René Magritte, La Trahison des Images (the treachery of images) at Centre Pompidou
We went to see Magritte expo in Centre Pompidou. Going there on an expo is always a thrill – this particular museum often excels when it comes to temporary exhibitions. In Paris in person we unanimously agree that some of the best shows we’ve seen on the entire Parisian scene were at this museum, and that’s saying a lot. Sure, Louvre and Orsay have a great permanent installations, but when it comes to the temporary, rotating shows, Pompidou is our museum of choice. So, Magritte. First of, it was (and probably will be throughout the duration of the exhibition) very, very crowded, so if you are going, arm yourselves with patience. Second, the museum didn’t disappoint in terms of the size of the show, as it was really big, larger than expected even. A surprising amount of paintings that well covered the most important phases in Magritte’s artistic development, from his early post-impressionism days, throughout his days of being with the surrealist group spearheaded by André Bréton, the period after a break-up with them, and the period of his philosophical (or, if you’ll have it, “philosophical”) maturity (and again, just to be extra mean, “maturity”).
Philosopher’s Lamp, René Magritte, 1936.
The curators of the show made a smart move of contrasting Magritte’s art with that of the period of neoclassicism (if you wish to learn more about neoclassicism and its immense importance in French and Parisian culture, book our Neoclassical Paris tour, and/or our Louvre museum visit). I imagine that the set of paintings done by other artists in the style of neoclassicism was there as an example of the “classical” (no pun intended) style and even more importantly, of the symbolical image and value we attribute to painting as an art form. So, we have a long corridor filled with neoclassical paintings, and from that corridor we go into different rooms filled with Magritte’s works. So after every room that shows us a certain period of Magritte’s work, you get to come back to that corridor and be reminded what the “classical”, or “regular” painting is, and how Magritte’s work differs from it. So, a pretty smart and elegant solution, a tip of the hat to the curators of Pompidou for that. Also, we’ve had the impression that the exhibition was just the right size – not to large, in danger of overwhelming the audience, but not too small, in danger of making you feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth.
Attempting the impossible, René Magritte, 1928.
As far as the actual work of Magritte goes, we’re entering a rocky terrain. If you tend to like it, you will – if you don’t, you won’t. It splits the opinions right down the middle, as you can either appreciate this type of art, or don’t. We’ll try to present both optics and their arguments. Before we do so, I’d like to say (we’re going from “we”, to “I” here for a moment) that before actually seeing his work in person, I quite enjoyed Magritte’s style, on its purely aesthetic side. I’m a loving fan of the naive art (an avid admirer of Douanier Rousseau as well as Grant Wood and that entire branch of the american scene) and some of the more well known Magritte’s works are done in that exact line. There is something touching yet brave and ambitious about it. I didn’t really care about the “philosophical” side of it, which is, I am (and I was) well aware of that, the most important aspect of his work. To him personally and to his admirers alike. So, going back to “we” now.
Delusions of grandeur, René Magritte, 1948.
Magritte spent his entire carrier escaping from the visual medium. Even the title of this exhibition is Magritte, La Trahison Des Images (Magritte, the treachery of images). His entire agenda is the falseness of the represented; the image as a notion, and especially a painting, is not the actual object it represents. The curators rightly understood this and placed his famous “Pipe” painting at the very entrance of the exhibition. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen all – it’s all there is to it. Seriously, Magritte took this one notion and basically ran with it for the entirety of his carrier. It is a mirror if it’s time. Magritte’s work happens at the same time as the schools of thought of Russian formalism and Structuralism developed and took over the artistic and the scientific scene alike. One of the important traits of these two schools (first the Russian formalism, then through the works of Roman Jacobson, the structuralism, that took over and developed the main issues set up by the formalists) is the continuation of de Saussure’s notion that we can split the word in the signifier and the signified. Meaning, you have the sound of the word, its physical form, and then you have its meaning. It is exactly the same with images – you have an image representing something (a pipe), and then you have that notion (a pipe, its function, its cultural significance, its history etc., you can further complicate it at your own leisure).
The treachery of images/This is not a pipe, René Magritte, 1948.
Magritte’s idea is that there is not supposed to be a direct link between the image and what it represents. His “This is not a pipe” title below an image of a pipe, that the entire exhibition is named after, is saying that very clearly. It is an image of a pipe, not a pipe we can light up and smoke; not even an idea of a pipe in a platonic sense of the term. Just one of many images that by themselves have no meaning and are emptied out of any context, apart from the one we read into it. By doing that, Magritte opened himself an entire world of empty images he can use as he see fits, always fully aware of the fluidity (and ultimately, the emptiness) of their symbolic content and their signification. In the end, there is nothing behind a symbol, as it is nothing but an empty husk we read into. As anyone else in his time, Magritte was deeply influenced (you could say troubled) by the teachings of Freud. His idea was that the symbols always point towards our deepest fears, our repressed desires, and that it is subconsciousness’ and id’s subversive manner of finding their way into our controlled and civilised everyday life through symbols. They therefore have a very deep significance – Freud’s entire psychoanalytic method was based in the interpretation of symbols, most often from our dreams. Magritte ran with this notion for a while until he developed towards an idea that we already presented, that meaning as such does not really exist.
Forbidden literature, the use of the word, René Magritte, 1936.
So far so good, it all makes sense. However, we are talking about a visual artist, not a philosopher. The first camp, the one of Magritte’s admirers, would be satisfied with everything said thus far. We are entering the second camp now. The thing is, Magritte chose a wrong medium to deliver his message. His paintings, while denouncing the inexistence of meaning in a painting (another reason why there is a hall gallery of neoclassical paintings in this exhibition, all deeply symbolical and contextualized, as a contrast to Magritte’s work). Most of Magritte’s painting are very poorly made. Technically speaking, they are really, really bad. Flat, no dimension, very basic perspective, very basic and uninspired usage of colors. Clearly, this was never his intention, as he was always interested in the meaning (and the lack of thereof) and not in the visual, plastic side of paintings. But that is the most important part of it. Now, here is the part where you can either agree or disagree, as there seems to be no middle ground – we “get” the people who think the art is about ideas, emotions, concepts, etc; we really get it – but art is essentially about the technical skill first and everything else later. All of those – ideas, emotions, concepts – are supposed to be developed from the technical skill; not be opposed to it. Technically speaking, Magritte’s paintings are mostly a mess. Even the ones you might like if you’ve seen them in a book or on-line will disappoint you on that level when you see them in person.
The Rape, René Magritte, 1945.
The taste is especially bitter if you liked the artist before and had a good opinion about his work. Furthermore, most of his paintings are reduced to puns – he would represent a jockey on top of a car (before the cars use horse power), he would represent a street inside a house instead of the outside, men in raincoats falling from the sky instead of a rain, and so on. It’s a catch, a pun, a (sometimes) humorous switch – and that is all there is to it. Some of us expect the art to be more than a pun, a joke that will make you do “ha”, not even laugh. Most of his paintings have that effect. But then again, if you are more into concepts and ideas than you are in the art (and artisan, and artifice), this might be your piece of cake. However, if you are well acquainted with the spirit of his time, and you have some previous knowledge of Freud, Lévi-Strauss, Jacobson etc., you might not be able to find anything new nor original in these paintings. Because how they are painted is really not that interesting. Paradoxically, if you are not familiar with the works of the previously mentioned scholars, the meaning and the point of this paintings might escape you completely.
So, final words – great work on the behalf of the Pompidou staff, problematic work on behalf of Magritte. Our take is that it deserves as a visit, as there are some nice little puns to be seen and some paintings that, albeit not being in our taste, are a staple of general culture and consciousness.
Want to learn more about the Pompidou center, or 20th century art in general ? Book our Pompidou museum visit and see how Magritte’s work fits in the general context of the 20th century.
René Magritte, La Trahison Des Images,
Centre Pompidou, 21 September 2016 – 23 January 2017