Rene Magritte Understood “The Treachery of Images”
Photo: Duane Michals, Magritte (Coming and Going), 1965 © Duane Michals, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.
La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est past une pipe) is one of Belgian painter René Magritte’s most famous works. In English, the painting is known as The treachery of images, which depicts a sleek brown pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” underneath in French.
Naturally, it stops one dead in their tracks. Clearly this is a pipe we are looking at. But no, Magritte smiles with a sly grin. This is a painting. A pipe is an entirely different thing. This hangs on a wall. It is simply to be gazed upon for the pleasure of looking. Whereas a pipe, you stuff it, you hold it in your hands, set it aflame, and then draw it to your lips. While it might be a handsome object, its most important aspect is its function, one that is a matter of smoke and lungs, nicotine and blood, and that curious boost of energetic calmness that the drug so graciously gives.
Indeed, this is not a pipe. This is a painting calling itself out. The year was 1929, and it was quite unlike high art to take such a pithy view of itself. But Magritte had other plans for his life behind the easel. He abandoned the sanctity of art to use it as a means to deconstruct itself, creating a myriad of quixotic, romantic, sentimental, amusing, or tragic imagery.
In celebration, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt presents Magritte: The Treachery of Images, a fresh look of the legendary artist’s work, currently on view through June 5, 2017. The exhibition combines famous and lesser-known works to reconsider the life’s work of one of the finest Surrealist painters to wield a brush. The exhibition, a reformulated version of the Centre Pompidou’s show earlier this year, is brilliantly catalogued in a new book from Prestel by Didier Ottinger.
Born in 1898, Magritte trained in the style of Impressionism and Futurism, before getting married and taking up work as a draughtsman in a wallpaper factory in 1922. Four years later, he made his first Surrealist painting, which he exhibited in Brussels in 1927. The critics hated it, and he left town. In Paris, Magritte became friends with André Breton, who is credited as leading the Surrealist movement in Europe. He stayed in Paris for three years, where he created The treachery of images, and began to craft a visual language entirely his own. Magritte understood, “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist,” and sought to capture that reality in oil on canvas.
A painter among poets, Magritte challenged those of his time to examine the philosophical underpinnings of their mind, changing the way we look at the world. He went so far as to denounce the heirarchies inherited from Platonism, painting a landscape of the Greek philosopher’s cave. But rather than illustrate the shadows on the wall, he cast his attention to what we see when we are free, and here Magritte reveals the peculiarities of his profession. He shows a painting of a landscape outside the cave, one that may or may not match what is actually there, but reveals our desire to replicate reality as a construction of the human mind. It’s a moment as bittersweet as it is witty and all-too-familiar.
Like his paintings, Magritte embraced all that was chimerical about life, understanding art’s propensity to open the doors of intellect and imagination alike. Much as his paintings were epigrams, epithets, and epitaphs, Magritte was not one to mince words.
“I despise my own past and that of others. I despise resignation, patience, professional heroism and all the obligatory sentiments. I also despise the decorative arts, folklore, advertising, radio announcers’ voices, aerodynamics, the Boy Scouts, the smell of naphtha, the news, and drunks. I like subversive humor, freckles, women’s knees and long hair, the laughter of playing children, and a girl running down the street. I hope for vibrant love, the impossible, the chimerical. I dread knowing precisely my own limitations,” the artist revealed.
In his work, we can see his loves and his loathes, his pleasures and his pains, all of it laid bare though in a wholly irrational, non-linear way. And yet like the dreams we have at night, it all makes perfect sense, though we might not be able to articulate the understanding in words. But we sense truth, we feel it somewhere under our skin: these paintings that are but brushstrokes divinely applied, both convey meaning and question it.
Magritte deftly calls out our need for meaning and understanding in an unknowable world, and he does it with a warm embrace and a tousle of the hair, then tickles us when we least expect him to do so. As a painter, he uses the canvas to pose a problem, deconstruct it, and reassemble it so that we may understand that the most important part of the equation is our active engagement with the world.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.