Thursday, April 27, 2006


A long time ago, a teacher told me about an artist called Magritte. I don't think I was familiar with his paintings at the time, but I remember the description he gave of the man just the same. He said: "Magritte was an artist who dressed very conventionally in a dark suit and a bowler hat. One day a visitor arrived, unannounced, to pay homage to the famous painter. He was pleased to meet such a well dressed artist in a sobre setting. But as he was ushered in through the front door, he was surprised to receive a well aimed boot in the seat of his pants..."

I don't know if this story is true, but on the basis of visiting the current exhibition of Magritte's photographs and films currently on show at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris, it wouldn't be a surprise if it was.

Magritte comes across from this exhibition as a somewhat manic joker. There are filmed scenes of him pretending to be Adolf Hitler or wearing a Prussian Helmet, his face smeared with some kind of boot polish. In another he tries to get his dog to smoke a cigarette. There is much more of the Glen Baxter in him than I had realised...

There are also many small photographs of the kind typically produced when you took your film to to get it developed around the time of the second world war. My grandparents are all featured in this kind of photograph, rather small so that the faces are almost indistinguishable and so that you can hardly make out who the people are. Many of them show Magritte up to tricks with his surrealist friends. There is one photograph entitled 'Eclipse' which shows a group of people staring up into the sky, shading their eyes, so enrapt by the spectacle of eclipse that they seem oblivious to the fact that one person is lying on the ground, looking up another's skirt.

The humorous side of Magritte is one that is not usually stressed in studies of his work. Usually the poetic aspects of his paintings are to the fore. But there is plenty of opportunity to see the whole range of his output at the current exhibition of works on paper organised by the Musée Maillol. He is a painter who is popular with poets, perhaps because of his playful liking for including words and phrases in his pictures, the famous 'Ceci n'est pas un pipe', for example.

And that is very often the purpose of the pictures: to encourage us to ask ourselves questions. That boulder suspended in the air. How can that be? Well, perhaps it is not suspended, simply captured at the moment of falling. If it was a cartoon, we would see streak marks coming from behind it, a visual sign indicating to us that the boulder was in a state of motion. But Magritte leaves out the streak marks and leaves us guessing and wondering and eventually marvelling and feeling the poetry of the image, which, if located anywhere, is in its ambiguity.

Paul Muldoon, who's book of poetry 'Hay' featured a Magritte image on the cover (of a pair of boots that are transformed to toes at the ends) makes the following sweeping comment about his poetry in an interview with John Redmond in Thumbscrew magazine:

A huge number of my poems are conceits, taking two heterogeneous ideas and yoking them together. That’s often the form the poems take: image A, image B, C.

This could also be a description of the way Magritte often works, taking two different images and yoking them together to create something original and strange. Muldoon makes it sound easy, but of course, the difficult thing is choosing what should go together. In the many images featured in the current Magritte exhibition, we see Magritte evolving his compositions, trying out different combinations. It is a sort of alchemy in progress in which a kind of cartoon strip sequentiality develops. First of all a leaf transforms into a bird. Then, in the next picture, it has grown dark and a caterpillar is eating away at the same leaf-bird's breast as it sleeps.

In a sense, Magritte was creating a new language. He was building iconic images which spoke for certain states of being. It is no surprise that the poet Henri Michaux, expert on Chinese ideograms, wrote a book about him. The ideogram in it's original form was essentially a stylised picture combining elements to give meaning, in some cases metaphorical. Thus the ideogram to describe 'a difficult up-bringing' was a picture of a leaf of grass with a twisted root. The ideogram for 'East' was a sun shining through the branches of a tree.

What do Magritte's ideograms mean? I can't tell you. You have to go and look at them for yourself. But remember to take along your sense of humour.


Patry Francis said...

The margrittograms are wonderful--even the ones I don't understand. But I guess that's the idea. You don't always have to comprehend; sometimes you can just experience.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. Seems to me that what Magritte is doing and what I think Paul Muldoon is talking about is the ability to see the fabulous (I think the Russian theorists called it fabulist) - seeing things in a new and unusual way. It is something I keep hearing about...and is at the heart of creativity whether in art, science, poetry or prose.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you both.

Patry - Yes, I think you can just experience, but if you take the time to sit and think about Magritte's images, they eventually reveal themselves to you. It takes time for the brain to unravel the meaning of the pictures. They are a bit like puzzles about which you have to imagine the questions in order to find the answers.

Clare - Yes, I agree. That's why it is sometimes good for scientists to break out of a single discipline, or for artists to experience another culture.