“René Magritte was no doubt disappointed that, aside from the small circle of his kindred spirits among the Surrealists, the world needed over a quarter of a century to discover that his work has both philosophical and poetic content which corresponds to certain social and intellectual trends, particularly of the second half of the twentieth century. Magritte’s work was not easy to approach at the outset, however. He is a difficult painter, and his simplicity is misleading. A world ever more disturbed and unstable – in labor, trade, and industry, as well as in intellectual and university circles – is a world in which reason remains indispensable. Yet the irrational no longer allows itself to be thrust aside, and today it is struggling to win recognition. As a result, there is now a greater possibility, especially among the younger generation, to arrive at a better and deeper understanding of Magritte’s art.
The Son of Man
“His work makes a constant call on us to relinquish, at least temporarily, our usual expectations of art. Magritte never responds to our demands and expectations. He offers us something else instead. His friend Paul Nougé has expressed the problem better than anyone else; what he said in 1944 still holds good: “We question pictures,” he said, “before listening to them, we question them at random. And we are astonished when the reply we had expected is not forthcoming.”
La Magie Noire
“Magritte’s work allows one to conjure up a state of being which has become rare and precious – which makes it possible to observe in silence. Reading and reflection call for silence, listening no less. Silence can be used for waiting for an illumined vision of things, and it is to this vision that Magritte introduces us.
“The fascinating and challenging images in Magritte’s works stem from revelations of the mystery of the visible world. To him this world was a more than adequate source of lucid revelations, so that he did not need to draw on dreams, hallucinations, occult phenomena, cabalism. Nonetheless, preconsciousness – that is, the state before and during waking up – always played an important role in his work.
“In studying Magritte one begins to understand that attempting to solve puzzles must be avoided but the artist himself provides clues to his manner of painting and the mental process on which it is founded. Some are inclined to call this process “visual thinking. I prefer to give it no name. The term “visual thinking” is not subtle enough and involves too many misunderstandings regarding the possible subordination of the visual to thought, or vice versa. The misunderstanding caused by calling Magritte “cerebral” has also been demonstrated all too often, despite the unusually large quantity of literary, philosophical, and linguistic affinities Magritte’s work suggests, and which bring us closer to their meaning. Also the term “literary” is a misconception in his case, although it is understandable because of the literary origins of the leading figures in Surrealism. Let us refrain, then, from favoring one formula or the other and instead take a frank look to see with whom, and with what, Magritte and his marvelous cabinet of instruments can be compared.
“The author who wishes to show complete respect for the struggle Magritte waged against faulty interpretations and explanations – and it was indeed a struggle – nevertheless finds he has to ignore Magritte’s own personal ban. Even Magritte himself attempted to explain why he wanted no explanations.
“His pronounced hostility to the idea of the symbol in relation to his work, his undisguised dislike of psychoanalysis in particular, and his distrust of any and every interpretation naturally had reasons. He was defending the very essence of his work by adopting this attitude. If, therefore, we try to understand something of the meaning of his resistance – and Magritte never forbade us to attempt that – we shall come closer to his work by this roundabout way.
“Seeing, says Magritte, is what matters. Seeing must suffice. But what kind of seeing must it be? Of what quality? A form of understanding is possible beyond the confines of any verbal explanation, which, if it is of any use at all, must be authenticated by a way of seeing. Unfortunately, for a large proportion of the public, seeing is not sufficient. People often see things hastily and think about them carelessly; they have been educated in disciplines and traditions in which words represent ideas and have a dominant function. This function has left the realm of revelation beyond words neglected and unexplored.
“Magritte, who was a painter and a painter tout court, albeit an unusual one, was nevertheless more aware than any of his contemporaries of words and of the dubious status they had acquired. His consciousness of words is evident in both his writings and paintings. Dealing with words was a dangerous game to play, though, for by playing it he introduced the element “Word” into his painted “images.” Thus, anyone seriously concerned with Magritte’s work cannot avoid taking a thorough account of what Magritte sought of words in his work and of the value he attached to them.
“The simplicity in his work is a suspect simplicity. In his writings – which include general articles, a few literary pieces, and special articles on specific themes – and in the titles he gave to his works, Magritte was methodical, as he was in his painting. The unexpected is never mere caprice. Moreover, it resides not so much in Magritte as in ourselves. We are not prepared for, and we do not instantly grasp, his technique of thinking and painting. It is not recalcitrance on his part but a natural need to react to the stereotype phenomena of everyday life in a way contrary to expectation; it is a need to correct. What is more, in Magritte’s work this became a discipline of feeling, thinking, and behaving which he discovered and evolved for himself. Accordingly, his method – others feel it was a discipline – is as valid a subject for our inquiry as the works themselves.
“Magritte attempted, as it were, to achieve a controlled resonance in his work. After he had finished a painting, it set up a resonance within him, in which he involved his closest friends. This resonance in the artist himself was necessarily different from that in us, who are the uninitiated in regard to his pictorial and verbal imagery. Yet, despite everything, Magritte probably attached more than usual importance to having people feel the right kind of resonance. That he could do anything about this himself was an illusion; the others were the critics, the art historians, the museums, the art dealers, the collectors, who play their own game with a variety of intentions.
“More often than not, Magritte chose ordinary things from which to construct his works – trees, chairs, tables, doors, windows, shoes, shelves, landscapes, people. He wanted to be understood via these ordinary things. Those who find him obscure should not forget that he had turned his back on the fantastic and on the immediate world of dreams. He did not seek to be obscure. On the contrary, he sought through a therapy of shock and surprise to liberate our conventional vision from its obscurity.
“…[L]et us therefore keep, so far as we can, to Magritte himself, to his own resonance, to his method. Even though his is a complex, sophisticated world in which we often lose sight of simplicity, we are able to find this simplicity again in the works themselves, a fact that can only increase our astonishment.”