copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian surrealist whose bizarre, but often humorous, paintings do not seem, at first, to depict images that a viewer might regard as horrifying. However, a second look suggests that his paintings often do suggest elements of horror. The horrific in his work derives from his own idiosyncratic application of surrealism’s challenge to common-sense realism and the categories of existence and understanding that support this worldview.
We have eyes, but we do not see, because, most of the time, we take ourselves and the world around us for granted. We feel that we have learned enough about the subjective and the objective, the fantastic and the real, to make sense of things in general and to draw valid inferences and to make sound assumptions about things about which we don’t know as much. As long as we can find the similarities and the differences between the two, we believe that we can make the necessary leaps of inference.
Art is metaphorical by nature, suggesting, always, that one thing is also another or, at least, is, in some way, like another. Using Freudian terminology, the other may be called the "latent content" (i. e., an attitude, a belief, a concern, an emotion, an image, a motif, an object, a sensation, a value), to which the "manifest content"--the literal, superficial, or direct image--is juxtaposed. Usually, the manifest content is familiar to us; the latent, unusual.
Many of Magritte’s works play upon the dichotomies of subjectivity and objectivity and of fantasy and reality. In everyday experience, the subjective usually aligns with the fantastic and the objective with the real, but Magritte sometimes turns the tables upon the tendency to associate these categories in these ways, so that, instead, the subjective corresponds with the real and the objective with the fantastic. His point in doing so seems to be to indicate that categories, whatever they might be, are invented, not natural, and are, therefore, to some degree, arbitrary and subject to change or misinterpretation.
People do not perceive reality the same way; their perceptions and their interpretations are a form of art, and the question, especially for surrealists, as to whether art is, or can be, representational is open ended. One of Magritte’s paintings, La Clairvoyance, seems to have been created to express just this point. An artist (Magritte himself?), seated at his easel, observes a bird’s egg. However, he paints not the egg that he studies, but its eventual potential result--a bird in flight. Where one sees what is, another, looking at the same thing, may see, instead, what could be. The former sees being; the latter, becoming. An egg is more than an egg; it is what the egg represents in the mind of its perceiver.
In another of his paintings, Attempting the Impossible, a male artist (again resembling Magritte), dressed in a brown suit and holding a palette onto which only a few colors have been dispensed, is painting the upper arm of a three-dimensional nude female figure whose countenance closely resembles the artist’s own. She stands in a posed attitude, rather stiffly, head high, staring straight ahead, her weight upon her right foot, her completed right arm along her side. Her left leg is slightly bent at the knee, its foot resting upon its toes. She has the look of the professional model, but, one wonders, might she be more? Could she also be the artist’s feminine aspect, or anima? If so, in creating her, is he not also creating part of himself? If she is also his model, in creating her, is he also not creating the subject of his work, giving shape--even life--to his art? Where does the self and the other begin and end? The figure’s left arm is incomplete. In fact, the artist has only begun to paint its upper extremity. The viewer has no idea what the painter will paint as he continues to portray his model. Will her arm lie alongside her other flank, as its mate does? Will it gesture? It could choke the artist to death. Absurd? Magritte is a surrealist, one must remember, for whom anything is possible. This painting seems to reflect the truth that both the viewer and the artist, together, create the meaning of a piece of art, for what the artist encodes with his paint and brushes and canvas, the viewer must decode according to his or her own beliefs, views, attitudes, and feelings. An unfinished painting allows any number of possibilities, and, again, people do not perceive reality the same way; perceptions and interpretations are a form of art, and the question as to whether art is, or can be, representational is open ended. Therefore, the model in progress could, upon her completion. choke the artist to death or do nothing more than continue to pose.
The ideas suggested by Magritte’s paintings--that reality and fantasy are not necessarily always separate and immutable polarities and that subjectivity and objectivity may, at times, become confused or even blend, both with themselves and with the real and the fantastic--can be amusing, but a little thought suggests that these ideas can also be horrifying. They can be terrifying. Moreover, if these categories are more fluid than supposed, might not others be, also? There may be a much finer line--or no line at all--between sane and insane, kind and cruel, life and death, heaven and hell. If one polarity can be negated or fused, even temporarily, why couldn’t all other polarities also be negated or fused? And, if they can be negated or fused temporarily, why can’t they be negated or fused permanently? There is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to Magritte’s work, and it, like Lewis Carroll’s novel, has a disturbing as well as a charming aspect.
Many of Magritte’s paintings are landscapes (bizarre landscapes, to be sure), but many others are portraits, always more or less (usually more) off kilter. The depiction of landscapes is a shorthand way of depicting the objective, if not always the real; the painting of personal portraits is a shorthand way of depicting the subjective, if not always the subjective. Let’s tale a look at an example of each.
In Blank Check, a horsewoman is seen riding through a woods. As she passes through a stand of trees, she and her horse are segmented. The front of the horse overlaps a tree, as it would appear to do in passing in front of the tree. However, the next segment of its body, is missing. Where the animal’s shoulder and thigh should be, only background foliage and grass can be seen. Then, the midsection of the horse, upon which the woman sits, and its lower left hind leg appear, overlapping the next tree, but its knee is shown against an empty space occupied by background foliage. The right rear leg of the horse and its rear end are shown as they would normally appear, against the backdrop of a third tree. It is as if, in passing the stand of trees, the horse and rider are sliced by the landscape into segments, some of which overlap foreground, and others background, elements of the scene. The painting is something of an optical illusion that, in playing with perception and reality, comments upon them both, suggesting, once again, that the dichotomies between subject and object and fantastic and real are sometimes tenuous at best.
In another painting, The Collective Invention, a strange hybrid creature has washed ashore. The upper half is that of a fish, while the lower portion, from the waist down, is a woman. The image is so bizarre that it takes the viewer a moment to realize that it is an inversion of a more familiar figure--that of the mermaid, whose upper body, to the waist, is that of a woman and whose lower body is that of a fish. The mermaid may be bizarre in her own way, but she doesn’t seem quite as bizarre as Magritte’s fish-woman. The reason for this seems to be that the mermaid retains the woman’s face, or identity, and there is, within her head, a human brain. In other words, the figure retains the essence of humanity. Magritte’s painting of his fish-woman, on the contrary, retains the essence of the animal or, one could argue, represents the sexual aspect of the human as its essence, since the figure does not include face and brain, retaining, instead, the woman’s legs, buttocks, and genitals instead as the human parts of the hybrid’s anatomy. Once again, Magritte suggests the ambiguity and, above all, the arbitrary nature of the categories we create to order perception and experience and to make them, and the knowledge derived from them, manageable and meaningful. The world need not be as we represent it to be and, in fact, could easily be the opposite.
Surrealism is not representational. It only seems to be, at times, and, even then, only in part and for a moment. A closer look shows the dissolution of the subjective-objective and the fantastic-real polarities. On second thought, the neat categories of existence, which are products of consciousness and communication as much as of reason and science, may not be all that neat. Magritte’s art provides this second look at experience as it is generally perceived and understood. His paintings make viewers look again at their perceptions and understandings of themselves and the world (which result from their common-sense realism). Therein lies the horror of the surreal in general and of Magritte’s work in particular. In the final analysis, the world, both the inner and the outer, are imaginary and fluid, which is the reason, it seems, that Magritte said, concerning his work:
My painting is 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.For another article in this blog that discusses the horror that can result from violating categories of perceprual and understanding, visit "The Horror of the Incongruous."