The Google doodle
recently reminded us that November 21, 2008 marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte
. Magritte’s long-term influence on art, and especially on advertising, has been profound. And he taught the art world an important lesson: Seeing changes everything.
Take one of Magritte’s most notorious paintings, “La Trahison des Images” (“The Treachery of Images”) (1928-9) also referred to as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). The painting is of an exquisitely fashioned tobacco pipe. By painting below the pipe the phrase “This is not a pipe,” Magritte disorients the viewer and presents a pretty puzzle: What does the artist mean?
Early on in my art viewing career I was enthralled by Magritte’s puzzle and came up with my own solution. The image is not a pipe but instead a complex of colors and textures, with no meaning until applied by the viewer. Therein lies the treachery (Trahison) of the image. A painting doesn’t exist within the boundaries of the external picture plane, only taking on its true life within the mind of the viewer. It is in the very act of perception, that process wherein the human mind processes visual images, assigns meaning, and invokes emotion, that an artwork is created. Seeing, the act of perception, changes everything.
“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!”
–René Magritte (Source: Wikipedia
Magritte applied the surrealist elements of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur to represent everyday objects such as pipes and bowler hats in disturbing and unfamiliar contexts. He attempted to dislocate our assumptions about reality and to remove the viewer from the realm of easy, readily verbalized concepts into a realm of ideas that, he said, were “capable of becoming visible only through painting.”
Magritte challenges the way we see the world.
‘We see [the world] as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves.’ Seeing is an epistemological puzzle in which ‘visible things always hide other visible things’ and ‘our gaze always wants to penetrate further so as to see at last the object, the reason for our existence.’ (Source: The Endearing Truth by John Updike. New Republic, 11/2/92, Vol. 207, Issue 19)
Magritte’s traditional painterly skills subtly add to our disorientation. This is not the exotic and complicated surrealism of Salvador Dali, with rubbery pocket watches draped over tree branches. Nor does Magritte exhibit the striking persona of surrealist painters. Magritte appears as the Son of Man, the everyman, a middle-class banker in his suit and bowler hat.
The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964), oil on canvas
The critic George Melly wrote, “He is a secret agent. His object is to bring into disrepute the whole apparatus of bourgeois reality. Like all saboteurs, he avoids detection by dressing and behaving like everybody else.” (Source: Remembering Magritte by Dick Leonard. Europe. May 1998. Issue 376)
Magritte would enjoy the humor found in the Magritta chair.
Google has created doodles for other artists such as Marc Chagall, Leonardo DaVinci, Pablo Picasso, Diego Velazquez, and Andy Warhol.