René Magritte and Forgery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The trompe l’oeil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceci n’est pas un Magritte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Mariën, Le Radeau de la Mémoire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34 Foucault, This is not a Pipe, 30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

51 Blavier, René Magritte, 105.

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

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

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

55 Sylvester, Catalogue Raisonné II, 99.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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