Monday, October 1, 2007

Magritte's "Horrible Kidneys"

I was twenty-five years old when I crossed the Atlantic on a Norwegian freighter and went to live with the painter Rene Magritte and his wife in their home in Brussels, Belgium, in order to gather material so I could write a book about him. How all this came about is an intriguing story which I recount in my memoir "Living the Magical Life." I had never written anything before, much less a book, but that did not seem to be a problem, at least, not until I tried to publish the book. After many failed attempts, I finally buried the manuscript in despair in a friend's basement in New York and went to live in London, where I stayed for twenty-two years. While I was there, I did find an English publisher for the book, Thames & Hudson, who finally brought it out in 1970 after much additional writing. The book is still in print. I recount all this now because I spent time this weekend composing a brief talk about Magritte (based on my book), which I will give this week in Boone, N.C., at the Turchin Center for the Arts. Thus, I have no new blog to post. However, since the text for the talk is succinct and enjoyable, or so it seems to me, I am offering it as a good read instead. Enjoy!

Flaubert once said about artists that they should be "regular and ordinary" in their lives so that they might be "violent and original" in their work. It is a perfect description of the Belgian surrealist painter, Rene Magritte.

In his paintings, Magritte tended to use ordinary objects, but represented them in ways that would put the real world on trial: a huge, heavy rock, for instance, that would normally be found on the ground, is suddenly floating weightlessly in the air; a darkened night-time scene with lit-up houses is juxtaposed against a daylight sky; a giant green apple fills an entire room. Such maneuvers of displacement are meant to overthrow our sense of the familiar and sabotage habitual ways of seeing and thinking about the world.

Then, to anyone who might be tempted to interpret his pictures symbolically, Magritte liked to say, "You are more fortunate than I am!" because he considered his work most successful when no explanation of meaning can satisfy our curiosity. A person who only looks for what he wants in a painting will never find that which transcends his preferences, according to Magritte. Rather than offer symbolic interpretations, it was his intention to trap the viewer in the mystery of an image that refuses all explanation. If one has been trapped by the mystery of an image that refuses all interpretation, a moment of panic will sometimes occur. And those moments of panic are what really counted for Magritte. He considered them privileged moments because they transcend mediocrity. Moments of panic disrupt the usual certainties and jolt the mind out of its stereotypical habits of thinking.

One of my favorite paintings in this regard is called "The Use of Words," in which an image of a pipe is labeled underneath "This Is Not a Pipe." Because picture and label do not correspond, there is a disorienting moment of panic. But according to Magritte, the painted image of a pipe is NOT the same as a real pipe, thus the label, "This Is Not a Pipe." The painted pipe is not a pipe because you can't smoke it. Just as the philosopher William James once pointed out that the word "dog" does not bite. Language itself is the trap. You can point our the moon with your finger, states a Zen proverb, but you must be careful not to mistake the finger for the moon. Being and representing are not the same, according to Magritte, nor does an object perform the same function as its image. An image is more like another image than it is like the thing it represents.

In other paintings, Magritte arbitrarily realigns his pictorial representations and his verbal descriptions so that they no longer correspond in the usual way. Thus, the image of a horse is labeled "the door," a clock is labeled "the wind," and in the same painting, a valise is labeled "the valise." In the same way, a name can replace the image of an object: the words "sad woman" can replace the image of a sad woman. Any object may be called by any name (the chief of a certain African tribe was called Oxford University Press, and there were girls in Nyasaland whose name was Frigidaire). Once when Marcel Duchamp was in Los Angeles, he signed real cigars and then everybody smoked them.

A portrait, according to Magritte, tries to resemble its model. But one may also wish the model to try to resemble his portrait. The truth is, Magritte was not interested in painting portraits. He thought there were already enough portraits in the world. He did paint himself once, however, a portrait in which he is eating dinner with four arms.

The mark of a philosopher is to doubt what is usually taken for granted, and Magritte used painting for this purpose alone. He was not interested in the usual aesthetic and painterly concerns of artists, but preferred to investigate and analyze the structure of common-sense beliefs and work with the paradoxes of perception.
The mind tends to see only what it wants to see, and in this way, much is hidden from our attention. There is a mystery attached to all objects in the phenomenal world that can be evoked if the proper means for doing so can be found. And so, Magritte was never interested in painting commonplace objects in and for themselves, the way a still life painter might do. What he sought to achieve was the sparking of something unfamiliar, something unexpected, that would make its presence felt once those objects could be shown in a way that defied common sense. And produced that moment of panic. Something like the double-take.

Magritte applied the same irony to his life that he used in his art. Once he told me, "This morning at the butcher's a woman asked for two nice kidneys. When it was my turn, I was tempted to ask for two horrible kidneys." He grinned, because he always enjoyed his own jokes.

Magritte was a fan of the surrealist idea of chance encounters between certain objects which could then be used to evoke surprise. For him, this was best achieved when the objects themselves retained their everyday qualities and could somehow be brought to crisis, rather than by inventing new objects that were bizarre or imaginary or dreamlike. So he would use conventional objects, leaving their external appearance intact, but rendering them enigmatic and strange by placing them where we would not expect to find them, or by dissociating them from their functional use in the world.

In a painting called "Common Sense" still life objects, instead of being painted on a canvas, are shown standing on top of a blank framed canvas which is lying on a table. Another painting, called "The Sweet Truth," has still life objects standing on a table covered with a white cloth, all of it painted on a flat brick wall. In still another, a picture frame stands on an easel that is placed by the edge of the sea, masking exactly that part of the landscape which is situated behind it. We can't tell if the seascape is painted on the canvas, or if it is the real sea showing through an empty frame.

Once Magritte made a small painting of a piece of cheese. He titled the painting "This Is a Piece of Cheese." Then he placed the painting under the glass dome of a cheese dish. Again and again, Magritte polarizes the mind in such a way so that it will not confuse reality with the means used to represent it. He wants to show that a real object and its painted illusion are not the same thing.

This creates the fundamental dynamism in Magritte's work that sets it apart from more conventional landscape, portrait, or still life painting. His methodology is to exploit paradox in order to suggest the ambivalent nature of reality. In sum, what happens in a Magritte painting, roughly speaking, is the opposite of what the trained mind is accustomed to expect. This defiance of expectation is what leads to the specific crisis in consciousness, the moment of panic that makes his work so uniquely charged and original. We never have to put up with a world that is established once and for all, deprived of the quantum jump of new possibilities.

"It is rather pointless," Magritte has written, "to put one's hopes in a dogmatic point of view, since it is the power of enchantment which matters." As for the power of enchantment, Elizabeth Bowen once wrote: "Where would Wonderland be without the dogmatic lucidity of the tempermentally unadventurous Alice?"

1 comment:

colleen said...

This is not a comment.

I like the way Magritte thinks. Thanks for this.