More than twenty years ago, I stumbled upon a book with different paintings by Belgium Reneé Magritte. I felt an instant fascination for his paintings. I couldn’t stop looking at them, dwelling on the many thoughts they inspired. I found his stone still life paintings captivating. Time, eternity, death, the futility of human activity and what we call progress, all that came to my mind in a jumble, along with the pleasure of enjoying the painting.
About three years ago, I found out that my friend and art teacher Karen McArthur, had an obsession similar to mine, at the same time I did, (when we were in our twenties). She wrote very inspiring book lists at her blog under these categories: Childhood, Coming of Age, College, Adulthood. And in her Adulthood list, I found this book, Magritte, by Suzi Gablik. (I have to say that I’ve bought and read several of her suggestions, and they’ve been wonderful. I specially recommend Twelve Months of Monastery Soups.)
Today, I look at this painting, -the stone scene upfront, which opens to what looks like an abyss, and Ecclesiastes comes to mind. Vanity of vanities. Life under the sun is a frustrating and pointless pursue. The bottle of wine, the pleasures implied, the fruit, the book nobody can read anymore, it’s all petrified, it’s there for nobody. Those are just my own thoughts. And that’s the curious quality of Magritte’s art. Learning what art meant to him, and what he was trying to accomplish, was never necessary for me to enjoy his paintings. However, the author of this book presented me with knowledge and ideas, which, in turn, begat new ideas and formed a better understanding of not just Magritte or art, but of literature, philosophy, life. When I combined this reading with other pieces of information that I already have, it helped me achieve a new synthesis, a better scheme at my disposition to apply to all areas.
As Ortega said in his Dehumanization of Art, and Rookmaaker, painters always paint ‘reality’. But our view or definition of what’s real changes. It’s also possible that we, the viewers, are stuck in a past interpretation of reality. It could be the case that artists, (not just painters, but also writers, poets, philosophers, and at times scientists, mathematicians, engineers, etc.) are many times poorly understood or lowly regarded because they are ahead of times, or by their doing something other than what we are familiar with and accustomed to, (which happens to be that which we have had for a while, and which we can contemplate with a bit of distance and perspective), -that in the distant or short term past.
But Magritte is, in this sense, ‘old news’, (as a 20th century painter, I think it’s safe to say we all are a bit versed in the art of his time, -surrealism, dadaism, pop art). Let’s listen to him telling us the question he’s trying to answer with his art:
My latest painting began with the question: how to show a glass of water in a painting in such a way that it would not be indifferent? Or whimsical, or arbitrary, or weak — but, allow us to use the word, with genius? (Without false modesty.) I began by drawing many glasses of water, always with a linear mark on the glass. This line, after the 100th or 150th drawing, widened out and finally took the form of an umbrella. The umbrella was then put into the glass, and to conclude, underneath the glass. Which is the exact solution to the initial question: how to paint a glass of water with genius. I then thought that Hegel (another genius) would have been very sensitive to this object which has two opposing functions: at the same time not to admit any water (repelling it) and to admit it (containing it). He would have been delighted, I think, or amused (as on a vacation) and I call the painting Hegel’s Holiday.
And this is from the author of the book, pg. 114:
Just as with the ambiguity of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, Magritte avoids any absolute finality of placement by playing on the bipolarity of ‘here’ and ‘there’. As in The Empire of Lights, where he has used two apparently irreconcilable events (night and day) observed from a single point of view to disrupt our sense of time, in paintings like The Battle of the Argonne Magritte has similarly disrupted our sense of space.
The plural significance of experience, in which spatiotemporal measurement is seen as the relation between observer and phenomena, corresponds to Einstein’s theory of relativity in physics, which abolished the ‘absolute’ space and time of Newtonian theory.
This made me think of the great Marian Petrosyan, author of The Gray House, and what Yuri Masachov, (English translator of the work) said about the book being faithful to a reality understood under the laws of quantum physics. (Gone is the more traditional literature which responded to that Newtonian paradigm.)
Another book quote, page 124:
What appears inevitably true in one sense, because it has been endorsed by reason, is an oversimplified and limited notion of the possibilities of experience, since it does not take into account the ambivalent, paradoxical nature of reality. In Magritte’s paintings, everything is directed towards a specific crisis in consciousness, through which the limited evidence of the common-sense world can be transcended.
Which made me think about the switch in literature to unreliable narrators, stream of consciousness, new ways of talking about the world and us.
There’s so much more in this book. The paintings are grouped by topics, not necessarily chronological. The author explains that Magritte had a definite set of themes he found early on but that he continued exploring the rest of his life. I particularly love the ones which explore language, meaning, representation. There were some mentions of Wittgenstein, -since philosophy as well became very interested in language in the 20th century. I instantly thought about one of the prevalent themes in Don Quixote.
I was reading one of the chapters that talks about Don Quixote’s claims that a barber’s basin is the helmet of the renowned knight Mambrino. The culminating chapter finds the barber whose basin and ass’s mount was stolen, at the same inn than Don Quixote, Sancho, and a lot more others, some who are privy to Don Quixote’s mad views, and some who aren’t. The fight that arises when some (in conspiracy, to prank the barber) claim the basin is truly a helmet, and the simple donkey’s mount the most splendid horse’s saddle, and when others not in the joke defend things are what they ‘truly’ are, results in the most hysteric episode ever recorded in literature. It’ll be Don Quixote the one bringing things back to peace and order. The irony!
This is one of the reasons why 16th century literature appears to be very modern. Across the centuries, it comes closer to our preoccupations, while it still maintains a more approachable and straightforward style, (despite the language choices being obviously older). In the case of Don Quixote, the language works for me, though, since it injects his talk with a solemn and a bit rancid style, proper of the knights of old he is trying to emulate.