René Magritte’s art is wicked—so much so that Michel Foucault wrote a book about it, using the famous ‘this is not a pipe’ painting to explicate the relation between what we see (and draw) and how we speak (and write) about what we perceive. This is no simple link, hence also the complexity with the construction of meaning.
With many other paintings it is possible to ignore titles. Not so with Magritte, who, again following Foucault, “names his paintings in order to focus attention upon the very act of naming.” This is also a central issue in psychoanalysis and, unsurprisingly, one of Magritte’s famous drawings is one made up of six sketches entitled ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1952) in which we find, among else, a shoe labeled the moon, a hat identified as a cloud and a hammer characterized as a desert.
But what is perhaps even more fascinating about Magritte’s art is the way he likes to undermine assumptions about specific states of mind, and in doing so, question the values we invest in them. A good example is the ‘The Lovers’ (1928) displaying a couple kissing through the dark cloaks covering their faces.
Another, ‘Pure Reason’ (1948), shows the chess figure of the knight, painted in pink, standing in front of a stage, behind which extends a forest made up of super-size blue leaves. This, like ‘The Philosopher’s Lamp’ (1936), which displays a man whose nose, pictured as an elephant’s trunk, ends into his mouth in the form of a pipe, exposes the way in which intellectual reflection can end up in single-minded pursuits (as in trees that are made up of only one leaf) or the constant eschewing of the same ideas (as in smoking-inhaling of tobacco).
Recurring themes in Magritte’s works are the blue sky with cloud patches, often set in context to exhibit the illusionary character of perception, the heavy stone hovering in mid-air, habitually in the background in situations of presumed harmony, and the bowler hat, a signature sign, I think, of the artist / author, like the (green) apple.
The exhibition at the Albertina, which runs till the end of February, was conceptualized in collaboration with Tate Liverpool, where it was shown last year, and comprises about 150 paintings. It includes Magritte’s poster work and also his portrayal of the famous French villain Fantômas, and is definitely worth a visit.