Looking at paintings: It’s not a pipe

     Rene Magritte (1898-1967), surrealist painter, was born in Lessines, Belgium.  His father was a tailor and his mother was a milliner before her marriage.  We know that he showed talent at an early age, because he began drawing lessons in 1910.  Other than that, little is known about his early life. 

     In 1912 his mother, who was mentally unstable, committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Sambre.  According to reports, young Magritte was present when she was pulled from the water, and the image of his mother’s body floating with her dress obscuring her face may be reflected in some of his paintings in which faces are obscured by clothing or fabric. (Psychoanalysts who have examined bereaved children have said that Magritte’s back and forth play with reality and illusion may reflect the constant shifting back and forth from what he wished — “mother is alive” to what he knew — “mother is dead.”)

     After dabbling in Impressionism, Futurism and Cubism, in 1926 Magritte painted his first surrealistic painting, “The Lost Jockey” (“Le jockey perdu”).  After this breakthrough, there was no stopping the flow of wonderful and intriguing surrealist paintings that sprang from his imagination. 

     Magritte had amazing technical skills, and is known for paintings that put ordinary objects together in an extraordinary way to give new meaning to familiar things.  In addition to being more solidly representational that most surrealist art, his work is often witty and amusing. 

     He is also known for titles that give an unfamiliar name to familiar objects.  Stories are told that sometimes when he finished a painting he had his friends write random phrases on slips of paper which were then put into a hat.  The phrase that Magritte drew from the hat became the title of the painting.  Thus a painting of a gigantic rose that fills an entire room is titled “The Tomb of the Wrestler.”

“The Treachery of Images”, oil, 1928-29 by Rene Magritte. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is translated “This is not a pipe.”

      Magritte’s famous painting “La trahison des images” (“The Treachery of Images”) is designed to make people think about the nature of painting.  The painting shows a pipe that could be a model for a tobacco store advertisement.  Below it, Magritte painted “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).  This seeming contradiction is actually true.  The painting is not a pipe; it is an image of a pipe.  Once when he was asked about this painting, Magritte replied, “Of course it is not a pipe. Just try to fill it with tobacco!”

     The painting seems to suggest that no matter how closely art comes to depicting an object accurately, we can never catch the item itself but can only capture its image on the canvas.

      In the 1960s Magritte’s work became hugely popular with the public.  His work influenced the development of Pop art (although Magritte himself disliked Pop art and did not feel there was a connection).  His unforgettable images have become a part of our culture.  His work has been reproduced or adapted on rock album covers by such artists as the Jeff Beck Group, Jackson Brown, Styx, Gary Numan, and many others.  Paul McCartney, a lifelong Magritte fan, owns many Magrittes and says that he got the idea to name the Beatles’ media corporation “Apple” from a Magritte painting.

     Magritte’s paintings and imagery have also been seen in the backgrounds of numerous films as well as in video games, and a reference to his famous work where a man’s face is obscured by an apple appears in Michael Jackson’s music video “Scream.”  An homage to Magritte’s painting “The Son of Man,” even appears in the Treehouse of Horror IV episode of The Simpsons! 

     Magritte himself described his paintings as “visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’.  It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

Published by on December 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed