PRINT September 1966

On Rene Magritte

THESE THINGS I HOLD to be self-evident: that pictures have frames: that art has a history—more than one in fact; that you can paint from a model; that things sometimes look alike; that I shall be talking about a painter named René Magritte. My theme (his theme) will be the doubts that hover in the atmosphere like old smells around any piece of self-evidence. René Magritte, the artist in dark overcoat and derby, presents credentials as a wallpaper painter, speculative semanticist, and frame-up operator. Here’s what he does. He takes the entire Western tradition of optical likeness, perfected through two and a half thousand years of subsidized research, and applies it scrupulously to challenge the act of thought. Every separate item in his paintings looks like something we know. No painting as a whole looks like anything we ever saw or conceived before we stood in front of it and looked.

The cherubic Belgian who produces these cool enigmas appears in photographs painting in a corner of the dining room of his suburban house in Brussels. His dress, his style, everything visible seems to conform to a secure tradition of the Netherlands painter in a bourgeois setting. He tells us himself that one of the rewards of painting is that it bestows a particularly pleasurable form of ownership—you can possess anything you care to paint. But this solid citizen turns out to be a prankster and voodoo figure. He tells why on the first page of a short autobiography he calls Lifeline. Things happened to him which he both noticed and remembered.

In my childhood I used to play with a little girl in the old crumbling cemetery of an out-of-the-way provincial town where I always spent my vacations. We would open the iron grates and go down into the underground passageways. Climbing back up to the light one day I happened upon a painter from the capital; amid those scattered dead leaves and broken stone columns he seemed to me to be up to something magical.

This was the first event. Soon after, the boy’s mother committed suicide by drowning in the river. During the first World War, which he was too young to take part in, Magritte studied at the Academy in Brussels. After the war he continued his academic training, worked as a wall paper designer, and experimented with abstract painting. Somewhere in here came the second revelation.

I grew able to look at a landscape as though it were but a curtain hanging in front of me. I had become skeptical of the dimension in depth of a countryside scene, of the remoteness of the line of the horizon.

The magic of the first encounter with painting now becomes profound doubt. What’s out there? The appearance of things turns into a curtain hiding from us their true state. And the curtain, simplified into a draped standing prop or flat, recurs like a refrain in his paintings. It hides and reveals according to how you look at it. The curtain, in fact, furnishes the very subject and substance of one of his best recent paintings, last seen in London in 1964. In front of and almost blocking out a window hung with conventional velvet curtains stand four large overlapping panels. Each shows a fragment of a recognizable scene: the dark green foliage of a forest, the stone facade with windows of an ordinary building, bright red flames, and, in the foreground, a clear blue sky with clouds. One recognizes that each panel is shaped in the form of a single free-standing curtain. The splendid play of color and texture and depth between panels develops into a kind of lyric feast and earns every letter of its sensuous title, Tastes and Colors. Then, suddenly, the surface splendor surrenders to three mauve-colored dead spots in the composition just where the curtains are pulled back slightly. And one is sucked fatally into whatever mystery these brilliant curtains open onto, or into—three holes in the canvas and in the universe itself. Magritte’s second revelation of landscape as a partially drawn curtain implies a great skepticism about the very act of sight.

In the early twenties Magritte began a long and fruitful collaboration with the Surrealists, first in Brussels where a local group had its own reviews and meetings, and then in Paris where he spent three years from 1927 to 1930. As early is 1922 a reproduction of a painting by the Italian, de Chirico, strongly influenced Magritte’s style and his subjects. In an obviously academic technique, de Chirico was then painting severed and cryptically assembled objects; the titles he gave these compositions implied deep emotional and metaphysical significance. Magritte’s doubts about the landscape around him found expression not in Cubism or Expressionism but in terms of de Chirico’s and Max Ernst’s precise and opulent hallucinations.

But Vasari, if we had him around, would tell a different story, and he would be right. For in this same era a third personal revelation pushed Magritte’s doubts to the limit. He refers to it himself as an:

. . . intolerable interval of terror I went through in a working-class Brussels beer hall: I found the door mouldings endowed with a mysterious life and I remained a long time in contact with their reality. A feeling bordering upon terror was the point of departure for a will to action upon the real, for a transformation of life itself.

This action painter, working apparently in coat and tie on a conventional easel in the dining room, has turned out well over two thousand works since then and lived a life without scandal, without external upheaval, without marked changes in style and approach. Yet one senses that he has been living his painting, living in and through his painting, more than our Pop art dandies with all their publicized devilry.

The reception Magritte has had is instructive. His conservative and figurative style of painting, which he describes as “objective enough to ensure that their upsetting effect would be experienced in the real world,” has saved him from violent attack and from immoderate success. Ten years ago Cyril Connolly echoed the commonplace opinion: Magritte “remains a completely literary painter . . . who gives us little pictorial quality.” After forty years he fetches good prices—very good prices. Some call him a secret agent; others think everything about his work is labored and obvious. He conveys “absolute common sense”; he is “reactionary” because his revolutionary sensibility does not affect his technique. The recent one-man exhibit that has traveled to four major museums after opening in New York at the Museum of Modern Art has brought the controversy out into the open again. Our national weeklies and the New York art critics appear to want to treat him favorably but do not have means of doing so: too enigmatic, too personal, a shock too subtle to reproduce easily on coated paper, no flamboyance in an interview (Dali tried to steal the show at the opening). Only Max Kozloff in the Nation has had perceptive things to say, and as usual he tends to swathe them in phrases like “epiphanies of artifice.” For the art historian, Magritte presents the case of a painter who took precisely what he wanted from Surrealism and dismissed the rest. In fact, he ignored the very fundamentals of doctrinaire Surrealism: the authority of the unconscious, automatism of behavior, the need for shrill provocation in public conduct. He kept what was already his by disposition and family inheritance. Surrealism provided a new domain and a new vocabulary for the bright and burning sense of humor he had shown as a boy. That humor combined with two other elements easily identifiable with Surrealism. Marxist dialectic taught him to “live with danger” in order to change the world rather than merely interpret it. He also tells us: “The powerful sentiment of eroticism saved me from slipping into the traditional chase after formal perfection.” These aspects of his work leave one with the often disturbing impression that the smooth surface of his painting is about to split open and reveal what it scrupulously hides.

Soon after moving to Paris in 1927, Magritte began painting a series of compositions that showed several carefully separated panels, each representing a different scene. In a related series called Bold Sleeper a manlying in a box apparently dreams of ordinary objects shown in silhouette below him stamped like cookie cutouts into a layer of uncertain substance. Sheer evocation of elemental values. Soon after, he tries the reverse tactic: an empty picture frame standing in a corner is prominently labeled “Landscape” and shows none. Through mysterious links of shape and presentation, these two series connect to a third that employs a door and its frame, and a jagged aperture giving a partial view of what lies beyond. Magritte was back in his Brussels dining room in 1934 when he began the series of paintings that he has repeated with variations ever since. His description of the underlying attitude poses a problem in seeing. How is it we project the perceptual sensations within our bodies onto something “out there” where we believe the objects are located?

The problem of the window led to La Condition humaine. In front of a window, as seen from the interior of a room, I placed a picture that represented precisely the portion of landscape blotted out by the picture. For instance, the tree represented in the picture displaced the tree situated behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was simultaneously inside the room, in the picture, and out side, in the real landscape, in thought. Which is how we see the world, namely, outside of us, through having only one representation of it within us. (Lifeline)

This series of paintings cracks a collection of laconic jokes about telling the dancer from the dance, about who perpetrated this picture in the middle of nowhere, and about the “familiar looks” Nature sends back at us if we stare at her. But all this painting of flats will be better explained by a different quote. Listen before you laugh. It is gospel.

It is likewise clear that the attempt to doubt any object of awareness in respect of its being actually there necessarily conditions a certain suspension of the thesis [that the fact-world exists out there]; and it is precisely this that interests us . . . The thesis undergoes a modification—while remaining in it self what it is; we see it as it were “out of action,” we “disconnect it,” “bracket it.”

Husserl has a very simple message behind the phenomenological double-talk. The act of attention, sheer looking hard at some thing or thinking hard about it, is fatally accompanied by doubts about the existence of that very thing. Thus Magritte’s doors, windows, curtains, mouldings, and inner paintings—they are all frames, the original bracket. We squirm before the very vividness of what is framed, for it has also been und one. Painting within painting tells us something elementary and disturbing about the act of perception. You see worst what you see best. In other words, that castle, so perfectly perceived that its like ness has. been painted, is it still there behind the painting, outside the window? Magritte’s tantalizing answer is called Night Must Fall (1964). The same old window has either fallen too hard or someone has thrown a stone. Broken glass lies on the floor; a few sharp fragments remain in place around the edges of the frame. And the pieces of glass on the floor still show, like a painting, portions of the landscape outside. Yet there, lo and behold, is the “real” landscape, safe and sound, shining through the empty frame as well as through the remaining glass. Or is it? After all, we are already looking at a painting . . .

Perception makes things flicker, slip, and disappear. Nothing so changes the world as the psychologist’s reduction screen. Seeing is a curious mirror-function of cutout, overlay, and transparency. In this context, several other paintings of Magritte’s have a perfectly stable existence. out of stability they sow doubt. The False Mirror dates from 1930 and has made its way as a TV trademark. We look into the eye looking out at us, with cloudland floating between. Who exists, and for whom? Who is bracketing whom? If you take aim with eye or firearm, you destroy. At dead center of the target eye lies the blind spot. Ten years later came In Praise of Dialectic: from outside you look through a window into a space where you see, instead of the inside of a room, another building as if across the street. The eye is heavily present, alive like a camera lens on our side of the mirror-canvas, or lurking there on the other side of the street of dreams behind one or perhaps all of the curtains. Painting, like the eye, finds a window on the world. If you stand where you see the window-frame with the world, things look very different. They turn on you.

To see is to frame, an act which may then provoke a failure in sight. But this is only half the story I must tell about Magritte. Let us go back to the beginning. When we perceive something and at the same time become aware of the act of perception, two things can happen: vertigo, or the word—an utterance. Years ago, Magritte paint ed a scrupulously naturalistic picture to exact scale of a piece of Brie cheese, framed it, and exhibited it under a glass cover with the title: “This is a piece of cheese.” But far more than his Pop art progeny, Magritte understands that the word lends us security; it is our crutch. He can, therefore, yank it out at will from under our vulnerable minds. Before Wittgenstein earned his reputation as the great sophist of language, before modern semantics had come into its own, Magritte was practicing his own lay analysis of language in the pages of La Révolution surréaliste. He called his illustrated essay Words and Images. The cartoons animate the slippery relations between objects, images, words—and by implication the mind which entertains them.

“An object is not so stuck on its name that one can’t find it another.”
“A word sometimes serves only to designate itself.”
“An object leads one to believe there is something behind it.”
“Everything leads one to believe that there is little relation between an object and what represents it.”
“In a picture, words are made out of the same substance as images.”

As Mallarmé knew, to name anything is to destroy it, to obliterate it, even more than by looking straight at it. Thus the tags, the names we attach to things, may save us from the vertigo of perception but they lead us into other dangers. Magritte’s own titles, the labels he dreams up with the help of friends after he has finished his paintings, do not tell us directly what the painting is about. An entirely different principle now comes into play that revalorizes language. It begins in the word painting Magritte offers us in the series called The Key of Dreams, everyday objects given names that are in error by dictionary convention. Occasionally a correct label sneaks in and causes a kind of semantic stall or tilt, or, as in the famous composition, Wind and Song, a painted pipe is labeled “This is not a pipe.” Traditional rhetoric has a neat trick called praeteritio. There is an exasperating device called negative invocation. What happens when someone tells you: “Do not think of a large body of water.” Magritte produced another such commonplace for the Dallas-Houston exhibit a few years ago: This is not a derrick.

But while Magritte has been scrambling the semantic dictionary, he has been putting together another with his left hand. We barely noticed. Only in a few cases does he divulge its existence. The Promenades of Euclide, which belongs to the painting within a painting sequence, also records a kind of resemblance we are systematically trained to overlook because of depth perception. The pointed turret “looks like” the broad boulevard if we can juggle vanishing point perspective and flat canvas. But why bother? Because they rhyme. Because we begin to see how much in Magritte’s painting turns on rhyme. Visual rhyme to start with. Levitating boulders rhyme with clouds, and grisly anatomical toes rhyme with the toes of boots (The Red Model). Here is the place to fit the obsessive Surrealist masterpiece Magritte calls Rape; it violates the steadiness of our vision. In this rhyming dictionary, face rhymes with female torso. And the term rhyme suggests more than resemblance because it includes a doma in we tend to exclude from painting: sound. The act of framing, of paying attention, evokes the spoken word. Look. What do you call this? Think of a . . . . . . . We cannot avoid such responses. In 1962° Magritte painted a boulder on a beach and, hovering over it, a cloud identical in size and shape. The title: The Origins of Language. Paul Nougé, an artist and old friend of Magritte’s, has written one of the most perceptive texts on his work. He speaks of the “forbidden images” which Magritte uses with full intent to exploit their explosive force and with no desire to establish an esthetic distance that will neutralize them. Skillful paint-handling in the old tradition is the operative strategy. And Nougé reports what we have suspected all along: the word serves as a source of Magritte’s poetic invention. Nougé refers explicitly to the “secret of rhyme.” Now look at the revealing series of drawings reproduced in the catalog for the Modern Museum exhibit. Magritte was working up an idea that led to the painting called The Soul of Bandits (L’Ame des Bandits) 1960. The final product shows a violin standing on a wing collar. If you read these desultory doodlings in French, here’s what you get: violon, vipère, veste, vase, vigne. And there in the upper right hand corner he’s toying with an idea he finally discarded: he sets or rhymes the violin, which in French has a queue or tail, with pigtail or queue. And then the fun begins. Look up violin in the dictionary: here’s the page in the 1950 Larousse; it may have been at Magritte’s elbow. The labeled parts of a violin are these:

crosse or volute: scroll (crook, pistol grip, helix)
chevilles: pegs sillet: nut
touche: finger-board
chevalet: bridge (wooden horse, saw horse, rack for torture, easel)
âme: sound-post (soul, rifle bore, core of a cable)
table: belly
bouton: tail-pin (bud, button, nipple, knob)
ouies: sound-holes (hearing, gills)
éclisses: ribs (wedges, splints, shims)

And you find you missed the third meaning for violin. “A kind of prison adjacent to a guard room or police station.” I have not discovered the linkage in Magritte’s first working title, Les Lettres Persanes, apparently lifted from Montesquieu. But here is the secret opening through which his later title sneaked in, for bandits are, of course, thieves, or voleurs, and all in the family. It’s a painted pun in French. Those light-fingered thieves who have souls and others parts like violins will spend the rest of their clays locked up in the prison of Magritte’s painted word-play. It is very contrived—and very lovely.

At its best Magritte’s painting arises out of two reciprocating acts. They are the acts most basic to human consciousness or “thinking”; they are also prone to violent distortions. First, he frames: he removes common things from their usual settings, not to subdue them but to set them free. Then, consulting his dictionary—a rhyming dictionary remember—he names them afresh, explicitly by lettering inner or outer titles, or implicitly by visual punning and rhyming. His subject, what he has been painting for forty years, accumulates like a new and unsettling atmosphere around the objects he paints and the colors he confers on them and the clarity with which he blesses that mystery. His subject is a state of mind, an intellectual uneasiness such as we feel when a remotely familiar but unrecognized person confronts us: “Do you remember me? I’m sure you don’t know who I am . . .” The challenge is the more disturbing when it comes from a strongly attractive person, like a painting of 1952 entitled Personal Values. Magritte has built up a “profound pictorial analysis” in every sense. Your whole body participates in the act of looking through that bottle-green wine glass at a mirror reflecting a sky visible through a transparent wall—or painted on it. No difference, as we now know. My first reaction in front of this handsome yard of painted cloth with its third dimension set at infinity, is to mutter Hopkins’ poem “Glory be to God for dappled things . . .” And, for some reason, this assemblage of floating, out sized objects strikes me as comforting. It is as if Magritte had painted one of those little elevator rooms Einstein dreamed for his “thought experiments” in general relativity.

And there is more. Every one of these objects will yield in formation for a simple explication de texte. Identifying the objects splits them apart into diverse elements. On top of the armoire (armorial and clothespress) lies a pinceau (shaving brush, paint brush, pencil of light) which rhymes with the peigne nearby. Peigne shares the brush’s double function as toilet article and painter’s tool—comb and multiple brush for imitating wood grain. Pinceau also rhymes with pain de savon, thus turning soap into bread to go with the absent wine in the green glass—verre vert. The floor’s tidy geometric perspective and the cumulus clouds in a blue sky—this is part of Magritte’s signature and can be traced to de Chirico. We know al l about the window and the double set of curtains around it, and the fact that the only undefined area in the pain ting lies exactly there in the shape created where the curtain is pulled back. In color, in meaning, in depth, that patch gene rates the canvas. Overhead, the moulding begins to crack and crawl as it did in the Brussels beerhall. Attach instead of, fire. A bed, but not really to tell us any thing about dreams and love. A bed beca use it belongs with the other objects and like every one of them announces the absence/presence of the person who dwells among them and whose values they are: a room of one’s own, food and drink; personal appearance; painting.

Magritte is often accused of being a literary painter, with implications of personal vice and artistic heresy. He is a literary painter; no one need be ashamed of the fact. Painting knows no permanent rules excluding it from the do main of semantics, sound, and hidden circuits of meaning. A painter has intelligence as well as hands and eyes. The medieval altar painter could be as much of a theologian as he wished and no one objected. Have we not finally talked enough about “dissociation of sensibility” to know that you cannot cut the mind in two and assume artists are mindless scientists blind to art? Magritte is sensitive to color, to displacement in normal vision, to ideas about images and words that grow like mushrooms out of objects. The flaws and errors Magritte incorporates into his suspended universe whisper that we may have been wrong about things all our life, making mistakes about names and sizes and meanings. If we allow our grip to slip ever so slightly, we might have to start all over again from scratch. Magritte does so in every painting.

He paints with an infectious and sometimes subliminal nostalgia for the technique of the masters. Surrealism came to him naturally, by race, milieu, and moment. His works will last without providing a fat living for restorers. Likeness, mere resemblance, is magical in his hands, and among sensitive painters today, Magritte is one of the first to have rescued that magic. He also works wit h the simplest elements—sky, sea, stone, trees, bread. I know no painting that conveys so tot ally the sense of a universe in suspense, a universe in which everything is waiting and no thing moves. Is it possible that for forty years Magritte has created a sustained artistic pun on one of the most common terms in painting: still life? Life stilled, arrested, petrified. It would be the same in his French: nature morte, dead nature.

After seeing any large group of his paintings, one learns a subtle lesson. The only life we know is not the still life around us but the living life we can conceive of as painted. The only painting Magritte will put on canvas gives us more than painting within a painting. At its most oracular moments it says, “This is not a painting.” It disturbs us to think that what we are seeing, beautiful as it may be, is not what we are seeing but a cut-out, a frame-up we have staged for ourselves.

Roger Shattuck



Author’s note: This is a partial and revised text of a talk given for the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, in April, 1966. A lengthy biography and study of Magritte by Patrick Waldberg appeared in French after I had written the text. Magritte references can be found in a bibliography by Inga Forslund in the Museum of Modern Art catalog.