Richard's Blog

Magritte and Poe: Strange Brew 

Monday, April 6, 2009 3:55:09 PM

Magritte and Poe: Strange Brew
by Richard Matteson (from various sources)

Edgar Allen Poe was one of Magritte's idols.  In "The Other Wordly Landscapes of E.A. Poe and Rene Magritte" Renee Riese Hubert pointed out:

"Several critics have found most intriguing Rene Magritte's outspoken admiration for Edgar Allan Poe. Hammacher recounts that the painter, during his only trip to the U.S. absolutely insisted on a visit to the Poe shrine."

Below are two of Magritte's masterpieces that are directly related to Poe and some information from me and other sources:

Domain of Arnheim 1938 oil on canvas (first oil version) Arnheim translates loosely from the German as eagle’s nest.

In 1938 Magritte painted a gouche and an oil of his Domain of Arnheim based on Edgar Allen Poe's story “The Domain of Arnheim:”

[From Poe:] "…no such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce. No such paradises are to be found in reality as have glowed on the canvas of Claude. In the most enchanting of natural landscapes there will always be found a defect or an excess — many excesses and defects. While the component parts may defy, individually, the highest skill of the artist, the arrangement of these parts will always be susceptible of improvement. In short, no position can be attained on the wide surface of the natural earth, from which an artistical eye, looking steadily, will not find matter of offence in what is termed the ‘composition’ of the landscape. And yet how unintelligible is this! In all other matters we are justly instructed to regard nature as supreme. With her details we shrink from competition. Who shall presume to imitate the colours of the tulip, or to improve the proportions of the lily of the valley?"

The Domain of Arnheim may be Poe's greatest story. Poe himself held it in high esteem. He wrote, “ ‘The Domain of Arnheim’ expresses much of my soul.”

To Magritte The Domain of Arnheim represented the ideal landscape as expressed by Poe. Magritte also used the granite eagle on the mountain ridge in others works with different titles. The image of the mountain shaped like an eagle predates the “Domain of Arnheim” images, appearing in “Le precurseur” (1936) and other 1933-34 works. In fact the earliest mountain/eagle image is found in the 1926 "The Wreckage of the Shadow." The catalogue raisonné says, “The mountain may well have been based upon the upper two-thirds of a color reproduction of a photograph found among Magritte’s papers, something he certainly handled, as it bears a drawing by him on the verso.”

The “Domain of Arnheim” series:

1938 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, gouache on paper 30 x 38 - whereabouts unknown
1938 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, oil on canvas
1944 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, gouache on paper 33 x 46 - Caroline Pigozzi
1947 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, gouache on paper 37.1 x 46.2 - Private collection, U.K.
1948 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, gouache on paper 34 x 36 - Private collection
1949 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, oil on canvas 100 x 81 - Private Collection
1962 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, oil on canvas 146 x 114 - Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels
1962 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, gouache on paper 35 x 27 - Private Collection
1962 - Le domaine d’Arnheim, gouache on paper, 25 x 19.2 - Eleanor Cramer Hodes

Réné Magritte, La reproduction interdite, 1937, oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65 cm (©Museum Boymans-van Beuningen). 

In his Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, poet and critic André Breton, making extensive use of theories adapted from Sigmund Freud, proposed that the conscious and unconscious artistic impulses be reunited under the artistic banner he termed “surrealism”:

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. 

Breton advocated banishing reason from the realm of artistic creation, arguing that a reliance on “automatism” (unconscious, spontaneous behavior) would call forth more authentic images from the dream and supernatural states.

For his masterful La reproduction interdite (Not to be reproduced) Réné Magritte has created a representation of his subject—Edward James, a rich English aristocrat, Surrealist poet, and patron of both Dali and Magritte—that is both rigorously realistic and emotionally detached. A master at posing familiar objects in absurd contexts, Magritte made extensive use of mirror and glass in his work, playing with their ability to hide or mask through reflection. In this painting Magritte presents us with the view of his subject seen from behind. The reflection in the mirror beyond, however, violates the laws of nature, for it reflects that very same backside view back to us.  We gaze over the man’s shoulder expecting to see his face (i.e. his specific identity) and are met instead with the view from our own eyes. The subject’s identity is hidden from us. In the world Magritte has created here we can only ever return to ourselves (i.e. our own reality).

To confuse us further, Magritte has placed Edgar Allan Poe’s book The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym next to James on the mantel, juxtaposing its “correct” reflection with the alternative reality of the figure’s reflection. Magritte has created a painting with dual realities, alternate fictions, if you like.  The book itself provides a small clue as to Magritte’s intentions.

Magritte was an unabashed admirer of Poe. In particular, he was inspired by the writer’s preoccupation with the mingling of the real and artificial. The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym, Poe’s only novel, purports to be a non-fictional tale of the fantastic sea journey of Arthur Pym from Nantucket to the land of Symzonia (somewhere in the South Pacific?). Along the way, the narrative proves to be distorted and unreliable, deceitful even. The various twists of the novel’s plot embody numerous thematic elements, but masquerade, illusion, and even trickery figure prominently in the action. Ultimately, the tale reveals itself as a figment of the protagonist’s imagination—a fiction cloaking a fiction.

Claudia Kay Silverman (American Studies, UVA)  further observes—

The journey enacted in Symzonia, the journey to the interior of the earth, can be construed as a journey of anti-discovery. It is a journey to discover an emptiness. As does all Utopian fiction, the journey of Symzonia contains a tension. A Utopia is both a “good place” and “no place;” the journey to the interior of the earth is the ultimate journey and the impossible journey. It finds, in those imaginatively inclined, a correlative in a journey into the mind itself, whose outcome will be the unveiling of the deepest secret of humanity.

The grip that the notion of a hollow earth might have had on Poe has to do with a fear that the human mind, rather than containing ultimate knowledge, is, at its very core, empty.

The themes of search and deceit, which weave in and out of Pym’s tale, must have appealed greatly to Magritte’s well-developed epigrammatic sensibility. La reproduction interdite is a witty commentary on our search for identity. Human beings, to paraphrase Magritte, always want to see what lies behind what they can actually see. We seek to uncover an essential or unconcealed “reality” or “truth,” which in turn will define who we are. Alas, the painter is in charge of this world; he makes that clear by doing exactly what the title forbids, i.e. copying. 

La reproduction interdite proffers a world in which we can only view the reality that we already see. The painting seems to be saying that an individual’s own vision is the reality that matters.    As Jung said, “it all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.”

From "The Poker-Faced Enchanter" by Robert Hughes - Time Magazine [refers to Version 2- above]

"Then there was Edgar Allan Poe. Magritte used him repeatedly. The Domain of Arnheim, Magritte's image of a vast, cold Alpine wall seen through the broken window of a bourgeois living room, with shards of glass on the floor that still carry bits of the sublime view on them, is the title of Poe's 1846 tale about a superrich American landscape connoisseur who creates a Xanadu for himself. 'Let us imagine,' says Poe's hero, 'a landscape whose combined vastness and definitiveness -- whose united beauty, magnificence and strangeness shall convey the idea of care, or culture . . . on the part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity . . .' Yes, one can well imagine Magritte liking that. His work too sets up a parallel world, extremely strange and yet familiar, ruled by an absolutist imagination."

From History of Art:

It is not only to Stevenson that Magritte makes reference in his pictures. Mention should be made of Hegel as regards In Praise of Dialectics, Baudelaire in connection with Flowers of Evil and The Giantess, as well as Verlaine, Heidegger and Lautreamont. More than any other writer or philosopher cited here, however, it was without doubt Edgar Allan Рое who exercised the most powerful and lasting influence upon Magritte's thinking and on his work as a whole.

Take, for example, the well-known story "The Purloined Letter". A minister who enjoys the confidence of the royal couple observes the Queen trying - successfully - to conceal a letter from her august spouse. Before the Queen's eyes, the minister steals the letter, substituting another for it. The Queen has no choice but to remain silent; any protest at the theft would inevitably bring with it the disclosure of the very piece of evidence which she is seeking to keep secret. In order to extricate herself from this dependence, the Queen instructs the Prefect of Police to recover the stolen letter, taking care to describe to him the seal of red wax with which it was closed. The poor official sets to work, blindly and without further thought, yet all his investigations come to naught. In contrast, Dupin, whom he has told of his misfortune, strikes it lucky, immediately espying the letter in the minister's cabinet. On a second visit to the cabinet, he sees no more than the reverse of the letter, crumpled and closed with a black seal. He nevertheless manages to recover it by means of a clever tactic: he arranges for a shot to be fired outside in the street, and when the minister opens the window to see what has happened, the cunning Dupin seizes the letter, conjurer-like, substituting another letter for it, in which is written -in Dupin's own handwriting, with which the minister is familiar -some lines by Crebillon the Older: "... such a sinister plan, if unworthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes."

The letter, the written word, which has been stolen here, alters its meaning upon changing owner, since the new owner, the communication falling into his possession, himself becomes one possessed. What in the Queen's hands is a declaration of love proving her infidelity becomes in those of the minister a means of blackmail, albeit one which turns out to be unusable, since it calls into question the very unity between King and Queen from which he, the minister, draws his entire power. The letter in his hand simultaneously provides evidence of the disorder which it is his job to prevent; he cannot restore order without doing himself harm. Dupin, in stealing back the letter, reveals the conceited, narcissistic superiority of the minister to be no more than illusion: all that is lacking is that the latter, following the example of Thyestes, should devour his own children. Dupin sells the letter to the Prefect of Police, who, for his part has seen nothing and understood less. The Prefect's mistake lay in searching for the real letter, rather than for its sense, which is modified every time the letter changes owners or external appearance. This story by Edgar Allan Рое, in which the actors are divided into observers of action and observers of reflection, reads like an introduction to the art of Magritte. It is not sufficient, upon looking at his pictures, to study what can be seen, to check identities; rather, it is necessary to reflect upon what one sees, to imagine it.

It is only through such a meditative attitude that the observer can gain access to Magritte's subtle game of enigmas. This does not mean, however, that it is possible to grasp this mystery as one would a possession. Reflection merely enables one to sense the mystery; it does not offer any concept, any formula, any key. Patrick Waldberg has rightly remarked that one could speak here of a "key of ashes", one which opens up nothing and fits no lock. The thoughts which become visible in Magritte's pictures lock up their secret as soon as the observer believes that he has completely plumbed the depths of their meaning. The images are poetic through and through.

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


Magritte's: The Looking Glass (La Lunette d'approche) 1963  

Sunday, April 5, 2009 2:58:54 AM


It's rare when you make a discovery that many great art historians that have written volumes about Magritte have missed. This is regarding Magritte's 1963 painting "La Lunette d'approche" below. I feel confident that this was exactly what Magritte meant by his title, which was a pun, referring to "The Looking Glass" which is a "field glass" but that's not what he meant.

The Looking Glass (La Lunette d'approche) 1963

Also incorrectly named called "The Field Glass"  or "The Telescope" this painting shows the opening between the mirror that Alice traveled through. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) is a work of children's literature by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), generally categorized as literary nonsense but the Carroll books received cult status by the surrealistists who treasured nonsense.  

Through the Looking-Glass is the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Although it makes no reference to the events in the earlier book, the themes and settings of Through the Looking-Glass make it a kind of mirror image of Wonderland: the first book begins outdoors, in the warm month of May, on Alice's birthday (May 4), uses frequent changes in size as a plot device, and draws on the imagery of playing cards; the second opens indoors on a snowy, wintry night exactly six months later, on November 4 (the day before Guy Fawkes Night), uses frequent changes in time and spatial directions as a plot device, and draws on the imagery of chess.

Magritte, who was an avid chess player, was drawn to Carroll's works and references him in both "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Empire of the Lights."


Selling "le domaine enchante" 

Friday, April 3, 2009 11:06:38 PM

Selling Le Domaine Enchante
by Andrew Decker  

Le Domaine Enchanté (I)



Le Domaine Enchanté (II)



Le Domaine Enchanté (III)



Le Domaine Enchanté (IV)



Le Domaine Enchanté (V)

Le Domaine Enchanté (VI)

Le Domaine Enchanté (VII)



Le Domaine Enchanté (VIII) 1953

On July 1, René Magritte's eight-painting series from 1953, Le domaine enchante, goes up for sale at Christie's London. Together measuring more than 32 feet (six canvases at approximately 27 x 54 in. and two at 27 x 37 in.), the series is a mini-retrospective of Magritte's Surrealism, combining into one neat grouping a slew of the artist's signature images -- pigeons transmogrifying into foliage, masked apples, houses lit at dusk against a backdrop of a daytime sky, an inverted mermaid or fishwoman.
Unfortunately, Christie's has decided to break up the series and sell the paintings individually, presumably to maximize the price. Presale estimates for each picture range from a low of $600,000-$800,000 to a high of $1.8 million-$2.5 million.

Of course, there's no law against dismantling a series, and Christie's made its decision after the sly (and anonymous) consignor played the house off against its arch-rival, Sotheby's. And from the seller's point of view, the timing couldn't be better.

Especially now. Christie's (like Sotheby's) has had a dry season as far as modern paintings go, and the eight domaine paintings carry a low estimate of $11 million -- about a third of the total value of the Christie's July 1 auction. Christie's was keen to get the series, with property in short supply and a market heading toward the boiling point.

How hot is the market? Look at the last month's results. Just think of Christie's brilliant success with the heavily hyped Herbig collection, and the punishing bidding for Warhol's Orange Marilyn at Sotheby's in May, when the painting soared to $17,327,500. Several insiders assumed the buyer was Condé Nast head S.I. Newhouse, Jr., simply based on his relentless, no-pause bidding style. Referring to the billionaire's 1988 purchase of Jasper Johns's False Start for $17.05 million, beating out as underbidder the neophyte and later bankrupt collector Hans Thulin, the insider said, "It was False Start all over again."

Is it the '80s all over again? Simply, the answer is no, but with an asterisk. Yes, art is hot in the shelter magazines, with House & Garden devoting its May issue to the theme of "Living with Art." But art isn't popping up on the sets of movies now as a Julian Schnabel plate picture did in the "greed is good" masterpiece, Wall Street. Fashionable yes, mass-media, no.

But things appear to be heading that way. Signs of a boom verging on a craze are all over the place. Contemporary artists at the beginning of their careers, like Sharon Lockhart and Elizabeth Peyton, and the mid-career Luc Tuymans have waiting lists. During the last year, Charles Saatchi has again become a barometer of which artists to buy, just like he was in the '80s. (His purchases have included works by Amy Adler, who shows in New York at Casey Kaplan, and Juan Usle, who shows at Cheim & Read.)

The current upturn is perfectly predictable. For the past 50 years, the art market has run in a seven to nine year cycle. A two or three year trough is followed by a period of normalcy, marked by little inflation -- a largely sane period where collectors pick and choose and most everything has a reasonable value. Then comes a spike of madness fueled by some random factor involving money -- inflation, a "bubble economy" or some other factor driving the global finance.

The people behind these art booms tend to share a few characteristics: no particular knowledge about art, access to a lot of money, and the ability to be mesmerized and intrigued by a spectacular link between art and money -- a $17 million Warhol, for instance.

A new buzz among art professionals involves lending against art. One New York dealer, who is occasionally given to hyperbole, says, "Yesterday I was playing golf with a bunch of bankers, and they're all interested in lending money against art. What they're looking for is expertise in this area. Bankers see art collections and see money sitting in pictures and think it's just dead capital." The way to enliven the art -- obviously, studying it, looking at it and enjoying it couldn't possibly be enough -- is to borrow against it. Then there's money to sink into some other investment, possibly including more art.

If using your art collection as collateral is a hot topic, there's also the old tried and true practice of "flipping" -- that is, buying on speculation in one arena and trying to sell for a profit in another. Le domaine enchanté is an example of both lending gone bad and a '90s flip.

During the '80s, domaine was owed by Belgian collector and Magritte enthusiast Isy Brachot, who sold it to the Fuji TV Gallery in Tokyo for an undisclosed price that was probably close to $15 million. Fuji then sold it to Tomonori Tsurumaki, the Japanese businessman also known for paying $51.65 million for Pablo Picasso's Les Noces de Pierrette in 1989. Turumaki was one of those late '80s collectors who had too much of other people's money to throw around. Aside from buying the Magritte and the Picasso, he sank hundreds of millions into a car racetrack, the Nippon Autopolis.

Then, after the collapse of the market, it wound up as the property the Lake Finance Company, a Tokyo lending institution that had provided Tsurumaki with so much of his borrowed millions. Lake floated it on the market in the mid-'90s, hoping to recoup some of its art debt. The series showed up at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 1994 with a price tag of $14 million, but didn't get sold and wound up going back to Japan.

Cut to 1998. The yen is falling, making it easier for Japanese sellers to unload art at less of a loss. The country's government is leaning on finance companies to get bad loans off their books. Once again, Lake takes a look at the art market. Both Christie's and Sotheby's peg the value of Magritte's work at around $5 million, which is a little too low for Lake.

But a California dealer (who shall remain anonymous) caught the ear of a local investor who, like so many art speculators before him, had money and knew that art had some value. The dealer set about interesting the auction houses, calling Sotheby's and Christie's, which again put the series' value at around $5 million. Along the way, Christie's either agreed to or proposed a more tempting solution. Sell the series piecemeal, one by one, and they'd be worth a whole lot more. There are many more people out there willing to pay a million or two for one Magritte painting than there are willing to pay $5 million for a series.

With Christie's committed to a substantial estimate of at least $11 million, the California dealer pulled the trigger on the deal, buying the eight canvases for around $6.5 million at the beginning of May. The paintings were rushed to New York in time to go on Christie's walls during the firm's 19th- and 20th-century auction previews and wound up in the Christie's London July 1 sale.

Separating domaine's canvases isn't a horror on the magnitude of breaking up an illuminated manuscript to sell the paintings individually, though it does go against the grain. Does it really matter? After all, each of the paintings is signed, and Magritte sold the gouaches for them individually. Certainly, some purists find it in poor taste, and one dealer, who would probably do the same thing, given the chance, said, "It's intended to be one work. It's a retrospective. Each of the paintings is composed of a number of images -- it's surprising that instead of selling the eight paintings they didn't cut them up and sell the images separately!"

One of the larger ironies here is that a Japanese finance company -- hardly a protector of Western art traditions -- didn't even consider splitting up the works. Leave it to an American investor, guided by an American dealer and abetted by a British auction house, to dismantle an artwork's integrity.

The other irony, of course, is that the auction houses say that speculators are bad for the market. The flood of money that comes from speculators destabilizes the market in the long run, first inflating prices and then, when markets head south, deflating it even further with bankruptcy sales.

All of which is true. And none of which seems to matter when a potential profit is dangling just before an auction house's eyes. The auction houses may not like speculators, but they need them, just as much as they need to find grist to run through their mills.

ANDREW DECKER writes on art and the art market. 

Magritte and the Beatles 

Thursday, April 2, 2009 2:43:03 AM

Magritte and the Beatles

Black and white photo of Magritte's 1966 painting.

The Apple logo was directly inspired by a Belgian, the surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967).

In an interview with Johan Ral in 1993, Paul McCartney remembers: "There's a great story about that. I had this friend called Robert Fraser, who was a gallery owner in London. We used to hang out a lot. And I told him I really loved Magritte. We were discovering Magritte in the sixties, just through magazines and things. And we just loved his sense of humour. And when we heard that he was a very ordinary bloke who used to paint from nine to one o'clock, and with his bowler hat, it became even more intriguing. Robert used to look around for pictures for me, because he knew I liked him. It was so cheap then, it's terrible to think how cheap they were. But anyway, we just loved him ... One day he brought this painting to my house. We were out in the garden, it was a summer's day. And he didn't want to disturb us, I think we were filming or something. So he left this picture of Magritte. It was an apple - and he just left it on the dining room table and he went. It just had written across it "Au revoir", on this beautiful green apple. And I tought that was like a great thing to do. He knew I'd love it and he knew I'd want it and I'd pay him later. [...] So it was like wow! What a great conceptual thing to do, you know. And this big green apple, which I still have now, became the inspiration for the logo. And then we decided to cut it in half for the B-side!"

The painting which became the inspiration for the Apple logo is actually called Le jeu de mourre (The game of mora) and dates from 1966.

The title was found by Magritte's friend, the Belgian poet Louis Scutenaire, and is probably a play of words on Les jeunes amours (Young love), the title of a work by Magritte showing three apples. The game of mora is "a game in which one of the players rapidly displays a hand with some fingers raised, the others folded inwards, while his opponent calls out a number, which, for him to win, has to correspond to the total of the raised fingers".*

(*) From: René Magritte - Catalogue Raisonné, edited by David Sylvester. Menil Foundation/Fonds Mercator, 1993.

Creative critical thinking via Magritte's metaphores 

Thursday, April 2, 2009 12:19:14 AM

Creative critical thinking via Magritte's metaphores
Haggith Gor &  Galia Zalmanson Levi

The first part of the workshop will show several creative and critical mechanisms in selected paintings of Magritte.

Then we will share our critical, feminist, analysis of his paintings trying to promote feminist consciousness through Magritte’s work touching on issues of control over women’s sexuality and bodies, & their objectification. Both of us used Magritte’s paintings in our critical pedagogy work and found him very significant. But as our critical, feminist consciousness developed, we came to relate to him with increasing ambivalence and anger.

In response we created ways to express our criticism and share it with others. We see this as a process of liberation. The process of uncovering implicit misogynist meanings or gender biases is applicable to countless products of our culture. Developing this process has empowered us as women, though it often also isolates us from society. It has reduced the gap we experience between the personal and the social-political.

We will ask you to seek and construct your own alternatives using creative mechanisms used by Magritte. In constructing a world of possibilities that incorporates critical feminist thinking each of you will use her/his personal/social-political voice.

We will end the workshop showing a short piece taken form a play directed by Shuki Asulin, a  deaf creator,  who has done a similar process with deaf  actors at his final project at as a theatre student. And part of my computer artwork called veils.

We would like to ask every one to write down for her/him self- three dilemmas that she/he faces in her/his work in education. It may be a theoretical questions/problems, it may be practical ones. (Examples: a class that majority of children did not pass the standard test, discipline: a child that behaves in a way that interrupt the teacher, objections of teachers to change, are all children capable of high achievements? What are the boundaries of authority, what kind of authority? Authority versus authoritarian, are objections a stage in developing consciousness?

As we go along, explaining the different creative and critical mechanism according to Magritte’s paintings, we ask you to bear in mind your dilemmas and try to think how you use the suggested mechanism in dealing with it.

The Violin (A Little Of the Bandit's Soul)

The picture of a violin on the window edge: the creative/critical mechanism here is taking an object and putting it out of its natural context. The collar is not meant to be underneath a violin. It’s usual context is around a neck on top of a shirt. The violin gets a meaning of a face, a head above the collar. What does it mean? Music in the head? Musical thinking? Did the violin loose its qualities when it became a head? This is a mechanism of isolation in which we take from one object the its most valuable attribute or one quality that is essential for its existence. We pose a question: without what a violin is not a violin any longer?  Without playing it or without the violinist? Without what an X is not an X? A king without a kingdom, a sand box without sand, a merchant without merchandise. It is also a mechanism of modification: we take out of an action or an object its most important, essential quality and add to it a characteristic from another place, context or an area.

Make a round of answering the question without what education is not longer education?

Change can be done in adding subtracting and re-organizing. Thesaurus re-organize the language, reorganization of language can break myth (post modernism and deconstruction)

In a social structure of a classroom reorganizing groups according to social groups, different identities, power distribution, achievements

Teachers take for granted that dividing children according to age or group achievements will advance children the most, actually it serves mostly the teachers control and the system’s, dividing children according to their peer groups will be what children would have felt more comfortable with.

Subtraction: what can I subtract so I will feel that it is missing, we take one thing from its natural place and you put it in a strange location then it becomes something different. We went to the Metropolitan Museum in NY to see the sky line of the city from the roof. On our way back we lost our way so and unintentionally we wondered into an exhibition called “The Spirit of Africa”.
So what we so there was a good example of the “violin” mechanism. Taking the “spirit of africa” out of cultural context it turns from an authentic being to an evidence of imperialism and colonialism. If we asked “spirit of Africa’ is not the spirit of africa? Perhaps without africa perhaps without the people who came from africa. Without them the representation in this exhibiton is not of the spirit of africa but rather of he conception of the ruling white majority on what they think the spirit of africa is. The exhibition tells me more about the observer eye then about the subject and thus it turn it to an object. What the observer or the curator see is the objectification of the “spirit of africa”. We found it to be a bit ironic. We thought that the spirit of africa was hammered down and oppressed by the slave merchants’ by land lords. Maybe it was the spirit of africa that enable the Afro american endure all the suffering inflicted upon them.  So I expected, since the exhibition is taking place in NY, to learn about what  happened to the spirit of africa in when it met the united states. What we found was a collection of arts objects, out of african social context, implanted into context of western art discourse. As  such it appears as an imperialists representation of condescending western eye looking at africa in folklorist manner.

We do an estrangement (the smile of the cat in Alice in wonderland)
The violin is also a metaphor of a woman’s body. If a violin without the violinist to play is not a violin anymore what does it mean to us with the metaphor of the violin and woman’s body? ( a woman without a man to play/take her is not a woman)

Without what a disruptive child is not a disruptive child? Without the teacher, without the strict code of rules, without the inadequate books, without the negative treatment he/she gets. The question “without what X is not an X changes the psychological look at the child (he has problems’ therapy, lets give him Ritalin, to a social look: he needs another kind of interaction, another learning environment, he is the victim of an unequal system.

Without what school is not a school? Without what a teacher is not a teacher?

In Israel a school cannot be a school without walls, you cannot get an official recognition status from the ministry of education for a school without the structure, the physical building. In galia’s program (that belong al too the ministry of education) there are certificates and activities, studies of all kind but it happens in an informal settings, places with flexibility of time so it is not considered a school.

Who is doing the action of taking I out of context? This determines colonialization. If the white curators is taking our of context the “spirit of Africa” and interprets it as a collection of artifacts, it becomes an act of colonialization.

Without a woman is not a woman?


"The explanation” (carrot and a bottle)
Hybridization mechanism 
Merging of two objects that are not related to each other. Adding association of two different areas.
The merge gives a new strong meaning to the two different objects. In Israel an anti cigarette campaign makes a merge of cigarette and a warm, the Berninini sculpture of Daphne merged into a tree.

Main question: what is impossible to do? We will do it. What kind of population have no connection between them, two different subjects, two personnel that don’t go along with each other it allow a creative situation to come out of an impossible one.

This mechanism can be also very harmful: for example the “melting pot” (both the US and Israel) The bottle is not a bottle it is closed at the top the carrot is not eatable anymore.

For example: there are certain subjects in school that don’t usually go together such as physical education and math, history and music,

Integration in education (Israel US)

Teacher and student the role of the teacher and the role of the student in one create a person that learn and teaches herself, at the same time.

Sometimes teachers, who work for many years in school, become hybridized with school. They identify so much with the institute that you cannot tell the two apart.

 Man and woman role in one (Magritte does this hybridization) breaking the false dichotomy

Domain of Arnhiem County (Eagle Mountain)
Symbiosis of an eagle and mountain, each one gets the identity of the other. They maintain relationship of total dependency. Double imagery, the mountain looks like an eagle and  the eagle looks like a mountain.

This mechanism may describe “occupation” as seen in the eyes of the occupier.
This painting feels fascist because of the images chosen, eagle and rock, and because both images are one entity. It rings the bells of Mussolini’s saying ‘I am the nation and the nation is me”. When human identity and the nation identity becomes one entity we get fascism.

In Israel the myth of Troompeldor, a hero who legendary said before he died at one of the battles fought with Arabs: “It is good to die for our country”

The notion of radical feminism “the personal is the political” is an positive example of the very same mechanism.

The Argonne Battle (rock and a cloud)
A rock and a cloud hanging in the sky under the “blessing” of the moon is a provocation of two different objects that are usually far and detached from each other. Meeting of unrelated objects and enabling an encounter of such objects leads to creative ideas.

It is a kind of provocation, if a cloud and a rock can meet in the sky, who can’t  (yasar arafat and rabin, saadt and begin,)

A tree and a fish in the sea.
A lion and bicycle in the city,
School in a shopping mall, school in a football stadium. School at night, school in a factory, in the park.
A meeting between Olive (form Popie) and the woman for equal rights organization,  Cinderella and a lawyer or children rights activist.

The rock came to the sky to meet with the cloud,
Meeting of rich upper class with the poor, lower class (the prince and the popper)
The Daughter of Pharos and Yocheved, Moses mother, a partnership of upper class lower class, royalty and slave, educated and non educated, in order to save life.

Encounter of concepts not just people:
For example: high expectation and marginalized children.
Etgarim: high prestigious sport (diving, ski, rope activities, etc) with handicapped children.

Leadership training for youth at risk, children who were squeezed out of the formal schooling system.

What does the rock says to the cloud (talking bubbles)


The red model (shoe and foot)
Expansion of the foot, an organic merge of the foot and the shoe, the foot is expanded to the shoe so it seems that the shoe is already part of the foot. Telescope and an eye, hand and a glove, cupboard and cloth, telephone and an ear.

Women and cloth:
Cloth and make up are often perceived as cultural expansion of women, sometimes to a point where they become women representation. Signifiers of class and gender become the expansion of the person they present. When you ask kindergarten children what is the difference between a boy and a girl, they say long hair, dress ribbons, etc.

Lower middle class codes in college: orit, a smart student, was labeled by me because her code was low,

The story of orit codes of dress demonstrate how the physical signifiers become part of a person, and how he/she are judged.

A child enters school at first grade, the teacher put on her/him same expectation she had of her/his older brother. She expands the child into the family.  Immigrant children are often seen as an expansion stereotype of their country of origin that their teacher carry in their minds. (poor, uneducated, lower culture) The roles of  home maintaining  are considered as part of the woman, you are a woman you cook, you take care of the children.  Defining a woman through motherhood (in Israel peace movement it is an ongoing debate- 4 mothers movement to get out us of Lebanon.(

Magritte uses this technique also to paint a picture of dress and breast and cunt.


                                                                                                                                 Hegel’s holiday
A glass of water on top of an umbrella, two objects with contradicted functions.
This mechanism based on paradox. The umbrella dispersed the water, the glass accumulate the water, the umbrella is meant to protect you from the water and here there is a glass of water on top of it. Another paradox is the juxtaposition of the name. Hegel was a philosopher that was stereotyped as a person who would not waist a time on a holiday. Hegel’s Holiday is already a pradox. In this case the paining is a visualization of the title, the title is a verbal amplifier of the visual images.

Soap that makes everything dirty, eating a plate, eraser that you write with,

I got out of the staff meeting to say what I want to say, men’ s club for women, a meeting that no one come to, a speech to an empty hall. This mechanism has humor in it,


A teacher that screams to get silent, I love you but… paradoxes can be positive

Instead of getting angry to laugh, instead of yelling whispering,

If you heat another time I will slap you.

Kindergarten for parents.

We learn to live with many paradoxes some we don’t even see.

For example the marginalized groups that are unseen by us are also the one that when we notice them are stereotyped and demonized in our society.

The war of Galilee Peace, Lebanon war (what name you used was a political statement)

This is not a pipe not a pipe,

If  in some other paintings the text enrich and enforce the image of the painted picture, here it deconstructs  it.

Naming (Chomsky, Friere) is a very powerful act, it is an act of giving meaning to the world, it is an act of control and regaining power.

When you say this is not a pipe it means it is not a real pipe it is an image of a pipe, but it can mean it is not an image of a pipe either it is something else, what is it? You have to think about it in different concepts. What does it symbolizes? What are the hidden meanings? What escapes our eye what is missing? What is not is as important question as what is. We want to teach teacher to ask what is not in the picture? What is missing gives us as much information as what exists.

The painting also designate the impossibility of translation from one language to the other (words to painted image in this case) It points out to the things that cannot be translated from language to language from media to media, between the visual and the word, music to painting, video to singing etc,
Try to explain voice to a deaf person, colors to a blind person it will point mostly to our blindness to our deafness. (The examples of Martha’s Vineyard and anthropologist on marc stories of Oliver Sacks)

The denial of problems (once women were equal now it is ok nothing stops them, eastern and western Jews, once it was a problem, now everybody marries everybody and you don’t know who is who.

The personal values (comb on the bed)
A room with walls that are sky, (in is out and out is in) There is an un proportional comb on the bed, a huge shaving brush on top of a cupboard, a giant soap and an enormous wine glass on the floor. In this painting the scale was transformed, the proportions changed, and objects were rearranged in terms of position and location in the room. This changes force us to see different meanings we did not notice before. 

In Alice in wander land, the enlargement ridicules social structure, in guliver it is used as a means of enstrangement . Here it creates terrifying power and choking control.

The enlargement of the objects expresses strong male presence and male power. The skied walls creates unlimited space for that male presence. It gives chilling frightening feelings: with no protection solid walls the room is broken open. (the most unsafe place for women in the entire world is their own homes, there is where most women are being raped, by a person they know, it is called a “friendly rape” like “friendly fire” an oxymoron).  The objects in the room are ordered in a pedant impersonal manner, a mess would have been more familiar and humane.

Using the mechanism is a lot of fun: a big scissors run after Shimshon to cut his hair, a big baby feeding his parent, a small teacher in front of a classroom etc.

How we can use it:

Changing the proportion between recess and lessons, 50 minutes break time and 10 minutes lesson time.

A child is misbehaving, teacher thinks he/she have a discipline problem, let her think about the same behavior on the beach, would it still be a discipline problem?

Group of children who curse a lot: cursing competition, what group make the longest list, replacing the cursing words with other words (avocado)

Giving a lot of homework everyday, or not giving at all.

In relation to these changes we have to ask who benefits from them, who has interest that those changes will materialize.

Galia’s program for youth at risk , (squeezed out children) is constructed with changing of times (learning is happening on varied hours of the day, and varied periods of the year) place (learning take place in community centers, children homes, coffee shop etc) the belief in children ability (as opposed to the schools which squeezed them out).

Rewriting the story of Cinderella in different locations, in space, in NY, in the jungle, rewriting Cinderella with enlarging major elements, the injustice done to her, her disobedience.

Taking the standardized exams, grades, rewards and/or punishments and installing them into adults lives. Taking love and affection given in family settings and transfer it to school.

Dislocation of concepts: when we take the slogan “it is good to die for your country” and put it into English it sounds funny and ridicules.

Holidays, (Hanukah for example) examine a holiday in today’s values, Macabees war is taught in heroic concepts, when we take it to the understandings we have on wars in our lives, we may discuss also the people who got killed, the mourning and devastation of the war. (lag ba’omer) religion and states relationship, political analysis of the time. 

The personal values seems to us and to many women we talked to, like a rape. So we started looking at magritte’s paintings with our critical feminist eye:

The hybridization of a fish and a cigar,

the cigar is phallic but it becomes very interesting when we juxtapose it with the picture of the fish and a woman.

This is the reverse myth of the mermaid. it is a gender myth that introduce into the life of woman a great impossibility (you are desired and wanted by the prince when you are beautiful and un attainable, in the moment you choose to become humane, flesh and blood you are not longer wanted by the prince) here the bottom of the body is of a women, it includes her genitals, and her head is the fish. This way she is an obvious sexual object, her face is not important, her personality doesn’t exist, just her sexuality’ she has the worth of a dead fish.  Most women we talked to found this image very repulsive and insulting.

We may take this painting of course, and psycho-analyze it. Magritte lost his mother when he was 13. She committed suicide by drowning herself in the river. The child must have felt deserted, he might have felt anger and helplessness that my express itself in the hatred portrayed toward women in his paintings.

Woman and wood
Here the  woman gets the qualities of an object, wood. Or the stripes of a lepard, either way she is not human.

We don’t have to rent pornographic films in order to find images of sexuality, dehumanization of women and representations of violence against women. It is deeply planted into the cultural cannon of our society.

Magritte’s paintings are pornographic and violent toward women.

Pornography is gender specific genre that is produced primary for and by men but focus obsessively on the female figure. Late works of known feminist such as Andrea Dworkin and Kathreen McKinnon, changed the definition of pornography away from obscenity terms usually refer to the influence on the male reader/observer, to a dehumanization referred to the objectification of women.

The “what” of pornography is not sex but power and violence, the “who” of pornography are women not male observer.

Pornography is an infringement of women’s freedom, pornography is the theory and rape is the practice.

When dealing with body politics and sexuality representation it is important to look at the surrealists in general and at Magritte in particular.
Women are fetishized in his paintings as “tits” and “cunt” (tits growing out of a nightgown, woman in bottle) Magritte produce a lot of representation of women “bits and pieces”.


The rape (le viole)


This is one of the most shocking painting, it turns the woman face, (face represent character and individuality) to a sexual body (objectified and general). This way he suggests that the anatomy of a woman is bound to be her destiny. It also implies that she is “sightless and senseless and dumb”.


The psychological explanation of the absent phallus in his absent faced, hollow men.


Magritte the Architecturologist 

Thursday, April 2, 2009 12:08:52 AM

Regarding the complementary structure of architectural space. Very likely, Rene Magritte is the most lucid iconic thinker of modern art. His work is monumental for the understanding of the human condition in regard to the perception of the environment, natural as well as artificial. In contrast to most other modernists, he adheres strictly to the average 'natural' perception which he decomposes to compose fictive "realities". These canvas-fictions reveal the rich relational communication inherent in materials and forms, which - in its acculturated norm - is no more readable. In the overall view Magritte shows how in our modern spatially homogenous world 'spatial fossiles' are constantly reminding us of another world, a former world in which things were perceived quite differently. The following text may outline this attempt to read Rene Magritte as a 'sous-realist' and as an iconic thinker.

Magritte the Architecturologist [1]
Regardingthe complementary structure of architectural space: By Nold Egenter

"They speak about Neon, I myself about truth"[2]

Magritte and artificial intelligence? Are we not at the wrong place? One thing is for sure, surrealism has remained mysterious for many, particularly in its home within art. Maybe the fairly unusual milieu - quite in the sense of Magritte - allows us to put down the normal blurred spectacles of art theoreticians and to use the clear view of artificial intelligence to gain new insights.Is it not strange that computer freaks are also often fans of Magritte. Dialogue as a form of provocation. Strange relatives are met. Everyone knows that the gigantic dream of a global communication network is based on a super simple principle. "Bit", it is called, an abbreviation for binary digit, which means binary number. It is the smallest possible memory unit of any data system. It can only register the values 0 or 1. The Bit is the basis of the binary numeral systems and of binary coding. On this most elementary binary structure of 'nothing and one', further units are supported, the "Byte",further, the word, finally the whole manifold of programs. Games with pictures. Text processing. Administrative databases.

Data communication networks belong to it and recently also CAD, which more and more enters creatively into the world of design.All those who try to gain an overview of Magritte's oeuvre will soon discover to what extent architecture with concrete formations of space and even furniture, plays an eminent role.Whatever he paints in his technically fairly clumsy way, the unreal spiritual gains momentum through the real and always more or less turns around human dwelling in its objective and relative formations. In most cases the viewpoint of the observer is somehow housed or sheltered. The observer looks through windows and doors towards outside, looks from a balcony on to the ocean, etc.. 

Magritte composes mobile or immobile elements of the built environment. He also distorts their relations. This legitimates us to look at his pictures with the optics of architectural theory. We will see that in this way his deliberate distortions can be understood to a great extent. This is so because the complex of 'building and dwelling' contains the definitions of his formal elements and also because their characteristics are known. The cosmos of Magritte, his universe, is doubtless not the abstract space of physics, nor the space of psychology. Magritte deals with the physical space of architecture, he transmits his ideas with the language of culturally formed built space. Magritte an architecturologist? Is he really an architectural theoretician, an architectural researcher in the widest humane or anthropological sense? At the end we will see that Magritte questions not only our modern interpretation of space; there are indicators, that he offers a new world of architectural understanding with his complementary particles of built space. Like the new means of storing memory, they might become fruitful for a more humane architecture.


The Victory (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1: The usual door between earth and ocean, intermingled in its form with heaven and earth, what has it to say here? Taken off from its traditional milieu, it tells us what a door once was.

The picture called "the victory" (Fig.1) [3] confronts us with a door. But, unusually, it is put up near the beach, in the sand, close to the moving borderline between land and ocean. Why is this door here, isolated under the open skies, at the limits of the domains of human life? Evidently this is not a place for a door of this type, definitely not in this isolated position. The door opens or closes nothing. We can go around it: does it play monument? The answer is simple. "In my mind the 'invisible' dissolves the usual meaning of things visible in a picture. Through this our secret starts to dominate us completely. [4] Magritte tears the door off from the usual context of the house, takes it away from walls and enclosures, to demonstrate qualities which are not evident in the framework of normal use. Too much we have accustomed ourselves to its presence, to its natural function. In the unfamiliar condition at the beach, Magritte's door starts to speak in very new ways.The door is slightly open we would say. Or nearly closed? Its status is ambivalent. We can not express it clearly. The door is partly opened, partly closed. In another sense too there are difficulties.

The position, necessarily fixed in the picture, implies movement. The door is in the state of closing or opening. The 'wing' "flies" open, "falls" to closing. "Wing"? Is this not a term of the animal world? Why "wing" and what about its "swinging"? What kind of spirit is hidden in its hinges that let it move or flap? The words indicate very ancient things. But, who has formed these ideas? Are we, maybe, in the same situation like the women in Patricia Highsmith's novel "The horror of basket weaving"? Discovering her own capacity to repair a broken basket all by herself drove her nearly crazy. She had never learned it. Are there most ancient concepts living in our brains? Capacities which were developed thousands of years ago?" These are the questions she raises to herself and gets fiercely panicked. She finally burns the basket as if it were a horrible monster and thus frees herself of the problem. It was not madness, it WAS menacing. She was about to lose her identity.We do not want to go so far, but only note that the word "wing" (German: "Flügel") makes us conscious of something. Usually the frame is fixed and stands irremovably stable, it is part of a building. In contrast to this, the door is mobile, like the wing of a bird, which is fixed to its body with natural articulations.

The ambivalent function of opening and closing in the case of the door has its roots in this mobility. In contrast, the frame provides stability, keeps the door in its provided space. The door (female in German) and the frame (male in German), both are complementary like black and white, like female and male. But, not only the complementary categories of "rest" and "movement" characterise the door as unit and two conditions. The door is also articulated into fillings and frame. Is this only for constructive reasons? Very likely not! Three fields can be distinguished. A horizontal filling separates two other vertical rectangles, one in the upper, the other in the lower part of the door. The lower part, nearly quadratic, indicates closed form, static conditions. The upper part's direction is upwards. Technically all fillings are similar, they are only formally defined with different proportions. A very simple every day door? What is really shocking with this door is the way Magritte coloured it. Blue, bright, like the skies, in the upper part. Yellowish like the sand of the beach in the lower part. Thus, Magritte is definitely not an everyday painter. Or, might it have been the interesting idea of good designer imagination? Evidently Magritte does not want this.There is this mysterious cloud, which pushes itself into the space left open by the door. The cloud speaks. Blue is not just blue like the skies. Blue IS the skies. The intermingling of far and near implies the upper part of the door is part of the skies, the lower part is part of the earth. This is not meant simply in the common symbolic sense, as a 'make-look-like' image of heaven and earth. The image tells us much more. The door IS at the same time heaven and earth. It is interpreted as a dual or polar unit composed of two antithetic domains. [5]

If this situation is - as mentioned above -taken in the philosophical sense as an expression of non-analytical thought which organises the world metaphorically into complementary analogies, then a new access path is formed. By its absurd position at the beach, standing in sand, the door is decisively de-functionalised and put into a quite different context. The door now stands in the framework of a more ancient system which organises phenomena genetically (once and now) as unity of contradictions (coincidentia oppositorum) to harmonise them. The door is identical with heaven and earth in regard to the harmonious relation of its contrasting parts.The discovery of this vertically complementary organisation of the door becomes retro active on the whole structural framework. Evidently Magritte has not put his door just by chance on the borderline between land and ocean. First, a further concept is shown. Land, the earth, man the upright walker's medium has its limits. His living domain ends in front of a surface on which there is no walking.

This medium can not support his feet. The waters are adapted to it for other types of existences. Thus the door in Magritte's painting does not separate two identical spaces, as this is usually the case with a door separating for instance two office spaces. Magritte's door stands on the borderline between two absolutely different domains.Let us carry the door back into a house, but using this image. Another meaning can be seen differently. The door of a house facing the street for instance is not an ambivalent hole in some wall, it relates and separates ocean and sand, heaven and earth. Earth in the sense of being reliable, being accessible to man. Heaven in the sense of correlation of an unknown illimited. Is our apartment not in most cases the unique place on earth, where we know even the smallest thing in all detail? Is it not reigned by a principle of organisation which we control - at least in the case of furniture - to the absolute and smallest detail? On the other hand, is there not some sort of similarity between the street and the ocean, even the skies?

Fig. 2: The hole frightens us. Violence. Non-culture. Thus, is the door more than a hole in the wall?

In another picture too, Magritte tells us that the door is more than a hole in a wall. The formless breakthrough which opens into the dark of the next room is frightening us (Fig. 2) [6]. The amorphous dark hole speaks of force, of non-culture, of anti culture. We feel the sacrilege, the stolen treasure. The door has lost its protective capacity. With the hole it also loses its ambivalence. The broken door can not just be closed anymore by a swinging movement of the hand.

Evidently, Magritte does not superficially teach us diffuse 'surreal' realities. He is not just a casual innovator of dreams or illusionary alterations of reality. With deep reflections and intensity he reconstructs very precisely lost structures of the past, conditions which are no more conscious to us. Magritte is not really a 'surrealist'. Dealing with what is below the surface, he rather would have to be considered a 'sous-realist'. Like an archaeologist he digs out what is culturally submerged, the history of the door from below. He searches for conditions which are subconsciously experienced, maybe, but usually answered merely by surprise, for instance in the case of the door: why is that so? But theycan no more be consciously formulated. In short, he portrays a substrate of spatial reality conditioned by the history of culture which is intensively related to the concrete disposition of building and dwelling.

The whole oeuvre of Magritte is organised in this way. He experiments with one or many houses, asks spatial, temporal and causal questions in and around buildings, produces tests with parts of houses, with the 'in front' and 'behind' of walls, with furniture, with monuments.


Fig. 3: Houses heaped up like cars at a car dump. Evidently this is not the way houses act in this situation. Houses collapse into ruins. In spite of this, this is the way we conceive dwellings. The picture indicates we have misconceived houses in our heads.

"The breast" (Fig. 3) [7] shows numerous three to four-floored houses heaped up like in the case of a 'car-dump'. Evidently Magritte questions the box-concept of modern architecture. The picture looks very strange, because, usually, houses cannot be 'heaped up' like this. They are not stable units that can be vertically piled up under any spatial conditions like boxes, cars, or pieces of wood. Houses of this type are composed of different elements.They fall apart correspondingly. Everybody knows the heaps of rubble that are found after a house has been torn down, after an earthquake, after bombardments, etc.. Walls, windows, doors, roofs, they are falling according to their own structural laws. By painting an intact 'dump' of houses, Magritte ironically questions our ideas about the house as a machine-like unit. It is not a tool for dwelling, a planned functional whole. It follows other laws, those of a gradually evolved tectonic cultural landscape intimately related to man. Doors, windows, rooms etc. all have their own lives, their own structure, their own history. Note that in Magritte's 'house-dump' no human being is indicated!


Fig. 4: Architectural speculation has moved away from the ground getting caught in the heights of an absurd tower. Very similarly Magritte criticises this merely technical way of thinking also in his watercolour painting "Spiritual look" (Fig. 4) [8]. The architectural "speculation" has moved away from the grounds of humans towards the heavens into an absurd tower.

Inside space

The Anniversary (L’Anniversaire) 1959

Fig. 5 Death, the static and non changeable: the heavy rock blocking the whole room frightens the observers. Numerous are the interior rooms used by Magritte in his experiments. They are jammed with gigantic roses [9], with green room size apples [10], or simply with a huge rock (Fig. 5) [11]. Its teachings: space is not empty, abstract, like that which is preached in physics. Space needs man as a dweller.

And with this, beauty, poetry, meaningful articulation comes in. This type of space also carries an immanent tension towards nature. We think of the endless 'decorations', the garlands with branches, leaves, flowers and fruits represented in ceramics, plastered or hewn in stone, thus made durable, embellishing the history of architecture. With this over emphasised filling of living rooms, Magritte also critically questions the whole history of the ornament.

Fig. 6: The petrified "snapshot". Materials used in building do not simply have practical functions. Its textures speak with the inhabitant.

Similarly this is the case in his "Souvenir of a travel III" (Fig. 6) [12]. Alluding to an ancient photo as a souvenir of a personal life phase, the inside of an apartment is painted with a stone texture. A ruin in the background forms the centre of the picture and indicates the topic. Tree, mountain slopes and picture frame are all part of the lithic texture. From there light falls into the room, it illuminates the man, the lion and the table with fruits. Everything has become a ruin. Power and life are frozen to immobility, durability. Death and tombs are evoked. The table too, the "still" of a "still life" painting dominates the scene. In spite of this there is a mysterious life, particularly in the realism of the forms. The picture owes its mysterious tension to this. The candle too emanates light, in spite of the fact that even the flame is represented as stone. In short, the "snapshot" of an interior shows with all clarity that space is not empty. It is evident that materials act upon our mind in a comparative framework of analogies.

Personal Values 1952
Fig. 7: The eternal dream: the heavenly room. But we need codes securing us against the fears of falling down.

In contrast to this let us take a look at the "Heavenly room" (Fig. 7) [13]. A room without walls? Lofty clouds are seen all around. Dwelling in the skies, that is what they all want.Transcendence here on earth. Terraced housings with the view of God over the commoners. Skyscrapers, in fact an incrusted striving for the heavens. An enlightened type of religion? Unfortunately this degenerated metaphysics gets into conflict with daily reality. In Magritte's 'heavenly room' the plastered ceiling is there, provides shelter, symbolises place, steals the dimension of being lost out of the dream. There is a quite everyday bed seen from the front. At its back, the wooden strip at the bottom keeps it from crashing down. Walls too suggest support. The usual corners are there. Thus, this space is not totally illimited as this is 'normal' for the heavens. Any attacks of dizziness can also be avoided by strictly interpreting the walls as covered safely with wallpapers showing clouds. The closet too and the comb leaning to the wall, the everyday norms, may calm us down. Similarly the painted window and curtain. But only for a moment. Doubts are always present. The window is only a reflex. Similarly the size and unusual position of the other elements suggest insecurity. Is the object in the foreground an inviting cushion,related to the glass, to the razor soap, the close friend of the razor brush on top of the wardrobe. The ambivalent situations and the transformed conditions favour insecurity: are we flying in a magically constructed room in the air without ground high up in the clouds? In short, the picture speaks of the conflict between the 'skyscraper dreams' of architecture and everyday human orderliness providing security on stable grounds. Most importantly the same room suggests security but at the same time frightens us.

House parts

Fig. 8: In view of the eternal horizon of the ocean outside we become aware of the arbitrariness of the oblique window but also of the eternal law of tectonics.

In his "Les rencontres naturelles" (Fig. 8) [14] Magritte puts a window obliquely into the wall. In the foreground there are two "technocrats" with their pear shaped techno-heads. Wearing red tunics they are on a kind of viewing tour through the house. Evidently very important people. The one in front holds a green leaf in his crude hand, meaning life, movement, change, development, progress. But the leaf is directed towards a strange innovation! The whole upper part of the picture is characterised by two windows. The upper section of the window on the left looks quite normal, shows clouds. The lower one on the right similarly normal in regard to outside, clouded horizon of the sea. But the window is completely arbitrarily set into an oblique position. Conflict here too. The gigantic spirit level outside seriously questions the oblique window. Natural order, tectonic order - the 'normal' window and the arbitrary 'freedom' of man.

Forbidden Literature or The use of the Word (Irene)- La Lecture Defanse ou L'Usage de la Parole, 1936

Fig. 9: Stair blinded by wall on upper end, thus absurd.Magritte's stair says: I am more than the sum of my steps.
Marvellous how Magritte manages to make stairs look absurd (Fig. 9). On its upper end it is blocked by a closed wall. [15] No aperture that leads on, no podest, which relates the above to the below. Those who go up here must definitely return. The process in both parts, going up and going down, is devalued, develops nonsense. The paradoxical communication character of the stairs becomes clear. They are not only connecting different parts of space or rooms, they imply an environmental change from below to up and reverse with all consequences of sight and feeling of ones body. The finger set up like a monument hints to the principle that is always immanently present in Magritte's paintings: the twofold and freely floating sphere, his code for complementarity.
The nonsense of homogeneous space

Fig. 10: Magritte vehemently attacks the homogenous space concept of modern architecture: the human being is not a particle moving around in open space!

Finally a further picture: the Golconde (Fig. 10) [16]. Magritte painted it to reduce to absurdity the modern mathematical idea of homogeneous space. As if somebody had released a great quantity of balloons, many of Magritte's typical melon-men are "standing" vertically dispersed in space. Three different modes define distribution and size, giving the illusion of spatial depth.The heavy facades immediately behind the figures in the foreground emphasise the contrast to the fictive "standing" of the black dummies. Evidently they behave as if their standing around like on an Italian piazza - everyone at his place - were the most normal thing in the world. Remarkably, Magritte provides shade for the figures where they are close to the facades. The contrast between illusion and reality is emphasised. Also important is the very homogeneous way Magritte painted the sky. Space in its absolute sense is implied.

Maybe, thematically, this is one of the most important of Magritte's paintings. It drastically shows the error of modern architecture and urbanism. Man can not be assumed like a particle in physics at any arbitrary position in space. He requires clear conditions. In answering these, man follows a specifically structured space concept, formed by the tradition of his constructions. He builds his walls, fences, paths. He opens gates, doors,windows from inside towards the outside, from outside towards the inside. He organises light and dark, openness and seclusion, as we see it in many cultures.These organisational principles are not "created" by ourselves, they have "ancestors", thousands of years old. Most importantly, these principles have preserved a spirit which speaks to us. These teachings should be know by those who build for man. Magritte researched exactly these teachings. He thus manages to show that architectural space is not empty, nor homogeneous. Magritte shows that space creates conditions related to man, shows that buildings, parts of buildings and furniture are projecting a network of relations into our lives. They intensively talk to us, even when there are no words heard.

The language of architecture? Maybe Magritte can now be understood as an "architecturologist", as an intense researcher into the secrets of architecture. Very likely it is not by chance that, in opposition to contemporary movements suggesting the dissolution of space, he tenaciously remained loyal to perspective as a means to represent space. He needed the tectonically constructed view and its fixed eye point to make statements about the structure of built space. His simple 'trompe-l'oeuil' technique too adapts to this. Only as a realistic spatial representation can it make its statements.In this way Magritte is also an architect.

However, not an architect who is content with seeing his sketches done on the drawing board blown up by developers into public human space. He mixes his ideas with liquid colours, paints them on his walls consisting of canvas. In this way he creates his own freedom: he builds what he wants. Early he must have become aware that what man really needs is not more bodily commodities, but that modern architecture had lost the spiritual. Magritte shows us what is lacking. Is Magritte, unseen for most, in fact, the greatest architect of our times? Maybe he is also a visionary far ahead of time.Initially we have compared Magritte with the recent data processing world.

With a tremendously simple, but incredibly variable binary principle, electronics are conquering the world, providing very unexpected new potentials. Magritte's experimental world of architectural research can be seen in very similar ways. Based on an elementary, but highly complex multicategorial principle of complementary units, he develops a new language in painting, which we tried to read. Magritte's oeuvre shows us the world of architecture in new ways. But what distinguishes him from electronics is his decisive focus on man. He makes us discover an immensely deep spectrum of qualitative, quantitative, temporal and spatial categories, through which man can continuously communicate with the cultural spaces of architecture.

1 The term is taken from the lecture list of a French architectural school: Activities d'enseignements 1988/89; Ecole d'architecture de Paris-La Villette: P. Boudon: Architecturologie -Theories et doctrines architecturales; : 148/49. See also the series of the same school about 'thinking space' (Penser l'espace).
2 This remark of Magritte was reported by Maurice Rapin (Aporisms 1970 : 20) acc. to Torczyner, London 1979 : 48.
3 1939, Passeron, Cologne 1985 : 23. In regard to all cited pictures the following is valid: The titles do not describe the content of the pictures. This is not only corresponding to Magritte's skeptical attitude in regard to language. In an interview Georgette Magritte explains how casually the titles were found, talking playfully with friends, purposely arbitrary. "The title is not an explanation of the picture." (Passeron 1985 : 13)
4 Letter of Magritte to Maurice Rapin. 31. March 1958, acc. to Torczyner 1979 : 46
5 This should be taken in the sense of anarchitecturo-theoretical interpretation, the intention is not to classifythis structure into the history of religion (see e.g. Mircea Eliade: the Holy and the Profane). Hinting to Chinese thought, it could be argued then that heaven and earth and the polar door have a much higher proximity in the polar cognitive system than they have in our analytical system of judgments.
6 La reponse imprevue 1933, Mus. Royaux Brussles.Retrospective R. Magritte, Tokyo 1971, S. Torczyner 1979 : 34
7 1960, Passeron 1985 : 72/73
8 53x35, non dated, Passeron 1985, : 71
9 Le tombeau des lutteurs 1960; Torczyner 1979, : 76
10 La chambre d'ecoute, oil on canvas, 1953;Torczyner : 77
11 L'anniversaire, 1959; oil on canvas, Toronto,Canada. Torczyner : 78
12 1955. Hermitage, Lausanne 1987 : 16 (110 bis)13 Les valeurs personnelles, 1952, Private collection, New York; Torczyner 1979, S. 16/17.
l4 1945 Coll. Scutenaire, Brussels; Torczyner1979, : 98.
l5 L'usage de Ia Parole. 1932, Coll. Scutenaire,Brussels; Torczyner 1979, S. 54 (Nr. 60).
l6 Golconde,

Magritte, René: Attempt At The Impossible (1928) 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 11:23:17 PM

Magritte, René: Attempt At The Impossible (1928)

 The Independent's Great Art series:By Tom Lubbock


Paintings visualise the world for us. They observe or imagine what it looks like. They show us the sight of things. But not always. Some paintings do just the opposite. They show us something, while declaring that they've no idea how it really was.

Take the early pictures of René Magritte. Ask, what do they know? The answer, usually, is not much. They know three or four facts. They know that certain things were the case – unaccountable things, often, even quite incredible things. But as to how these things managed to be the case, the pictures do nothing to help us see.

The real mystery of these scenes doesn't lie in the odd facts they depict. It lies in the way that a shadow falls across this depiction. The picture itself hasn't observed these things. It has somehow heard about them, read about them, remembered them, learnt them in a dream – and then translated them into a visual image in the most literal and unimaginative manner.

Most illustrations try to visually realise their subjects. But Magritte's pictures don't add realistic details or personal touches to the basic information that (it seems) they have in their possession. There's no attempt to fill in gaps or make the sight look plausible.

Many points are left blank or general. Where they must choose a particular kind of thing, like a key or a suitcase, they choose the most standard instance, the textbook or ABC example, the specimen that tries to say key or suitcase and nothing more.

So the scene, strange in itself, is estranged further by being set at a remove of knowledge. It is painted so as to suggest that the artist didn't know, couldn't conceive, what it looked like. He was granted certain bare facts, in a void. His image stays true to them alone. Whatever more happened, what a witness might have seen, is quite beyond his or our grasp.

Attempt at the Impossible is a painting about painting. It's an artist-in-his-studio picture, showing a painter and the image that he's at work on. But of course there's a big strangeness. If you ask, what the picture knows, you could say it's this: there was a painter, painting the figure of a woman, but painting her on to thin air. This woman was life-size, upright, naked, and no less real than him.

Eh? But that's all we see, just those extraordinary facts, illustrated in the most literal way. The floorboards and the dado, the artist's suit and haircut, the model's hairdo, all might come from a picture book. There's no sense that the image is grounded in experience, or that Magritte has tried to visually reconstruct the scene. If you wonder, how so? – how could an image be painted on to air, or be as substantial as an actual body? – the picture makes no claim to understand.

It has only this minimal information. It asserts bluntly that this is the way things were. The woman's body casts shadows just like his, while her flesh stops sharply at an edge where his brush stops. Incredible! In other hands, a painting would have tried to make this incredible proposition somehow visually credible. Here you feel only a fog of unknowability.

Low-level visualisation is early Magritte's trick. (Later his painting became more expert.) The woman's body emerging under the painter's brush is painted to the same standard as his own – and it's such a perfunctory standard of realisation that it raises no expectations that it can elucidate anything.

What this scene is meant to be of, or about, is in many ways open. The woman can switch before our eyes between being a painted image, a living model, a solid statue, an inflatable doll, a thought bubble. Is she a two-dimensional, three-dimensional or hallucinatory figure? Is this a conjuring trick or an illusion in the painter's own mind? Is it a kind of miracle or merely a metaphor?

Attempt at the Impossible can preach almost any moral you like about painting and sex and imagination. The motive of painting is to embody sexual fantasies. To paint a figure is to touch or possess someone by proxy. Painting is about immobilising life. Sex is about immobilising life. Desire is always really directed towards a figment of your imagination. Imagination's object can never be grasped in reality. Our imaginings are as real as we are.

All these interpretations or others will do. A few plain inexplicable facts are what the painting provides. Once there may have been a complete picture, a full story, of what was going on. But now the artist is helpless to reveal more. With a dark, heavy, sluggish hand, he puts together the fragments of a vision that, if it was ever his, has entirely passed from him.

The artist

René Magritte (1898-1967) is of course a paradox. A Belgian surrealist, popular and avant-garde, he's the straight man who painted bizarre scenes in a deadpan manner. But he makes sense. He couldn't paint very well, but his work is sustained exploration of the language of images. With a vocabulary of brick walls, clouds, apples, nudes, eyes, rocks, bowler-hats and handwriting, he's always making a point about how pictures work and how strange they are. He plays with scale, perspective, shadow, illusion. He revels in metamorphosis, in the weightlessness of the pictured world, the way you can never know what's behind something. In Magritte, a picture becomes a place where everything is trapped and anything is possible.


Ceci n’est pas la révolution (the 1962 Marien scandal) 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 10:57:39 PM

Ceci n’est pas la révolution


Martin McGarry


Le surréalisme en Belgique, by Xavier Canonne, Actes Sud, 351 pp, €79, ISBN: 978-2742772094

In the late summer of 1962, panic apparently seized a number of US collectors of the works of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967), who had by then become an established figure (and a good investment). The reason was a leaflet issued to coincide with a retrospective of his work in the casino of the Belgian seaside resort of Knokke, a prelude to a similar exhibition in Minneapolis. The leaflet was headed with a reproduction of a Belgian 100-franc note, with Magritte’s head, wearing a suitably haughty expression, replacing that of the first King of the Belgians. The leaflet went on to proclaim a kind of sale, intended to bring the “mystery” of the painter’s works within the reach of the less well-off. In reaction to the way his work was becoming a sort of merchandise, the subject of “sordid speculation”, the text over Magritte’s name announced that a range of variations on his paintings would be available at reasonable prices (frames not included). People were invited to place their orders soon, as the artist did not expect to live for ever and was not a factory.

Versions of Magritte’s most famous paintings (“in standard format”) were offered at different prices (in Belgian and French francs, as well as US dollars), depending on the direction in which a head was turned and on whether, for example, La condition humaine came with a view of the sea (the most expensive option), the countryside or a forest (the cheapest version). At the opening of the Knokke exhibition, the Belgian minister for justice congratulated Magritte on the joke. André Breton wrote from Paris to express his approval.

The Belgian police were less amused. Magritte had a visit a month later from a senior officer, acting on foot of a complaint from the Bank of Belgium, who pointed out that reproducing banknotes was an offence. Magritte himself was not amused either: the first he had known of the leaflet was when the minister offered his congratulations.

The man responsible for the leaflet was a younger Belgian surrealist artist and writer (and one-time ship’s cook, clerk, bookseller and Beijing-based editorial assistant on China Reconstructs, among other things), Marcel Mariën (1920-1993). He had once been close to Magritte, but the two had drifted apart in the 1950s. Mariën’s joke was not just a matter of simple begrudgery, or resentment that Magritte had become an established figure. It contained a reference to episodes in the painter’s less prosperous past in which Mariën himself had been an accomplice, the creation of fake paintings by famous artists, for one thing, to raise funds many years before; and, even more extraordinary, the counterfeiting and spending of a number of large-denomination Belgian banknotes in the early 1950s.

In his autobiography, Le radeau de la mémoire (1983), Mariën describes his role in passing counterfeit 100-franc notes in 1953, designed by René Magritte and printed by his brother Paul – mostly at resorts along the Belgian coast. Of course it is impossible to know how much of his account is true; but his description of the painter’s reaction to the newspapers’ enumeration of the notes’ imperfections, once the fraud had been tumbled, makes amusing reading, recalling as it did that of “a painter reading a malicious critique of his work”. Many years later ironically, the last Belgian banknote to be issued before the introduction of the euro, a 500-franc note, carried a portrait of René Magritte and partial reproductions of some of his works.

Printed matter that isn’t quite what it seems at first sight has a history in Belgium. Indeed Magritte was an unamused victim more than once. But the most famous such coup deserves to be better known outside the country. It happened not quite twenty years before the announcement of Magritte’s special offer. One of a multitude of Belgian resistance groups during the Second World War (in itself a reflection of Belgian individualism and political division), the left-wing Independence Front was the umbrella body for armed groups such as the Patriotic Militias and the Partisans and a range of clandestine papers.

In the run-up to November 11th, 1943 (the anniversary of the 1918 Armistice), a young man in the Front’s press had an idea. The German occupiers had appointed a bunch of collaborators to run the Brussels daily Le Soir. When the slimmed-down wartime paper hit the city’s news kiosks at four in the afternoon, there was always a rush. Marc Aubrion’s original idea was to sneak an anti-Nazi article into this collaborationist paper. But then he had a better one: to deliver a resistance paper under the same name to the kiosks, which would be snapped up before anyone realised what was happening.

Easier said than done. But the idea grew. A printer was found and Tuesday, November 9th, 1943 was agreed on. It was decided to produce a humorous lampoon version of Le Soir, looking just like the normal one but poking fun at the paper and its Nazi masters. The final plan was to print 50,000 copies, most of which would be sold to raise funds. But, first of all, 5,000 would hit the kiosks in and around central Brussels in bundles of 100, in wrappers announcing that the normal delivery would be late.

Aubrion hoped for a dummy Allied air raid to delay the usual delivery vans. It never came. But the printer did his job and so did teams of young resisters on bikes. Soon, all over the city, eyes were widening as the audacity of the coup dawned on people. Commuters burst out laughing on the trams, others jumped off at the next stop to see if they could get a copy. As a morale-booster, it was magnificent, even though many of those involved later died in Nazi concentration camps (Aubrion himself survived imprisonment and torture).

An old Belgian friend, born in England (where many Belgians had taken refuge) during the First World War, had a copy he picked up on the day. A participant thrice over in the Second World War (on military service, in the Resistance, and in the Inter-Allied Commandos, with whom he arrived on the Elbe in time to celebrate VE Day with Russian vodka from filthy billycans). He died a few years ago. I don’t know what happened to his copy of the “faux Soir”.

Heroism is not something the outside world associates with Belgium and Belgians, but the multifarious Belgian Resistance threw up quite a few heroes – and, indeed, the country’s army put up a better show in 1940 than it suited the French or British to acknowledge. But the national image is staid and boring. Not meaning quite the same thing, Marx once referred to it as “the most bourgeois country in Europe”. Perhaps because the state was a stable, anomalous buffer between great powers and potential powers, the city of Brussels has always hosted political exiles, right down to Joseph Kabila and supporters of the Peruvian Maoist Sendero Luminoso. The Communist Manifesto was written in Brussels, the Bolshevik Party was founded there (and Victor Serge was born there), but history of that kind is not currently a tourist draw. (Even in Trier, the only postcards referring to Karl Marx, the city’s most famous son, were in Chinese the last time I was there.)

All kinds of people passed through the city – and still do. Not just those exiles, refugees, and immigrants of various kinds, but, down the centuries, a succession of armies, empires, and occupiers. Originally the capital of Brabant, some of which is now in the Netherlands, Brussels became a key city in the Burgundians’ relatively short-lived attempt to carve out a power between France and the Holy Roman Empire, from the Alps to the North Sea. Burgundy came a cropper over five centuries ago, but is still blamed by Brussels folk, and Belgians more generally, for their fondness for good food and drink (at its best, they claim to enjoy French quality and German quantity).

Various dynastic chess games and unexpected deaths led to Brussels coming under the Spanish crown when a local boy of mixed Burgundian-Habsburg-Spanish origins, known to history as Charles V, inherited the (then fairly new and unsteady) Spanish crown and also became Holy Roman Emperor, going on to be monarch of the first empire on which the sun never set. Charles, born in the “memorable” year of 1500, spent a lot of energy trying to squash the Reformation. His thoroughly Spanish son, Philip II, stepped up those efforts. One early sign of his determination was the decapitation on the main square in Brussels, the Grand-Place/Grote Markt, of (Goethe and Beethoven’s) Egmont and Hoorn. Their smarter friend, William the Silent, lived to lead what became known as the Dutch Revolt and is revered as the founder of the Netherlands.

Historical terms can be misleading: in fact, much of the “Dutch Revolt” actually took place in what is now Belgium. Belgium, in fact, is what the Spaniards succeeded in holding or reconquering; the Dutch-Belgian border, to the north, is more or less a military ceasefire line. Many Protestant “Belgians” eventually fled north. The southern section of the mixed bag of duchies, counties etc put together by the Burgundians remained Spanish until the early eighteenth century, when Louis XIV’s last great war resulted, among other things, in the Southern Low Countries (or Netherlands) becoming an Austrian Habsburg possession. Earlier, Louis had nibbled away at its southern frontiers, annexing, among others, Dutch-speaking areas with obviously non-French place names such as Dunkirk. In an earlier war in the mid-1690s his artillery destroyed much of Brussels, including most of the Grand-Place. (The art critic and publican – among other things – who runs a city-centre pub called Monk, named after Thelonious, recently pointed out to me that the premises, owned by the brewery, had survived the bombardment because they were just inside the city walls and the guns had fired overhead.) Some idea of the city’s then importance and prosperity can be gleaned from the speed with which most of the splendid buildings now found on the square were erected soon after.

At that time, and for a long time after, Brussels was a largely Dutch-speaking city. Over “Belgium” as a whole, then as now, the northern majority spoke Dutch and the southern minority spoke French. Much of the city’s wealth, apart from its role as a political and administrative centre, had come from the tapestries that a huge proportion of its population was employed in making and which can still be found in palaces and museums all over Europe.

After the Austrians came the troops of revolutionary France, and of Napoleonic France, whose final defeat came when its armies were beaten on their way to Brussels, just a few miles south of the city at Waterloo. There followed an interlude (less than two decades) when the old Low Countries were united again, this time as the Netherlands, before the south broke away in 1830-1831 and became known as Belgium, finding, as one did in those days, a German prince willing to become King of the Belgians (Leopold I, whose head was replaced by Magritte on the “sale” announcement mentioned earlier).

It was this relatively new Belgium, the one that Karl Marx knew, that had the most thoroughgoing industrial revolution on mainland Europe and that saw mainland Europe’s first railway and developments in coal, steel, and iron that paralleled what was happening in England. The country may not have rivalled Britain as the “workshop of the world”, but over the following century Belgians could be found supplying and installing railways and trams all over the globe. The wealth generated by Belgian capitalism and by the plundering of the Congo as the private property of King Leopold II (which Roger Casement did much to expose – a tale well told in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost) helped to fund the avenues, public buildings and handsome private houses (many of them by innovative art nouveau architects) of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Brussels.

During the First World War almost the entire country was occupied (the front line of the unoccupied south-western corner ran through or around places like Ypres – Ieper to its Dutch-speaking inhabitants – and Passchendaele, which became household names in Britain and Ireland). Away from that front line, resistance was largely passive; the then mayor of Brussels, Adolphe Max, became a national hero for his opposition to the occupier, which earned him four years of captivity in Germany, a return as mayor until his death in 1939, and commemoration in the name of one of the main streets in the city centre. Despite the shock of war (when neutrality turned out not to be simply a question of choice) and occupation, the Belgium of the 1920s was still a fairly confident place. Even though it was the exception to the rash of ethnically based states then emerging all over Europe after the war, it remained quite stable; it was to be some time before the fault line between Dutch-speakers (now collectively dubbed “Flemings”) and French-speakers (in Brussels and what is now called Wallonia, to the south) emerged as a serious threat to the very existence of the state. Even now, the vast majority of Belgians do not want to see the country split, but that is another story.

Before the First World War the Congo had been “nationalised” by the Belgian state; now, in the 1920s, the first Africans were arriving (and were shocked to find people addressing them by terms such as “Monsieur” and “Madame”, which – along with other polite formulas – are much more widely used by Belgians than, for example, by people in Ireland). Under an essentially French-speaking state (this was before the successive waves of devolution and constitutional reform that have led to today’s complicated federal system), Brussels had become a predominantly French-speaking city, although poorer and older residents still often spoke a local Dutch-based dialect with a variety of words picked up from all the different languages and groups that had washed over the city down the centuries.

The shock of the war and of the Russian Revolution contributed to a range of iconoclastic and revolutionary ideas and feelings. It was in that context that Belgian surrealism developed in the mid-1920s. If, nearly forty years later, Marcel Mariën was offended by Magritte’s success with bourgeois collectors and disturbed by reports that he was painting to order, it was not just that he begrudged him the recognition (and the money) that had finally come his way. Nor indeed because Magritte had in 1950 rejected the possibility that was opening up of making money painting for rich people “who have no taste”. It was because surrealism had always been seen as something revolutionary, as a political movement as much as an artistic one, since its emergence after the First World War. 

Magritte, who had been born in Hainaut in south-western Belgium in 1898, appeared on the Brussels scene in 1925, as a “Brussels group” was signing up to the “revolutionary surrealist” manifesto of that year, in alliance with the Paris-based surrealists. He had his first Brussels exhibition in 1927; it was to be 1948 before he had his first one-man show (which was not very successful) in Paris. Before interest in his work finally took off, he made a living designing wallpaper, cosmetics packaging and advertising material, among other things.

The various manifestos, letters, pamphlets, posters, and periodicals so profusely quoted in Xavier Canonne’s massive (six kilos) and richly illustrated Le surréalisme en Belgique make the political nature of the movement clear, even if a perusal of those quotations leaves one a little confused as to just what surrealism is or was and what its political significance might have been. Whereas in France the Communist Party eventually became a major force and many artists and writers came under its leadership and, in some cases, were more or less under its orders, in Belgium communism never became such a powerful influence. Perhaps for that reason, the politics were more diffuse; indeed, some have accused the Belgian surrealists of playing at politics, aware that their views had no significance or influence.

Be that as it may, the mood in the early days – and indeed over a number of generations – remained decidedly anti-establishment and some of the Belgian surrealists were communists and others fellow-travellers. In Canonne’s book, however, it is often hard to see the wood for the trees. The emphasis is very much on the publications, however ephemeral, of individuals and groups, some of whom were quite obsessive about publishing whatever came into their heads. This leads Canonne, for example, to provide a list of signatories of an obscure 1990 leaflet. What was not recorded in print at the time by one surrealist or another tends not to be considered worthy of mention.

Back in 1936, the Belgian surrealists were unanimous in deciding on the expulsion of the poet and musician André Souris in 1936 for the crime of conducting a Mass in memory of the banker and patron of the arts Henry Le Boeuf. Not long after, however, in 1939, the Hainaut group of surrealists (in southern Belgium) was expressing its concern that the Brussels group had become Trotskyist. After the war, when the issue of the future of the Belgian monarchy, and in particular of the exiled King Leopold III, who was accused by many of collaboration with Hitler, brought the country close to civil war, the “Groupe surréaliste de Belgique” produced a tribute to the French revolutionary extremist Saint-Just. Canonne’s book gives no idea of the influence of such documents, but one suspects it was minimal.

René Magritte himself, who had spent about three years in the late 1920s living near Paris, where he had some direct contact with the group around André Breton, was still fond of shocking the bourgeoisie after the war. He cooperated with the younger Mariën on humorous, scabrous leaflets and on a prospectus for a three-session seminar at the Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts on “Sexual Practice”, given by a Professor Ijowescu of the Academy of Advanced Sexological Studies of Sofia (Bulgaria), which would be “illustrated by explanatory scenes” thanks to the assistance of “young intellectuals of both sexes”.

Magritte also, at least in his private correspondence, expressed his delight at a stunt in Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris at Easter 1950, whereby two agitators occupied a pulpit and proceeded to give a sermon on Nietzsche and the death of God until their audience finally figured out what was going on. However, when Mariën and some others launched a new review in 1954, Magritte showed little interest and seemed to disapprove of its political tone; a few years earlier he had attended a conference of communist artists in Antwerp. By the summer of 1956 he seemed to regard a protest against Shell’s sponsorship of an exhibition as being something that belonged to the past, which no longer interested him. In 1963 he responded to a request to sign yet another leaflet, by, in Canonne’s paraphrase, telling its authors “that surrealism is dead, in its historic phase at least” and that any attempt to revive it would be either outdated or eccentric (folklorique).

As to the political significance of surrealism in art (whatever about its literary form, whose appeal has remained fairly limited), Magritte had written in 1961 that it was a mistake to attribute to painting the ability to set out ideas or express sentiments. And indeed, when one looks at surrealist art (including the many fine illustrations in Canonne’s book), it is hard to argue with him. As he himself put it:

My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, “What does that mean?” It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.

Surrealism was revolutionary in shocking people at times, in disturbing perceptions and assumptions and associations, but one would be hard put to trace any clear political thrust, even from its most political practitioners. While the titles of Magritte’s paintings sometimes hinted at deeper significance, these were often the result of meetings of a group of his friends, and of the suggestions of Louis Scutenaire in particular.

Mariën once, in 1952, hailed Magritte as one of those who – with Valéry, Lenin, Einstein, Stalin, and Chaplin(!) – would be remembered as having, in the twentieth century, done most to shake up, in a positive way, the history of human expression and power (“qui bouleversèrent heureusement l’histoire de l’expression et du pouvoir de l'homme”).

One wonders what Mariën would make of the new Magritte Museum due to open next spring within the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, thanks in part to the sponsorship of the multinational energy conglomerate Suez (you can see a video presentation on the museums’ website).

Magritte ART: Surreal Hero for a Nation of Contradictions 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 4:02:08 PM

ART; Surreal Hero for a Nation of Contradictions
Published: Sunday, April 26, 1998

AFTER centuries of being variously ruled by Austria, Spain, France and the Netherlands, Belgium was already suffering something of an identity crisis when it finally became a nation in its own right in 1830. Since then, things have not got much better. Divided between Dutch-speaking Flemish, French-speaking Walloons and polyglot Bruxellois, to this day Belgians often seem uncertain what, if anything, they have in common. No wonder local intellectuals entertain themselves by predicting that their country will soon break up.

But it may not happen quite yet. This year, at least, Belgians have discovered a rare point of unity in the dapper figure of Rene Magritte, Belgium's most influential artist this century. Joining forces to organize exhibitions, publications, television programs and walking tours to mark the centenary of his birth, they have embraced Magritte as the quintessential Belgian, the respectable pipe-smoking bourgeois in the bowler hat whose Surrealist paintings mirrored the absurdity of existence.

Thus, Belgians have found that to celebrate his art of the unlikely juxtaposition is to celebrate a nation in contradiction with itself. To accept the artist's refusal to explain his paintings is to be relieved of the need to explain Belgium. Magritte's ''This is not a pipe'' has become ''This is not a country,'' which is fine, because Magritte's nonpipe was also a pipe, just different.

An alternative take on this year's Magritte mania is simply that, having seen France quietly appropriate many of their French-speaking heroes (from Georges Simenon to Jacques Brel), Belgians are delighting in seeing the French traipsing in large numbers to Brussels to pay their respects to Magritte. Then there is the pleasure in recognizing Magritte in everyday life, not just those of his images that have been endlessly plagiarized in advertising and the performing arts to the point that their provenance is often forgotten (two new productions at the Paris Opera are full of uncredited Magritte references), but also those visual and intellectual enigmas that are now simply called surreal but were in fact first isolated by Magritte.

Of course, there may also be a simpler explanation: that anniversaries are hard to resist. Once Belgium's Royal Museums of Fine Art decided four years ago to record the Magritte centenary with the largest art exhibition in this country's history, other shows were destined to follow. ''Hommage a Magritte: 1898-1967'' at the Galerie Christine et Isy Brachot in Brussels through May 31 focuses on his photography and sketches; ''Rene Magritte and Contemporary Art,'' at the Museum of Modern Art in Ostende through June 28, looks at his influence on later artists, and ''Magritte in Chatelet,'' at the Town Hall in Chatelet through May 17, is showing the work he did during his teen-age years while he was living there.

But the centerpiece, through June 28, remains ''Magritte'' at the Royal Museums of Fine Art, which is presenting 300 paintings and gouaches as well as posters, cover designs of musical scores, tracts, letters, magazine covers, photographs and homemade movies. The exhibition is displayed chronologically, starting with the groping steps that preceded the artist's discovery of Giorgio de Chirico and Surrealism in 1925. First came Magritte's encounter with Italian Futurism, which he proclaimed ''a revelation'' and which led him, as he later put it, to ''do Futurism.'' A couple of years later, he belatedly found Cubism and produced what he described as ''a mixture of Cubism and abstract art.'' But, he wrote near the end of his life, ''these experiences gave me little satisfaction.''

From 1925, though, he developed the style that, with a couple of brief digressions, would stay with him until his death in 1967 at the age of 69. It was a style marked more by his eye and his mind than by his hand, more by its content than by its technique, more by his desire to disturb than to give pleasure. Today he is considered to have been a competent but unexceptional painter, yet more than de Chirico and Max Ernst, whom he regarded as mentors, his work remains remarkably popular and topical. He did not like to be called the Father of Pop Art, and he was right. This show demonstrates that he has survived Pop Art.

THE decade that followed Magritte's conversion to Surrealism was enormously creative. Already in the 1925 ''Nocturne,'' some of the motifs appear that would stay with him for decades, in this case the notion of a painting within a painting, a bird in flight and what he called a ''bilboquet,'' the carved wooden pole that variously resembled an ornate table leg, a staircase balustrade and a chess pawn. Other favorite motifs, like the sea and clouds, joined his vocabulary the following year in ''The Birth of the Idol'' and ''After the Water, the Clouds.'' In ''The Musings of a Solitary Walker'' of 1926, the mysterious bowler-hatted man, seen from behind, makes his entry, this time standing near the River Sambre where Magritte's mother drowned when he was 12.

In 1927, he became entranced with the double image: the back and front of a bowler-hatted man in ''The Meaning of Night''; a man in tails on either side of a door in ''Portrait of Paul Nouge,'' his closest friend at the time, and, in ''The Secret Double,'' where the double is an illusion because what is missing from the face and torso of a woman is placed beside her. All this was relatively simple: things are not as they appear.

In 1928 alone, when Magritte painted no fewer than 100 works, including the famous hooded images of ''The Lovers,'' he began introducing words into his paintings, invariably meant to create tension between the perception of the eye and of the mind. A white blob becomes the body of a woman, dark blobs are variously described as a horse, a cloud, a gun. In time, he came to use fewer words on his canvases and concentrated instead, often with the help of friends and children, on coming up with bizarre titles for his works. A 1930 full-length portrait of a nude, in which the body is divided into five separate paintings, became ''The Eternally Obvious.''

Amusingly, for a man who never explained the meaning of his images, Magritte in fact spent a lot of time explaining why they could not be explained. ''Too often by a twist of thought, we tend to reduce what is strange to what is familiar,'' he once said. ''I intend to restore the familiar to the strange.'' And perhaps unsurprisingly, this exhibition serves to confirm how many of his strange images are now all too familiar: the train emerging from a fireplace, a blue sky and clouds in the shape of a dove against a night sky, a lamp in a dark street against a bright sky, a green apple filling an entire room, a vast rock topped by a castle hovering over breaking waves, birds growing out of plants.

Less familiar are the works of the early 1940's, in what he called his Renoir period, when Magritte embraced the rich colors of Impressionism as an antidote to the grimness of World War II, and of the late 1940's, when he created his ''vache,'' or cow paintings, as a way of shocking Parisians who in 1948 belatedly gave him his first one-man show. But he soon returned to his old style, which in ''Golconda'' of 1955 would produce that most Belgian of images of dozens of men in bowler hats and dark overcoats falling like huge drops of rain among gray apartment blocks.

Magritte kept working to the end, often making several copies or variations of the same work (for example, he did 16 versions in oil and 7 in gouache of ''The Dominion of Light''). But he never felt a need to apologize; he derided the idea of a unique work of art. Indeed, near the end of his life, he liked to boast that he had done 1,000 canvases but had only 100 ideas. Nonetheless, 31 years after his death, both his ideas and his images are still being copied, still drawing crowds, still provoking a frown or a smile, even threatening to unite Belgians, which isn't bad for a man who insisted he was not really a painter.

Photos: ENIGMA ''Le Pelerin,'' 1966, by Rene Magritte, is one of 300 works by the artist on view at the Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels. (Charly Herscovici/SABAM Belgium); STILL IN STYLE Rene Magritte at home in Brussels in 1965. The man looked quite a bit like some of his paintings. Or was it vice versa? (Duane Michals)

Magritte And His Defiance Of Life 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 3:28:05 PM

Magritte And His Defiance Of Life
Published: Friday, September 11, 1992

"IF the spectator finds that my paintings are a kind of defiance of 'common sense,' he realizes something obvious," said Rene Magritte, who is the subject of a stimulating retrospective that opens tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I want nevertheless to add that for me the world is a defiance of common sense."

In a way, Magritte himself defied common sense, or at least conventional expectations.

His depictions of trains steaming out of fireplaces, of rooms stuffed to the brim with giant green apples, of bowler-hatted men raining like hailstones from the sky are among the most enduring images in modern art. For the millions of people who have seen his work co-opted, as it has been over and over again, by advertisers and corporate image makers, Magritte is the essence of Surreal weirdness.

Yet he was said to be like one of his bowler-hatted men, painstakingly punctilious in appearance and in his habits, married to the same woman for 45 years. He was tied not to the glittering scene in Paris, where in fact he failed to achieve popularity for many decades, but to the quieter, more modest milieu of his native Belgium. Unlike the French Surrealists, who sought public scandal, he strove in his personal affairs to be inconspicuous. The grayness of Hainaut, the province where he was born and grew up, which is known as the Black Country for its slag heaps and sooty skies, pervades much of Magritte's art, contributing to its air of mystery. And it is the ethos of his Flemish and Belgian predecessors, from Hieronymus Bosch through James Ensor, with their shared predilection for the bizarre, that Magritte carried forward until his death of pancreatic cancer in 1967, at the age of 68.

The retrospective, the first major overview of his art in the United States in more than a quarter of a century, includes about 150 paintings, drawings and sculptures. Almost all of the famous works are here, from two versions of "The Treachery of Images," with its depiction of a pipe above the text "this is not a pipe," to the earliest version of "The Domination of Light," with its incongruously darkened street below a daylight sky.

The show comes to the Metropolitan from the Hayward Gallery in London, where it was organized by the Magritte scholars David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield, who are putting together the artist's catalogue raisonne. It has been handsomely installed by William S. Lieberman of the Metropolitan, so that the full course of Magritte's career unfolds, as it should, with all its ups and downs.

What emerges is a mixed portrait. Over the years, perhaps especially as they have become commonplace through countless reproductions, Magritte's paintings have lost much of the ability they once had to shock. His sculptures are gimmicky. And his penchant for recycling a handful of ideas only contributes to the impression that he was ultimately a limited artist.

Yet as this retrospective makes clear, he could at his best be a memorable and witty painter, and there is no denying the graphic power of certain images: the absurd ballet of Picassoid limbs performed in "Entr'acte," the sexual terror of "The Titanic Days," the matter-of-factness of an eyeball resting like an olive in the middle of a piece of ham in "The Portrait," and the wonderment of a battalion of loaves of bread, like fantasies from some children's tale, floating across a starry sky in "The Golden Legend."

One of the show's revelations comes with the paintings of 1948, which Magritte in self-parody named his "vache" period, and which has long been derided for its loosely brushed, cartoonish imagery. There is, for example, the image of the one-legged, green-faced, top-hatted Jean-Marie, a painter and transvestite, striding in front of an orange plaid sky, trailed by a rooster. Or the erotic image of a red-headed woman, against a different plaid backdrop, licking her shoulder and caressing her breast. Such works are derived from artists like Renoir and Daumier, and rendered in ways that can also bring to mind Ensor, Francis Picabia and especially Giorgio de Chirico, whose curious career Magritte's echoed at many junctures. Now, these slangy vache paintings seem not all bad, with a vigor and no-holds-barred flair that are all the more striking coming as they do in the midst of Magritte's otherwise painstakingly uninflected canvases.

Another revelation concerns the early works, when Magritte was still affected by the Cubism of artists like Fernand Leger and Albert Gleizes and also by the smooth curves of Art Deco, which he carried over to his paintings from the advertising layouts he did for fashion houses. Even in these earliest efforts are intimations of the Surreal art that, under the sway of de Chirico, Magritte suddenly began to produce in 1925. The eroticism, the preference for crisp forms that hints at his carpentry skills, and even certain leitmotifs, like open windows, drawn curtains and faceless figures, are already to be found.

It did not take long, once Magritte turned to Surrealism, for almost his entire repertory of themes to evolve. There was the rectangular block of sky, the jigsaw pieces, the shattered face and the severed body part. There was the claustrophobia of the large object crammed in a box, like the tree in "The Vulture's Park." There was the bilboquet, a kind of baluster or table leg or giant chess piece, which took on many roles, often a very human, phallic, one. Magritte saw the instability in everything around him and his art was full of objects metamorphosing, of musical instruments as bodies, of faces as torsos, of men as women, and of pieces of fruit as blocks of stone.

There was also the grelot, or slotted bell, which could hover in the sky like a U.F.O. And there was the hooded figure, whose eerie presence harks back to the suicide by drowning of Magritte's mother; he said she was found with her nightgown pulled up over her face. The hooded figures also suggest the sense of something hidden and unknowable that is recurrent in Magritte's art. His paintings were intended as insoluble riddles.

Yet what made them all the more puzzling was their apparent straight forwardness, a straightforwardness that can recall the art of Magritte's Flemish forebears, Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Clinically detailed, frontal, with objects laid out in compartments or aligned as if they were hieroglyphs, Magritte's images seemed to invite translation, only, like dreams or nightmares, to frustrate the literal-minded. A work like "Discovery" resists simple translation. Does it depict a woman painted with wood grain, or a painting on wood grain of a woman, or a woman changing into a piece of wood?

As words came to play a larger role in his art (he often chose words and titles in collaboration with other Belgian Surrealists), the conundrums multiplied. But by the mid-1940's, Magritte seems to have temporarily exhausted his inventiveness. The vache period was a jolt to his system, because during the 1950's and 60's, some new twists appear. The final galleries of the exhibition are filled with paintings that are larger, more whimsical, more theatrical and, like "Son of Man" and "Intimate Friend," unexpectedly spiritual.

Only in the last years of his life did Magritte win genuine fame, earned partly through the enthusiasm of some of the Pop artists and their supporters, for whom he, in turn, had little regard. His attention to everyday objects and the billboardlike, just-the-facts way of painting that he studiously cultivated had put him out of step with the modernist mainstream, which in the 1950's was epitomized by the Abstract Expressionists. He did not share with other Surrealists and their New York School followers an interest in so-called automatic drawing, in chance and the occult, and in non-European cultures.

But precisely his flat painting style and his extraordinary depictions of the most ordinary things appealed to the Pop artists of the 1960's. Since then, Magritte's stature has become firmly established.

And now he may be more fashionable than ever. For in several ways he was what might be called a proto-post-modernist. Like many contemporary artists, Magritte was a painter of narrative who appropriated images from both art history and popular culture, juxtaposing them in disorienting ways. He frequently denied interest in the formal qualities of painting. He rejected the idea of the art object as something precious. And, like numerous Conceptualists today, he was concerned above all with language, which he incorporated into his works in ways that emphasized its tenuousness and unreliability. An ironist with a perverse sense of humor, Magritte was forever pointing up art's artificiality and contrivance, revealing the gaps between words and images, between image and reality.

No wonder he liked to speak of himself more as a philosopher than as a painter. "I hope I touch something essential to man, to what man is -- to ethics rather than esthetics," he once said. As this retrospective underscores, Magritte was neither a profound philosopher nor a profound painter. But he left behind some of the 20th-century's catchiest and most unforgettable images.

"Magritte" opens tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 82d Street and Fifth Avenue, on the Upper East Side, and remains there through Nov. 22. It is partly financed by the Murray and Isabella Rayburn Foundation. The show travels to the Menil Collection in Houston (Dec. 15 to Feb. 21 ) and the Art Institute of Chicago (March 16 to May 30, 1993).

Photos: Detail of Rene Margritte's "Intimate Friend," 1958, at the Metropolitan. (Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert E. Kaplan) (pg. C1); Detail of Rene Magritte's "Treachery of Images," a 1929 oil on canvas, with the text "This is not a pipe," part of a survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (pg. C26)


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