PRINT December 1965

Rene Magritte

ACCORDING TO MAGRITTE, IT IS POSSIBLE to see a salute without thinking of politeness: (above)

Seeing is an act, in the course of which it can happen that a subject escapes the attention. For Magritte, a thing which is present can be invisible, hidden by what it shows. (And he who wills or looks for what he wants in painting will never find that which surpasses his preferences.) The eye sees as the hand grasps, passing over the reach of many things which, through a lack of interest, nothing induces it to seize. Magritte invades the discontinuity of our vision: its predisposition to see only what it wants to see.

The intelligence of exactitude does not prevent the pleasure of inexactitude:

(Stories, wrote Gertrude Stein, are only stories, but that they stay in the air is not a story but a landscape. That scarecrows stay on the ground is the same thing it could be in a story but it is a piece of the landscape.) In the eyes of Magritte, the commonplace knowledge we have of the world and its objects does not sufficiently justify their representation in painting: the naked mystery of things may pass as unnoticed in painting as it does in reality. It is not enough to create an object; it is not enough that it be, in order for it to be seen. It must be shown to exist with maximum pressure, that is to say, by some artifice it must arouse in the spectator the desire, the need, to see it.

The peculiarities of his undertaking divorce him from any real collaboration in the esthetic and tactile concerns of other artists. He tenders in fact an almost constitutional dislike of painting. Feigning something between boredom and disgust, Magritte affirms that he does not paint: he makes use of objects which have the appearance of paintings, because chance has it that it is the form of expression best suited to his feelings. His interest in painting, in so far as it exists at all, is marginal. Through maneuvering the destiny of objects by himself, he becomes the man who discovers their fate. And whatever the strokes, the words and the dispersion on a page, the figure obtained is always full of meaning:

Images for Magritte attest to the fact that there is something other than our rapport with the real. They serve as springboards to the attentive mind for use as instruments of knowledge and liberation. The art of painting is the art of describing thought that lends itself to being made visible. It is as equally opposed to reason as it is to the absurd, and so the application of common sense becomes at once an error of appreciation.

If the determining factors are identified and understood, they may be manipulated to evoke mystery. Painting then ceases to be an end in itself: it is the means of formulating the awaited response by provoking a crisis of the object. The unmistakable consequence is that what one sees in an object is another object hidden.

In the case of certain paintings, for example, the solution, which is unique, is already tacitly comprised in the problem but remains to be found:

This element to be discovered, this thing among all others obscurely attached to each object, I acquired in the course of my investigations the certainty that I had always known it beforehand, but that the knowledge of it was as if lost in the recesses of my mind. Since this research could yield only a single exact response for each object, my investigations resembled the pursuit of the solution to a problem for which I had three data: the object, the thing attached to it in the shadow of my consciousness, and the light wherein that thing would become apparent.

Thus, an image may be the result of rather complex investigations, an authentic revelation after a rather long period of calculated reflection. In trying to find a way to paint a bicycle, the solution which presented itself was the “rapprochement” of a bicycle and a cigar. (It can happen that a bicycle passes over a cigar thrown into the street. Any circumstance, Proust has written, is one-tenth chance and nine-tenths being disposed to fall in with it.) It is false, according to André Breton, to pretend that it is the mind which seizes the rapport between the two realities in question. To begin with, nothing has been seized consciously. It is out of the “rapprochement” of the two terms which is in some manner fortunate that a special light surges, the light of the image. It is in that light that the idea makes its visible appearance.

“Painting,” writes Magritte, “has no thickness: thus my painting with the cigar, for example, has no perceptible material thickness, the thickness of the cigar is in the mind. This is not lacking in importance if a preoccupation with the truth has any importance. In fact, a painting conceived and painted with this preoccupation must have the unequivocal character of an image. It is not a cigar which one sees, but the image of a cigar.” (State of Grace.)

The problem of rain produced, in a view of the countryside under rain, great storm clouds creeping along the ground. (Song of the Storm.)

Woman yielded The Rape. In it, the features of a woman’s face are composed of various parts of her body: the eyes have been replaced by breasts, the nose by the navel, the mouth by the sexual organ.

But an image can also be born out of a single vision, suddenly, as in a kind of rapid hallucination: an automobile is surmounted by a horse being ridden by its jockey. The Anger of the Gods is not an answer to the problem of the automobile: both elements were given spontaneously by inspiration. (The problem of the automobile, if posed, would, after long research, no doubt yield up something quite different.)

The important thing for Magritte is to know what to paint and it is inspiration that makes this known. How it is done, or the means that are used, become simply the correct enunciation, without any fantasy, of what is essential. (A new style is not worth getting to know, any more than an old style.) It is through the strictest system and discipline that the greatest possible freedom is achieved. To the history and comparison of things, he prefers the things themselves, considered with no other concern than their own identity. Images, ideas and words are different determinations of a single thing: the mind. Even the title of a painting is an image made of words. It is a complementary element (invented by the painter or his friends) joined to a painted image without any intention of satisfying a need to understand ideas. They accompany paintings in the way that names correspond to objects, without either illustrating or explaining them. They serve rather as a supplementary protection, to discourage any attempt to reduce poetry to a game of no consequence.

Certain concurrent interests, such as the animation of the inanimate, the association of words with images, the double-image, the isolation of anatomical fragments, the confrontation of incongruities, displacement as the major mechanism of strangeness, miracles, the provocation of accidents, the creation of new objects and the transformation of known objects, all tend to ally Magritte with the Surrealists, but he maintains a position of autonomy with respect to the two main branches of the movement. His work is the result of an order of activity as different from those works brought about by the studied use of automatism (the heart of one “school” of Surrealism, exemplified in the work of Masson and Miró) as it is from the catatonic, dreamlike images or tainted fantasies of Delvaux or Dali. Although he conceives of his paintings as material signs of the freedom of the mind, Magritte rejects as unauthentic the would-be spontaneity of automatism as being the ultimate result of a mechanical process. It is to confuse so-called spontaneity (“so-called” because it is subject to a theory of automatic art) with a spontaneous thought which it is a question of describing through painting (or writing) and which has nothing to do with anything mechanical. “Automatic” writing, Magritte claims, naively flatters the banal pretension of supposing to know an experimental method for “making thought speak,” as if the mind were a machine, as if the interest of what might appear through writing or painting did not always depend on an unforeseen interest. For Magritte, all the possible acts of the mind (displacement, explanation, etc.) are indifferent if they do not directly evoke mystery. It seems evident to him that the most efficacious evocation of mystery is achieved through transforming what is familiar in such a way as to disrupt its coincidence with our naive or sophisticated ideas. Objects may then eloquently reveal their existence for the benefit of our awareness. The image of a tree or a bicycle is immediately familiar: its mystery, by habit or by error, remains unperceived. (Dragons, angels, Martians, so-called “fantastic” creatures, are erroneously referred to as mysterious.) The power of the mind manifests itself by revealing the mystery of things that appear, until the moment of inspiration, familiar. This presence of mind is a moment of lucidity which no method can bring about.

References to unconscious activity satisfy the persistent habit of explanation. For Magritte, the world does not offer itself up like a dream in sleep: there are no wakened dreams. His paintings have no relation either to dreams or to some personal world of fantasy. They are pure speculation of the mind, and proceed from deliberation, rather than from a theory of “psychic pulsation.” They do not pretend to imagine a world that proposes to be truer than the world itself, such as for example, the singularized objects invented by Tanguy to which it is always difficult to give a name, and which plunge the spectator into an unbelievable spectacle. Or the “closely pigeonholed worlds” of Matta, as Breton has called them, “a general bristling of spikes.” He does not invent techniques of systematic displacement for intensifying the irritability of mental faculties or the tactile senses, as Max Ernst uses frottage and collage. (Magritte, Breton has remarked, never cuts anything out at all, anywhere. He begins to paint as if everything were already cut out.) His friend, the Belgian poet Scutenaire, has described him as a son of boredom, as having about him something of a dragon, melancholic and mischievous as an old Chinese porcelain. Bizarre, opinionated, anxious, intelligent and rarely satisfied with himself, he looks more impulsively at the stars than at the price of candles. Seen from the outside, his life is that of a bourgeois who might be possessed of a fondness for the baroque, of a bit of madness and a taste for fake situations. In any case he paints, not by premeditated artistic will, but thanks to a state of grace and because, all things considered, it is better.

Suzi Gablik