René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967) is our topic today. Magritte is a surrealist painter who made extremely cerebral work that the viewer really has to digest. To aid in the digestion I'm having a delicious Barista Belgian Chocolate Quad stout. It has an 11% ABV (wooooh that is high) so one should be plenty.
OK ... I have opened my stout so let's go! I suppose some background on surrealism would help. So what's the deal with surrealism?
"Surrealism sought a revolution against the constraints of the rational mind; and by extension, they saw the rules of a society as oppressive."1
So what does that mean for art ? Let's look!
The False Mirror, oil on canvas, 1928
Is it all trippy melting clocks? Eh ... not so much. Surrealists didn't adhere to established conventions like proportion and perspective. Subject matter also went against the grain. Magritte's paintings show he did not want to conform.
Golconda depicts the sky over a uniform suburb raining men wearing overcoats and bowler hats. It reminds me of the opening sequence of the first season of the show Weeds. The homogeneous imagery reveals a consumer culture obsessed with confomity and keeping up with the Joneses.
Golconda, oil on canvas, 1953
Magritte uses the man in a bowler hat again in Le Bouquet tout fait (Ready-made Bouquet). A reproduction from Botticelli's Primavera covers much of the man's back. This 'ready-made' carries on the Dada tradition of using copies of historically significant works in a modern context to question their relevance. In this work Magritte's man in the bowler hat is walking away from the past and its conventions.
Le Bouquet tout fait, Color Lithograph, 1957
In Son of Man the gentleman wearing a bowler hat is back - this time with most of his face hidden behind an apple. You may think did he have some cheese before bed??? No, Magritte isn't experiencing food induced hallucinations. He is examining the conflict between the hidden and the visible and our curiosity of the unknown. Magritte says:
"Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us."2
Son of Man, oil on canvas, 1946
Grande Famille looks at the hidden and visible too but using negative space. The viewer only recognizes they are seeing a bird because it is absent. The bird itself has been cut out of the stormy sky to reveal a bird shaped patch of blue, calm sky.
Grande Famille, oil on canvas, 1963
In Les Valeurs Personnelles this time perspective is the tool Magritte uses to question reality. Everyday objects like a comb and wine glass are way out of our normal understanding of perspective and proportion. The comb and wine glass are as large as the furnishings. Are the comb and wine glass huge or are the furnishings miniature? There is a solid ceiling and floor but the walls are either absent or painted to look like a cloud filled sky. Are we inside or outside? This is Magritte's ingenious way of making the viewer question their grasp on reality and ability to trust what they see.
Les Valeurs Personnelles, oil on canvas, 1952
Magritte also uses world play to address how we comprehend what we see.
The Treachery of Images, oil on canvas, 1929
The Treachery of Images is a pipe with the caption 'This is not a pipe.' It is an image of a pipe but isn't physically a pipe it is paint on canvas. Most viewers would look at this and if asked what they saw would say a pipe, not oil paint on canvas. Magritte blew up how we think about images.
I have had a strong drink and been looking at surrealist art for long enough so let's wrap. Magritte's decimation of artistic convention has impacted modern art. The Treachery of Images, Golconda and Son of Man are some of the most recognizable and copied works of 20th century art. You can see some fun images that play on Magritte's work in my gallery. Cheers!