Magritte & His Contemporaries (Essay Writen 2003)
Rene Magritte, is from the Belgian 20th Century’s Surrealist movement, and became a bit of alone gun painter after his brake up with the French Surrealists’. I shall try to explain the meaning behind René Magritte’s art, but I also will be commenting on how other Surrealists’ working at the same time link, reflect and have had an influenced Magritte’s work. Earlier influences like De Chirico, an Italian metaphysical painter, shall also be explored. The other main artist who I shall be examining in this essay who is from the avant-garde of his time shall be the Spanish born Surrealist painter Dali, one of the front runners of the French Surrealist movement.
When the First World War came to an end in 1918, the earlier art movement of Dada had evolved. This was a movement that ‘kicked’ against established movements of the time, and explored the meaningless of politics, art and especially the dead and destruction caused in World War I. What the Dada Movement offered was an analysis of what has been described as the “crisis of modernism”. What Dada shows is the shock and horror of the modern world, mostly expressed in the First World War, and buy 1918 a band of avant-garde foreigners flocked to Paris and created to Surrealists’ Among them André Breton, one of the main literary and poetic writers of the Dada movement, soon became part of the new movement of Surrealism.
Eventually though the ideas of Dada was being more and more accepted into the world of art and this lead to a new movement of Surrealism around about 1924. In France, particularly Paris, Breton be came their leader. Unlike Dadaism that looked at the meaning or meaninglessness of art and the chaos of the world, surrealism was a step into the unconscious mind. It explored the symbolism and imagers from dreams, and Breton was strongly influence by the fairly new ideas of Freud and of Psychoanalysts.
Work that was done by the Futurists and the Cubists had inspired Magritte and other artist like Dali. Both Cubism and Futurism had been exploring the visual ‘fun’ of painting. But then both Dali and Magritte absorbed particular influence from De Chirico’s Metaphysical painting style. De Chirico was an artist who was pointed out to the French Surrealists by their leader Breton. Breton told them to abandon the visual works of the cubists and look at the metaphysical ideas of De Chirico’s early work.
De Chirico was an Italian born painter in 1888 and raised partly in Greece. An example of this is a piece of work called “Love Song” 1914. In this piece it shows the traditional sculptures and everyday objects. This is a good example of the seemingly random mishmash of inner metaphysical thoughts De Chirico had at the time. His work has been said to be; “Morbid, introspective and peevish, de Chirico belonged to the company of the convalescents: Cavafy, Leopardi, Proust. And as a fabricator of images that spoke of frustration, tension and ritualised memory.” No wonder the Surrealists like Magritte and Dali all took so much influence out of early De Chirico’s work. De Chirico, with his dreamy landscapes that he developed, has strong obvious ties that can be found all these surrealist. De Chirico used objects and space in a powerful and almost dreamy way. An example of this is a piece of work called “Love Song” 1914.
But of cause Magritte had something to add to what he had seen and learnt. Magritte’s paintings where mainly focused on how the mind preserves the world and generally playing with visual language as well as the written word too. Like De Chirico, Magritte also enjoyed using juxtar-positions of everyday objects an example of this is Magritte’s. “Time Transfixed”. Here Magritte is doing the same type of thing as De Chirico did in ‘Love Song’. Magritte has been very clever as to how he has painted this though with respect to what metaphorical imagery he has used, this is a very Surrealist way of doing this. How he made the imagery seem dream like and unreal principally relies on the way he has applied the paint. Magritte’s use of paint in his work is always rather ‘deadpan’, or in other word there is little or no texture or other bearing sense of brushstrokes. The work is photographic in style. This is something that both Dali and Magritte employed to express their ideas without getting cluttered with mark making. Both of the two artists’ used this ‘deadpan’ way of working and it brought straightforwardness to their work. By making it look photographic and also giving it a highly polished and plastically look they made their point in a disturbingly clear ‘line of attack’. This is something he did all the time with his paintings.
“Painting to me is merely a means to an end, it allows me to describe an idea that is production solely by what the world of the visible has to offer.” (Rene Magritte, at the 1969 Magritte Exhibition).
But what Magritte liked to do was illustrate an interesting problem that exists in painting and the everyday world too, i.e. the relationship between real and painted objects and the viewers’ relationship. And another good example of Magritte’s work that uses everyday items in an unfamiliar and potentially impossible way is Magritte’s ‘Human Condition I’. What Magritte has done with this painting is to ‘illustrate’ a very complex paradox, which has the following properties:
1st It is painting of a painting.
2nd The Painting is of a landscape.
3rd The landscape is viewed through a window in the painting as well.
4th The Painting that at is of the landscape follows on from the confided view of the window.
This had a lot to say about the perception of reality, what is real and what is not. Magritte is just using painting as a “symbol” or tool to express, at lest how he views the world and the way painting are related to it. Also by using symbolic images like a window, a strong symbol of visual awareness into the outside world, like looking from a room to the outside world. Magritte shows the landscape painting as a slight replacement to the to part of the window. But the landscape painting also extends the original window view, creating a wider view. Composition wise this makes the painting a more unified piece, but keeps an under-lying suggestion in the piece. The symbolic use of a painting is a self-made sense or idea of the outside surrounding world. And so a seeming simple painting of a landscape that represents that landscape becomes an extremely complex observation of how the inner mind works, as well as the relationship between imagery and reality. Magritte is saying that the inside of our mind is just as real as the goings on of the outside. This rings true with what psychologists and neuroscientists have to say about the way the mind works.
Dali as an artist never really dealt with these types of ideas. Most of his work tended to be linked mainly to his struggle with symbols and the power of sexuality. Dali was always more concerted with the visual imagery and symbolism of what was in his dreams and fantasies and a good example of this is Soft-Construction, a piece mainly about the Spanish civil war in 1929. This piece is open to a lot of Freudian interpretation; i.e. the Oedipus complex, where the son what to own the mother but has to destroy the father. This is obvious with the two masses fighting each other, with some sexually symbolism thrown in as well.
Though ironically Freud didn’t like the fact that the French Surrealists’ used his concepts in the way they did, particularly Dali. He considered Breton and his group to be making use of psychoanalytic concepts in a completely inappropriate way. It made no sense to Freud to use dream-imagery in a poem or painting, since dreams had no meaning for him apart from their psychological context. Besides that the whole point of psychoanalytic therapy was to make the unconscious conscious and in Freud's opinion at least, the same was true for art, it shouldn't be a matter of going back to the unconscious, as the Surrealists were doing, but just the reverse. “What interests me in your art," Freud told Salvador Dali who had come to visit him in 1938, “is not the unconscious, but the conscious.” Here Freud is saying though there is a psychoanalytic value to what he did, it was in the end not getting to any conclusion, and that is what Freud away about at the end of the day.
Magritte was not like this though, he going beyond what Dali did, rather than reproducing the unconscious after squeezing it through the conscious, he reused object from everyday life around him to put across a very conscious idea. And that is the big difference between the two artists.
Similarity between Magritte and people involved in the Cubist and Futurist movements was that they were involved in a type of brake down of artistic boundaries. The Cubist broke down visual boundaries, and the Surrealist like Magritte broke down more conceptual bounds. They did this by using a photographic method of applying paint to bring pure clarity to apiece.
Magritte’s style in “The Human Condition I” and “Time Transfixed”, was the main way in which he painted for all of this creative life. But you could never say he was not experimental, in the 1930s he did have a brief period of a more experimental mark making approach. During this period he played a lot more with the use of colour and brush marks and followed a much more impressionistic way of working. But after a lot of bad press following an exhibition in the 1930s he went back to his more established style. In the end though Magritte was not about the exploration of paint application, he wanted to illustrate his ideas in ‘black and white’. He didn’t believe in being ‘selfish’ in his enjoyment of painting, he liked to make a plainly visible symbolic picture, which other a certain amount of observation would make itself crystal clear. In his own way, Magritte was a blue print or a beginning for a more conceptual type of artist in the 20th Century. He had great influence particularly on graphic designers, television and film producers and even on computer programmer designers, e.g. the people that made the O/S Windows 98, Macintosh computers and even the brand new Windows XP. Magritte’s way of creating objects in odd and strange new position lives on with use even today in the world of graphic, illustration and advertisement.
Author Title Publisher Date
Pamela Pritzker Magritte L. Amiel 1984
Ume M. Schneede Surrealism Harry N Abrams 1978
David Sylvester Magrette Scala Publishers 1991
Robert Short Dada & Surrealism Mayfield Publishing Company 1982
Kenneth Wach Salvador Dali Harry N Abrams 1996
Various The Art Book Regentis Wharf 1994