“I would rather have written only Alice in Wonderland than the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica.”
I was visiting a college library a few weeks ago. If you ever see me in a library, I’m the “grown-up” rifling through books with child-like eagerness. I came across a beautiful book from 1970 on René Magritte. Seeing the quality of the images, the presentation, the lovely hard-binding, and the written contents, I immediately put it on my Christmas list.
From time to time, I am reminded me of the importance of discussing interpretations of artists’ artworks. Often, admiration comes not only from what we can see, but also from seeing what others see.
I don’t pretend “to know” what René Magritte intended to convey in his artworks. I can only give you my responses . . . but sometimes that is better than nothing.
René Magritte’s artworks ask these kind of questions:
What deserves priority?
The foreground or background?
The portrait or the still life?
Do we ever see “reality”? Or are we always seeings things through an artist’s perspective?
When do dreams or reality become art?
Where do reality and imagination begin and end?
Is reality more important than dreams?
When you combine disassociated things, what good can come from that combination?
When you show the visual connections of “separate” things, does the result inform those “separate” things?
Is your awake world more real than your sleeping world?
Magritte often used realistic imagery to point out our expectations and assumptions. Magritte did not often mishape or simplify the real appearance of objects. He was not a Cubist, an Abstractionist, a Minimalist, or an Impressionist.
Instead, even though he was well informed and capable of painting in those styles, Magritte chose to use Realism to show us our imaginations.
And Magritte showed us our imaginings to reveal and inform our realities.
Magritte often chose to use symbols with which we have defined associations. His art questions our associations and definitions for those symbols. His art often examines the boundaries of definitions.
Magritte’s work emphasizes how perceptions define our “reality”, and how different perceptions can create different realities.
Why would these ideas have been especially important to Magritte?
In 1912, when René Magritte was a young teenager, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Sambre.
One of Magritte’s early paintings in 1927 was titled “The Threatened Assassin” or “The Menaced Assassin”:
In this painting, fully clothed, orderly, and defined men are all watching and orbiting a naked, deceased woman, whose clothes have been raised up around her neck.
What was the cause of her death? Illness? Murder? Suicide?
Recalling his mother’s suicide, and knowing that art often reveals our heart on our sleeve – a question that comes to mind is: What were the incidents involving men in Magritte’s mother’s past? Was her inability to deal with issues relating to her affairs with men a potential causal factor in her death? What cultural expectations and standards may have contributed to her death?
Notice that in the picture none of the men can directly look at the woman, not even the three men facing her in the window – even their eyes glance away. Is there a general culpability in her death – as opposed to a single actor? Are the cultural standards of a community called into question when a suicide occurs?
In “The Threatened Assassin”, I believe there is an intentional, dream-like ambuiguity to the question of: Who was the assassin? One of the men? A chemistry of several men who were interacting with the woman? The woman herself? Is there some shared culpability in all of the people?
At the height of psychoanalysis’ popularity in the mid-Twentieth century, Magritte’s imagery broadly asked relational, familial, and archetypal questions.
Another of Magritte’s artworks that conveys many things to me is “The Rape“, a painting completed in 1945, the year World War II ended.
After it is known a woman has been raped, does everyone interpret and see her differently? Can most people ever see her again beyond the context of their knowledge of her being raped? In the first half of the 20th century, in a culture where “purity” and “chastity” greatly effected reputations and status, what could a woman do to re-shape others’ perceptions of her for the rest of her life? After a woman had been raped, did she always see the recognition of that knowledge in the facial expressions of those looking at her?
It is unfair to be defined by a violent event you did not bring upon yourself. Was Magritte’s mother, or another women in his intimate social circle, raped? Were these issues important to him? Why would he have created such an evocative image on the topic of rape?
Many of Magritte’s images of women are naked, with their arms and heads cut off. Did Magritte’s conscious and subconscious mind want to bring attention to images of disarmed or disadvantaged women?
Someone aske me if I thought Magritte was a Feminist. When she asked the question, she did not know Magritte was a man. I said, “Magritte was a man. And I think he was a Feminist.”
She asked, “Can a man be a Feminist?”
I said, “Yes.” I think any person, regardless of gender, can work to promote the rights of women.
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Another painting I find fascinating is titled “Philosophy in the Boudoir”, a painting that suggests questions like:
Is it interesting that in the Boudoir we reveal our inside on the outside? Why do we so carefully clothe, cover, and define ourselves so differently outside of the Boudoir?
In Magritte’s “Dangerous Acquaintances”, questions come to mind like: Why do we hide what we reflect? Why do we not show images of our core self to others?
In Magritte’s “The Liberator”, an image which uses many of Magritte’s repeated symbols and themes, is the title ironic? Does an artist become an accumulation and synthesis of the symbols he or she presents?
Viewing Magritte’s “Infinite Gratitude”, I’m reminded of The Police’s song “Spirits in a Material World”:
Magritte’s artistry says to me: Do you think reality is more important than dreams? Really? Are you sure?
Magritte’s work was a predecessor to other idealist artists like The Beatles, John Lennon, and Martin Luther King, Jr. John Lennon’s songs asked: “Is what we can imagine more important than our current reality? The same artistic vein was central to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Magritte’s drawing of his wife Georgette:
Magritte’s diverse artworks inspire uncommon thinking and questioning. He created images that are easy to remember – a difficult task for any artist.
Magritte’s artworks antagonize presumptions. Magritte provokes on many levels. And long after we are gone, his work will continue to do the same.
(Click on the images if you wish to view them individually.)
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There will be no new posts for several days, as I get to spend time with family out of state. I’ll leave with a thought that came to me on my walk this morning:
Clean up more than you mess up
Encourage more than you discourage
Create more pleasant resources than you consume
Be more gracious than critical
Love more than you hate
Be more humorous than serious
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