Some Wisdom From Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte, the Belgian surrealist, was a painter of the mind and of a philosophical orientation.  First, a word about surrealism.  This artistic movement in the 20th century arose primarily because of two factors:  1:   World War I blasted the concept of rational man into outer space; and 2:  improved techniques in photography rendered portrait painting obsolete.  Surrealism sought to extend artistic possibilities into the infinite, including combinations of objects, which were previously thought absurd.  Not surprisingly, Lewis Carroll’s “mad” wonderland became an inspiration for several surrealists.  However,  many of Magritte’s striking juxtapositions are not absurd; they are satirical, disturbing, and, most often, they provoke thought.  In fact, Magritte posed the question:  “A picture is a window that looks out on something.  The question is, on what?”  He also teases us about the reality of what he paints.  In a series of increasingly detailed portrayals of a pipe, the message in the paintings reads:  “This is not a pipe.”  Magritte insists on the portrayal as an image, not an actual entity.  How bemused he would have been to live in today’s world, which swarms with enticing, beckoning images, and that which is real and not real is increasingly blurred.  But Magritte’s world was the landscape of the mind, and in the “pipe” example he wondered about the naming of things with a ferocity of a Wittgenstein.  To him, labels were a mental comfort zone, making the realm of the unknown more palatable.  Imagine looking at Necktie Falls without the human term “necktie.”  The falls might look very different, perhaps more threatening.  Magritte believed that one of the properties of the human mind was to label or to find an explanation of things and his juxtapositions are purposely disturbing.  He wants the mind to be uncomfortable and decried any attempt to find a definite meaning in his paintings.  Perhaps, his most profound saying is one which I call Magritte’s Paradox:  “If we look at a thing with the intention of discovering what it means, we end up no longer looking at the thing itself, but thinking of the question that is being raised.”  Magritte’s Paradox has implications in almost all facets of life, including critical analysis and personal relationships.  In other words, as soon as we focus with intent, we necessarily distort and limit the possibilities.  I believe that Magritte would have agreed with Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who saw reality as “without bottom, hence unquenchable, unfathomable.”