was the first painter I had a crush on. In high school I got my hands on
Suzi Gabliks book about Magritte, and was completely smitten. I was
susceptible to the surrealists in general at that age theres
a need for the fantastic, for something that slips past the thudding particulars
of real life but Magritte was the one I admired most.
In Magritte, the fantastic becomes immediately graspable; everything is
laid out on the surface. Its become reflexive to say that Magritte
was interested in painting mainly as an intellectual enterprise, but that
doesnt make the observation any less true. In high school, we enter
into the world of ideas and try different ones on for size. It was remarkable
to find someone capable of making ideas materialize in paint.
Of course, being an admirer of his images, and keeping them in my memory like vicarious dreams, I suffered awareness of their shameless appropriation. His paintings continue to be thoughtlessly digested by pop culture, most particularly in comics and advertising. Ad men constantly raid his store of visual obsessions the juxtapositions of unlikely objects delineated in clear, even light; the scrim of bright blue sky riveted in place by small bright clouds; and of course the man with the bowler hat, either levitating in the air, or his face obscured, not with an apple or pipe, as in the original paintings, but with whatever product the advert happens to be hawking. Of course, to some degree, Magritte left himself open to appropriation; you cant copyright a blue sky, or a man in a bowler hat.
A Magritte show at the San Francisco MOMA gave me the chance to become reacquainted with his work. I approached it with a degree of trepidation, with instinctual distrust of ones high school tastes. The main thing Id forgotten in the interim is how funny Magritte is. The visual solemnity of some of his dreamscapes (and the seriousness that accrues to painting as a matter of course) had subsumed, in my memory, his sense of humor. My forgetfulness was all the more remarkable because his playfulness spans the entire course of his career. How could I have forgotten his 1950s copies of famous portraits, in which he replaced the original sitters with coffins, built to mimic their postures (if the sitter was sitting up on a couch, the coffin turns up at a right angle, where the waist would be)? Or the almost conceptual-art Representation (1937), a painting of a womans pelvic area, with the frame carved to hug the curves of the womans hips (this painting-object so literal in its objectification, it bestows a perverse tenderness to the pubic scene)?
One painting, in the second room of the exhibit,
made me laugh out loud. Called The Subjugated Reader (1928),
it shows a woman standing, holding a book in her hand, with a look of
alarm even terror on her face, her wide eyes fixed on the
books open pages. The arm with the book is held away from her body,
but only so far, as if she wants to put the book down, but finds herself
unable. Its as if the book has just reached out and grabbed her
with invisible, monstrous arms though of course it remains just
a harmless little book. The laugh was produced in an instant, in far less
time than it takes to describe the image: it has the instantaneous humorous
shock of a single-panel cartoon. It easily could have come
off the drawing board of Glen Baxter or B. Kliban. (Even the womans
face, vaguely doughy and with a slightly outsized nose, reminded me of
Klibans characters. Another painting, of a fleet of giant baguettes
hovering in the air outside a window, would have fit perfectly in Klibans
cartoon-book Tiny Footprints.)
Less obvious in its relation to comics is Magrittes use of fragmented pictorial space in his series of facetious comparisons. In The Six Elements (1929), Magritte situates six pictures in a painting of a wooden frame (this frame is, essentially, six frames stuck together into one sextuply-divided frame). Setting the images in this faked pictorial space gives them a temporal unity; he is not using the panels to traverse time, as comics panels usually do. He is using the panels to make comparisons and juxtapositions, and in the process, to play with systems of classification. The six elements are represented in turn by pictures of fire, windows on a building façade, a womans torso, clouds, trees in a forest, and a collection of the weird little bells Magritte was so fond of painting, all placed on a surface resembling corrugated tin. These elements relate to each other only because theyre corralled together in the same picture (and having been doubly corralled by the pictures title). The break-up into panels is a step toward pictorial language breaking up pictures into semantic units, like words, in order to make sentences of them. This is the fundamental aesthetic motor of comics in fact, comics basic feat of transposing time into a spatial dimension (across the page) is a subset of this more fundamental property: the panels in comics provide a language of comparison and juxtaposition, and it is the pictorial comparison of one panel to the next that allows us to deduce the passage of time.
Finally, I had to think about Magritte the cartoonist because I began to wonder if his pictures might actually work better as cartoons if the fact that theyre paintings isnt something of a distraction. He isnt particularly interested in mimetic representations of the physical world; the early paintings, in particular, are almost shocking in their shoddiness. Hair, wood, ocean, feathers theyre all rendered as painters effects, brush-tricks you could pick up from those TV shows that teach you how to paint a landscape without having to actually venture outside. This is Magrittes preoccupation with ideas at its most bald: hes not interested in wood or hair as sensual, material things, but the idea of wood or hair. If, as in one of his paintings, a leaf is turning into a bird, it doesnt matter what sort of leaf or what sort of bird what matters is the idea of a leaf turning into a bird.
Ultimately, I felt there was a redundancy to the exhibit, as most of the paintings achieve their effects equally well as reproductions in a book. Of course, in a book theyre smaller, but this actually minimizes the pictorial clumsiness of the painted surface. And they seem more appropriate book-sized, perhaps due to some vestigial aura of books, the medium through which ideas have been carried through millennia to render Magrittes paintings book-sized is to render them the size of thoughts. Its only one further step to suggest the images might work better as drawings, where surfaces would be even less important. Reduced to lines, objects are rarefied to their most abstract visual state as a drawing, a representation can hover closer to the realm of ideas than the realm of independent material objects.
The exception to the efficacy of his images as
book-sized reproductions is found in his later work, where he took far
more care with his painting technique. The late, large-format canvasses
are all of a piece: not the size of thoughts, but the size of dreams.
We can be taken in by their whole atmosphere. An example of this later
mode would be The Heartstring, which shows a giant glass in
a valley, so tall it half-cups a fleecy cloud (the only cloud in the sky).
The size of the canvas helps to convey the monumental nature of the image.
Another example would be Blood Will Tell (1959), which shows
a large tree at nightfall. There are two open doors set into the tree;
in the lower hollow, there is a miniature house with its windows lit up,
and in the higher one, there is a featureless grey ball. The scene is
suffused with a sense of nocturnal mystery.
The central contradiction in Magrittes
work seems to be this. He is fascinated by objects, a fascination that
finds expression in the authority they tend to hold over the human subjects
in his paintings, in his distortions of their sizes, in his habit of isolating
them from their usual environments, in his delight in pulling their names
off and slapping other names onto them. But while objects are first and
foremost material things, Magritte is not interested in their specific
materiality he is interested in the de-particularized idea of those
objects. This is ultimately connected to
the appropriation of his imagery in advertising. I had forgotten that
as a young man Magritte made a living designing advertisements and posters,
as a biographical snippet at the head of the exhibit mentioned. Its
not merely that some of his work tries too many trick effects, and stumbles
into kitsch (which is one of the raw material of advertising). His connection
to advertising goes deeper, down to his method.
Advertising also deals in deliberately de-particularized images a kind of enforced anonymity.
Advertising also deals in deliberately de-particularized images a kind of enforced anonymity. An advertisement may be interested in selling a thing, but it does so by selling the idea of a thing (and at any rate, mass-production has blurred the distinction between a thing and the idea of that thing). The people who inhabit advertisements are people without histories or biographies (except if theyre celebrities, in which case their biographies matter less than the aura of power and success that their personage has come to represent, and at this level they are replaceable by anyone else who could invoke that aura). In the frictionless world of advertising, no history or biography will stick. Rather, history and biography are cannibalized for the abstracted ideas they might represent; if we find a picture of the man staring down the line of tanks at Tiananmen square, we can be sure the ad is not really about the student democracy movement in China and the subsequent crackdown the image is being used to sell the notion of resistance, heroism, rebelliousness, etc. If the image is used in an advertisement for a news program, it is being used as an idea of news. Of course, in this paragraph, I am myself using the image of the Chinese protester as an idea of an image grounded in specific biographical and historical coordinates which has been used for other purposes.
If there is a family in a magazine ad, we understand
their photo-albums are filled with forgeries they are an idea of
Family. If theres a feast set out on a table, its not food
that someone actually went on to eat its an idea of a feast.
If theres a beautiful summer night, its not the beautiful
summer night an actual person recalls with nostalgia its
the idea of a summer night. If theres a sexy woman, shes not
really a person who can be found in a bar and persuaded to divulge her
phone number its the idea of a woman whos sexually
available. This goes beyond theatrical artifice, and the efficacy of props:
these advertisement-phantoms dont even lead fictional lives.
Once more for clarity: advertising doesnt sell things, it uses ideas to sell things usually in conjunctions of words and images, and usually with a picture that reveals its meaning in a single burst, not as a result of prolonged contemplation. Theyre not particularly profound ideas, but ideas nonetheless: success, youth, hipness, sexual magnetism, power, safety, happiness. Magritte and advertising share the same basic language a language which is equally effective in inviting the viewer to enter a fictive pictorial-space or a fictive commodity-space. Perversely, Magrittes world, while being deliberately (even ostentatiously) fantastic, is the more recognizable one. A few last miscellaneous observations:
Having already been acquainted with Magrittes
more well-known images, I found myself drawn to the more obscure ones
on display. A few of these barely amount to paintings. The early The
Catapult Desert (1926) takes after deChirico, with his emptied spaces
and obscured subjects - but here there is even less. There are some curtains,
some grey clouds, part of a board cut in the silhouette of a mans
head, with a metal bar driven though it. All of these things are oddly
truncated by the picture frame or by the other objects. Nothing is in
the center theres no subject, nothing interesting compositionally,
or even figuratively the objects dont congeal into some larger
meaning. The eye slides off it, no matter how hard you try
to make it stick. I was particularly charmed
by The Prince of Objects (1927). This is a painting so unreal,
and so obscure of intent, it defies written description yet despite
its unreality, it is the antithesis of the fantastic. The picture is of
a weirdly shaped black frame I can only call it a frame because
it seems to make an attempt to enclose something. In fact, you can see
through its middle, like a donut, except for a green wood pattern that
appears at the upper left corner of the framed hole. About a quarter of
the way down, the wood pattern fades into nothingness not torn
away, but gradually melting into the air. This thing is as inexplicable
as an object from some unknown dimension, beyond the scope of the ordinary
senses, and yet, it inspires no awe. Its as if Magritte made a trip
to a different dimension, and brought back with him the most useless and
boring thing he could find.