical sense. Magritte goes on to reveal the body as having an internal structure, with concurrent layers of fabric. These are what are then subjected to a progressive penetration and effacement. The assault is on what Michel Foucault terms 'the internal relationship of subordination and organization that traverses the body' (Foucault 1966: 149; Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by the author.). In L'importance des merveilles (1927), for instance, there is both segmentation and stratification. The body is, once again, sliced horizontally, but instead of being dispersed, the parts retain their original sequence. They are distanced by means of divergent scaling. Whilst being firmly rooted in segmentation, the painting points the way to 'stratification'. A painting that emphatically implies a penetration of the layers of the body is Le Sang du monde (1926-27). As in écorchés, blood vessels and arteries appear on the surface. This is a penetration beyond surfaces. The three amoeba-like forms attached to the bodies look like giant cells or corpuscles that have been magnified under the microscope and the background form looks like an area of equally magnified tissue inlaid with blood. The implication is that we are seeing beyond what is superficial and immediately visible. It is as though a substratum of the body had been revealed. Scutenaire tells us that Magritte delves 'under the outer crust of objects' (Scutenaire 139). In a further development of his trajectory, Magritte prizes open the body ( Le Double secret (1927), or removes its constituent layers, as in La Grande nouvelle (1926), where there is a reduction to the skeleton.

But, such affronts on form are made solely on the level of physical structure. Magritte's offensive on convention also involves the dismantling of the methods of pictorial depiction themselves. So far the process of segmentation has been seen to lead away from precision and finiteness in representation: specific pictorial meanings have been loosened and replaced by interpretative flexibility. Semanticity has been vacillatory, but only inasmuch as the dissolution of the anatomical unit has operated on the level of solid form. Magritte, it can be argued, also effects a deconstruction on the level of the formal aspects of representation.

This particular posture first becomes evident when the corporeal form is seen to be reduced to the planar. In La Naissance de l'idole (1926) and Le Chevalier du couchant (1927) for instance, the entire body is deprived of its volume. Almost every detail of the body disappears and Magritte portrays a tenuous suggestion of a human shell. In this way, he alludes to the incipient stage of formal, textbook representation, the blocking-in of a body. At this level, where the body is denied surface features, the idea of substantiality is still, nevertheless, present since the forms do possess a degree of thickness. Consequently, in a further development Magritte proceeds to remove this final trace of volume. L'Esprit comique I (1927) can be seen to make just this transition from the 'solid' plane to what is effectively an 'insubstantial plane. This is achieved through the paper cut-out, which Magritte described as 'papier masqué' (René Magritte in Torczyner 165). L'Esprit comique I (1927) presents the figure as a flimsy blank sheet of paper punched with holes across its entire surface. As such, it could not be more incompatible with the notion of solid form. Whereas the silhouette of the form depicted suggests a broad-shouldered man pounding across a rocky ground, the substance making up the silhouette itself is without thickness, pliable and almost weightless. It is as though the figure had been 'emptied' of its pictorial resolution. There is an erasure of the graphic 'stages' by which a painted figure would be given form and substance. But, at the same time, it is undeniable that 'pictorial grammar' still persists. In the gouache L'Esprit comique II (1927) the figure of a boy made of paper is pictured striking a paper sleeping man with a large stone: in other words, there is a subject, an object and an indirect object. This form of organization will eventually be eroded by Magritte.

Remaining within the present discussion, it can be said that the disintegration of form progresses further and that the plane gives way to the line. In L'âge du feu (1927), which is somewhat a compendium of the dissolution and incorporates most of its stages, such as a division into planes, particularly in the face of the figure, there is a clear reduction to rudimentary outlines. What follows this is a stage of pictorial disintegration, which can be termed the 'blob' stage. The mark on the canvas is so indeterminate that it ceases to be meaningful. The progressive contestation of the anatomy of the pictorial unit reaches a point when plastic significance is absent. This is a substantial progression and was carefully thought out by Magritte. The transition in question is alluded to in a letter to Nougé (Collection DeKnop, Brussels). Magritte was patently aware of a new phase in his work: 'I think I have discovered something significant'. He writes that he was beginning to consider a new approach that modifies not so much the external relations of objects, but their internal structure . He suggests that isolated elements could merge freely. In this way, the letter continues, one thing could be melted into another. Representation is distorted to such an extent that interpretation becomes difficult. What are missing are 'the visible contours' (Magritte 61). This is a derangement of pictorial finiteness and tends towards objects with no representational meaning.

One 'isolating' strategy that Magritte adopted (the prerequisite to modification of internal structure) is that of encasement , usually in a grey slab of melted lead or carved stone. He applied this formula not only to single objects (which had the effect of 'grammatical' deactivation) but also to 'matières', as in La Saison des voyages . This had the effect of interfering with anatomical unity, that is semanticity. When the contents of the grey slab are substances , which have no definite outline - the sky being an unlimited, three-dimensional space and planks forming a continuous surface - the function of the grey solid changes from that of wrapping around a form to that of invading it. The question is no longer one of 'composition' but one of the internal make-up of an object, its 'anatomy'. Whereas an object can be confined to its own contours, something that has no fixed delimitations can be said to be partially erased by confinement. This is evident in Le Démon de le perversité (1927), where the slab acts as an interruption of what is normally a continuous surface. Whereas the planks of La Saison des voyages are simply intruded upon, here there is a fragmentation. In La Saison des voyages sky is trapped in a shallow niche and thereby loses its characteristic limitless voluminosity. All that remains is a token of representation. What would otherwise be an illusion of infinite space is entirely blotted out apart from a nominal sample. Nevertheless, the two represented substances are not totally invalidated pictorially. In their respective compartments, the sky and planks remain identifiable prototypes of potential compositional constructs and it is from this level of minimal, inert pictorial semanticity that Magritte's 'discovery' proceeds.

Beginning with elements in this already denuded state, he goes on to suggest a further distortion, that of 'gradually becoming something else'. Viewed logically, if something is to 'become something else' then its very identity is in jeopardy. When, therefore, Magritte proposes that sky be mixed with wood and wood with sky he is, in fact, proposing a debasement of the representation: the image would undergo a drastic decrease of semantic intelligibility. The sky/plank composite thus becomes an entity devoid of pictorial resolution. Representation veers towards imprecision and the habitual monovalency of the anatomical unit is disrupted. There arises an irresolvable contradiction that leads to representational amorphousness. In this way a transition is made from the minimal pictorial signification apparent in La Saison des voyages, to a state of virtual pictorial meaninglessness. What remains is plastic presence without representational value.

A painting that transposes 'sky' into an alternative pictorial element, the Albertian 'pavement' in this case, is Les Muscles célestes (1927). In the work, a portion of sky breaks away from the far distance, crosses the black middle distance and anchors itself to the foreground. This immediately contradicts the depth that the receding pavement insistently conveys. As a result, the principal function of the pavement, to accommodate objects and to establish their recession in space, is overridden by spatial instability. Solid objects have no place in this environment and, not surprisingly, Magritte omits them altogether. The subject of the painting is the 'legs of the sky' as Magritte had put it. They hint at the characteristics of wood: they have clear-cut outlines, they cast shadows and, in all respects, conform to the idea of a rigid plane. But also, like sky, they have a furling, unspecifiable configuration. Quite unlike flat planes, they make contact with the pavement at various points in depth. In effect, they are implicit zones of 'melting', places where contradictory meanings are fused.

What is significant, moreover, is that such loci of representational contradiction, where finite plastic interpretation becomes impossible, are not rendered as an imprecise blurs or as haziness. On the contrary, they are independent entities in the painting. Les Muscles célestes presents the paradoxical constituent as a 'limb' attached to a larger corpus. Even if, one would imagine, the final severance were made and the limb allowed to exist freely, it would still have finite presence. Magritte, therefore, invokes the notion of free units of meaninglessness that, nevertheless, can inhabit a fully articulated pictorial space. It is in this way that Magritte's 'discovery' could be seen to have ultimately resulted in a transition from planes to 'blobs', a term coined by Robert Roseblum (Roseblum 16). Planes, it has been shown, had been first isolated and then fused, with the result that a paradox of 'substance' was brought about. The ensuing pictorial contradiction was then seen to lead an absence of representational meaning. Finally, the resulting state of zero representation was seen to acquire autonomy within the painting. Having reached this point in his progressive denudation of representation, Magritte is in a position to advance the concept of paintings peopled wholly by semantically dysfunctional elements.

In further works Magritte does just this. He retracts all traces of pictorial signification and allows objects to fade into vague forms. Foucault has referred to such entities as 'stains, shadows, silhouettes' (Foucault 1973: 54). The aptness of the description becomes apparent in Les Traces vivantes (1927), in which shadow-like forms replace recognizable objects. This is a potential landscape scene, but it is stripped of content. It is populated only with indefinite 'blobs'. These 'traces', to use Magritte's term, are neutral and vacant rather than incomplete. The dark outer boundary envelops an inane core. As such, blobs are neither shells nor skeletons. They neither conceal an essence nor do they imply envelopment. With them Magritte has, in the words of Robert Lebel, 'broken away from any meaning' (Lebel non paginated). In so doing he reverts to an elemental, pre-representational state. Foucault writes of 'things hardly formed . with neither face nor identity' (Foucault 1973: 54). Blobs precede the whole schema of the representational procedure. Their pictorial value does not exceed that of rudimentary markers of perceived presence. Before the pictorial element can even begin to be formed, the artist, according to Alberti, conceives it in terms of a location: 'First, in seeing a thing, we say it occupies a place' (Alberti 67; translation John R. Spencer). Thus the blob state can be seen as the raw material of visual expression. For Marcel Mariën these are 'initial signs' (Mariën 132).

Rarely though does Magritte depict the blob in an independent capacity. Mostly it occurs with the written word. In Les Traces vivantes the phrase 'Femme nue' appears on the trunk of the tree. In other works a word or phrase is placed in close proximity to or actually on the blob. L'Usage de la parole I (1928-9), for instance, contains one blob with the word 'miroir' inscribed underneath it and another with the phrase 'corps de femme' below it.

It would be tempting to argue, at this juncture, that the meaningless blob marks the terminal point of the dissolution of the pictorial object and that verbal components are needed as channels for meaning. The appearance of 'named' blobs, in other words, signals the cessation functional representation. However, the fact that it is a tree with which Magritte associates the phrase 'Femme nue' shows that the word is not an explanation of its associated object. Indeed, Magritte never sets up an explanatory relationship between verbal elements and the blobs with which they are coupled. Foucault simply describes inscribed blobs as 'word carriers' (Foucault 1973: 53). They are far from 'explained' or 'deciphered'. Their only connection with their allocated words is to provide a physical support for the letters. They act like blackboards: they are 'occupied' by words but in no way reflect or take on their signification. In no uncertain terms, these 'captions' do not establish the semantic finiteness of the blob.

If, therefore, blobs remain meaningless as pictorial units then their function in the painting must be other than 'anatomical', that is other than illustrative of individual meanings within the work. Their significance bears, in fact, upon the composition as a whole. This broader subtext is hinted at in the gouache of L'Esprit comique , where the absence of individual objects is compensated by an augmentation of composition. Similarly, the shell-like forms in Les Traces vivantes may not be carriers of any intrinsic and isolated meaning but, as a group, they do take on the function of establishing what could be termed 'relative values'. Seen in this light, blobs certainly have a meaningful function. Viewed as clusters, they convey the notion of mutual differentiation. Their 'meaning', consequently, resides in how they and distinguished themselves. For example, we know that one blob is high up and that another is low down, that one is upright and another is horizontal, that some are long and thin whilst others are short and stout. Blobs thus emerge as contrasting, relative positions in a spatial setting. In quite a definite way, there is compositional orientation within Les Traces vivantes . From this perspective, it becomes apparent that, even at this extreme pole of Magritte's 'dissolution', pictorial grammar asserts itself. What emerges is a set of definite compositional relations, without vagueness or ambiguity, even though, by this stage, the individual object has disintegrated into no more than a mere mark of presence on the anatomical level.

Notwithstanding this practical annulment of the unit form, Magritte does not, surprisingly, conclude his anatomical dissolution at this juncture. Rather, he goes on to erode even the minimalist state of token 'presence' that the blobs have generated. As would be logical, minimal presence is relegated into absence . In a number of works devoted to this notion, Magritte makes reference to a specific subject, whilst simultaneously absenting it from the representational context. More than a non-representation or non-presence, this amounts to marking missing presence. This idea of pictorial vacuity is manifestly demonstrated in La Voix du silence (1928). Represented objects are, quite simply, denied presence. Magritte does not present a visual context in which objects cannot exist: he does not paint an abstract space for instance. Instead he presents a potential receptacle for forms and then shows it to be perceptually empty of objects. On the right of this painting there is a banal setting: a domestic dining-room. Even the picture hung on the wall appears to be of a traditional landscape scene. On the left there is complete darkness. There is a sudden leap from replete banality to pictorial absence. Yet the two halves of the painting are complementary rather than irreconcilable. At first sight the well-lit room, cluttered to the point of containing decorative vases and plants may seem totally dissociated from its neighbouring area where nothing is visible. But just below the partition we can seen that a little light is able to permeate into the dark area and that the floorboards show that there is spatial continuity between the right and the left of the painting. Both areas therefore exist in the same voluminous context and so the darkness on the left conceivably contains another room full of furniture and bric-a-brac. It is a potential space and a potential container of objects. The two sections only differ in that one is pictorially dormant, its space and objects remaining unexpressed. In La Voix du silence there are two alternative pictorial states, one that is fully resolved and one where space, form and light are blotted out leaving a pictorial silence (The title is particularly apt and expresses the notion of marking a missing entity.). 'Silence' signifies omitted sound rather than its non-existence.

Yet, it is also noteworthy that Magritte does not paint a completely black canvas. This is because the darkness in La Voix du silence is absence and not non-existence. Nevertheless, this remains an unspecified form of absence and the spectator is left to speculate, albeit within certain parameters, about what is missing. Such ambiguity, however, disappears altogether in a related work, L'Homme au journal (1927). Here, in contrast, absence appears in a manner that is emphatically precise. Of the four identical room settings depicted only one is occupied by a seated man reading a newspaper. In the others he is simply not there. Here therefore, Magritte actually shows us what he omits. Indeed, Magritte has differentiated between 'the hidden visible' and 'the invisible' ('Dans l'invisible il faut tout de même distinguer l'invisible et ce qui est caché. Il y a du visible qui est cache - une lettre dans une enveloppe par exemple, c'est du visible caché, mais ce n'est pas de l'invisible.'; Magritte 603).

This idea of pointing out an absence is more insistent in Personnage méditant sur la folie (1928), in which the spotlight is thrown on a particular point in space where nothing is present. The effect is achieved through the gestures of a sombre, solitary figure: his expression is serious, betraying a deep concentration, and his eyes stare fixedly at something on the right. Yet, as before, nothing is visible. The figure focuses attention on an empty table-top. Absence is patently the subject of the painting. Moreover, in this dominant absence is able to take on a particularly elusive quality. Whereas in L'Homme au journal Magritte showed what was missing, in Personnage méditant sur la folie he gives no clue about the omitted object. Within this rigid context, the pictorial object is able to dissolve to the extent of losing its identity as well as its presence while nevertheless remaining acknowledged.

The absence depicted in Personnage méditant sur la folie is the ultimate dissolution of the pictorial object. More than being erased, the pictorial presence is emptied of all significance. The last three 'retakes' in L'Homme au journal at least contained lingering traces of meaning, but here there is total vacuity. All that the painting does is to signal a location, an area on the right, which accommodates this vacuity. In a closing repartee, Magritte pushes his train of thought a little further by proffering an extension of his progressive conceptual diminution. Even though signification had, by this stage, been totally effaced, what nevertheless did remain semantically, even in Personnage méditant sur la folie , was the idea of the spatial volume within which the absence had occurred. Of course, the space that had 'contained' absence has been seen to have been contracting progressively: in La Voix du silence it occupied a whole room, in L'Homme au journal it was the size of the missing figure, in Personnage méditant sur la folie it became limited to the room on a table-top. In Le Soupçon mystérieux (1928) Magritte makes it contract still more by shrinking it to the space available on the palm of a hand. Consequently, indeterminate absence is reduced to miniscule proportions. The pictorial object regresses, therefore, to a state equivalent to that of the most elementary graphic mark that can be made, the dot. It is, indeed, the dot-like lack of signification and dimension to which our attention is drawn in Le Soupçon mystérieux . In other words, Magritte demonstrates that he can paint nothingness and that he can place it almost nowhere at all. Le Soupçon mystérieux is at the end of a long road leading to the dissolution of the object.

As well as marking a conclusion to a long line of experiments Le Soupçon mystérieux also points the way forward. The sombre figure could be seen to be in a state of expectancy. He is waiting for something to happen, for something to emerge from the tabula rasa . What did emerge and took Magritte's work 'beyond representation' was the written word. Through his use of words, Magritte directed his work towards a system of signification from which the pictorial was conceptually excluded. The bounds of representation were therefore overreached. Words in Magritte's work are primarily negators of the pictorial. Almost without exception words contest the signification of what is shown in paintings or sketches.

Representation has long been perceived as a self-sufficient system, a code with its specific rules and conventions. Jean Piaget has written of 'frontiers' beyond which there are only 'external elements' (Piaget 6). If words are indeed foreign to the domain of the pictorial, then their presence in a work of visual representation has the effect of situating that work on the periphery of the pictorial. By breaking across the frontier of the verbal, Magritte places his work at the edge of figuration. He 'pushes the envelope' of the pictorial. The representational code is at once asserted and subverted. The functioning of the message is impaired and eventually curtailed by a semantic fragmentation and deformation that erodes codification. Meaning is deferred .

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting , Trans. John R. Spencer. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.

Foucault, Michel. Les Mots et les choses . Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

Foucault, Michel. Ceci n'est pas une pipe , Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973.

Lebel, Robert. Magritte,paintings , London: Methuen, 1969, non paginated.

Magritte, René. Ecrits Complets . Paris: Flammarion, 1979.

Mariën, Marcel. René Magritte . Brussels: Les Auteurs Associés, 1972.

Piaget, Jean. Le Structuralisme , Vendôme, P.U.F., 1974.

Roseblum, Robert. "Magritte's Surrealist Grammar." Art Digest . 1 5 March 1954: 14-16.

Scutenaire, Louis. Avec Magritte . Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1977.

Torczyner, Harry. René Magritte, signes et images . Paris: Draeger, 1977. 
About the Author 
Dr Silvano Levy is a Reader at Keele University, England. He has published extensively on surrealism, with studies on René Magritte, E.L.T. Mesens, Paul Nougé, Desmond Morris and Conroy Maddox. His publications include Desmond Morris: 50 Years of Surrealism (1997), Desmond Morris: Naked Surrealism (1999), Desmond Morris: Analytical Catalogue Raisonné 1944-2000 (2001) and The Scandalous Eye. The Surrealism of Conroy Maddox . 

Magritte: reviews of book and CD-rom 

Friday, March 6, 2009 5:37:32 PM


Here's more info on Magritte. First is a book: Magritte's Words and Images.
Author: Georges Roque

Roque argues that Rene Magritte's experiments with words and images are preceded by other experiments with his surrealist friends in Brussels. States that the surrealists' failure to adequately represent women causes Magritte to treat both images and words as mere representations, subject to an equally radical splitting from the "real" thing they are supposed to represent.

On-line Article: Robert Madill's Review of CD-ROM, "The Mystery of Magritte"

When I hear the phrase, "The Man in the Black Bowler Hat," I think of Agatha Christie's fictional detective Hercule Poirot, or the Belgian artist Rene Magritte (1898-1967). The CD-ROM, "The Mystery of Magritte," produced by VIRTUO, presents a beautifully crafted journey through the life, philosophy, and visual works of the illusive hero of Surrealism, a twentieth century artistic movement. People interested in visual arts will usually associate Salvador Dali with the Surrealist style. I tend to think that Dali was the Warhol, or populist, of the movement. On the other hand, the more reclusive Magritte could be seen as the da Vinci, or intellectual, of this style.

This multimedia presentation offers, for your puzzlement, over three hundred paintings, drawings, illustrations, and photographs by Magritte. Various videos of Magritte, voice-overs, quotations, and interactive opportunities serve to enhance what I found to be a very strange journey through an alternate reality. The experience is further enhanced by a musical soundtrack that balances disturbing overtones with mysteriously eerie, haunting counterpoints.

At the risk of getting too academic, it is important to realize that Magritte's works of art are puzzles. They are meant to be pulled apart in order to discover an underlying meaning. Hold on tight for a brief trip through "semiotics," or the language of communication. I promise it won't hurt! Magritte uses "iconic signs:" a pipe, tree, leaf, and so forth, as visually real "hooks" to grab your attention and interest. That's superficially fine until you realize, with a start, that all is not as it should be! Magritte is a master of "symbolic signs." These signs are enigmatic and not easily decoded. He invites you to cross the boundary between that which is beautiful and that which is thoughtful.

Upon start-up, the CD-ROM directs you to a main menu consisting of six categories. "Images" leads you to the main iconic signs in Magritte's work. The pipe, apple, clouds, and the trademark bowler hat are among five or six other objects which continually recur in Magritte's visuals. Normally, one would think such a limited visual vocabulary would tend to generate redundant and repetitive imagery. This is not the case. Surprises abound as the singular and combined images evolve and dissolve depending upon their contexts, scale, and relationships. A simple bell, associated with childhood innocence, becomes an eye, UFO, or other sign. Throughout the CD, thumbnail pictures can be activated to give an enlarged screen size picture. Occasionally, a narration offering some guidance for interpretation is available. Hyperlinks to the other five "Chapters" add to the unexpected surprise. Magritte would have approved. The production appears as one large labyrinth where you transport to a new vista, only to wish you could retrace your steps back to the initial screen.

"Biography" offers valuable insight into Magritte's life: the significance of his mother's suicide and the influence of Georgette, Magritte's wife, model, and muse. There are some rather strange and bizarre anecdotes which had a tangible effect on Magritte's visual imagery. Some of his images portray: a young boy who loved to run around his apartment walls with his feet never touching the ground; a child who insisted on crossing himself twenty times before dinner; or a household maid afraid to be in the same room as the young Rene. These images leave the impression that his was not the world of Beaver Cleaver.

One interesting aspect of Magritte'sbiography is the balance created by the inspiration and support of Georgette juxtaposed with the devastating suicide of his mother when Magritte was only twelve years old. These checks and balances keep Magritte's work from becoming too intro-spective, melancholic, or depressing. The details buried in this "Chapter" are as intriguing as European film noir.

"Craft" allows Magritte to discuss the technique and processes he used in the variety of media he chose to express his enigmatic messages. These media include painting, collage, sculpture, photograph, and publicity. The latter is of interest as it links Magritte to Andy Warhol. Both artists worked, out offinancial necessity, in advertising and graphic design in their youths, a background which gave both men a powerful and energetic base for their work outside the field of commerce.

"Surrealism" describes the milieu within which Magritte worked, including references to artists suchas Dali. This style of visual art stressed freedom from the control of reason and linear thinking. Aesthetic and moral concerns were tossed out of the window. The process was inspired by change, play, the subconscious, the spirit of childhood, and ultimately, for Magritte, THE PUZZLE. Initially, the movement hoped to change society and the world.

"Combination of Images" provides an intriguing demonstration of Magritte's dictum that "...a good image never stands alone." He was a master at visually manifesting concepts described by strange terms as "synecdote," "hypallage," "metonymy," and "syllepsis." If those words and their meanings boggle the brain, don't attempt the The New Yorker's crossword puzzle!

"Words and Images" reinforces the idea that Magritte's works consist of, "Vignettes of language and realty locked in mutual cancellation...If some part of the world can be shown to be irrational but coherent, Magritte's work argues...nothing is certain." (Hughes, R., Shock of The New, BBC, 1980). Magritte's "Academic Illusionism" and "Magic Realism" consistently used contradictory juxtapositions of elements or events that normally did not belong together. In his world, he pushed real space and events against spatial illusion and fantasy. One delightful feature to this "Chapter" is the opportunity to guess the titles of several Magritte paintings.

In "Words and Images," you can search for images by title, criteria, date, or keyword. Images that match the query are called up for you to examine. There is an extensive bibliography and Help section, offering a narrated description of the CD-ROM contents and the basic navigational guides.

This production should not be taken lightly. Be prepared for hours of reflection, bewilderment, entertainment, and education. Any of the thumbnail pictograms can be enlarged to full screen size. The resolution is good at all stages. The video clips featuring Magritte are engaging. Their presentation in
black and white Quicktime format is a subtle reminder that Magritte was fascinated by the early cinema melodramas and silent films of the 1920's.

In previous reviews, I have often mused about whether I favour print or electronic media for dissemination of information and education. In this instance, I can state with no hesitation that I would recommend this CD-ROM over any printed book on the life, work, and processes of Rene Magritte. I got more than my money's worth; an educational experience beyond my expectations. This CD-ROM is a must have for any art lover and a nice addition to the collection of anyone who enjoys an intriguing and thought provoking journey.

Copyright ©1998 Robert Madill, <>. Mr. Madill is a Professor of Art and Architectural History on the faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba.


1.1 Images of Resemblance: Magritte's semiotic explorations  

Friday, March 6, 2009 2:58:50 PM


This is an excellent article on the use of words by Magritte from Washington EDU:

1.1 Images of Resemblance: Magritte's semiotic explorations

What one must paint is the image of resemblance—if thought is to become visible in the world.

—Rene Magritte 

The re-introduction of words into paintings and collages was a widely practiced transgression throughout the twentieth century avant-garde, as for example in Conceptualism, Dada, Cubism, or Futurism. In the case of Rene Magritte, words/images was the subject of numerous "experiments" in the later 1920s, some of which are among his best known works. In the early 1920s, Magritte had been trying out different styles when he discovered Giorgio De Chirico's work. These canvases, painted during World War I, excited a number of young painters who came to call themselves surrealists. Clearly Magritte was taken with De Chirico's incongruous juxtapositioning of "significant objects" with portentous titles ("The Philosopher's Conquest," "The Disquieting Muse," "The Double Dream of Spring," etc.) but saw them calling forth a basically literary process of meaning-making. [3] This on the one hand led to a shocked sense that poetry was ascendant over painting; on the other, it stimulated a feverishly productive period of including words in pictures in various ways and comparing words and images as means of representation.

His was a clear, narrow and quite abstract focus: he was not interested in typography or visual design, for example, nor in the visual and material qualities of writing (or calligrams, for that matter). [4] His interest was in probing how words and images differ in their modes of signifying. During the most intense part of this pursuit, from 1927-1929, he painted dozens of canvases, sometimes several with the same name, varying one signifying parameter or another, and he continued to visit the theme in later years. Two of these paintings provide the bookends—the first and last images—for John Berger's famous Ways of Seeing : the first is one version of the "key to dreams" series and the last ("On the Threshold of Liberty") is from what I will call the wallpaper series. Berger says just a bit about the first and nothing at all about the last; it will become apparent, however, why they quite properly preside over an introduction to how paintings mean. They could preside equally well over an introduction to semiotics.

 It should be borne in mind throughout the discussion, however, that Magritte was not making a primer in semiotics: he was making art of the special, modern, "meta" kind which deautomatizes the conventionalized and makes us aware of the processes by which we see and read the world. His probing of seeing and grasping, to be sure, is general and philosophical, almost Kantian, in its insistence and rigor, and it is easy to see why Michel Foucault was intrigued enough to write a short book in 1973 on the multiple readings and cancellations of "This is not a Pipe," [5] and why Magritte would see in Foucault's Mots et Choses both a familiar title and a sweeping scope of inquiry similar in spirit to his own "research." 

Magritte has become much more readable—his mode of thinking and working more mainstream—as Conceptualism and Poststructuralism have moved visual art so much closer to language and philosophy than it was under High Modernism. Thus Peter Sterckx articulates Magritte's experiments in representing representation along lines similar to those developed here by describing them as working out the rhetorical scheme of syllepsis (one construction changing into another). [6] Such a move would seem to a Modernist extravagantly metaphorical and muddled, though it does not seem so today. Interest in representation is now much more widespread than it was in Magritte's time, but we will take him as a pioneer and begin by tracing his experiments with words inside the frame of the picture and then with words placed outside (above or below) the frame as titles. 


We speak of a sign as iconic when it resembles (i.e., looks like) what it refers to. Hieroglyphic writing does this, at least at times. To represent (or signify) a house, inscribe a (perhaps simplified and stylized) house H. It is generally said that such writing is limited to the things that can be depicted and hence cannot readily express abstract things or processes, logical condition, negation, or even novel things that do not yet exist. Similarly, gestures can be used to convey certain meanings by virtue of resemblance, as for example when we extend an arm, holding the hand and fingers upright, meaning to signify "stop, hold off" as if we were preparing to stiff-arm the person. [7] In the case of gesture as with the house image, one can argue that such pantomimic gesturing lacks the full signifying power of natural language, that it fails to support abstract thought. For words and gestures to function as units of a human language, they must break the link of iconicity and float free to signify "arbitrarily" as Saussure has it. There remains in natural language only a small residue of iconicity, and that is based in sound—the bowwow's and kikeriki's of various tongues and nations. 

Visual representation depends on resemblance, using the latter in the narrow sense of likeness of form or appearance (e.g. "The roofs resembled a row of tents"). It is a good idea not to use resemblance when describing similitude of function (e.g "Bactine is similar to iodine in function" but not "Bactine resembles iodine in function"). Resemblance is one kind of similitude, namely, similitude of appearance. [8] The resembling sign may be stylized and abstracted away from visual surfaces and detail in various ways, but it has to "look like" the object it represents. Each visual culture has various ways of indicating that an image is a generic and represents the class of objects rather than a particular one (outlining, canonical presentation form, ways of flattening and desaturating color and texture). Indeed, the more it is visually reduced, the more strongly the image represents an abstract concept.

There are two exceptions to the principle that images represent by resemblance: visual metaphor and iconography. Perhaps the most common and widespread theory of metaphor is that of rendering abstract concepts and relations in terms familiar from common material experience. Over the last twenty years we have seen the creation and adoption into common sense of the desktop image for the computing possibilities presented by a personal computer. The use of a little house icon to mark a link to the "home" ( or" top") page of a site represents that page not by resemblance but by virtue of a set of metaphors (perhaps mixed: what is a house doing on a desktop?). Such a page could be called a "hub" page and represented with a wagon wheel, if such a metaphor had ever caught on.

In the iconographic tradition, an image can represent not by resemblance but by a chain of texts and verbally mediated associations. So when in a scene depicting an event from the Gospel narratives there appears a lamb holding a cross with its right foreleg, it is not by by resemblance that Christ is represented, and similarly with the fish icon that signifies Christ via the Greek word ichthus. Lest anyone think this tradition is just one of religions, consider the figure (image replaced by Magritte's Apple) that the jacket designer put on one of my books:

Figure 1.2 An Image of an Apple

The subtitle works as a straightforward case of resemblance, in this case to writing on a classroom blackboard. The shape in the red box is instantly recognizable as an apple (albeit very schematized), but what does an apple represent (i.e., signify) here? Apple -school calls up "apple for the teacher"—the (largely proverbial) practice of presenting one's teacher with an apple as a token of appreciation (and hence apple polisher, for one who make extra efforts to suck up to the teacher). But what is the apple in the case at hand? Perhaps, one supposes, reflexively, the book itself? This is a little shaky on the face of it, but the jacket designer must have read the dedication of the book, which is "For My Teachers Who Initiated Me into Academic Discourse." Normally, an apple does not represent a book; though it does so in this instance, it does not do it by resemblance. 

But this first example is complicated by iconographic displacement of representation and we should really begin with a simpler case. Magritte offers one such in his "Words and Images" article 9 and in the early group of words-in-frames: 

Figure 1.3 The Palace of Curtains (1929)

Here a frame containing the word ciel ("sky")is placed next to a frame filled with a blue sky texture—an image of "sky". Both are representations, one working by resemblance and the other by arbitrary association.
Larger, multiframe compositions are possible suggesting parts of a world or items in a list. Magritte gives us two pieces entitled "Empty Mask," one with words:  

Figure 1.4 Empty Mask


and one with images:

Figure 1.5 Empty Mask

There is some uncertainty about Magritte's titles, but it is worth comment that both assemblies are called "empty," perhaps for different reasons. That is, it is easy to see the absence of images in the the first version as the emptiness of the frames, but in the second, the mask is still empty because all masks are empty, at least those that do not represent anything, that are merely a decorated screen. Here Magritte may be playing off of the "frame" convention: these segments can't represent because they are not presented in proper rectangular frames. Didier Ottinger quotes Bart Vershaffel: "The dividedness, the fragmented quality and the separateness of their components deprive them of anything that resembles reality, destroys all narrative content" (Ottinger, 70). Ottinger speaks of these elements as "phonemes" of Magritte's new figurative language: the windows in a brick facade, harness bells, nude torso, forest, and clouds reappear in many different combinations in the paintings of this period and occasionally over the next decade or so, as if offering examples of what can appear with what (24). 

There is a similar, more rectilinear one that does have a human figure in it in place of the patterned cutout:

Figure 1.6 Fixed Idea (1927)

The figure of a hunter does alter the mix, but the representation of him is as stylized as it would be for a playing card and, like all the assemblies, the figure is placed a foot or so in front of a blank wall illuminated from over the viewer's left shoulder and with low horizon line. These bits of surfaces, even the hunter, begin to look like tokens in some game we don't know the rules for, or samples of "background" images for Web pages. They could all be made to tile very nicely. (Magritte was making his living designing wallpaper at the time.) These images are all very flat even though framed, and framing suggests a window being looked into. This is one of the ways Magritte "paints representation." The purpose of the array is not to present alternatives for us to choose our favorite from (like a book of wallpaper samples) but to make them equivalent; so they are pages from the sample book of representation through resemblance. To be sure, not all the wallpapers resemble some general and familiar thing: the harness bells on corrugated galvanized sheet metal are hardly a common figure of daily life. It is one more instance of Margritte's asymmetry: so often his sets include one member that looks like the other members of the set but is not.

Figure 1.7 The Threshold of Freedom (1929)

There are a few others in this series, including the final image of Berger's book, "The Threshold of Liberty (1929)," which does break the single plane with a kind of triptych effect and includes the image of a 15cm howitzer aimed vaguely at the upper left panel, the naked female torso (femme nue). 

I don't see this, pace A. M. Hammacher (76), as aimed at the woman's torso so much as at the panel assembly as such—"Liberty" in other words, would be to blast signs to oblivion and encounter unmediated things in themselves. (Recall the title to Figure 1.3: "The Palace of Curtains.") That would be at least approximately right to serve as the end of Berger's book, where the picture follows several paragraphs on the appropriation and debasement of art by advertising ("publicity"). And it does get us a bit farther in the right direction than Sylvester's conclusion that "the cannon is there to impress" (232), or for that matter Hammacher's remarks on the "eroticism" of the torso, forest, and wood grain. Indeed, the whole tendency of this set of experiments is to bracket or suspend representation for these "textures"—they represent nothing, they have become opaque, and hence do not bring in such associations as we may have with wood planks, fire, forests, etc. This painting, and the others, maintain the equivalence and interchangeability of the textures as textures, not their sensual differences and particularities as things. 

This is an important principle for artists who paint representation in this "meta" fashion: we do not think of being outside on a fair day, or feel that we are, when we see a framed piece of blue with puffy white shapes on it propped up against a wall. The beginning of associations and feeling tones associated with things is that we imagine ourselves to be in the presence of the thing, but with these paintings, we are always reminded that we are in the presence of . . . a painting. The eye is not fooled; Magritte's way was not that of Dali. 

In 1937, after having moved beyond the flat space into perspectival representation, Magritte revisited these textures one last time:

Figure 1.8 Violation (Attendat)(1937)

This is a textbook perspective example with converging parallels and shadows from a light source high over viewer's left shoulder. The three swatches of wallpaper now occupy different planes, two located within a "room" and the third visible through an arched passage through an exterior wall. As the title says, however, there is a violation in the composition taken together: the sky cannot appear as a surface of a block inside the room—a reflection of the sky in a mirror-surfaced block, yes, or a projection onto the block, but not simply the sky appearing through an opening (which is the value it has throughout this series). A swatch of blue and puffy white can only represent "sky" in certain contexts; there is, then, a syntax of graphic signs, and this picture is a violation on the intended reading. Further, there is no daylight illuminating the scene from the "sky" nor from the arched portal to the "outside." Magritte became quite fascinated with this grammar of sky and did a whole series of sky swatches projected onto displaced and discontinuous planes, anticipating the powers of modern image processing programs. (See, e.g. "The Universe Unmasked" 1932, "The Marches of Summer" 1937, " "The Poetic World II 1939, "Wasted Effort" 1962; only in the latter of these does light come from the sky.) Here, since resemblance fails at the level of the composition, ( i.e., the picture is ungrammatical), we may become aware of the rule that is being thwarted, and so the picture paints representation once again. 

Figure 1.9 Living Mirror (1927) Concept blobs

Returning now to the main theme of images and words, we note that Magritte did not always keep them in separate frames but tried various ways of combining them in one. Words in a text frame are merely text, but in a visual frame (say one, minimally, with a horizon or directional lighting) they become elements in a visual array. He tried putting them in connected chambers of some biomorphic system of burrows (Figure 1.9). (See "Tree of Knowledge" (1929) for another connected blob set. )

This canvas with labelled areas begins to look like a sketch for a composition, and he even drew a visually punning picture of a person breaking out in laughter (a shattered image of a laughing face) but painting in the bird calls might be a real challenge and would explain why this "plan" was never executed.

Figure 1.10 The Uses of Speech (1)(1927)

Alternatively, words might be enclosed in more substantial blobs with edges and shadows:

Figure 1.11 Eco- concept map

Of course, all words receive this treatment, even nuage which certainly should be left cloudy, and horizon, which isn't even an object at all. As a variation, in "The Use of Speech" of 1928, the concept-blobs have soft edges but do cast shadows and bear word-labels connected to them with lines. Blobs with shadows (or connections) do not look so much like place holders, indicating where the image will go, as they do concepts, the very sense of the words themselves (He uses blobs to represent word senses in "Words and Images.") Because word senses are abstract, they appear formless in a visual frame—formless, but substantial. This is indeed one attempt to make thought visible (as thought). The connected, labelled blobs of the period are the precursors of semantic and conceptual network diagrams (and of "concept maps") where the concepts are often drawn in as labelled ellipses or circles. Concept maps articulate the relations among the blobs as networks (directed graphs) rather than as configurations in space. Conceptual space is of course a common metaphor, but the concepts in conceptual space don't rest on the ground and cast shadows. 

Thought blobs have been revived in art by the Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. In the catalog of the Montreal Museum of Art exhibit of 1996 , one finds reproduced four very large thought-blob compositions by Kosuth with the title L'essence de la rhétorique est dans l'allégorie. The blobs are black with white , cursive lettering, and in each composition six of seven of them are scattered on a slate green field. They contain the words non-lieu, représentation, chose en soi, forme au discours, similtude ("noplace, representation, thing in itself, shape of language, similitude"). The concept blobs in the other pages are equally attuned to the thematics of Magritte's blob series and constitute a very penetrating revival of his project. This is the same Kosuth who exhibited a chair, a picture of a chair, and a placard with a dictionary definition of a chair with the title One and Three Chairs (1965: the year of a major retrospective exhibit of Magritte's work in New York; the installation is now in the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris). The problematic, and the use of art to expose (rather than resolve) it, provide as clear a case of continuity as one will find in art. 

Here is another, somewhat later canvas with the title "The Use of Speech" (1928) which has a very different look, but continues the word-in-blob theme by connecting up with the cartoonist's balloon:

Figure 1.12 Use of Speech (1928b)

Here the convention appears to make everything perfectly normal, except that the exchange, however Saussurean it looks, is neither in sequence nor sequential: le piano | la violette. David Sylvester suggests this depicts Magritte and Breton playing a surrealistic word association game, which is one "use of speech" but again entirely nonrepresentational. 

Alternatively we might begin to place images in place of the blobs: 

Figure 1.13 The Apparition (1928)

"Apparition" has the oblique force Magritte sought in his titles: which is the apparition—the landscape filled with blobs (to the man) or the man himself in a country of word-blobs? This painting is also reproduced in the English translation of Foucault's Pipe as "Figure 18: Personage marchant vers l'horizon".

Magritte varied the mix in several canvases of the period, including "Living Traces" (1927), where the blobs are unlabelled but there is the image of a tree on the right side with the words "femme nue" on its trunk, "Swift Hope" (1927) with labelled blobs, horizon, and no shadows.

Figure 1.14 Lost World I (1928)

David Sylvester (192) lines up two versions of "Lost World," another in the series of labelled concept blobs. The first version has a horizon and a bit of landscape in the background, which is replaced in the other with the word paysage ("landscape").

Figure 1.15 Lost World II (1928)

Here the image of the landscape gives way to the word, spread out as a landscape should be, and we pick up the ubiquitous cheval. This is like watching the process of abstraction, or a translation from depiction to description. Clearly, for the picture, something is lost. These lost worlds, however, also remind us of the advantage of words, namely, it is a little hard to imagine what picture we could insert to represent personnage perdant la mémoire ("person who is losing his/her memory.") Magritte both suggests the intersubstitutability of words and images as alternative signifiers and destabilizes the equivalence. This is perhaps most overt with the tree image of "Living Traces" with the label "femme nue" on the trunk, but it is at work in the bird calls of "Living Mirror," in "Lost Worlds" and again in the Key to Dreams series.
Figure 1.16 Key to Dreams (1927)


In the Key to Dreams series, Magritte returns to one traditional and stable way that words and images can share a frame, namely with the word as name or legend of what is also depicted in the fashion of vocabulary flash cards or early reading workbook sheets.Pierre Sterckx says they are images from the Petit Larousse, (52). Not just an equivalence of word and thing, but an exact match is implied.

It is, as Sylvester says, a school reading primer gone wrong(168)—but, as so often, not completely wrong, the lower right-hand cell is correct. 

A six-cell version of 1930 is even less helpful for French I: 

Figure 1.17 Key to Dreams (1930)

None of these nouns (the acacia, moon, snow, ceiling, storm, desert) match up. The problem infects English vocabulary sheets as well: 

Figure 1.18 Key to Dreams (1935)

 This version, like the first of its French counterparts, has a correct lower right-hand corner cell, and includes the hard-to-depict "wind." (This adorns the cover of the Penguin edition of John Berger's Ways of Seeing.) A title for Magritte seems to refer to the concept of a work, allowing there to be several canvases realizing the concept bearing the same name. And to be sure, "Key to Dreams" (La clef des songes) —is it just this deflection, this swerve away from standard assignments and displacement within the system that founds the semiotics of dreams? However that may be, these vocabulary sheets are also violations that provide a way of seeing how early schooling teaches us canonical recognition forms both of language and visual representation. Note that the English version is also a slight, overly literal mistranslation: the schoolbooks do not use the definite article in such contexts. But the side-, eye-level views of the objects, their lack of extraneous detail such as labels or decoration, and their presentation floating in a dark, featureless space without shadows (at least for the French versions) conform to the rules for 'image of a class of objects' that are part of our common visual culture. It is clear that for all his attention to surfaces, Magritte is not interested in photorealism: the intense particularity of actual concrete objects is not to his purpose. 

This is certainly not to say that photography could not be used to explore representation in Magritte's fashion. Jerry Uelsmann has perfected the technique of printing pictures composed of more than one negative to create weirdly blending one-in-the-other objects like clocks and houses emerging from tree trunks, eyes, sky, and hands in odd places and out of scale, hard-edged objects suspended in a vague sort of space (and not located in any particular place). In all of these respects, Uelsmann extends Magritte's techniques into seamless, highly polished black and white photography. [10]

Figure 1.19 from Horne, 1998, p. 112

 In what appears to be a remarkable coincidence rather than influence, Robert Horne creates a somewhat similar composition using clip art and words in order to show that in "Visual Language" the words must be integrated with the images and not merely juxtaposed. Horne's example is more like an intelligence test gone awry than a word book. Because it does not present words and images as aligned pairs, it is open to the viewer to try different groupings of images and/or words that might be said to belong together (according to some story or principle the viewer could come up with). He points out that one might try groupings on the basis of silhouettes or typography or other visual traits, and thus the puzzle or conundrum posed by this graphic does not lead to the issue of representation (and the similitude of the thing to what it represents) but to the issue of similitude of forms. 

This comparison highlights another of Magritte's pictorial qualities: the clip art is two dimensional, monochrome, and lacking in visual detail (silhouettes are the extreme of this kind of flattening and abstraction). These qualities make them abstractive and typifying and also mark them as throw-away graphics, not art. Magritte in contrast paints as if he expects you to linger. He greatly valued making objects mysterious or numinous, and hence his rather fully rendered objects are not throw-aways.

Figure 1.20 Trahison des Images (1929)

 We come now to the most famous of Magritte's text-image groups, the core of which all bear the title The Treachery of Imagery ("La Trahison des Images"). Their key image is that of a bent tobacco pipe (side view, as always) in combination with a sentence "This is not a pipe" ("Ceci n'est pas une pipe") done in the (usual) school cursive script ("a script from the convent" Foucault calls it).

I fail to see what is to be gained by translating Le Trahison des Images as "The Betrayal of Images" as is often done. "Treachery" makes it clear the images do the betraying and is the title of the American-exhibited version. Here the words are a declarative sentence which apparently corrects anyone who thinks this is a pipe. And this? Presumably the image—a sort of General Semantics point that the image is not the thing? Too simple and elementary, Foucault says. And besides, is this common way of speaking so misleading? Isn't it common enough to insert "picture of" where necessary, so that we do not tediously and pedantically have to say "This is a picture of my son, this is a picture of our dog," and so on. Actually, Foucault is most fond of a late version in which this painting is represented as resting on an easel with a large pipe (no, no, image of a pipe) floating in the air above and in front of it (title: "The Two Mysteries" (1966)). So why do we assume that there is more truth in the words than in the image? That the words can comment on the image, but not vice-versa? Or, Foucault suggests, the sentence's this could refer to the sentence itself: "this (sentence) is not a pipe; look, here's a pipe." This would be images taking primacy over words. One semiotic rule exposed here is that legends or captions refer to the visual contents to which they are attached, not to themselves. A second point is that legends and captions stand outside the interpretive area of the work; they are authoritative and exempt from the full play of interpretation. 

So would it help to nail (or screw) the sentence down as a legend or caption? In subsequent reworkings, Magritte painted it as on a brass plaque screwed onto a wood mounting board for the pipe, and also sketched it as a screw-down plaque with the slightly updated message "This is still not a pipe" in 1953. That would seem to mute the self-referential reading ("this brass plaque is not a pipe" or "this whole assembly"), but it proliferates a new one "this is the famous pipe of which it was said 'this is not a pipe.'" Clearly this setup is rife with post structuralist indeterminacies—treacheries?

Figure 1.21 This is a Piece of Cheese (1937)

 Magritte branched out to other objects, painting not long before his death a quite photo-realistic greenish apple with the caption "This is not an apple" (1964). But cheese, now there is a different matter:

This counterpart to the pipe dates from 1937. One might say the lesson is that context rules, but the title's affirmation is paradoxical, in that nothing looks less like a piece of cheese than this little framed miniature substituting for something you could eat. This affirmation, by the way, is not part of the picture (i.e., within the frame) as it is in the pipe series and apple; rather, it seems more securely rooted in the titling conventions which rule out its being taken as a part of what is represented. So its privilege is manifested by its being obviously false.

Titles: As long as images represent things (objects, places, people, events) , it made sense to identify what was represented by its verbal coordinates, as it were. This naming enables viewers to recognize the thing, or correlate it to other representations of the thing, and to admire the likeness or the rendering of some part of the world. This standard practice does not so much enact the primacy of language over image as it does confirm the function of the image as representing. When in the twentieth century an artist decisively abandons representation in favor of "abstraction" or a focus on formal values and medium, the title represents the image itself, usually in terms of its main compositional features ("Red Square and White Square", "White Balancing, 2" "Improvisation: Green Center"). When representation is itself under scrutiny, the titles tend to become oblique and sometimes teasingly definite references to things that are not part of common knowledge or experience, allusions to things in a code we don't share (Duchamp: "The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even", Ernst: "The Robing of the Bride"—just to take "brides"). 

Clearly Magritte's titles fall in this third, loosest of categories. A. M. Hammacher provides a valuable sketch of Magritte's titling practices, which crucially involved soliciting suggestions from his circle of mainly literary friends for the title of a newly completed work. He gave them guidelines and discussed suggestions with them in letters; among his papers was one "concerning titles" that reflects his thinking. He sharply rejected titles of the first kind, which he called "indicative," seeking rather the "poetic" title which was not identifying or determinative, but surprising and enchanting (Hammacher, 22). Most of the titles we have seen would be examples of poetic titles. A few of his titles are dead-pan literal descriptions of what a painting represents ("The Man with a Newspaper", "The Empty Picture Frame"), though even these are contestable, given the alert ingenuity his more characteristic titles call forth. The Man, for example, only appears in one of the four panels of that painting and the picture frame is not exactly empty: visible through it is a section of brick wall, though the frame is shown hung over a plastered wall, so that its emptiness is so intense, as it were, that it penetrates the plaster immediately behind it to expose the brick.

Though strangely methodical and persistent, Magritte's probings and comparisons of visual and verbal representation do not of course count as philosophical inquiries into the theory of signification. Though through his working of incongruities, he poses problems, he makes no attempt to solve them. His pursuit of topics like the dependence of representation on framing and the equivalence/nonequivalence of words and images has an almost empirical feel to it, as again and again we are presented with paintings that cause our expectations of correlation and consistency to tremble, almost as if the effect on us is to be measured, each one varying just one parameter. The paintings we have looked at have no subject other than these probings, this sly trickery, that produced the images of representation upon which his enduring popularity rests. He is the first visual semiologist. 

Words in Images  

Friday, March 6, 2009 2:38:53 PM


The next two blogs are articles from Washington EDU about words in art. My new paintings have lyrics painted on the canvases. Magritte was one of the pioneers of words painted on canvas. 

Chapter 1: Words in Images

John Baldessari, 1967

The first half of the twentieth century was marked by a sudden explosive emergence of mass-produced images--in the movies, in newspapers, and in magazines, both in main content and in advertising. This unprecedented outpouring was ignored as much as possible by High Art, and to a considerable degree it is still ignored today. In an recent interview with Benjamin Buchloh, the photographer and video artist Martha Rosler answered all of his questions about artists who influenced her and volunteered a name of her own: John Baldessari, who in the 1960s had begun using words with his photographs inside the frame. She describes seeing in 1968 his now well-known picture of himself standing in front of his house and directly in front of a palm tree which thus appears to grow out of his head (Rosler, 1998: 38). Beneath the picture is the word WRONG lettered in large block caps.

That is metadiscourse; I had never seen photographic metadiscourse before. Not only did he use a dumb photo, he made a point of it by sticking a word on it, because of course words were forbidden in photography.

Notice how High Art controls the terms here: photography must not include commercial photography, since nobody apparently forbid words in advertising. "Today, at the level of mass communications," Roland Barthes said in 1964, "it appears that the linguistic message is indeed present in every image: as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon" (38). How many times in the twentieth century was the High (Modernist) Art ban on words inside the frame breached by avant-garde artists? Such a move was a leading feature of many programs and movements, though it was made for different reasons and with different effects:

 Cubists and Futurists introduced words inside the frame to highlight the visuality of the written and printed word--its Janus-like double facing toward visual shape and abstract content;1

Dadaists glued in bits of newspaper and other lettering into their photomontages and collages in part to claim and remake the look of the illustrated magazine, catalog, newspaper, and other new commercial media.

Pop art continued this struggle, focusing on the popular mixed medium of the cartoon;

Conceptualists almost inverted the ban, filling canvases with words as they reoriented art toward ideas.

Some, like Baldessari, use words reflexively to highlight art as a signifying system;

Others, like René Magritte, Victor Burgin, and Rosler herself, play off visual signification against certain kinds of verbal signification, thus creating a kind of hybrid art form.

 There were of course crossovers and connections as well. Tony Godfrey, for example, included a heavily illustrated article in the La Révolution Surréaliste by René Magritte in his collection of Conceptualist works of art. That is probably considerably farther than Magritte would have been willing to go, but it is certainly true that Magritte's experiments at representing representation by words and by images anticipates the linguistic and semiotic concerns of Conceptualism, and (1.1) Magritte's semiotic experiments→ will initiate the discussion in this chapter. 2

 We will then work through the (1.2) stable relations→ that words and images can have as words are placed next to or inside the frame of the image. These are the basic types of what Barthes calls "anchorage" of images by text. (The stable relations are titles, labels, placards and legends (where image is primary) to illustrations and instances (where text is primary). These are conventionalized roles for words and images, and there are conventions of congruence between text and image in specific roles. These can be flouted to produce incongruous titles, legends, and so on. Such incongruities highlight the flouted expectations.

 (1.3) Appropriations→ are the placing of an image next to a text where one or both of them are lifted out of another context and placed so as to be contexts each for the other (the text next to or inside the frame of the image). This can result in a kind of oscillation between image and text that we will call unstable, but it is also a favorite device of political posters—showing the contradictions—where the text declares one reality and the image shows another. Attention will be devoted here and in the following section to work by artists interested in addressing social and political issues, including Victor Burgin, Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, and Esther Parada.

 (1.4) Unstable relations→ are those in which the text and the image seem to make equal claims to primacy and do not seem to be saying the same thing, thus forcing the viewer to infer some basis for associating them. The distinction I have in mind is like Umberto Eco's open/closed work, but focuses specifically on the point of "how do the words and images go together?"

 These artists are photographers and exhibited their work in galleries before there was a Web, though there are now coming to be decent samples of their work online. A more recent generation of artists have chosen the Web and hypertext as their medium and tend to compose in (1.5) Word-Image Chains.→ As Web hypertext has developed in their hands, words and images begin to function interchangeably, with images containing links to pieces of text and texts linking to images. These works typically have multiple screens and paths through image and text, and the effect of following them is to begin to break down any sharp distinction between words and images and to suggest a sort of synthesis. There are many many sites that could be instanced; here we will look at two of the older, "classic" ones (Joseph Squier's "Urban Diary" and Carol Flax's "In the Absence of Memory"), and then at two more recent, JavaScripted ones (Carmin Karasic's "With Liberty and Justice for All" and Liz Miller's "Moles").

E.L.T. Mesens - Dada Joker in the Surrealist Pack  

Friday, March 6, 2009 1:09:56 PM


Here's an excellent article on E.L.T. Mesens who was Magritte's sponsor and friend: 

Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative 
Issue 13. The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924
E.L.T. Mesens - Dada Joker in the Surrealist Pack  
  Author: Neil Matheson
Published: November 2005

Abstract (E): This article analyses the work of the Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Mesens in relation to his deeply entrenched commitment to Dadaism. Although a fervent surrealist, Mesens nonetheless remained marked by his early involvement in the Dada movement, through his contact with figures like Tristan Tzara , Man Ray and Francis Picabia. The author argues that, even after the formation of the Belgian surrealist group in 1926, Dada continued to inform Mesens' attitudes and working practice and that, in fact, for Mesens, Dada remained a lifelong influence. Mesens' surrealism was thus permeated by his subversive humour, combative attitude, and by the visual and typographic styles associated with the Dada movement.

What is Surrealism?

- It's relearning to read in the alphabet of stars of E.L.T. Mesens.

André Breton (1934) [1]

E.L.T. Mesens: Le plus Bruxellois des citoyens du monde 
An undervalued figure - at least in England - Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens (1903-1971) played a crucial part in the early development of Belgian surrealism, acted as a pivotal figure in relations between the Brussels and Paris groups, and had an important role in the extension of the movement to Britain in 1936, eventually becoming leader of the Surrealist Group in England. As a curator, occasional poet, publisher, editor, and - in a late flourishing of his work as a creator - producer of collages, Mesens spanned the whole range of surrealist activity. For David Sylvester, less convinced of his talents as a creator, Mesens was 'not so much versatile as dilettantish' (Sylvester 59), whereas for his biographer, Christiane Geurts-Krauss, Mesens is "l'alchimiste méconnu du surréalisme " - an unjustly neglected figure who worked tirelessly to promote those artists such as Magritte, whose work he admired (Geurts-Krauss 13). For his friend, the writer and fellow surrealist, Louis Scutenaire, Mesens was the link between the surrealist groups of Paris and Brussels, "smoothing out difficulties - or creating them when need be!" (Scutenaire 9). Scutenaire observes that Mesens was turned more to the external world than were his Belgian colleagues, while at the same time deeply proud of his Brussels roots - a view echoed by his mentor and friend, the gallerist Paul-Gustave Van Hecke: "He's the most 'Brussels' of the citizens of the world that I know" (Van Hecke n.p) [2].

Mesens was born in the old quarter of Saint-Géry in Brussels, geographical roots of which he was always proud, and near which was a café where in 1911, the anarchist Bonnot gang would meet. Mesens famously wrote in 1944 : "I was born on the 27 November 1903, without god, without master, without king and without rights" (Mesens 1944) [3]. This credo, often repeated in Mesens' many catalogues, recalls the opening of Max Ernst's 'Biographical Notes': "On 2 April in the small town of Brühl, not far from the sacred city of Cologne, he opened his eyes", (Ernst 281) and Ernst was to be an enduring influence upon Mesens' collages. A talented (though somewhat lazy) pianist, Mesens at first seemed destined for a career in music, where the work of Satie came to him as a revelation, and of whom he observed: "Thanks to the work of Satie my first personal revolution was accomplished. Goodbye sentimental love of the Flemish land; goodbye impressionist harmonies; goodbye schmaltzy humanitarian poets!" (Otlet-Moutoy 175) [4]. Mesens abandoned music in 1923, curiously citing "moral" reasons, though this sounds suspiciously like Mesens aligning himself with Breton's prejudice against music, whereas the English surrealist George Melly points out that Mesens admitted lacking the "mathematical" aptitude, and that on a more practical level, his father refused to fund his musical studies (Melly 1971: 24). With typical self-assurance Mesens introduced himself to Erik Satie, in April 1921, when the latter was performing in Brussels and made his first trip to Paris with Satie in December of that year. Satie, a humorist and poet as well as a composer, introduced Mesens into Dadaist circles, where he met Tristan Tzara, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and Philippe Soupault, and lunched in Brancusi's studio with Marcel Duchamp; he also met Man Ray and went along to the latter's first Paris exhibition at the Galerie Six (Mesens 1979: 12). Mesens later described Satie as "a sort of anarchist" and Mesens' own tastes were more for Dada irreverence and revolt, than for early surrealism (Geurts-Krauss 33).

Still only in his late teens, Mesens was deeply marked by these early contacts with Paris Dada, taking from Tzara his cosmopolitanism and dandyism, and from Picabia the role of bon viveur and raconteur, as well as a love of eroticism, intrigue and scandal. For Melly, who knew Mesens intimately, Mesens was "a mass of contradictions": "He was a monster but a sacred one. An angel but fallen" (Melly 1971: 23). Although, as he himself affirmed, "surrealist to his fingertips", I want to insist on the enduring impact of Dada on Mesens' work and attitudes. As David Willinger argues: "There is no question of regarding Dada in Belgium as having been a movement per se. It is more accurate there to speak of the Dada spirit ." (Willinger 2). Dada sprang up spontaneously in Belgium and was championed, with little support, by Clément Pansaers, founder of the review Résurrection (1917-18). First learning of Dada while in Berlin in 1919, Pansaers went on to Paris where he participated in Paris Dada, eventually returning to Brussels disillusioned in 1922, where he died soon after of Hodgkin's disease. According to José Vovelle, of the future Belgian surrealists, only Marcel Lecomte had direct contact with Pansaers, though Dada left no significant trace upon his subsequent work (Vovelle 14). The Dada label could also be extended to the Antwerp artist Paul Joostens, and perhaps to the work of Michel Seuphor, though there was nothing at all comparable to the Paris Dada movement that Mesens encountered in his early trips to that city (See Sauwen).

Many commentators have noted a strongly Dadaist flavour to Mesens' humour, his most enduring acquisition from Satie. Melly relates a tale of Mesens and friends, in Brussels, who "pissed from the balcony during the premiere of a patriotic symphony (Melly 1997: 20)." Melly also describes Mesens, during the war, making elaborate diversions through Soho, to the exposed toilet of a bombed house, where he would "solemnly urinate - a gesture", Melly says, "both Dada, surrealist and, especially, Belgian" (Melly 1997: 21). During the early 1920s Mesens contributed to a number of avant-garde reviews (Ça Ira, Créer), including the Dada-oriented Mécano edited by Theo van Doesburg, which made the fruitful connection between Dada and Constructivism. It was through the intervention of van Doesburg that Mesens first met Kurt Schwitters, in Paris, further reinforcing the impact of Dada upon the young Mesens. Mesens, together with Magritte, then made detailed plans during the latter part of 1924, for the launch of a Dada review, Période, with the collaboration of Tzara. During a period of growing tension between the Dada movement in Paris and Breton's Littérature group, Tzara had attempted in July 1923 to re-launch Dada with his theatrical piece Le Coeur à Gaz, only to see the event violently disrupted by Breton and his friends. Mesens, though, with his love of music, (in marked contrast with Breton's vaunted aversion - "So may night continue to descend upon the orchestra") (Breton 1) and with a strong taste for subversion, found Tzara a powerfully attractive figure, and in August 1923 launched a long correspondence with him which endured until 1926. In their letters we find the two men making what were eventually to prove abortive plans for a Dada lecture tour of Belgium by Tzara and for a ballet, as well as organising various literary collaborations. Pansaers' plans for a Dada soirée in Brussels had come to nothing and it would appear that Mesens had similar ambitions for a Dada-inspired event in Belgium, centred upon the involvement of Tzara, which were likewise eventually to be frustrated (Massonet 16-28). We also find Mesens criticising Breton's collection of essays Les Pas Perdus, which appeared early in 1924, and which contains a number of important attacks on Dada and on Tzara in particular (Massonet 34-7 and 42-4).

Mesens, together with Magritte, also contributed what David Sylvester rightly judges to be rather feeble aphorisms to the final issue of Picabia's Dada review 391 (October 1924) - more significant was that Picabia used the issue to launch a spoof movement, Instantanéisme, as an attack on the newly formed surrealist movement (Picabia 127). The first Manifeste du surréalisme was published on October 15 1924 and Mesens was therefore associated with this half-hearted, Dadaist attempt to spike the guns of the new movement. Writing in October 1924, Mesens informs Tzara that he will soon have a theatre available in Brussels, where he intends to stage various events , including Tzara's Mouchoir de Nuages, raising the intriguing possibility of a late flourishing of Dada in Belgium (Massonet 43-4). In the event, Mesens' Dada spirit was to find expression in Période, produced together with Magritte, which eventually appeared in March 1925 under the new title Osophage, following a split with Goemans and Lecomte, initiated by Paul Nougé (Nougé subtly undermined Mesens' plans by issuing a pastiche of the prospectus that Mesens had issued for Période) . The review, with its device Hop-là, Hop-là, was in a distinctly Dadaist spirit, its contributors including Arp, Ernst, Picabia, Schwitters, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Pierre de Massot and the Dutch Dadaist I.K. Bonset (Theo van Doesburg). Launched in typical Dada style, at Tzara's request the review included the last-minute addition of an inflammatory open letter "of a rare violence", relating to the latter's running dispute with André Germain, and which Tzara promised would "launch your review with a ringing scandal" (Massonet 83) [5]. On the front cover, in their 'Les 5 Commandements', Mesens and Magritte claimed a politics of 'autodestruction' and an absolute refusal to explain, while Tzara declared that: "Shit is realism, Surrealism is the smell of shit" (Mesens and Magritte 1) [6].

The following year saw the launch of Marie - Journal Bimensuel pour la Belle Jeunesse, a review that, in its playful, subversive tone, typographic play and choice of contributors, was firmly in the Dadaist tradition. The second, double, issue (8 July 1926) featured Picabia's Optophone on its cover - a 'target' of concentric circles, with the sex of a reclining woman at its heart - together with Dadaists such as Tzara and Ribemont-Dessaignes, and was clearly something of an anachronism coming so long after the fading of Dada elsewhere in Europe.

Paul Nougé, however, famously "vomitted Dada", and with the merging of Mesens and Magritte with the Correspondance group towards the end of 1926, Nougé assumed the leadership of the nascent surrealist group; Mesens' role was correspondingly reduced and the Dada influence was replaced by that of Parisian surrealism. Breton, Eluard and Morise had visited Nougé in Brussels in the summer of 1925 and, as a theorist and intellectual, he was clearly perceived by the Parisians as the leading figure of the Belgian group. The final issue of Marie - Adieu à Marie - therefore assumed a very different character, less Dadaist in tone, and rather closer to surrealism. As a purely Belgian, francophone production it marked a shift from the Dada cosmopolitanism of the previous issue and was more concerned with establishing a cohesive Belgian group. While the review also looks more serious, it nonetheless retains an air of Dadaist provocation, with Mesens staging a powerful pairing of images of menacing clenched fists (Comme ils l'entendent, et comme nous l'entendons, 1926) , photographed by Roland de Smet, using a simple process of inversion, where the same object, a knuckle-duster, is simply inverted. The result is a rather brutal and somewhat anarchistic message, further reinforced by Nougé's poem 'les syllables muettes', which begins: "Our mouth is full of blood. Our ears ring with blood. Our eyes light up with blood." [7] In combination, then, images and text work together to create an air of unspecified violence and menace. While concurring with other commentators that, with his absorption into the nascent Belgian surrealist movement in 1926, Mesens finally abandons his plans for a revival of the Dada movement in Belgium, I would nonetheless argue that Dada retains its grip upon Mesens, and that we can trace such influence in his activities as gallerist and picture editor, as well as in Mesens' own collages.


Fig.1 Goemans, Miró, Arp, Mesens (behind) and van Hecke in a pastiche of Ernst's Au rendez-vous des amis (1922),  Variétés, June 1928.

In January 1927 Mesens was named director of the gallery L'Epoque by Van Hecke, who went on in March 1928 to launch the cultural review Variétés (1928-30), modelled on the German review Der Querschnitt. Mesens is credited by Jacques Brunius with a significant role in the selection and layout of images in Variétés (De Croës and Lebeer 301) , making heavy use of photographs, and the review also reflects Mesens' personal tastes - the issue of December 1929, for example, has a particularly strong Dada flavour, with a short play by Ribemont-Dessaignes, poems by Mesens and Tzara, collages by Ernst and absurdist drawings by Marc Eemans. In the June 1928 issue, Mesens appears in a group photograph taken at the recent Arp exhibition, standing behind Arp, together with Miró, Goemans and Van Hecke (fig. 1). The image is juxtaposed against Ernst's Au rendez-vous des amis, an iconic Dada work dating from 1922 which brought together Dadaists and members of Breton's Littérature group. Arp figures in both the photograph and the painting, with his seated pose echoing that of Ernst's painting, so that the photograph functions as a kind of minimal pastiche of the painting, suggesting some kind of parallel between the groups of 1922 and 1928. We could also make a link with another rendez-vous, the celebrated 'Le rendez-vous de chasse' of 1934, in which Mesens figures alongside the rest of the Belgian surrealist group, against a painted studio backdrop (Documents 34 60). Mesens also appears in another group portrait with Van Hecke, in the final issue of Variétés, this time pointedly set against an image of circus clowns. These group photos, I believe, were enormously important, both in affirming group identity, as well as in creating a sense of unity or common purpose, often where no such unity existed - Mesens' taste for scandal and clowning around was not always appreciated by other members of the group, particularly Goemans, with whom he often clashed on the short-lived review Distances that preceded Variétés .

Paris-Brussels: Mesens as Collagist and Publisher 
Mesens' activity as a collagist divides into two periods: an early phase from 1924-46 when he produced only a couple of collages, often photo-based, each year; and a late, intense phase from 1954 until his death in 1971, when he regularly produced around forty collages a year. The collages assumed a Dadaist orientation from the outset, inspired both by the early collages of Max Ernst and by the experiments in photography of Man Ray. In one of his earliest collages, The Invasion, 1924, two headless mannequins - one rather taller than the other, suggestive of a parent and child - stand together in a deserted library. The room has been inverted, creating an upside-down world invaded by these acephalous figures and recalls the early work of de Chirico, or the early Dada collages of Raoul Hausmann, which again deploy mannequins and distorted interior spaces. The atmosphere of this image is also recalled in Mesens' poem 'Proclamation', which appeared in the 'Intervention surréaliste' of Documents 34:

Already the wax mannequins invade the libraries

Women walk like wet flags

The insane hand out the image of their mind

At the doors of disused churches (Documents 34 44). [8]

Dada made a quite specific use of collage, characterised by Otlet-Moutoy as being used particularly in opposition to traditional forms of art-making and as marked by a spirit of negativity (Otlet-Moutoy 181-2). Dada collages are notable for their absurdity and their overturning of logic and meaning, mixing incongruous elements to create an alternative reality, often with the addition of some poetic caption or text. Mesens' collages, in their overt combining of contrasting elements from different sources, producing conflicts of scale and logical incoherence, are clearly within the Dada collage tradition of Ernst and Schwitters, rather than in that of the more 'seamless', oneiric visual style more associated with surrealism. Mesens' 1926 collage, The Disconcerting Light (fig. 2), features the eye motif that was to figure so heavily in his work. Here the gigantic eye hovers over a cityscape that recalls the work of Paul Citroën, as a mysterious beam of light flashes out from the pupil into the blackened sky. Mesens used this image in Variétés (June 1929) alongside two more photos, setting similar circular motifs against each other. Brunius, himself a collage maker of some talent, characterises Mesens' method in laying out photos as a kind of collage: "each page", says Brunius, "becomes in fact an undisclosed collage, solely through the play of confrontation" (Brunius n.p.). In this the paired images function either by relations of attraction or of opposition, creating unexpected effects as they meet and collide. Another, less successful, version of the eye motif figures in Mesens' Arrière pensée (1926/7), where the radiant eye is now set against a glass ornament. In fact this image came about by accident in the darkroom of Robert de Smet, when he put a second negative over Mesens' still-life image (Das Innere der Sicht 136). In the layout that he created for Variétés, Mesens juxtaposed the photograph against the image of a spiral staircase by Germaine Krull, thus creating a further layer of meaning in the encounter of the two images.


Fig.2  E.L.T. Mesens, The Disconcerting Light (La Lumière déconcertante), 1926.

June 1929 saw the publication of a special issue of Variétés - 'Le Surréalisme en 1929' - which brought about the close collaboration of the Brussels and the Parisian surrealist groups, with Mesens acting as chief intermediary (Dewolf 5-15). Mesens was therefore in a position to include three of his short poems and two of his collages in the collection. The first collage, Je ne pense qu'à vous! , brings together the influence of Man Ray in the form of a photogram of the silhouette of a face, with that of Ernst, in the collaged figures in Edwardian dress and small figures shoeing a horse. Mesens' collages very often contain hidden personal allusions, so that the horse and farrier perhaps allude to Mesens' childhood: Scutenaire relates that Mesens' father's wholesale business deployed a dozen horses and that the family lived near a forge, from which came the sound of bellows and hammers on anvils - the forge later became a garage, and Mesens also set Soupault's poem 'Garage' to music (Scutenaire 23). The grid motif with tiny figures also echoes that in Ernst's 'L'aveugle prédestiné .', one of Ernst's collages for Les malheurs des immortels (1922).

Again, in the second of Mesens' collages, L'instruction obligatoire - a headless female mannequin in a long Edwardian dress, set against a starry backdrop - we discover the persistence of Dada in an image which is almost a pastiche of Ernst's Les ciseaux et leur père, again taken from Les malheurs des immortels. Brunius contends that Ernst, for a quarter of a century, was the biggest obstacle to the development of collage, during which time, he says, "it seemed almost impossible to escape the vertigo of involuntarily imitating him" (Brunius n.p.). Instead of effacing the artist, Brunius argues, collage instead foregrounded him in the form of the "style Max Ernst", where only Ernst was able to escape imitating himself.

Mesens continued to play a key role between Brussels and Paris in a series of collaborations of the early 1930s. In 1933 he founded Éditions Nicolas Flamel, through which he published his Alphabet sourd aveugle, written in hospital in only two days in 1930 (Mesens 1933). The alphabet format is perhaps suggested by Louis Aragon's Dada-style poem 'Suicide' which simply lays out all the letters of the alphabet in the form of a square (Cannibale 4). The frontispiece of Mesens' alphabet is provided by one of his most successful and enigmatic photograms, dating from 1928, and again recalls the early work of Man Ray and Ernst. The image consists of three principal elements set against a backdrop of darkness: an absurd piece of machinery set against an eclipsed circle, suggesting the eye motif; the outline of a crudely drawn hand on a sheet of printed paper, apparently taken from some medical text; and the blurred form of what is perhaps a piece of crumpled paper. The hand, usually traced around as Mesens lacked drawing skills, is another recurring feature of Mesens' work - often in relation to music, keyboards, etc. - as in Mesens' drawing Le Clavecin bien tamponné de Jean Sebastian Bach (Mesens 1944).

Eluard wrote the preface for Mesens' Alphabet, and the Brussels and Paris groups collaborated again in 1933 on Violette Nozières, a collection of poems and visual works in protest at the verdict in the Nozières case, for which Man Ray provided the striking photographic cover. These collaborations between Brussels and Paris culminated in the First International Surrealist Exhibition held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1934 - the Minotaure exhibition, hung by Mesens. Breton's lecture given at the closure of the exhibition - 'Qu'est-ce que le surréalisme?' - was subsequently published with Magritte's Le Viol on the cover. Breton in 1934, in response to the question "What is Surrealism?" , responds cannily: "It's the cuckoo's egg left in the nest (the clutch lost) with the complicity of René Magritte. It's relearning to read in the alphabet of stars of E.L.T. Mesens. It's the great lesson in mystery of Paul Nougé." [9] These collaborations were reflected in the composition of Man Ray's 1934 'Surrealist chessboard', which includes both Mesens and Magritte alongside members of the Parisian group - Mesens had been omitted from that of 1929, which featured dreaming surrealists framing Magritte's Je ne vois pas la femme cachée (Hugnet). Finally for 1934, we should also note the 'Intervention surréaliste' in Documents 34 , for which Mesens was editor-in-chief, in close collaboration with Eluard, the contents of which reflected the growing expansion of the surrealist movement, particularly in Belgium, as well as including former Dadaists like Duchamp, Ernst and Tzara.

Mesens quit Belgium in 1938, and during his London period, too, we also find occasional signs of his continuing to revive the Dada spirit, both in his choice of exhibiting artists, and in some of his selections for the London Bulletin (1938-40): Mesens d evoted major shows to Ernst (1938) and to Man Ray (1939), while figures such as Duchamp, Picabia and Schwitters also figured in group exhibitions and in the London Bulletin . Mesens also had what was to prove a decisive encounter with Kurt Schwitters, then an émigré in London. Melly gives a moving account of Schwitters, in March 1947, raging his Dada poem 'Ursonate' in a deserted London gallery, as the BBC sound-recordist quietly leaves. Schwitters and Hausmann proposed that Mesens publish a collection of their jointly-produced Dada poems, but, aware of the minimal public interest in Dada at the time, Mesens' business acumen over-ruled his commitment to Dada and he turned down the proposal (Geurts-Krauss 121). Nonetheless, these late contacts with Dada are seen by Brunius as a key determinant in Mesens' return to collage in the 1950s. Mesens' subversive humour is also well borne out in the tale of the young Melly being sent across the road by Mesens to welcome the pompous new owner of a store selling luxury travelling goods: Melly is instructed to say "The managing director of the London Gallery opposite asked me on his behalf to wish you Good luck, Sir", and then to continue repeating the formula, louder and louder, driving the man into an exasperated rage (Melly 1997: 85).

The Dada joker in Breton's surrealist deck of cards, Mesens was, in Scutenaire's words "during his entire life . a rebel, an element of subversion" (Scutenaire 51). Enthused early in his career by his contact with Paris Dada, Mesens' work and attitudes remained profoundly marked by the impact of Dadaism until the end of his life; that the Dada influence was an enduring one is attested by Mesens' late return to producing collages, in 1954, where the principal influences are again Ernst, Picabia and Schwitters (Vovelle 229-233). Mesens embodied the Dadaist spirit of revolt, overriding ties of religion and nation, and instead affirming a subversive internationalism that made surrealism far more than simply another art movement.

Breton, André, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, Boston: MFA Publications, (1965), 2002.

Brunius, Jacques, 'Rencontres fortuites et concertées', in E.L.T. Mesens: 125 Collages et Objets (exh. cat.), Knokke Le Zoute, 1963, (non-paginated). Cannibale, no.1, 25 April 1920.

Das Innere der Sicht. Surrealistische Fotografie der 30er und 40er Jahre (exh. cat.), Östereichisches Fotoarchiv im Museum Moderner Kunst, 1989.

De Croës, Catherine and Paul Lebeer, 'E.L.T. Mesens: L'homme des liaisons', in L'Art en Belgique. Flandre et Wallonie au XXe siècle (exh. cat.), Paris: Musée de la Ville de Paris, 1991.

Dewolf, Philippe, 'De la mascotte au cadavre', in Variétés. Le Surréalisme en 1929 (reprint), Brussels: Didier Devillez Editeur, 1994.

Documents 34, 'Intervention surréaliste', Bruxelles, Nouvelle série, No.1, June 1934.

Ernst, Max, 'Biographical Notes', in Werner Spies (ed), Max Ernst: A Retrospective (exh. cat.), London: Tate Gallery, 1991.

Geurts-Krauss, Christiane. E.L.T. Mesens. L'Alchimiste méconnu du surréalisme, Bruxelles: Editions Labor et Musée de la littérature, 1998.

Hugnet, Georges, Petite Anthologie poétique du Surréalisme, Paris: Editions Jeanne Bucher, 1934.

Massonet, Stéphane (ed), Dada Terminus. Tristan Tzara - E.L.T. Mesens, correspondance choisie, 1923-1926, Bruxelles : Didier Devillez Editeur, 1997.

Melly, George, 'The W.C. Fields of Surrealism', Sunday Times Colour Magazine, 15 August 1971.

Melly, George, Don't Tell Sybil: An Intimate Memoir of E.L.T. Mesens, London: Heinemann, 1997.

Mesens, E.L.T., Alphabet sourd aveugle, Brussels: Editions Nicolas Flamel, 1933.

Mesens, E.L.T., 'Poème de guerre', Troisième front suivi de pièces détachées, London: London Gallery Editions, 1944.

Mesens, E.L.T., 'I was in marvellous company', Transformaction no.10, Sidmouth, Devon, October 1979.

Osophage (Période), No.1, Brussels, March 1925.

Otlet-Moutoy, Suzanne, 'Les étapes de l'activité créatrice chez E.L.T. Mesens et l'esprit du collage comme aboutissement d'une pensée', Bulletin des Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, nos.1-4 1973.

Picabia, Francis, 391 no.19, Paris, October 1924.

Sauwen, Rik, 'Dada à l'heure belge', L'Art en Belgique. Flandre et Wallonie au XXe siècle (exh. cat.), Paris: Musée de la Ville de Paris, 1991.

Scutenaire, Louis. Mon ami Mesens, Brussels: pub. Scutenaire,1972.

Sylvester, David, Magritte, London: Thames and Hudson (in association with the Menil Foundation), 1992.

Van Hecke, Paul-Gustave, 'Mesens', in E.L.T. Mesens (exh. cat.), Galerie de la Madeleine, Bruxelles, 1966.

Vovelle, José, Le Surréalisme en Belgique, Brussels: André De Rache, 1972.

Willinger, David, Theatrical Gestures of Belgian Modernism, New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

[1] "Qu'est-ce que le surréalisme? - C'est réapprendre à lire dans l'alphabet d'étoiles d'E.L.T. Mesens" , André Breton, 1934.

[2] "C'est le plus Bruxellois des citoyens du monde que je connaisse", Paul-Gustave Van Hecke.

[3] "Je suis né le 27 novembre 1903, sans dieu, sans maître, sans roi et sans droits" , E.L.T. Mesens.

[4] "Grâce à l'oeuvre de Satie, voilà ma première revolution personnelle d'accomplie. Adieu, sentimentalités du terroir flamand; adieu, harmonies impressionnistes; adieu, poètes humanitaires à l'eau de rose!", E.L.T. Mesens.

[5] "je crois qu'elle lancera ta revue par un scandale retentissant", Tristan Tzara, February 1925.

[6] "La merde c'est du réalisme, le Surréalisme c'est l'odeur de la merde", Mesens and Magritte.

[7] "Notre bouche est pleine de sang.

Nos oreilles bourdonnent de sang.

Nos yeux s'illuminent de sang." [.]

Paul Nougé, 9 September 1926.

[8] Déjà les mannequins de cire envahissent les bibliothèques

Les femmes marchent comme des drapeaux mouillés

Les fous distribuent l'image de leur esprit

Aux portes des églises désaffectées

E.L.T. Mesens.

[9] "C'est l'oeuf de coucou déposé dans le nid (la couvée perdue) avec la complicité de René Magritte. C'est réapprendre à lire dans l'alphabet d'étoiles d'E.L.T. Mesens. C'est la grande leçon de mystère de Paul Nougé.", André Breton. 

About the author 
Dr Neil Matheson is Senior Lecturer in Theory and Criticism of Photography at the University of Westminster.  He is an art historian specialising in surrealism, and editor of the collection The Sources of Surrealism (Helm, due January 2006).  He has written recently on English Surrealism in the journal History of Photography (Summer 2005), and on contemporary German photography in the collection The State of the Real (I.B. Tauris, due December 2005). 

Amid fantasy, Magritte is full of solid ideas 

Friday, March 6, 2009 12:42:57 PM


Continuing articles on Magritte:

Amid fantasy, Magritte is full of solid ideas
By Michael GibsonPublished: SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2003

PARIS: The paradoxical images of Rene Magritte (1898-1967) are quite as familiar to us today as are the soft watches of his contemporary, Salvador Dali, and the exhibition of his work at the Jeu de Paume (until June 9) includes many of his most characteristic works: boots with human toes, an empty nightgown with breasts, a nocturnal street with a blue sky above, a pipe with the inscription "This is not a pipe," a great rock crowned with a city floating above the ocean waves, a parody of David's "Madame Recamier" in which an angled coffin sits on the famous couch, and so on.

Magritte's fantastical visions usually have the immediacy of good advertising, and they don't really need to be seen in their original form to make their point.

In this sense, Magritte is not really a painter at all. He is an illustrator, a subversive communicator, and his careful, academic brushwork is quite as much a part of the message as his adoption of the standard attire of middle-class Belgian businessmen — double-breasted suite, black overcoat and bowler hat — was part of his well-conceived public persona.

Magritte was born into a lower middle-class family in provincial Belgium and was 16 years old at the outbreak of World War I. His mother committed suicide when he was 14 by throwing herself into the Sambre. One may speculate on the impact of this calamitous event on the young Magritte, but the artist himself is not of much assistance here.

He decided early on that his strategy would be to position himself as a "black box" and keep his intimacy to himself. One may be tempted, nonetheless, to assume that both his art and his persona were conditioned by these dour origins and this traumatic loss.

Today in Culture
Yoga enthusiasts hear the call of kirtanLandmark Paris sale raises major issues for dealers and DrouotA critic's humbling turn on the small screenMagritte met his future wife, Georgette, when he was 15 and married her nine years later. He worked in advertising to earn his livelihood, but soon found a congenial environment in a European art world marked both by Surrealism and by the movement's early affiliation with the Communists.

At that time, Magritte and his wife accompanied Dali to Cadaques, on the Spanish Costa Brava, for a vacation. They also attended a meeting of the Surrealists in 1929, but broke with Andre Breton when the latter, having noticed that Georgette wore a crucifix around her neck, demanded that she remove it. She refused and both Magrittes left.

Magritte himself showed communist sympathies in the 1920s and joined the Belgian Communist Party in 1945. Eighteen months later, his enthusiasm had waned, but he would remain attached to the ideals that had impelled him to join in the first place.

All this is anecdotal, of course, in regard to his work, which is very much self-contained. His paintings are in fact, both in content and style, quite close to the rebus, or picture puzzle, that could be found on dessert plates, and were also published in newspapers in his day. The paintings are wittier and more enigmatic of course, and indeed, they all seem to reflect the view that life itself is a puzzle without a (ready) solution.

He was, in fact, a painter of ideas.

Semioticians and conceptual artists love some of his finds, including the picture of a pipe that is "not a pipe."

It makes a first, and rather obvious point that the picture of a pipe is not itself a pipe, just as the platonic idea of "a bed" is not itself a bed (as Socrates explains in Plato's "Republic").

But other theories also resonate here, including aesthetic theories touching upon realism and the Marxist theory of ideology and superstructure that were very much part of the artistic debate in those years.

Psychoanalysts and philosophers also appreciate a considerable fund of convenient images that allow them to clarify and illustrate their own ideas. Consider a painting entitled "Les jours gigantesques" (1928), which shows a naked woman, desperately repulsing the persistent advances of a man.

The man himself only exists as an image projected on the woman's body.

In rather the same vein, "Tentative de l'impossible" (1928) shows Magritte himself painting the missing left arm of a woman (Georgette) as she stands naked before him.

These paintings may not reveal much about Magritte's own psyche, but they are an eloquent illustration of the psychoanalytic notion of projection.

Other works seem to be provocatively, or desperately, humorous. "L'Invention collective" (1935), for instance, depicts a siren lying on a beach. But this is a rather special siren: The lower part of her body is that of a woman, while the upper part is a fish with a fish head — a reversal of the standard figure in the port of Copenhagen that tends to take all the romance out of the fantasy.

When Belgium was occupied, during the 1940s, Magritte began to paint some rather trite pastiches of Renoir — ostensibly because he wanted to do something cheerful in a grim phase of history. Then, in the postwar years, he went on to paint a number of garish, offensively ugly works which constitute his so-called vache period. "Vache" means cow, of course, but in French slang, it also means nasty, mean, unkind.

Not surprisingly, not a single painting was sold that year, and Magritte reverted to his former style. What had actually happened during those years, the black box did not reveal.

In any event, he remains one of the 20th century's most challenging inventors of images.

On Magritte, Language, and DNA 

Friday, March 6, 2009 12:11:34 PM


Another article on Magritte linking /words/DNA:

On Magritte, Language, and DNA
By orDover

René Magritte is arguably my favorite artist. He often took logic as his subject matter, and in the nature of a true conceptual artists, used ideas as machines to make his art. This is clearly visible in his word and image paintings, which he first developed during a brief stay in Paris, which began in 1927. He united abstract shapes as well as recognizable objects with inappropriate labels. His interest in the relationship between objects, shapes, and words had nothing to do with Freudian associations, automatism, or the unconscious mind, which he did not believe in despite his ties to Surrealism. Rather than exploring the dream world, he wanted to “put the real world on trial,” to connect consciousness to the external world instead of the internal, and to explore linguistics and the arbitrary relationships between objects and their names. These paintings establish lateral relationships between words and images, challenging the usefulness of naming devices, the interchangeability of words and signified objects, and the functions of words and images within art.

The Interpretation of Dreams, 1952
Magritte’s word and image paintings, such as The Interpretation of Dreams (1952), often appropriate the style of elementary school textbooks that present spelling or grammar lessons. According to André Breton, Magritte used this “object-lesson” format in order to “put the visual image on trial.” They are similar in style to the linguistic models used by Ferdinande de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics (1915), who was the first to put forth the concept that signs and symbols of language are arbitrary constructs, meaning that the word “tree,” a sign built from letters, has no physical resemblance to the actual object of a tree, and is related to it merely through context and associations imposed by the social construction of written language. In Les mots et les images Magritte writes, “Everything tends to make one think that there is little relationship between an object and that which represents it,” a concept which he develops in The Interpretation of Dreams, where he places nominative words below figures that do not relate to the figures at all, such as the image of a horse labeled “the door,” displaying the arbitrariness of names and the way that names could theoretically be swapped between objects with no adverse effects. We might as well call a horse “door,” because the word “door” says just as little about the object of a horse as the word “horse” itself. Magritte thus aligns himself with Saussure by rupturing the relationship between signifier and signified and challenging typical forms of representation, both written and visual.

de Saussure diagram
This arbitrary nature of language is a very important concept to grasp. Magritted called a horse “the door.” He could have also called it “pferd” or “Ed” or “spoon.” Regardless of what arbitrary name is given to a horse, its essence remains the same—it is still the same physical being. Calling a horse “the door” doesn’t turn it into a door. It remains always a large animal with a long tail, big eyes, hooves, a long back and neck, pointy ears, and a muzzle.

Like English, binary is another example of an arbitrary language. 01000001 is the binary code for the letter A. It transmits specific information, and if it were changed then the product it is encoding would change. If we move the last 1 over just once space so that our code reads 01000010, then we are no longer describing A, we are now describing B. The signifier as changed the signified. But binary is still ultimately arbitrary because we made up the code. 01000001 has no special relationship to A except that which we ascribe to it.

It is also common to call DNA a language or a code. The religiously minded tend to grab hold of that concept and conclude that codes need an author to set them up, just as binary needed a computer scientist to ascribe signifier to signified. Of course they say that author is God. But saying that DNA is a language is merely a useful metaphor. DNA is not literally a language because it is not arbitrary.

DNA is represented by a sequence of letters, A T G C. Those letters are arbitrary since they belong to the realm of the Latin alphabet, but the chemical compounds that they represent, called nucleotides, are not. Nucleotides are unique and directly affect that which they describe. A sequence of nucleotides creates a gene, which contains the directions for the manufacturing of a specific polypeptide chain of amino acids, which are the building block of proteins. For example, the pairing of nucleotides into the codon (or “base triplet”) GCA leads to the manufacture of the amino acid arginine. If that codon is changed to CCA it leads to the manufacture of the amino acid glycine, something totally different from arginine. Because nucleotides are specific chemical compounds they are not arbitrary, and thus the sequences they form directly affect the amino acids they create. This would be analogous to the physical object of a tree being formed by roots in the shape of an E, a trunk in the shape of an E, branches in the shape of an R, and leaves in the shape of a T. With DNA, the signifier is an integral part of the signified.

Magritte helps to illustrate the arbitrary nature of language, and once that is fully understood, we can dismantle the argument that DNA is a language, and as such requires God as the author.

Magritte and Photography 

Friday, March 6, 2009 11:13:56 AM

Here's an article on Magritte and photography:

Magritte et la photographie, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
February 23, 2005 - May 15, 2005
Magritte and Photography, by Patrick Roegiers, trans. Mark Polizzotti, Lund
Humphries, Aldershot, 2005, 168 pp, 30 colour and 220 duotone ills., £29.95,
ISBN 0 85331 933 2 (hardback)

Exhibitions of René Magritte’s works have largely focused on his paintings. Recent examples include the Magritte retrospective in the BA-CA Kunstforum in Vienna and the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. The display of other artistic media has been treated as not quite integral to Magritte’s artistic creation, and his photography has, until now, not received any extensive curatorial and critical attention. Magritte et la Photographie at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, organised in collaboration with the Fondation Magritte and curated by Patrick Roegiers, changes all this. It forms one in a series of exhibitions to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Belgian independence and 25 years of federalism.

This exhibition is a monumental effort comprising over 330 photographs, leading the viewer into the labyrinthine exhibition space of the Palais des Beaux-Arts where unexpected turns reveal ever new rooms offering photographic, filmic and recorded reproductions by, and of, Magritte. The staccato rhythm of over 330 ‘snapshots’ which, due to their small size, draw the viewer in close, is slightly broken, either by projections of short films displayed on large projector screens, or by the showing of larger photographs, capturing and maintaining the
curiosity and attention of the viewer.

Magritte’s short films are shown throughout the exhibition space, and the rooms are accompanied by different sound recordings which sometimes mix and overlap so that one can hear in one room the irrepressible chattering of Georgette and René Magritte, Louis Scutenaire, Marcel Mariën, Christian Dotremont, E. L. T. Mesens, Marcel Broodthaers, Paul Delvaux, Achille Chavée and others, together with the Six Gnosiennes by Erik Satie which
echoes from another room. As with the photographs, we see not only Magritte’s films but also films of him by other directors such as Christian Bussy, Patrick Roegiers, Jean Dypréau and Lucien Deroisy. These short films use surrealist juxtapositions and overlappings of Magritte’s paintings and photographs to produce new, hybrid artistic images, smudging the boundaries between reality and representation, between painted fantasy and photographic reality, and ultimately between the artist and his oeuvre.

This exhibition is a curatorial masterpiece, allowing the viewer to trace the all-too-often neglected, serious and deeply philosophical side of Magritte’s oeuvre as an engagement with the transience of life and with an artistic (self-)awareness of mortality. Magritte’s photographic work extends the negative and negating character of his painterly productions, expressed in the titular sentences of his artworks such as 'Ceci n’est pas...' in La Trahison des Images (1928), and 'Je ne vois pas...' in La Femme Cachée (1929), where negation is enforced by the similarity of the surrounding photographs to death masks. This negation returns in Magritte’s photomaton images, in his so called portraits manqués, failed portraits, which deny the subjectifying glance of the model, showing only the back view, the missing or hidden face or a reflection in a mirror, and also in Duane Michals’ photographs of Magritte, taken on a visit in 1965, two years before the artist’s death. In one image Magritte is shown sitting before an unfinished sketch of Ceci n’est pas une pipe, the glaze of his eyes reminiscent of the empty focus of those of a corpse. Another photograph of Magritte taking a nap on his sofa has, in its exhibited version, in a premonitory manner, a caption stating: 'Merci Monsieur Magritte, dormez bien.' The artist is, in Michals’ photographs, repeatedly represented as threatened by his own absence, already resembling a cadaver, an image of himself.

[photo of Magritte Sleeping]

Duane Michals, Magritte Asleep, 1965 © Duane Michals, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York Magritte’s absence is asserted throughout the exhibition – the photographs, films and sound recordings here are unable to commemorate or capture being, and repeatedly reveal their real character, namely the relentless assertion of reproductive media which try to capture or record the absence of life, confirming Roland Barthes’ famous photographic punctum: 'the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (“that-has-been”) […] the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.'1

Here, the various recording media are revealed as a trace of something or somebody which is absent, a ghostly trace of the past through which the once present can only be experienced in and through its very absence. The danger of these themes becoming melodramatic and superficial is, in Magritte’s art and photography, counteracted by his awareness of the deadly seriousness of the joke, and the comedy of the deadly serious: the most trivial of holiday snaps and amicable fooling, the most everyday of gestures, become also the most tragic and moving manifestations of the Barthesian punctum. The exhibition repeatedly asks the question (also the title of one of the rooms) Où est Magritte? – a question double in its meaning, suggesting the self-awareness of Magritte’s oeuvre as a remainder and a reminder of its vanished creator.

As the title of the exhibition, Magritte et la photographie implies, it concerns not only those images taken by Magritte, but brings them together with others of him taken by other photographers such as Georges Thiry,
Christian Gibey, Daniel Frasnay, Maria Gilissen and Shunk Kender. These represent Magritte through his own artistic devices of doublings, impossible juxtapositions, sometimes echoing his painterly themes, suggesting and enforcing a major concern of Magritte’s oeuvre, namely the artist’s melting and eventual absorption into his own work, an absorption which is closely bound to the vanishing of the artist. The vanishing here reveals not just a simple retreat from life into death, but also a retreat from life into art, in which art becomes the memory, the trace
through which we can view the artist. Perhaps this is also the point where biography has to be transcended, where biography can no longer help to comprehend an artist, and the artworks’ conceptualisations need to come to the fore – conceptualisations which no longer allow for linear narratives, but lead, like this exhibition, into intricate juxtapositions and mysterious labyrinthine structures.

The photographic evidence of Magritte’s life in this exhibition does not stop with his death in 1967, but includes photographs such as those by Roger Dyckmans, taken in 1967, of a life without Magritte. In these, Georgette is shown surrounded by images of herself, indices of a creator who no longer exists. One of the most powerful of these is Georgette seule avec une toile inachevée de Magritte, showing Magritte’s widow standing beside his final canvas. The painting revisits the theme of La jockey perdu, the lost jockey in the woods (Magritte’s first surrealist painting in 1926), implying Magritte himself as the lost jockey. Reality, in this photograph, has been transformed into representation: even Georgette barely maintains her position in the photograph, squeezed out by the artwork beside her. All that remains are signifiers of Magritte, precisely because Magritte is no longer: a brush, glasses, the doubling of the image of the lost jockey in the glasses, all familiar elements of Magritte’s oeuvre. Even the last stage of Magritte-the-person is shared with the artwork; metonymies of Magritte collapse into the metonymic convention of the artist as his work. In Dyckmans’ posthumous photograph, the image has taken over and replaced the artist’s own being, which is lost in his work, becoming itself unworked. The inevitably unfinished painting in the photograph only  marks the last stage of the artist, not of his perishing, but of his final absorption into the artwork.

This and other photographs in this exhibition seem to function less as records of Magritte’s life than to be concerned with how art and representation replace reality. This is also evident in the gradual loosening of the biographical and chronological approach of the first couple of exhibition rooms, entitled Photos de Famille and La conquête de Paris. Later rooms are titled La peinture est un objet qui s’aime quand on y pose le regard ('A painting is an object that you look at and fall in love with') and La Peinture à l’épreuve de l’image fixe ('Painting tested by
the fixed image'), the surreal images demanding different sequences, no longer sustaining divisions between biographical document and artistic creation.

The exhibition is accompanied by Patrick Roegiers’ catalogue Magritte et la photographie, which is now available as a book in English.2 Translated by Mark Polizzotti, it is the first Anglophone publication on Magritte and photography, examining more than 200 previously unpublished photographs from Magritte’s personal collection and tracing some features of his painterly oeuvre back to photographic processes and practices. For example, Magritte’s photographic self-portraits are offered as key elements in the establishment of the iconic bowler-hatted figure in his paintings. While it offers a thorough biographical overview and a wealth of previously unpublished photographs, the book also returns the photographs from their artistic, philosophical realm (insisted upon in the exhibition) to a more mundane function in which photographs are primarily and conventionally records of the artist’s life.

The biographical information given here reiterates information already available in many of the classic biographical writings on Magritte such as those by Suzi Gablik or David Sylvester.3 Even though it aims to attract a more popular audience, its analysis would have benefited from addressing recent theoretical discussions of Magritte such as those offered, for example, by Ben Stoltzfus and Silvano Levy.4

Titles of photographs such as La Mort des fantômes (1928), L’Ombre et son ombre (1932) and L’Apparition (1935) suggest avenues of theoretical inquiry that remain unexplored. There is no reference to the theory of photography – no account is taken of scholars such as Barthes, Susan Sontag or Walter Benjamin,5 nor is there any allusion to important explorations of photography and surrealism, such as Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston’s seminal L’Amour Fou,6 or to recent theoretical developments in the understanding of surrealism. Instead of tracing photographic influences on Magritte, Roegiers attempts to establish Magritte as sole creator of his works. This is particularly evident in his noting that Magritte used an Agfa Synchro box camera without a timer, which means that somebody else took the pictures when Magritte appears in the image.

Such a significant finding, however, does not lead to an exploration of Magritte’s problematisation of authorship, but to comments such as: 'No matter! The person who pushes the button or focuses the lens is far less important than the own who devises the composition. The same goes for the person who makes the print, especially when we’re dealing with a photo booth picture.'7

Roegiers tries to establish a coherent narrative of Magritte as the sole author of his work, despite asserting that: 'Belgian Surrealism was above all a collective activity.'8 'Even if they're not by him,' he argues, 'in many cases these shots can be considered Magritte’s photos: he directed them in his mind, planned the situations, arranged his own placement in the viewfinder.'9

This desire might also explain why several pressing questions are never addressed: which photographers influenced Magritte’s photography? What are the relationships between his photographs and those of other surrealist photographers? What are the surrealist concerns in his photography? How do his photographs affect our understanding of Magritte as an authorial figure? The book offers, in places, an over-romanticised version of
Magritte’s life, which is sanitised to a level of respectability doing justice neither to Magritte nor to his relationship with Georgette. Further simplifications occur in the referential slippage between the Brussels Surrealist group and the ‘Belgian Surrealist group.’10

Belgian Surrealism resists being seen as a unified, coherent whole. It was divided, exploring and being marked
by the differences within its own history, and between Flemish and Walloon traditions and identities. Such differences triggered the formation and re-formation of different groupings such as the Brussels Group, the Rupture Group, the Hainaut Surrealist Group or the Haute Nuit Group. There is therefore arguably no such thing as the ‘Belgian Surrealist group.’  However, Roegiers’ attempt to establish a biographical understanding of the artist is broken and deconstructed through its own identification of the 'perishing of Magritte'11 by analysing his clothes as signifiers of his self-presentation.

These, according to Roegiers: ...envelop, adjust, protect, and dissimulate. Magritte the person is absent; he exists only through his garments. Banal to the extreme, the exact copy of a copy, as neutral as Belgium itself, the dark three-piece suit represents an exemplary will to pass unnoticed. Transparent in its simplicity and yet impenetrable, reliably playing its own part, the uniform makes him disappear behind the disguise of Mr. Everybody, even as it allows him to laugh, ‘You’ll never know who I am!’12

This not only counteracts the insistence on biographical explorations, but also adds another layer to the theme of Magritte as always already absent, to Magritte’s absorption into his oeuvre. It seems that Magritte returns (perhaps precisely at this moment of Roegiers’ recognition of his non-return): 'We don’t know what he’s thinking, who he is, what he feels, or what he believes. The same as everyone else, this faceless man is a perpetual stranger.'13

And this leads back to the exhibition’s concern, to possibly the most capturing and touching attempt yet to ask the question ‘where is Magritte?,’ which is answered with the double-logic of ghosts: ‘everywhere and nowhere.’

Compiled by Patricia Allmer
MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University
1 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (trans. Richard Howard),
London 1984, 96.
2 Patrick Roegiers, Magritte et la photographie, Ghent/Amsterdam 2005.
3 See Suzi Gablik, Magritte, London 1985, and David Sylvester, Magritte, London 1992.
4 See Ben Stoltzfus, ‘The Elusive Heroine: An Interarts Essay’ in Alain Robbe-Grillet and
René Magritte, La Belle Captive: A Novel (trans. with an essay by Ben Stoltzfus), London
1995, 160-213, and Silvano Levy, ‘Foucault on Magritte on Resemblance,’ The Modern
Language Review, 85:1, January 1990, 50-56.
5 Barthes, Camera Lucida, Susan Sontag, On Photography, Harmondsworth 1979, and
Walter Benjamin, ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (1929) and
‘A Small History of Photography’ (1931), in Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other
Writings (trans. E. Jephcott and K. Shorter), London 1997.
6 Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism, New York
7 Roegiers, Magritte and Photography, 72.
8 Roegiers, Magritte and Photography, 120.
9 Roegiers, Magritte and Photography, 72.
10 Roegiers, Magritte and Photography, 121. A more detailed discussion on the impossibility
of referring to a ‘Belgian Surrealist group’ can be found in An Paenhuysen’s essay ‘Surrealism
in the Provinces: Flemish and Walloon Identity in the Interwar Period’ in the special issue of
Image[&]Narrative (December 2005), edited by Patricia Allmer and Hilde Van Gelder,
11 Roegiers, Magritte and Photography, 133.
12 Roegiers, Magritte and Photography, 133.
13 Roegiers, Magritte and Photography, 134.

Belgian Surrealists and Sade: A Criminal Affinity  

Friday, March 6, 2009 10:53:25 AM

Here's another article on Magritte and the Belgian Surrealists:

The Belgian Surrealists and Sade: A Criminal Affinity  
Author: Stacy Fuessle
Published: November 2005

Abstract (E): In this essay I argue that the Belgian Surrealists looked to the Marquis de Sade as a model for their subversive activities. For Sade and the Belgian group, the notion of the criminal is central to their understanding of cultural revolution and entails a discussion of vision and spectacle, darkness and secrecy, and the role of the accomplice. In addition to criminality, I discuss the ambivalent insistence on rationality and structure in the writing of Sade and of the Belgian Surrealists. Finally, I point to some of the ways in which the Belgian group differed radically from the French Surrealists (Breton's group). Within this essay I am referring to the Brussels Surrealist group as the Belgian Surrealists in general. I do this to emphasize my differentiation of them from Breton's group centered in Paris . I am not disregarding the Hainault group, but placing them alongside Breton's group due to their loyalty to Breton and to his conception of the movement.

The Belgian Surrealists and Sade: A Criminal Affinity  
The Surrealists, following Apollinaire's lead, reclaimed the Marquis de Sade from the Enfer , and christened him in the First Surrealist Manifesto "surrealist in sadism," thereby placing him within the movement's lineage. Paul Eluard in L'Evidence poétique , described Sade's legacy: "Sade wanted to restore to civilized man the power of his primitive instincts; he wanted to deliver the amorous imagination from its own objects. He believed that out of this, and this one, true equality would come" (cited in Breton 1997:21).

For them, Sade embodied radical freedom, in art, in life, in love; they saw him as a precursor to Freud and even a political revolutionary. The Belgian Surrealists, however, did not openly champion Sade as Breton and his group did. The relationship between Sade and the Belgian Surrealists is a more subtle and exciting one, one of affinity. Affinity was a central concept for Magritte and by it he meant that unique but obscure connection between objects or ideas. The connection is known, but hidden in the back of one's mind, and must be revealed somehow, as Magritte explains in his 1938 lecture "La Ligne de vie" (Sylvester V: 9-22). This concept of affinity is key not only to Magritte's methodology, but also because it allows for differences in degree, in historical contexts, and in audiences and reception of Sade and the Belgian Surrealists. I am not equating the atrocious and extreme acts Sade writes about with the activities of the Belgian Surrealists, nor am I arguing that their aims and intentions were the same; I am suggesting that the Belgian Surrealists, like Sade, had an interest in the criminal and exploited it as a strategy for their subversive activities.

What the Belgian Surrealists shared with the Marquis de Sade is the use of the criminal, the secret, the systematic, and rational in order to subvert social norms of thought and behavior and upset mental complacency. Paul Nougé, the group's theorist up to the war, wrote tellingly: "the circumstances, the mediocre circumstances of my life, have required that anything I've done of worth had been under the sign of subversion, of criminal action" (Ceuleers 78). By criminal, I mean activity that is illicit, transgressive, harmful to public welfare and morals, activity that threatens the social and political order and not exclusively activity that defies written law. In both Sade's writings and in the Belgian Surrealist's writing, photographs and painting, activities and gestures, the criminal is carefully staged and enacted. It entails a discussion of vision and display, darkness and secrecy, and the role of the accomplice.

Outside of the contents of their works, the Belgian Surrealists consistently show a kind of discretion and self-effacement both in their everyday lives and in their publishing practices. They understood themselves, first and foremost, as accomplices engaged in clandestine, often sardonic, and ultimately disruptive activity. In the preface to a January 1928 Magritte exhibition catalogue, Nougé describes and really introduces the group to the public:

"The inertia of habit gives way to an urge towards some sort of adventure, some sort of collective enterprise, to a sense of dangers and opportunities equally shared. It will perhaps be said that it represents a kind of complicity. For this very reason we have no reservations about declaring ourselves here and now the accomplices of René Magritte" (Sylvester I: 82 and Nougé 1965: 264-5).

The preface was signed by the core of the group: Marcel Lecomte, E.L.T. Mesens, Camille Goemans, Paul Nougé (for he is not designated as the author, but only one of the signatories), Louis Scutenaire, and André Souris. This statement not only indicates their dedication to collective activity, both artistically and politically, but also to their discretion and depersonalization, their willingness to facilitate Magritte's visibility while the others remained in the background. They carefully maintained a façade of respectability, as Sarah Whitfield describes, they "adopted the disguise of their own background, the bourgeoisie, and settled into ordinary jobs" (25). Nougé was a biochemist, Lecomte was a schoolmaster, Scutenaire was a lawyer working for the government, Goemans was the Deputy Director of the Belgo-Lux Tourist Office, and so on. Their creative activities remained clandestine- often publishing anonymously or under pseudonyms, with the exception of those things written in support of Magritte's work. In a letter to Breton, Nougé emphasizes their desire to remain inconspicuous, writing "I would like it if those of us whose names are beginning to make their mark were to erase them. The world still offers us some admirable examples-the names of certain thieves, certain murderers, those of political parties dedicated to illegal action..." (Nougé 1956: 79 and Whitfield 25).

Sade's existence was a covert one on several levels: in his twenty-seven years spent in prison; in the nefarious activities of his heroes and heroines; in his writing style, which for all its clarity and logic, remains elusive; in his literary career and publishing practices; and even in death with his accessibility. He published numerous works anonymously, perhaps out of necessity in order to protect his publishers and escape the censors. Sade began writing while in prison (placed there by a letter de cachet and later for political reasons) and because he remained in prison for most of his life, it begs the questions what he really stood to lose by publishing under his own name and what his real professional pretensions were. Perhaps his elusiveness was entirely intentional. In his last will and testament he requested that he be laid to rest without ceremony in the woods on his property in Malmaison. Upon his grave he wished for acorns to be spread "in order that the spot become green again, and the copse grown back thick over it, the traces of my grave may disappear from the face of the earth as I trust the memory of me shall fade out of the minds of all men . . ." (Sade 1965: 155-57). In his lifetime relatively few of his works were published, among them were those not claimed by him: Justine , Philosophy of the Bedroom (written by the author of Justine ), and The New Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue followed by the Story of Juliette, her Sister , and those he did acknowledge as his own: Aline and Valcour , Oxitern , The Crimes of Love and various political tracts and letters. Strange that one who became so championed in the twentieth century wrote mostly for himself, certainly any reader, who manages to get their hands on his writings, he pushes away with the extremity of their content.

In Sade's writing, the criminal is intimately linked to dark, enclosed, hidden, or remote locations: the isolated country chateau, the bedroom, convents and monasteries, fortresses, underground chambers, even Vesuvius. These locations act as stage sets, for the individual or actual locations are meaningless surface. They serve as class and power signifiers and are important for the threatening nature of their isolation. While events take place in obscurity, they are not kept there, for Sade reveals everything to us. Sade eliminates all distance, his practice of allowing the reader to be privy to everything, in explicit detail, is precisely the staged quality I am suggesting renders the criminal possible. He flaunts the criminal and it is the criminal that undermines the established order, both the social-political and the literary-artistic orders. Although the style of his writing lacks elegance, one might even argue that it lacks style, Sade uses the vulgar as a means of provocation. Both of these strategies, the use of the vulgar and a lack of style are also used by the Belgian Surrealists in their more scandalous tracts, in Nougé's amateur photographs, and even in Magritte's images. Sade's use of the vulgar within the context of classical French, which Marcel Hénaff refers to as "the Scrambling of the Codes" (7), renders his writing all the more disruptive and conflicting because Sade maintains the language's syntax. In a similar vein, Sade uses logical argumentation to the point of absurdity, unveiling reason's weaknesses.

His characters are superficial. Sade's is a position of self-interest that redefines notions of freedom and equality, as Blanchot argues: "the equality of beings is the right to make equal use of all beings; freedom is the power to subject each person to his own will and wishes"(11). Individuals are bound only by similar desires, they necessarily become accomplices because they depend on a tentative assurance of discretion. They are bound to one another to ensure that they will be allowed to continue their own pursuit of pleasure. Sade's narratives consist in a long series of scenes, it is not the development of individual characters, relationships, or the plot that is important, but the presentation of every imagined excess. Not only are staged scenes enacted within the stories, but throughout, his characters use the language of spectacle, calling attention to the exaggeration and cliché of the drama in which they are involved. Just as nothing is left unsaid, nothing is left unseen and everything is performed.

Quelques Écrits et Quelques Dessins was published as a parody by Nougé and Magritte in the fall of 1927 and is typical of the group's rebellion. Clarisse Juranville is named as the book's author. Juranville was the well-known author of the grammar textbook La Conjugaison enseignée par la pratique , first published in Paris around 1880 (Sylvester I: 75 and Mariën 17-18, 147-48). In the preface to Quelques Écrits Nougé explains, however evasively, that this notebook was recently found by Magritte. Having been neglected, it was in a horribly dilapidated state and would have surely been lost forever, had they not found, deciphered and restored the text in print (367). The book consists of five full-page drawings by Magritte and eleven poems by Nougé. They maintained the original grammar text's outward appearance, its clear typography and rather institutional cover design, frustrating the reader's expectations. They replaced verb conjugation charts with poems that challenge language usage and syntax, thereby uprooting the very meaning of the grammar text and the enculturation into language and society that it represents. The images impart no clear information nor do they teach any sort of language concepts.

The forward works to frame or set the stage for Nougé's assault on language and grammar, on pedagogy, and on the reader as well as setting forth the Belgian group's aims. He begins explaining that the writings of Clarisse Juranville have tended to be ambiguous (he uses the word équivoque , which may also indicate dubiousness as well as ambiguity) and that this text is as well (367). Her motivation is to evade habitual judgment (367). Nougé then tells us of her integrity as an author (she had never given into literary vanity), she loathed pleasure, and she wrote deliberately and out of necessity (379). In using Juranville as the false author and in creating this narrative around her and her work, Nougé and Magritte achieve several of their aims. They distance themselves from the work, which adds to its radical nature while simultaneously maintaining their respectability. They appropriate a legitimate, conventional and banal object, the grammar primer and its author, a grammarian, the very sources of enculturation and subvert them all. It is an example of Nougé's theory of disturbing objects ( objets bouleversants ), the idea of which is to take the most everyday object and change its function and meaning and by extension, the reader's relationship to it, thereby uprooting conventional knowledge. Quelques Écrits also further separates the Belgian group from the French Surrealists in that this practice of deliberate, even didactic rewriting of an existing text is absolutely irreconcilable with automatism.

The poems within read almost like grammar lessons in the way that Nougé employs various verb tenses in very simple phrases. In construction the phrases are simple, but that is not to say that their meanings are clear. No punctuation is used and capitalization is not consistent. He upsets both semantics and syntax. The language of the first poem reads like an analysis of the gaze:

It is me who looks at you
but you who looks at me
tonight your brother will speak to you
you will speak (respond) to him about your work
and nothing more (369, trans. is mine). [1]

In the last phrase can be felt a slightly threatening tone, especially when read along with some of the other pieces, for instance:

They resembled everyone else
They forced the lock
They replaced the lost object
They shot guns
They mixed drinks
They sowed handfuls of questions
They retired modestly
while erasing their signature (374, trans. is mine). [2]

An exercise in the past tense, this poem also underlines secrecy, collectivity, potential violence, and stands as a self- representation the Belgian group.

Subversion des Images is another book consisting of text and photographs taken by Nougé between December 1929 and February 1930, but published posthumously by Mariën in 1968. Its aims are similar to those of Quelques Écrits , but its emphasis is on the visual. Within it there are nineteen carefully staged, unmanipulated, straight photographs. They literally illustrate the text, which consists again of simple language that is highly systematic in structure. The photographs are numbered, not titled and the text which explains them is correspondingly numbered. The photographs are not important as images, that is, as objects of aesthetic contemplation. They need only to be legible because they function as evidence or as illustrations of object lessons. They are taken within the space of a commonplace bourgeois home and the members of the Belgian group are the actors within the scenes.

The frontispiece is a photograph of a bedroom cluttered with stacks of papers and books, clothes and baskets, which continue beyond the frame. The door is in the corner of the room, its lock clearly displayed and wallpaper is apparent on both sides. Atop a pile of papers is a small picture of Nougé himself, marking the absent- or the one time present presence of the author. Behind the picture is a partially seen, cheap picture frame which only frames the wallpaper and draws our eyes to Nougé's face. To the left of the picture is a rifle that leans in the corner. This element, combined especially with the wallpaper is strikingly similar to Magritte's painting The Survivor . Where these two differ though is significant. Nougé's rifle is merely one object, however loaded, among the clutter of many others whereas Magritte's painting isolates the object, rendering it iconic. Nougé's mess not only reinforces the banality of the scene, it also works to undo the image's tendency to isolate and elevate the object. Throughout the book, Nougé's photographs, for all their clarity, balance and theatricality, are full of clutter, they are meant as reproductions of the everyday, however scripted, threatening and skewed.

As in Quelques Écrits , the intention in Subversion des Images is "giving to beings, to objects, a function, a usage different from the conventional" (1968: 10, trans. is mine). [3]

Photo 1 is of a normally dressed woman sitting in a chair at a small round table in the corner of the room. To the right of the table hang heavy striped curtains and to the left and slightly behind the woman is the corner of a marble fireplace. The woman is sitting at an angle to the picture plane, her head is turned away with one hand covering the viewer's side of her face, as if to deflect our gaze. Her other hand is splayed approaching or pulling away from a bundle of string lying on the table, it draws the viewer's attention to the string by literally pointing it out. Here is a common bourgeoisie interior with an ordinary woman, what is unusual is her relation to the string. The textual description of the photograph is: "a tangled mass of string in the middle of a bare table provokes a gesture of terror in the woman sitting at this table: a familiar object, indifferent, provokes an unexpected reaction, exceptional, awakes an unforeseeable feeling" (13-14, trans. is mine). [4] Nougé continues by methodically asking what feeling and what kind of reactions are provoked in us by numerous other common objects. Then he asks what sort of effect will seeing this specific event have on the viewer, what is the consequence of seeing the woman so disturbed by the string? With pseudo-logical language and organization, Nougé suggests three possible effects of the unexpected reaction on the onlooker. Possibility a) is that we may identify with the woman and ourselves become terrified by the string, becoming a victim with her. If we fully identify with her, the subversion is successful because reality has been transformed to the point of affecting us. B) We may sympathize with the woman, but without suffering as she does. Here the subversion is partly successful because we are receptive to being asked to see our surroundings differently. We are curious and begin to wonder how a string could cause terror (already accepting that a string could in fact be terrifying) and begin to understand objects and our relationships to them differently. The third possibility c) is utter indifference to the woman and her distress. Subversion here has no effect, it is a failure, but we may perhaps be made an accomplice with the author, in on the deception but not prey to it. Nougé argues that all measures must be taken so that the spectacle grabs our interest, that it should somehow convince us of its truth or potential truth, and that it cause a sympathetic response. In order to achieve these aims a maximum of familiar elements must be maintained in the scene, any modifications must be discreet; only the most necessary subversions should take place (15).

The visual, staged and highlighted by the photograph, is central to the disruption. Nougé uses the medium with the understanding that here the photographic is capable of recording with some amount of fidelity, the real. The photograph provides the evidence of the subversion because it gives us an index of the event rather than a constructed reality. The naivety of this position is not at issue here because Nougé is playing to the contradictory work of the medium. Photography is capable of reproducing reality, but that reality is determined by our cultural conventions. At the same time, the objective characteristics that can be exploited in the medium undermine this constructed reality, through various techniques and ideas that are being used within Subversion des Images , like substitution, juxtaposition, the use of text, and the notions of the straight photograph and the snapshot (implied here too, the amateur photographer). We are convinced of the subversion because of the visual evidence, because of the photograph.

To return to the notion of affinity that I am using, I want to suggest some historical connections that existed between Sade's revolutionary France and the Belgian group's World War II experience. Rampant censorship, the feeling that the Enlightenment promise (or modernity's promise) was somehow deficient, the urgency with which people felt the need to overturn the established order of things, and literal and extreme violence were the conditions that Sade and the Surrealists both experienced. The Marquis de Sade and the Belgian group both directed their creative production towards revealing these social and political problems and in their own ways, rectifying them. Nougé in Images Defendues , explains his goals: "the rejection of the established order, the determination to destroy current values or to introduce new ones, and the essential subversive intention must make use of all means according to circumstances" (Sylvester II: 102). This statement is from the essay "Of means and ends," which had been published in 1933 in Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution , was excluded from Images Defendues when it was published in October 1943. The essay was deemed inflammatory. In 1944, Nougé, using the pseudonym Paul Lecharentais, published an exhibition catalogue preface for Magritte's show at the Galerie Dietrich. Nougé was from Charentais, so the pseudonym was not wholly used to protect his identity, he might have been goading the censors. But the danger was real, an earlier showing of Raoul Ubac's photographs for which Nougé wrote the catalogue's preface was closed down by the German authorities. The 1944 preface and the exhibition (it happened to be the public debut of Magritte's "impressionist" paintings) were attacked by the group's former ally, Marc Eemans, now a supporter of the Nazi campaign against "degenerate art" (Sylvester II: 102-4). Eemans had been a signatory of the 1928 text that announced the presence of the Belgian Surrealist group. Their output for public consumption had seriously declined during the war. Magritte illustrated several books during this time (a rather safe kind of production): for Les Chants de Maldoror (not appearing until 1948), a reprint of Eluard's Les Nécessités de la vie et les consequences de rêves precedes d'Exemples (1946), Bataille's Madame Edwarda and for a book on Sade by Gaston Puel (Sylvester II: 110-13). The last two never materialized.

With the end of the Occupation, the group's publishing exploded with some especially shocking tracts. Important for its political and cultural significance and typical of the group's derisive tone is Mariën's tract Hommage du groupe surréaliste de Belgique à Saint-Just . It was published in December 1945 and contains two photomontages by Magritte. The first is placed between the title and an extract from Saint-Just's 1792 Discours à la Convention and is entitled "L'exécution de Louis XVI," it is especially ironic given Belgium 's own problems with their king Léopold III. The second image is of a crucifix facing (with its back to the viewer) and blasphemously overlapping a Man Ray nude. An homage indeed, Louis Antoine Saint-Just was a strong adherent of Rousseau's philosophy and a major proponent of the Terror. He argued that "a patriot is he who supports the Republic in general; whoever who opposes it in detail is a traitor" (Camus 126). For him, any transgression, any form of protest, was detrimental to society and the scaffold became the means to ensure rational harmony and social unity (Camus 125-8). He is an example of rationalism's failure and following his close friend Robespierre, went to the scaffold in July 1794. He was a contemporary of Sade who Camus characterizes as an anti-Sade and we can also characterize him as an anti-Surrealist. This tract was followed by three others: L'Imbécile , L'Emmerdeur , and L'Enculeur , written by Magritte, Nougé and Mariën. They were published anonymously on single sheets of colored paper (like the earlier Correspondance ) and sent by mail to various individuals. Black humor when read in light of Saint-Just, L'Imbécile begins: "Good patriots are imbeciles; good patriots shit upon the fatherland" (Mariën 368 and Sylvester II: 121) and continues to call the reader an imbecile as well. The other tracts continue in this confrontational vein. They not only offended the reader, but also other Surrealists. Achille Chavée of the Hainault group absolutely disapproved of them. To continue the joke, Magritte and Mariën sent him a letter defending L'Imbécile . They wrote "Nougé, who can hardly be suspected of having any weakness for facile jokes is of the opinion that, since the Discours de la Methode and the Manifeste du Surréalisme , there has appeared no achievement of human thought to equal in clarity and virulence of expression this leaflet in which the fundamental demands of mankind are formulated plainly and bluntly in the avenging spirit of ancient human fanaticism" (Sylvester II: 122).

For the Belgian Surrealists, revolution would not and could not occur through love, through the public provocation of insulting a priest, through organized politics, or through a dependence on the irrational and unconscious, dreams, or myth. They did not make Sade out to be a literary martyr, paying dearly for his defense of freedom and desire to the detriment of morality, family and religion. If we take them at their word, the Belgian group would be very satisfied that Sade spent most of his life in prison, because it is a testament to the potential power literature has to harm the established order. In their manifesto La Poesie Transfigurée , which was a response to the Aragon Affair, particularly Breton's defense of the poet, they argued that Aragon being charged criminally for a poem worked to reveal the hypocrisy of the bourgeois notion of freedom. It argues that not holding Aragon responsible for the poem's social or political meanings and its effects works to neutralize the poem. Of course, it does not discuss the responsibility or the effect of the poet who publishes anonymously, but it does warn that "the most subversive thing is not always the one you expect, but it is not without reason that the bourgeoisie feels itself really threatened by certain poetic texts" (Richardson and Fijalkowski 149). For the Belgian Surrealists, the cultural revolution would be accomplished illicitly, behind the façade of bourgeois respectability, behind closed doors and among accomplices.

[1] "C'est moi qui te regarde
Mais toi qui me regardes
Ce soir ton frère te parlera
Tu répondras de ton ouvrage
Et rien de plus."

[2] Ils ressemblaient à tout le monde
Ils forcèrent la serrure
Ils remplacèrent l'objet perdu
Ils amorcèrent les fusils
Ils mélangèrent les liqueurs
Ils ont semé les questions à pleines mains
Ils se sont retirés avec modestie
En effaçant leur signature."

[3] "Il s'agit de donner aux êtres, aux objets, une fonction, un usage different de l'habituel."

[4] "Un entrelacs de corde au milieu d'une table nue provoque un geste de terreur chez la femme assise à cette table: un object familier, indifférent, provoque un réaction imprévue exceptionnelle, éveille un sentiment imprévisible."

Blanchot, Maurice . Lautréamont and Sade . Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall (trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism . Richard Seaver and Helen Lane (trans.). Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 1969.

---. Anthology of Black Humor . Mark Polizzotti (trans.). San Francisco : City Lights Books, 1997.

Camus, Albert. The Rebel . Anthony Bower (trans.). New York : Vintage International, 1991.

Ceuleers, Jan. René Magritte, 135 Rue Esseghem, Jette-Brussels . Gus Triandos (trans.). Antwerp: Petraco-Pandors, 1999.

de Naeyer, Christine. Paul Nougé et la Photographie . Bruxelles: Didier Devillez, 1995.

Hénaff, Marcel. Sade: The Invention of the Libertine Body . Xavier Callahan (trans.). Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Mariën, Marcel. L'Activitié surréaliste en Belgique (1924-1950) . Bruxelles: Lebeer Hossman, 1979.

Nadeau, Maurice. History of Surrealism . Richard Howard (trans.). Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1989.

Nougé, Paul. René Magritte ou les Images Défendues . Bruxelles: Les Auteurs Associés, 1943.  

---. Histoire de ne pas rire . Bruxelles: Les Lèvres Nues, 1956.

---. Subversion des Images . Bruxelles: Les Lèvres Nues, 1968.

---. "Quelques Écrits et Quelques Dessins." L'Expérience Continue . Éditions L'Age D'Homme et Cistre, 1981: 367-380.

Richardson, Michael and Krzysztof Fijalkowski (eds. and trans. ). "The Aragon Affair" and "Poetry Transfigured." Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations . London : Pluto Press, 2001: 143-150.

Sade, Marquis de. Justine, Philosophy of the Bedroom & Other Writings . Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse (trans.). New York : Grove Press, 1965.

---. The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings . A. Wainhouse and R. Seaver (trans.). New York : Grove Press, 1966.

---. Juliette . A. Wainhouse (trans.). New York : Grove Press, 1968.

Shattuck, Roger. "Rehabilitating the prophet." Salmagundi . Summer 1996: 123-143.

Shattuck, Roger. Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography . New York : St. Martin 's Press, 1996.

Sylvester, David. René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné. 5 vols. Antwerp : Fonds Mercator and the Menil Foundation, 1992-1997.

Whitfield, Sarah. "Magritte and his accomplices." Magritte . London : The South Bank Centre, 1992. 

About the Author
Stacy Fuessle is currently working on a Ph.D. in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois on Belgian Surrealism. 

René Magritte and Paul Éluard: An International and Interartistic Dialogue  

Friday, March 6, 2009 10:13:14 AM


This is an ongoing series of articles on Rene Magritte. Here's one by Ainsley Brown:
Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative 
Issue 13. The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924
René Magritte and Paul Éluard: An International and Interartistic Dialogue  
Author: Ainsley Brown
Published: November 2005

Abstract (E): Surrealism was a movement of conversations: between artists, between the arts, between countries. During the 1930s, the Parisian Surrealists intentionally sought to establish international dialogues and aimed to broaden the scope of their activity. The dialogue between the Parisian and the Belgian Surrealists was one of the primary outlets for the explosion of international exchange at this time. It is against the historical backdrop of the intense conversation between Brussels and Paris that I will explore the dialogue between two iconic figures of Surrealism: the Belgian painter René Magritte and the French poet Paul Éluard. Although the dialogue between the poet and the painter manifested itself in many ways during the 1930s and 1940s, I am interested in exploring one particular exchange: the reciprocal portraits that Magritte and Éluard realised of each other in 1935 and 1936. Magritte drew a portrait of Éluard called "La Magie blanche" in 1936, after Éluard had written the poem "René Magritte" which appeared in Les Cahiers d'art in 1935. I will examine the significance of this conversation through portraiture with respect to the Franco-Belgian rapport during the 1930s but also in the context of the interartistic dialogues (text/image, poetry/painting) which were abundant at the time.

The "Forgotten Surrealists" 
Much of the critical literature on Surrealism is dominated by the Parisian group. While this concentration is in part justified - Paris was, after all, the hub of interwar Surrealist activity - recent scholarship has begun to pay more attention to alternative sites of development such as Belgium, the Czech Republic, Japan, Canada and the United States, among others. More than isolated entities, the international groups were engaged in dynamic conversations and it is by looking at these 'national variants' in relation to each another that their specificity comes into focus. Far from a methodology that would regard all of the other Surrealisms as subordinate offshoots of the Parisian group, this approach privileges their conversations and reciprocal influences within the larger international community. By focussing on the exchanges between the national Surrealisms, we can circumvent a hierarchical approach which would posit a Centre and its Margins, in this case the 'Parisian group' and its international Others. As notes Christian Bussy, internationalism is an intrinsic quality of Surrealism: "the notion of Surrealism implies and claims an international and timeless character [1] " (Bussy 29, my translation). One way to fully recognize this 'implicit' internationalism is to direct critical attention towards the dialogues between the international players of Surrealism in order to listen more closely to their "forgotten conversations".

Surrealism was a movement of conversations: between artists, between the arts, between countries. International and interartistic dialogues occupy a central place in its history. In effect, the 'conversational' dynamic of Surrealism flourished as a result of the diversity that came to characterize the group. Throughout the 1920s Paris attracted artists from all around the world: Max Ernst arrived from Germany, Dali and Miró from Spain, Magritte and Mesens from Belgium and Man Ray from the United States. For these créateurs, it was impossible to resist the magnetic pull of the capital where 'anything goes' was l'ordre du jour and artistic freedom was as vital as a human right. However, if the 1920s was a decade of regrouping and 'coming together', it was during the 1930s that Surrealism explored its potential for international exchange. This decade saw a number of international exhibitions: London was the site of the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 and Paris hosted the Exposition internationale du surréalisme in 1938. With regard to the expansion of Belgian Surrealism, the 1930s were significant years: they marked the end of the collective activity of the group - the revue Variétés disappeared in 1934 - as well as the beginning of more frequent and sustained international exchanges with France (Vovelle 1972: 28-30).

In the mid-1930s, the Belgians were high on the list of contacts of the Parisian group. José Vovelle states that, "[d]uring the years 1934-1935, Surrealism intentionally multiplied international contacts and it is normal that it would be in Belgium that we would find the first manifestations [2]" (Vovelle 1972: 29, my translation). It is against this historical backdrop of intense conversation between Brussels and Paris that I will explore the dialogue between two iconic figures of Surrealism: René Magritte and Paul Éluard. Although the dialogue between the painter and the poet developed through many outlets during the 1930s and 1940s, I am interested in exploring one particular exchange - the reciprocal portraits that Magritte and Éluard realised of each other in 1935 and 1936. The fact that they interact through an exchange of mirror images is typical of a decade which saw the proliferation of such crossings, be they between national Surrealisms or between the arts. Can their dialogue through portraiture serve as an entry into the study of the Franco-Belgian relationship in the 1930s? What can it reveal about the connections between the two Surrealist groups?

René Magritte: A Belgian Surrealist Remembered 
Among the "forgotten surrealists" of the Brussels group, René Magritte is an exception due to the abundant critical attention that his painting has attracted. His pictorial ouvre has been an object of fascination of art historians for decades and has recently drawn the attention of literary scholars and interdisciplinary adventurers alike. The diversity in the body of criticism on Magritte's ouvre is a testament to the painter's own desire to situate his practice at the intersection of different discourses. His frequent transgressions of artistic and formal boundaries became an integral and defining feature of his work.

Magritte's aspirations move 'beyond painting' brought him closer to the other art . Whether it was poetry, linguistic enigmas or words themselves, textual representation was a constant source of fascination and delight for this painter who developed his aesthetics around the notion of 'visible poetry'. His enthralment with the poetic and the literary was not only an ideological penchant, since Magritte's entourage - the Brussels group - was composed almost entirely of " gens de plumes " and " littéraires " (Meuris 215). Indeed, poetry influenced many (if not all) aspects of Magritte's ouvre: from the nebulous notion of the "poetic effect" to his concrete experimentations with the signifying power of words, the painter never ceased to find stimulation in the other art . Can Magritte's own fascination with poetry and language explain the attention that poets and writers have, in turn, paid to his work? For besides Éluard, other littéraires have found inspiration in his enigmatic visions. In the late 1930s, David Gascoyne, the British Surrealist and author of A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) wrote the poem 'The Very Image' which he dedicated to the painter. More recently, Henri Michaux evoked a series of Magrittean scenes through verse in En rêvant à partir de peintures énigmatiques (1964) and Alain Robbe-Grillet used the painter's imagery as a point of narrative departure in La Belle captive (1975). Therefore, Magritte's dialogue with Éluard is not an isolated instance but part of a much larger phenomenon, a widespread preoccupation with 'poetry', words and language. Perceiving himself as a philosopher rather than as a painter, as a thinker inspired by the "poetry" and the "mystery" of the everyday, Magritte's approach to painting has made him an icon of the interartistic exchanges characteristic of the interwar avant-garde and an enfant chéri of contemporary interdisciplinary studies.

A "Forgotten Conversation" 
Within the context of this reflection on the "forgotten surrealists" of the Brussels group, I will present the "forgotten conversation" between René Magritte and Paul Éluard. Engaged in this noteworthy exchange are two key figures of the interwar avant-garde: one, an iconic figure in Belgian Surrealism, the other, a prominent poet in the Parisian circle. Due to the notoriety of the two players and their integral roles within their respective groups, their dialogue seems poised to reveal broader Surrealist trends, specifically with respect to the network between the Belgian and the French groups. Is this international and interartistic exchange through portraiture emblematic of larger trends in interwar Surrealism? What was Magritte's influence on the Parisian group? What did the Belgian Surrealists think about Éluard ? Ultimately, what emerges through this international and interartistic conversation is that both the painter and the poet sought to maintain contact with the Other, whether it was the other artist or the other art. Both look to the Other (art) in order to attain a more penetrating perspective on their own practice and a clearer view of their artistic identity. Artistic other or alter ego ? Through this exploration of their neglected conversation, I aim to cast light on the details of their relationship and situate it in l'air du temps of 1930s Surrealism.

René Magritte and Paul Éluard 
Spanning nearly two decades (1927-1948), the fragments of the dialogue between Magritte and Éluard adopted diverse forms. Whether it was a moment in time, a juxtaposition in a journal, an act of portraiture or the illustration of a book, these convergences all attest to some sort of kinship between the two. Profoundly preoccupied with the other art, this painter of words and "poet of images" found inspiration in the dialogue between painting and poetry and in illuminating exchanges with other artists (Viatte 11). Magritte was fascinated both by the idea and by the object of poetry: his conception of it extended from the vague to the concrete, from poetry as a sentiment to poetry as a sequence of words. As for Éluard, painting was a constant source of inspiration in his poetic practice. This appreciation manifested itself in the numerous 'poems for the painters' that he wrote, as well as in his passionate friendships with the visual artists.

Magritte's initial attraction to Éluard was based on a deep sense of identification, enchantment and affinity. He was captivated by a single line of poetry that appeared in Au défaut du silence, the prose poem published in 1925 in which Éluard expresses a passionate and excruciating love for Gala, his wife and muse. In its first edition, the poem was accompanied by illustrations by Max Ernst, an interartistic configuration that echoes the tumultuous ménage-à-trois that was occurring in the Éluard home in Eaubonne. It is in this text that we find the verse that so captivated Magritte: "The darkest eyes enclose the lightest [3]" (Éluard 1924: 166). Something in this solitary verse struck the painter - he was enchanted by the paradox it presented and felt drawn to its simple mystery. In his writings, he makes reference to this line in a conference and in interviews, calling on it to express the hidden mystery so central to his practice (Magritte 96, 536, 569). At a loss for words, he borrows Éluard's. In fact, these allusions in his writing are particularly significant given the fact that Magritte does not otherwise cite specific poetic or literary excerpts. In this perspective, Éluard's verse has a weighty role in his aesthetic reflection - André Blavier confirms that "it is the verse [.] that affected Magritte among all others [4]" (Magritte 99, my translation) and Jean Charles Gateau even goes so far as to propose that "in Éluard's monostich, he found the poetic representation of his own philosophy [5]" (Gateau 240, my translation). In an interview with Jan Walravens in 1962, Magritte qualified his attachment to this particular verse, describing it as an example of the way in which Éluard "was able to evoke reality not separated from its mystery [6] " (Magritte 536, my translation). Here, although the painter is describing a characteristic he appreciates in the poet's ouvre, he is also evoking a key feature of his own painting: the union of reality and mystery which he claims to esteem in Éluard's poetry is also a central facet of his own practice.

While this first intersection between Magritte and Éluard is relatively abstract, more concrete intersections between the painter and the poet would follow as of 1927 when Magritte went to live near Paris in Perreux-sur-Marne. Like many other artists, he found the magnetism of the city hard to resist. With his new proximity to the Parisian Surrealists, Magritte could participate more regularly in their activities. Well-received in the group, he cultivated friendships with a number of the French poets such as Aragon, Péret and Éluard. During this Parisian period, Magritte produced the majority of the word paintings which comprise his "linguistic period" (Roque 220). Extensively commented by contemporary critics, these paintings trouble the relationship between the object and the sign and challenge naturalised semantic associations responsible for shaping our perception of the world. For Vovelle, Magritte's semiotic experimentation and strong interest in words can be likened to the work of the Parisian poets. Pointing to a potential link between the painter's "linguistic period" and his geographical proximity to the French writers, she suggests that his preoccupation with textual signification was close to their interests at the time (Vovelle 1972: 132-133). Thus, while Magritte's years in Paris provided him with the opportunity to mix with the poets, it can be argued that they also resulted in a convergence in their creative and intellectual pursuits. As such, when Magritte returned to Brussels in 1930, it would not be the end of his participation in French activities: he had made an imprint on the Parisian group and they had made their mark on him.

Perspectives on the Other (art): Magritte and Éluard's "(Self-)Portraits" 
One of the traces of the lasting effect of the Parisian sojourn is the magnetic force which attracted Magritte and Éluard to one another throughout the 1930s and the 1940s. Their mutual enchantment is particularly interesting in the context of the international and interartistic exchanges which characterised 1930s Surrealism. For, as affirms Vovelle, these kinds of "ambiguous influences in the form of exchanges [.] translate a reciprocal curiosity between artists and [.] have their maximum intensity in the 1930s which mark the highest point of productiveness for Surrealism in its entirety [7] " (Vovelle 1972: 95, my translation). In the literature on Magritte's Parisian period, critics have often singled out his friendship with Éluard, distinguishing it as one of his more resonant relationships. Furthermore, the import of their rapport seems to be confirmed by the fact that the poet and the painter realised portraits of each other between 1935 and 1936. In 1935, Paul Éluard wrote a poem entitled "René Magritte" which first appeared in Les Cahiers d'art, appearing on the same page as Magritte's critical text, "Le Fil d'Ariane" and opposite two of his paintings. The following year, it was included in the collection, Les Yeux fertiles and would be used in a number of Magritte's exhibition catalogues. A pictorial 'reply' to this poetic homage would follow in 1936, when Magritte drew a portrait of Paul Éluard, La Magie blanche, which makes only very rare appearances in catalogues of his paintings. Is this drawing a response to Éluard's poetic portrait or an isolated expression of admiration for the poet? Given that the mid-1930s was a time of intense dialogue between Belgian and French Surrealism (Vovelle 1972: 28-30), can the reciprocal portraiture between the painter and the poet be seen as illustrative of broader tendencies in international Surrealism?

Why do Magritte and Éluard converse through portraiture? Considering the revolutionary use of the portrait by avant-garde painters and poets - we need only recall Francis Picabia's Dada portraits, Max Ernst's auto-representations through collage or Claude Cahun's rebellious photomontages to recognize the subversive potential of the genre - their choice of this form is fascinating. According to Elza Adamowicz, the Surrealists used the portrait to vehicle their philosophy on the instability of identity. Arguing that " [i]n the Surrealist quest for identity or the 'soluble I', the individual often merges with the anonymous, where the self as the locus of a coherent identity is displaced or dissolved in the other", Adamowicz defines the "Surrealist (Self-)Portrait" as the concretisation of the epistemological reflections which dominated at the time (Adamowicz 41). Since the potential for fixing or securing an identity (in an image or in a text) is contrary to the "nomadic" identities that the Surrealists prized, many of their portraits accentuate the plurality of identity rather than representing a unified self. Does this privileging of mobile, open and shifting identities have any bearing on the relationship between national Surrealisms?

Engaging in a complex dynamic of mirroring, Magritte and Éluard each reflect an image of the Other (art) before turning the mirror back onto themselves. In this perspective, La Magie blanche and "René Magritte" are both portraits and self-portraits, the image of the Other fuses seamlessly with a reflection of the Self. If the painter and the poet use portraiture to reflect on the boundaries of their artistic identities, do their national identities figure into this problematic? Considering that the portraits in question seek to erase the boundaries between the Self and the Other, can they be seen as representative of any broader trends in Franco-Belgian relations in the 1930s?

La Magie blanche, René Magritte (1936) 
In 1936, René Magritte drew a portrait of Paul Éluard. While this portrait is largely absent from catalogues of the painter's ouvre, the image is extremely significant with respect to the interartistic conversation between the painter and the poet. Also, while Paul Éluard wrote numerous poems for painters during his career, Magritte did not have a particular predilection for the representation of poets. Since the Éluard portrait does not belong to a larger group of poet portraits, its existence is all the more intriguing. Compared to many of his other portraits, Magritte's depiction of Éluard is quite traditional. In portraits such as Paul Nougé (1927), Gustave van Hecke (1927) or Georgette (1935), Magritte introduces recognizable figures into paranormal environments. It is the startling juxtaposition of the supernatural and the accurate or hyper-real (with respect to the depiction of the portrait subject) that gives the Magrittean portrait its specific allure. However, the 'magic" of La Magie blanche is subtle to the point of being nonexistent. Magritte's use of veiled magic to represent Éluard recalls the fact that he claimed to admire Éluard's ability to recognize "reality not separated from its mystery [8]" (Magritte 536, my translation).

Pencil in hand, seated demurely next to a naked female torso, the poet is represented in the act of writing. His physique is portrayed with clarity and detail: the majestic forehead, distinctive hairline and lightly pursed lips can belong to none other than Paul Éluard. While the precision in the representation of the poet is notable, such accuracy or 'correctness' is coupled with a lingering sense of "impossibility" with regard to the scenario envisaged. Éluard is writing directly onto the skin of the abdomen of the woman, as if the stroke of his pencil were capable of breathing life into her. The boundaries between the two bodies are difficult to distinguish; the poet and the woman appear to fuse seamlessly into each other. Éluard's physical positioning in relation to the naked torso is loaded with erotic signification: the poet's hand and forearm hide her vaginal area and along with the outstretched pencil they form a phallic trio which projects onto her body. Establishing a visual link between poetry and sex, Magritte depicts poetic writing as an erotic exploit; it is presented as the sexual act itself, capable of creating and giving life to new forms.

One of the intriguing features of La Magie blanche is that it can be read simultaneously as a portrait of Éluard and as a self-portrait of Magritte. Boundaries between the Self and the Other are blurred and the (con)fusion of Magritte and Éluard ensues. The 'synthesis' between the painter and the poet is further intensified by the fact that La Magie blanche bears a strong resemblance to La Tentative de l'impossible (1928), one of Magritte's rare self-portraits. In this image he represents himself in the act of 'painting Georgette': a (failed) fantasy of bringing the woman to life through art which, aside from its reference to the Pygmalion myth, is echoed in his portrait of Éluard almost a decade later. For in La Magie blanche, Magritte represents Éluard as he had represented himself in La Tentative de l'impossible . In his self-portrait, Magritte's brushstroke - like the stroke of Éluard's pencil - attempts to give life to the female form. While this is the male Surrealist fantasy par excellence , such efforts can only prove futile: textual and pictorial significations are insufficient and the woman remains insaisissable . Nonetheless, the parallel between La Magie blanche and La Tentative de l'impossible is intriguing, especially in the context of this exploration of the dialogue between Self and Other, poetry and painting, Belgian and French Surrealism. Is Magritte's portrait of Éluard the displaced double of his own self-portrait from 1928? This delayed parallel between the two portraits is not inconceivable, especially since in La Magie blanche, Magritte privileges the representation of the common ground he shares with Éluard rather than focussing on the specificity or the distance that separates them. Placing the accent on the similarities between their two practices, Magritte makes the portrait a space of dialogue between Éluardian poetics and his own aesthetics.

"René Magritte", Paul Éluard (1935) 
On the other side of the looking glass we find Éluard's poetic portrait of Magritte, "René Magritte", which belongs to a larger group of his poems for painters. In these poems - which normally bear the name of the painter as their title - Éluard does not seek to 'represent' the painter as such but seeks to write a text parallel to their pictorial practice [9]. Making their first appearance in his collection Capitale de la douleur (1926), such poetic tributes to the visual arts appeared throughout his ouvre and attest to the vital role of painting in his poetry. Even when external influences changed drastically - most notably when Éluard became involved in the French resistance in the 1940s - his love of painting persisted and evolved alongside his new political engagement.

If "René Magritte" is ostensibly a poem about the painter, it is also a poem about the conversations between a poet and a painter, about the correspondences between Magritte's painting and Éluard's poetry. A space of exchanges and dialogue, the portrait is a representation of the points of convergence between the poet and the painter, between the Self and its artistic Other. Like in Magritte's drawing La Magie blanche, "René Magritte" is both a projection of the Other (Magritte's painting) and a deeper reflection on the Self (Éluard's poetry). Puzzlingly, Éluard's poem "René Magritte" has not been analysed alongside the portrait that Magritte drew of him the following year. As such, the links between the two portraits remain shrouded in mystery. Intentional response or pure coincidence? Act of reciprocation or act of admiration? Ultimately, the relationship between the two portraits is enticing and seems to offer new perspectives on the relationship between the national Surrealisms and the networks that were established.

Surrealist Dialogues 
The conversation between Magritte and Éluard does not end with their exchange of portraits in the 1930s. In the 1940s, Magritte participated in two illustrated editions of Éluard's poetry: he illustrated La Moralité du sommeil (1941) as well as the 1946 re-edition of Les Nécessités de la vie et les consequences des rêves (1922) published by Marcel Marien's l'Aiguille aimantée. It is interesting to note that although Magritte participated in numerous collaborations with the Belgian poets throughout the years, Éluard was the only French Surrealist whose work he illustrated. For a painter so intrigued by poetic expression and by the possibilities of interartistic exchange, this " fidelity" to Éluard is striking. As for Éluard, he wrote a second poem for Magritte, "À René Magritte", which appeared in his collection Voir in 1948. He inscribed Magritte's copy with the dedication " to René Magritte / who defends words with images" ( Paul Éluard et ses amis peintres 143, my translation).

There are many other sites of intersection between Éluard and Magritte, spaces of convergence between two practices, two perspectives and two arts. For example, the exhibition poster for Magritte's first solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1936 is one of these conversational spaces. On this poster, Magritte's painting is juxtaposed with Éluard's poem "René Magritte" (translated into English by Man Ray) and a critical text by Paul Nougé. While this poster is extremely relevant to the dialogue in question, it also embodies the diverse exchanges which marked the 1930s, be they intertextual, international or interartistic.

The Surrealists were enchanted by conversations: from the striking meeting of objects in a box to the random encounter of strangers on the street, the act coming together was vital to their poetics and to their way of life. From the metaphor to the collage, from the creation of hybrid forms to illustrated books, Surrealism prized unexpected associations. As such, it is not surprising that poets and the painters transgressed the boundaries between countries and between the arts or that they sought to establish connections with their interartistic and international Others. Dialogues inhabit many of the spaces of Surrealism and the multiplicity of these exchanges adds to the complexity and to the charm of studying Surrealism. The intricate network of (inter)relations provides endless material for academic exploration. For a movement which has been enormously studied over the past fifty years, some of the most fertile spaces of Surrealism that remain are those where discourses intersect, where artists meet and where arts exchange. It is these spaces of convergence - the meeting places of Surrealism - that can reveal the internal functioning of a group, the tendencies of an era and the dynamics of the avant-garde.


[1] "la notion de surréalisme implique et revendique un caractère internationaliste et intempore l"

[2] "[d]ans les années 1934-1935, le surréalisme multiplie de façon concertée les contacts internationaux et il est normal que ce soit en Belgique [.] qu'on en trouve les premières manifestations "

[3] "Dans les plus sombres yeux se ferment les plus clairs"

[4] "c'est le vers [.] qui marquera Magritte entre tous"

[5] "dans ce monostiche d'Éluard, il trouvait la représentation poétique de sa propre philosophie"

[6] "était capable d'évoquer la réalité non séparée de son mystère"

[7] "influences ambiguës sous forme d'échanges [.] traduisent une curiosité réciproque entre artistes et [.] ont leur maximum d'intensité dans ces années 30 qui marquent le plus haut point de fécondité du surréalisme tout entier"

[8] "réalité non séparée de son mystère"

[9] "à René Magritte / qui défend les mots par les images"

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-----------------------, " The Surrealist (Self-)Portrait: Convulsive Identities", in Silvano Levy, ed., Surrealism, Surrealist Visuality, New York: New York University Press, 1997, p. 31-44.

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Éluard, Paul, "Au défaut du silence" [1925], Ouvres complètes, I , ed. Marcelle Dumas et Lucien Scheler, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1968, p. 166.

----------------, "René Magritte" [1935], Ouvres complètes, I, ed. Marcelle Dumas et Lucien Scheler, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1968, p. 502-503.

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Gateau, Jean-Charles. Paul Éluard et la peinture surréaliste, 1919-1939. Genève: Droz, 1982.

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Magritte, René, Écrits complets, ed. André Blavier. Paris: Flammarion, 2001.

Marien, Marcel. L'activité surréaliste en Belgique, 1924-1950. Brussels: L. Hossman, 1979.

Meuris, Jacques. Magritte. Paris: Casterman, 1988.

Mingelgrün, Albert, " René Magritte - Paul Éluard : une rencontre picturalo-linguistique ", Magritte en perspective cavalière, Centre de Recherche René Magritte, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2003 (conference proceedings to be published).

------------------------, Essai sur l'évolution esthétique de Paul Éluard : peinture et langage, Lausanne, L'Age d'homme, 1977.

Nougé, Paul. René Magritte (in extenso). ed. Virginie Devillez. Bruxelles: Didier Devillez, 1997.

Paul Éluard et ses amis peintres, 1895-1952, Exhibition catalogue, edited by the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Paris, 1982.

René Magritte. Exhibition Catalogue, Provinciaal Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Oostende, Belgique, 1990.

Roberts-Jones. Magritte poète visible. Bruxelles: Laconti, 1972.

Roque, Georges. Ceci n'est pas un Magritte: essai sur Magritte et la publicité. Paris: Flammarion, 1983.

-------------------. "Magritte's Words and Images", Visible Language, vol. 13, n o 2, Spring 1989, p. 221-237.

Surréalisme internationale, Opus 20, n o 19-20, October 1970, p. 29.

Siepe, Hans T. " 'La poésie est une pipe' ou René Magritte et la métaphore surréaliste". Mélusine n o XII, Lisible-visible. Lausanne: L'Age d'homme, 1991. p.31-42.

Sylvester, David. Magritte, The Silence of the World. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1992.

--------------------. René Magritte. Catalogue raisonné, vol. 1- 5. Houston: Menil Foundation, 1992-1997.

Toussaint, Françoise. Le surréalisme belge. Bruxelles: Labor, 1986.

Viatte, Germain, "Parcours naturel", Paul Éluard et ses amis peintres, 1895-1952 , Exhibition catalogue, edited by the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Paris, 1982., p. 11-13.

Vovelle, José. Le surréalisme en Belgique. Bruxelles: André de Rache, 1972.

----------------, "Un surréaliste belge à Paris", Revue d'art, n� 12, 1971, p. 55-63. 
About the author:     
Ainsley Brown is a PhD Candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton University. She holds an honours B.A. from the University of Toronto and a maîtrise from the University of Montréal.


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