René Magritte

René Magritte was not particularly skilled at rendering. The anatomy of his figures is a little bit awkward. His rendering of light and shadow are slightly inaccurate and clearly not done from observation. 

To the untrained eye, for example someone who doesn’t know all the rules having to do with traditional painting, his paintings are satisfactory but not completely realistic. Magritte’s paintings are clear and understandable representations of things that he is rendering, for example an apple looks like an apple, and a pipe looks like a pipe. 

If you were to compare Magritte’s paintings to earlier artists, such as Jacques Louis David’s painting of Madame Recamier, David’s paintings are more realistic and convincing.  A viewer might even think that David is a more skillful painter in his rendering of light and shadow, his handling of paint and brushwork and the accuracy of color.  Even when compared to the paintings to a peer of his, Salvador Dali, René Magritte’s paintings come in a close second in terms of how believable they are. 

However, compared to some other Surrealists such as Frida Kahlo, and Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte’s work appears to be more realistic than these others. The reasons why I bring this up is not to detract from René Magritte’s reputation as an artist but rather to reinforce the idea that René Magritte’s paintings are more about the content or subject matter of surrealism than they are about the traditions of making beautiful or realistic oil paintings.  So why didn’t Magritte learn to paint like David and or Dali?  The answer is that it wasn’t important to his art.  

Here’s why:

It’s kind of important to note that artists like Marcel Duchamp and his contemporaries were not very concerned with artistic technique. These artists, which is very common at the beginning of the 20th century, were more concerned with the meanings behind their paintings than they were with the paintings being a pleasing aesthetic experience. The concepts behind artistic work were more important to many of the early 20th century artists than the actual “look” of the paintings.

In contrast to this, the Impressionists from the middle of the 19th century were very concerned with how their paintings looked but not very concerned with what the paintings represented. The Impressionists were interested in depicting optical effects of color and colored light. Their work was considered groundbreaking and broke with earlier traditions by focusing on the physical characteristics of the paintings and especially with the experience of seeing things and giving the viewer an impression of that view. In contrast to the Impressionists since they had already dealt with color and physical properties of painting as the subject matter painters of the early 20th century began to focus more on concepts and ideas expressed by their art.

René Magritte lived during the time that psychoanalytic theory was the giving to be developed. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung developed theories of how the human mind was constructed and the importance of dreaming and the symbols that happened in the unconscious or dreaming mind. Many of the “movements” and styles of art were heavily influenced by the development of the science of psychology and artists attempted to work with these theories in their paintings.  In this way, the subject matter of most surrealist art is the human mind and how it worked.

Another reason why Magritte wasn’t that interested in rendering or exacting realism is probably because he trained initially as a commercial artist and most of his work was designed to be printed rather than the one-of-a-kind original works of art. Some sources about Magritte discuss in making posters and children’s books. In every way, Magritte’s first concern with either his commercial art or his so-called “fine art” Magritte was interested in communicating ideas first and making beautiful images second. So the elements of form for most early 20th century artists are less important than the ideas that motivate making the work of art and this is especially true for René Magritte. 

One of the things that comes together and probably helped agreed to focus and communicate his ideas about psychology more clearly is the use of captions and text in the commercial posters and books he designed and illustrated. In fact, even though Magritte was selling his work he wasn’t selling enough of his fine art to stop making commercial art until 1927. This probably accounts for his use of text or words in his fine art paintings.

In order to understand the subject matter of Magritte’s paintings you have to first understand one of the first concepts developed by Sigmund Freud about how the human mind works. Freud coined the term “cognitive dissonance.” A simple definition of cognitive dissonance is the ability of a person to hold to ideas in their mind that are in opposition to each other at the same moment. For example, authors sometimes referred to the “Willing suspension of disbelief.” What this means is that when were watching a play or a movie or reading a book even though we know the book is not realistic or the images are not believable we willingly believe they are in order to enjoy the work. Freud thought that this was particularly interesting that we are able to understand the difference between fiction and reality. Furthermore, Freud and Magritte probably would agree that this ability of the human mind to hold onto the idea of reality when we are engaging with the work of fiction or illusion is interesting.

In this painting, roughly translated from the French as “the treachery of images,” for us it would probably the best translated as “paintings are not the same thing as reality.” In this painting, which Magritte made over and over again throughout his life, we see the image or an illustration representing a tobacco pipe, underneath the illustration or illusion of a pipe we see the words “this is not a pipe.” In French. Basically, Magritte is captioning his picture in the picture. The caption is telling you not to believe that this is a real pipe but just a representation of a pipe. These are two opposing ideas, because a lot of times when we look at a picture we want to accept the idea that what we see in front of us is a real thing and we don’t bother with acknowledging the idea that it’s just an illusion or a fake representation of something from the real world.
Empire of Light, 1950 by Rene Magritte

Magritte likes to do this in many of his paintings. He provides us with a premise or an idea that something is convincing or accurate and then he provides another kind of idea in the painting that’s the opposite of what we see. For example, Magritte will show us a street at night but the sky above it is a daytime sky. We know that it’s a street at night because we see a street light and lights in Windows and on lamp posts but, we couldn’t see these lights with a daytime sky like that. So basically, René Magritte is always making paintings that deal with the fact that humans are capable of understanding that what they are looking at is not the real thing but our imaginations allow us to pretend that it is.

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Richard Hamilton and Jan van Eyck

Today, looking back more than 50 years this work has a particular resonance in the fact that we are still a bunch of ridiculous white middle-class people who are the targets of click bait designed to sell us shift we don’t need.

That’s basically the message of this collage by Richard Hamilton. It’s is one of those top 40 art history works of art that I guess everyone should know about since it’s in all the history books. Of course, there’s a little more to it than that however, this is one of the first or originating collages that fully express some of the ideas evidenced by the pop art movement of the 1960s. The date of this collages 1956 which makes it literally the forward guard, or avant-garde, works of its time.

Like most collage that you would see in an art history book our imagination when seeing the image doesn’t connected to the size that’s listed under the image. In my mind the first time I saw this collage in an art history class I assumed it was 18 x 24” or super large. Possibly in the 5 to 4 foot range. It’s not it’s a tiny piece that’s about the size of the piece of printer paper. In fact it smaller it’s 10 x 9”. When you think about it this makes total sense because all of the images in this collage were cut out of magazines whose magazine size was probably no larger than 11 x 14” and many of these are small feature photos or from advertisements. One even includes a thumbnail from a comic book. Since it’s a small version of the cover of a comic book it makes the piece look somewhat monumental. It is monumental in terms of the ideas it contains and how it looks at popular culture of the 1950s.

The context of this is a little bit important too. For example, a couple of little ideas that seem to amplify the meaning is that Richard Hamilton was an English artist who was associated with some other highbrow artists, most notably Marcel Duchamp. If you look at Richard Hamilton’s history or a sort of resume ill see that he attended all the best schools and knew all the right people. This means that even though other people might have tried to make collages with similar messages this one in particular made it to the top because Richard Hamilton was associated with good schools and even better artists.

Nevertheless, the fact that this piece of art was made from a privileged point of view, and almost wealthy well-educated white man from England, it critiques the culture from which Richard Hamilton grew, most notably the wealthy elite capitalist crowd. Warhol is the same way a couple of years later in that he knew all the right people, many of which were placed in such a way that would make him wealthy or well-known. And, Hamilton and Warhol both sort of bit the hand that fed them. How did they do this? They did it by dissecting their own culture literally by cutting up magazines or dissecting the images in magazines and putting them together in a collage in a way that changed what each one of the symbols or images cut off would mean.

Rather than go through every single nuanced image I think that looking at it as a whole and describing it as a scene is the best way to think about it. Two young beautiful characters are inside a living room in the 1950s that has all of the latest innovative products such as tape recorders, vacuum cleaners, reading literature, antique oil paintings, and of view outside of a large picture window of the theater whose marquee shows a popular film from the previous era. This scene is almost in its content a replica of Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait,” in that it shows a young well-to-do couple who happen to be very good-looking standing in a luxurious interior.

It’s the choices of the products and images that make it a sarcastic jab at consumer culture. Incidentally, Jan van Eyck’s painting is come under serious reinterpretation in that it might represent exactly the same thing.

See my blog post about the painting by Jan van Eyck.

These characters are ridiculous and made more ridiculous by the addition of the lampshade uses a hat, and a large sucker placed where the weightlifter sucker is. The luxurious products scattered around the room are clearly advertisements of new consumer products that the new industrialized nations were trying to foist on the new bourgeoisie. Same thing in the Jan van Eyck portrait as well. We’re seeing luxury goods presented to ridiculous foppish people.

A lot of the books will wax poetic about the various products being presented and how clever the choices Richard Hamilton made in choosing things like the ham, or the tootsie pop, or even the romance novel poster, but what I believe is that it was almost a random choice the same way magazines almost without a pattern present advertisements. The single unifying theme of the magazines advertisements seem to be the economic ability of the advertisements targets. So when Hamilton chose his images, he chose them from magazines that would’ve been in his home a privileged upper-class white English male.


Hello Dali

Probably the best way to talk about Salvador Dali’s work is to start by looking closely at a tiny painting he made in 1931 call the “Persistence of Memory.”

Today we are pretty used to seeing airbrush and Photoshop works that have a high degree of polish and illusionist qualities. You can go to interest and type in photographic surrealism and you would find literally hundreds of images that are dreamlike, clever, but also very convincing in their realism. Dali was the first painter to make a very realistic painting of surrealistic ideas.

If you look at this painting, you’ll see that it has the illusion of deep space. The background and it’s colors clearly reference the Renaissance tradition of atmospheric perspective also called “sfumato.” There is a clear horizon line and there are vanishing points in several areas that are consistent throughout the picture which unifies the space and makes it look real. The light and the shadow or shading, also called in Italian “chiaroscuro”, are also consistent throughout the picture and finish off the picture with a sense of light and shadow that convinces us that what we see could be real.
The mountains in the background are a type of cliché of mountains on the edge of a sea. Dali describes the mountains almost as if he were a Baroque a Renaissance painter, however, he does use some warm and cool tones, which are little closer to more contemporary color theory influenced by the Impressionists.
Dali uses an abrupt tonal or shading shift between the foreground and the background which highlights or spotlights almost a form of tenebrism the weird melted clocks and semi-biological creature laying in the center of the picture plane. The clocks, the tree, and even the ants are realistically depicted even though they are not real things. For example, the small old clock in the lower left foreground in which the ants crawl on, has a very realistic shading scheme on it which includes a core shadow and reflected light. The metal edging around the other clocks are rendered or shaded in a very traditional consistent manner with what artists who paint realistically learn how to do. Even on the fleshy pink thing in the center of the picture you can see that there’s a little bit of reflected light along what you might think of as the head of it that looks like a nose and eyelashes.

So one of the things that distinguishes Salvador Dali at the beginning of his career, later on he gives up this kind of technique, is the realism in which he renders unrealistic things such as the clocks, the landscape, and the weird creature in the center. People tend to look at paintings, especially untrained people who aren’t necessarily art historians were art critics, and use the level of realism that the artist is able to accomplish as a type of value system in which to decide whether or not they think the painting is good or not. 

Other Surrealists from this time, didn’t or weren’t as accomplished in terms of illusionistic painting as Salvador Dali. When you look at René Magritte’s paintings, yes they are pretty realistic but the realism really isn’t as clear and as well executed as Salvador Dali’s early paintings especially his painting of his wife.

In order to understand what the painting means, or what the symbols in the painting might me, it’s probably important to talk about Salvador Dali’s relationship to the art world and a little bit about who he was as a person and his biography.

Early in Dali’s career he allied himself with the Dada movement as well as the surrealist movement. These early painters got their ideas partially from some of the events surrounding World War I and also the birth of psychological theory advocated and developed by Sigmund Freud. Most notably one of the ideas is that there is an unconscious mind that thinks in terms of symbols and is often expressed either by catatonic people or in a dream state. Many of the artists who call themselves “Surrealists,” were very well-versed in Sigmund Freud’s ideas and also believed that there was the possibility of reaching something more universal by working with, “archetypes.” Carl Jung a colleague of Freud’s came up with several theories, such as the term gestalt, archetypes, and collective unconscious, to describe a type of database of symbols or imagery that were universal symbols for the dreaming mind. Dali and the other artists subscribe to this belief and started attempting to tap into that unconscious mind.

Although René Magritte has a reputation that is close behind Salvador Dali’s, and many of his ideas in his paintings are types of visual puns and plays on intellectual concepts, Dali is still significantly more famous and in the 1930s and 40s I suspect that there was some professional jealousy towards him. Probably the most important fact to know is that the Surrealists shunned Salvador Dali after she started endorsing commercial products and using his reputation as a surrealistic artist to make money. Dali designed clothing, staged photographic sessions, and even endorsed pantyhose. He’s also known for making a surrealist film and even for working a little bit with Alfred Hitchcock later on. Often artists look at other artists who are successful, especially the merchandise their work, as being too commercial or even prostituting their art. In my opinion I think that’s unkind and probably just professional jealousy. You are art history teacher will probably have a knee-jerk reaction against that idea. Needless to say, Dali is often written about as being a failure after the 1940s and there are even attacks against his wife Gala, as being a shrew or a negative influence on him and his art.

A couple of important contextual things, that may or may not be completely accurate, so you may need to feel a bit more research to verify this, is that there’s a story about Dali’s father showing him a picture of or medical journal that contained images of body parts and the effects of venereal disease on the human body. Several scholars have suggested that Salvador Dali’s father was attempting to make him turned off to sex and instill fear venereal diseases in him however, some scholars have suggested that this was turned into a sort of reverse interpretation by Dali and that the images for him were somehow erotic or turned him on. I like this notion because it applies directly to looking at the iconography or the symbols used specifically in, “The Persistence of Memory.”
If you were to ask Salvador Dali, when he was alive, to explain his work, he wouldn’t do it in a way that would satisfy you. He actually used his persona as a sort of outrageous person and an artist to say outlandish things and also almost incomprehensible crazy sounding things about himself and about his work. So we’re kind of left with common sense and a little bit of factual information to figure out what his paintings might mean and specifically this one, “The Persistence of Memory.”

Here’s how I think and interpretation of this painting might work. You have a barren almost endless landscape complete with atmospheric perspective and a kind of endless backdrop behind some very clear or clearly rendered impossible things.

If you look at the history of art history, and you remember the painter Masaccio, in his painting from the early 15th century, “The Tribute Money,” you can see that there is a type of endless landscape in the left-hand side picture plane. For Masaccio it probably meant the realm of the eternal or endless world. It’s possible that he actually meant it to be representation of a religious concept called, “the city of God.” The right-hand side of Masaccio’s picture is often interpreted to be the temporary or temporal world of the secular person. Sometimes referred to as, “The City of Man.” Using Masaccio’s work as the sort of precedent, and also the fact that this is often used in cinema and photography, even in our national and from in the United States there is a reference to the landscape as being endless and a sort of eternal spiritual realm, that’s probably why Dali painted the environment he did. If you think about it relates directly to the title which is a sort of clue that this is about memory and persistence, often terms that are used to describe something eternal.

If you are a couple those themes of time, eternity, spirituality, you may start looking at the clocks in a slightly different way. Melting clocks would not be able to keep time. In fact the clocks are soft and not very hard edged the way the cubes are and some other things. Is this a representation of how we think about time? Time and memory often become less distinct and melt as one moves forward in time. Police know this because they often need to question a witness immediately after the event and sometimes months after event happens the witness’s memory changes of the event. Their memory goes “soft.”

There are also images of decay in this, for example the ants that are crawling on the pocket watch and the foreground are almost feeding on it and sometimes when filmmakers and photographers describe the passage of time they’ll actually show worms or ants crawling on something that is decaying to give a sense of time passing. In detective shows, the same thing is true and often to show the passage of time or the age of even a corpse they’ll analyze the insects crawling on it.
The theme of decay and softness might be combined with the anecdote concerning Dali seeing the book on venereal diseases that his father showed him to scare him off of illicit sex. In fact there are some really hard to understand quotes by Dali about how the fleshiness of the images he saw in that book became something that was eroticized for him or sexualized in some way. We cannot know if this is absolutely fact but I think it’s not much of a jump to think that somehow this weird biological thing in the center of the picture could represent or be linked to sexuality, decay, and even more contemporary theories about how biology works and how the brain works.

It’s possible, especially given the title and what we know about Salvador Dali’s biography and the kinds of things he talked about that this is just a dreamlike interpretation of the decay of someone’s memory or how inconstant and transitive human thought and memory are.