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When the Smaller Picture's the Same as the Bigger Picture

Rene Magritte Museum


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When the title of this blog is taken from Rene Magritte's “Treachery of Images,” I shouldn't really go to Brussels and avoid Magritte. So yesterday, I went to a chocolate store, with one of the types of chocolates being called Magritte. It was tasty (dark chocolate and pistachio) even if it wasn't as good as Paganini (dark chocolate, mocha, and hazelnut.) There was also nothing particularly Magritte-esque about it. (One of the chocolates was Plejaden, which had mathematical equations written on the top. That either improved or degraded the quality of the chocolate, depending on who you asked. I say “chocolate and hazelnut=tasty.”) So today I figured I should go find things that were genuinely related to Magritte and didn't just share a name with him.

So to the Magritte Museum I went.

The visit began by taking us up onto the third floor, and then setting us free to work our way down. The first thing that I saw was a time-line that gave significant events in the first twenty-ish years of his life. Included on that was a slight description of how we temporarily earned a living drawing ads for different companies. A little bit further into the room was a quote: “I hate my past and that of others... I hate also the decorative arts, the folklore, advertising...”

I'm pretty sure Magritte would have hated the first room of that museum. It was mostly dedicated to his younger works and his past. The quotes scattered around the room just increased that contrast of what Magritte seemed to want and what the museum was going for. The parts of the museum that weren't dedicated exclusively to Magritte were dedicated to surrealism as a whole, with plenty of texts from that. One of them listed as one of the principles “We admire the ancient art, but we leave it in museums. For us, we live” On the wall above that, was a quote from Magritte-”There is not a choice. No art without life.” And museums seem like the epitome of all that is dead and stale.

There were sparkles of the interplay between art and life throughout the museum. Specifically, at least for me, in the photographs of the pictures. There were several of them throughout the museum. At one point, there was a picture of E.L.T. Marsens by “Clairvoyance,” one of Magritte's works. I left it with the impression that Marsens was taking the same pose as the figure in the painting, and it wasn't until I went back and checked that I realized they were standing completely differently. Their faces were just so identical that “Clairvoyance” and Marsens seemed like they should be inhabiting the same world.

Elsewhere, there was a picture of Rene Magritte with his eyes closed. The caption read “Rene Magrittte with closed eyes in front of 'The Secret Player.'” The significance being that “The Secret Player” shows three different figures moving around, all with closed eyes. So in this case, Magritte was trying to take on the same position as the painting, almost becoming an extension of it.

Even though those pictures felt like they blended art and life, they were as old as some of the paintings, and the figures who had appeared in them were dead. Because it was a museum for art, like all of the museum's for non-contemporary art. So I moved on.

The first room was mostly sketches and publicity pictures and very young works of art that looked nothing like Magritte. Around 1927, the first pictures that, if I'd seen without context might have made me ask “are those Magritte?” appeared. For example, “The Female Theief,” or “The Man of the Sea,” both of which depicted figures with their faces covered. It was also a bolder style, more of a contrast of colors... it just felt like Magritte.

From that point on, he mostly kept with that style, or combination of styles that made the paintings seem so recognizable. The one exception was between 1943 and 1948 when he experimented with Impressionism.

How much you liked those pictures was in direct proportion to how much you like Surrealism and how much you like Impressionism. The pictures were still without a doubt surrealist, with absolutely bizarre combinations of objects and colors. But the brushstrokes were light, the transitions of colors were smoother, and the paintings in general were gentler. Personally, I was glad when I got to the 1949 paintings and they were back to being pure Magritte.

My favorite room of the whole museum was at the end of the first level. It began with “Words and Images,” a series of statements and sketches by Magritte about the usage of images and words. They were general principles about how words could stand in for images, images could stand in for words, etc. Amidst them was the statement “All tend to think that there is some relation between an object and the word which represents it.” Curious...

Turn around, and there was one of his paintings exploring this concept. “The Use of Speech.” There was a background of a blue sky and a brick wall. In the foreground was a white shape. The top of it was labeled “canon” (barrel.) The middle of it was labeled “corps de femme” (body of a woman.) And the left of it was labeled “arbre” (tree.) I'm not sure if the words did as good a job of relating the three as images would have, but it was certainly interesting.

Turn around. On the top of the wall, where quotes by Magritte go, is written “Poetry is a pipe.” Beneath that is “The Treachery of Images.”

It's not the first “Treachery of Images.” The text on that one reads “this is not a pipe,” and the text on the painting that I was looking at said “this continues to not be a pipe,” so it was clearly a later work. It might have been better if they'd had the first one there, but even so, the whole combination of Magritte's words and his artwork combined to leave me slightly stunned. Freshman year,, several classes of history were introduced with “The Treachery of Images” and exploring what that meant and what that meant for history. At the time I understood “this is not a pipe. It's a drawing of one. Actually, technically this is a photocopied version of a book that contains a reproduction of a drawing of a pipe. It is not itself a pipe.” That could not compete with seeing the originals of the work that Magritte had done leading him to decide to draw “The Treachery of Images.” The purpose of the room was clearly just to put a single picture in context, and it succeeded.

Magritte loved words, and he loved art, and he loved combining the two in thought-provoking ways. While this occasionally took the form of sketches in a written pamphlet or letter, or a sentence written as a key part of a painting, more often it manifested in his choice of titles.

Some of my favorite combinations:
“The Copper Handcuffs.” The woman who was depicted did not have handcuffs. Or hands. Or arms.
“The Pleasures of Landscape.” The center of the picture was an empty picture frame with the label “Landscape.” To the right is a gun leaning on a wall. There is nothing else.
“The Curse.” The entire painting was of the sky. A light blue sky with fluffy clouds.
“The One-Night Museum.” It was divided into four sections, like a display case. The top-left section had a hand (removed from the rest of the body, but neatly and without blood,) the one to the right of it had a tomato, the bottom-left section had a black blobby shape, and the bottom-right section was covered in a sheet of paper like how I made snowflakes in elementary school. I followed the teachers instructions of folding it, cut small sections out wherever I wanted, and unfolded it to have a shape that may not have been a snowflake, but was at least as unique as one. Wonder what kind of museum that was...
“Forbidden Literature.” There was one word, (possibly a name? I couldn't read it because there was) a giant finger sticking up through the middle, an Automaton (a metal sphere with a line in the middle that had been the focal point of one of Magritte's earlier works, but then reappeared as a minor part of several of his later ones.) hovering above the finger, and to the right, a flight of stairs that ended at a wall.

As much as I liked his titles, I would have liked originality more. And Magritte didn't have that. His titles were unique from anyone else's works, (with the exception of “Almayer's Folly,” a 1951 painting by Magritte showing a floating turret of a castle with roots coming out of the bottom, and also an 1895 Joseph Conrad novel about a poor businessman, an oversizec house, and relations with natives.) just extremely repetitive.

Three were three different works labeled “Memory.” All of them had the white head of a statue with a red blotch covering half of her left eye and some of her face, and all of them had an Automaton The first “Memory” had a curtain and a leaf, and the sea in the background. The second “Memroy” had a rose to the left of the head, which was on a wooden plank with the sea in the background. The third “Memory” had the head located right next to a wooden wall.

At least all three different pictures of “Memory” had elements in common. Some of his other paintings that shared names didn't have that detail.

“The Art of Conversation” had the ground take up most of the painting, and a curtain that didn't go all the way to the ceiling. There were the silhouettes of two people standing in the distance, but the focus ore seemed to be on an eyeball raised on the top of a pedestal.

“The Art of Conversation” was focused on a rock wall. In front of it were the silhouettes of two people, though they were tiny in comparison with the rocks. The rocks in the bottom center read “Dream.”

Even with the repetition of the names, I thoroughly enjoyed looking at Magritte's paintings, especially his later ones. Besides missing the first “Treachery of Images,” the museum didn't have “Time Transfixed” (possibly my favorite Magritte painting, though I'm not quite sure why) and they didn't have the “The Son of Man.” But they did have plenty of other images of men wearing bowler hats (including “Good Faith,” which showed a man wearing a bowler hat with a pipe covering his face. I also like the title on that one.) And they certainly had enough bizarre and surreal pictures without those three.

I enjoyed the museum more than I expected (If I liked art museums, I would have made a point out of going to the Louvre. Or the Musee d'Orsay. Or the Pompidou Center. Or the Palais de Tokyo. Or...) I also spent much longer there then I was expecting. It struck a nice balance of general information about surrealism, biographical information about Rene Magritte, and paintings by Magritte, and I loved the quotes from him in each room.

After a couple of hours of looking at art and pamphlets, I can't begin to summarize either Magritte or surrealism. So I'll leave that to someone who know surrealism very well, and Magritte better than anyone else. “To be surrealist is to banish the spirit of 'already seen' (deja vu) and look for the 'never again seen.'”

Posted by Soseki 15:07 Archived in Belgium

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