English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

René Magritte

Courtney H. Stern

English 430

Professor Hatfield

October 29, 2009

The Man (Behind the Bowler Hat)

The images and ideas of René Magritte are known to millions of people who do not know him by name. . .This accounts for the faint feeling of deja vu that even non-Magritteans sometimes get when looking at his work. Magritte died in 1967, but for the best part of a half-century his images — or variants on them — have been used to advertise everything from the French state railroad system and chocolates to wallpaper, cars and political candidates. . . no modern artist has had more effect on advertising itself than Magritte (Hughes. “Art: The Poker-Faced Enchanter”).

[A brief word of caution for anyone sensitive to profanity: The following clip does include some cursing. Viewing the clip is not essential to understanding the remainder of this introduction to Magritte.]

The son of man (Le fils de l’homme), 1964

The son of man (Le fils de l’homme), 1964

(Read more about Magritte’s Son of Man painting here: http://tinyurl.com/ylp9zpy.)

René Magritte was born on November 21, 1898, in Lessines, Belgium. If you want to find out more about his life (there are some interesting tidbits worth knowing), you can read about it here: http://tinyurl.com/ykbwbur or here http://tinyurl.com/yz9d7jy.

In case you were wondering why Magritte has so many paintings of men in bowler hats…well, he wore them all the time. Get a glimpse of the man in this “Life” magazine article http://tinyurl.com/yfjo6q9.

Magritte was a very prolific painter and I’m a great admirer of his work but I want to focus on the paintings and ideas that make Magritte relevant to our discussions of literature and the visual arts: Magritte and mimesis, his use of titles, and his word paintings.

The Mimetic Surrealist

Magritte on Magritte:

I suppose you can call me a surrealist. But one should really say I am concerned with realism, even though that usually refers to daily life in the streets. It should be that realism means the real with the mystery that is in the real. I want to show reality in such a way that it evokes the mystery.

(“The Enigmatic Visions of René Magritte”).

If you ask most people what they think “surrealism” is they’re likely to tell you that it’s like the equivalent of science fiction or fantasy because surrealist paintings don’t resemble like the real world. Contemporary surrealist painters, and even those in Magritte’s own time, played with reality in ways that would justify this understanding of surrealism.

Here are some contemporary surrealist paintings:


Vladamir Kush "Book of books"

fierydancetz2 - Vladamir Kush

Vladamir Kush "Fiery Dance"

Vladamir Kush - «Chess»

Vladamir Kush "Chess"


Jacek Yerka


Another Jacek Yerka painting


A third example of Jacek Yerka

These paintings by contemporary surrealists contain objects and figures that echo the reality in which we live but look very little like it. (To read more about Surrealism in general: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/surr/hd_surr.htm)

Magritte had a different take on surrealism.

“His images were stories first, paintings second, but the stories were not narratives in the Victorian manner, or slices of life or tableaux of history. They were snapshots of the impossible, rendered in the dullest and most literal way: vignettes of language and reality locked in mutual cancellation. As a master of puzzle painting, Magritte had no equal and, although his influence on the formation of images (and on how people decode them) has been wide, he has had no real successors. . .With his dry, matter-of-fact technique, Magritte painted things so ordinary that they might have come from a phrase book: an apple, a comb, a derby hat, a cloud, a birdcage, a street of prim suburban houses, a businessman in a dark topcoat, a stolid nude. . .it is their encounter [with other objects]. . .that is so arresting. Magritte’s best images have more in common with reporting than with fantasy.” (Hughes, “Art: Enter the Stolid Enchanter”).

I show things that are unknown,and yet, they are very familiar things. I look for poetry in the world of familiar objects. ~René Magritte

(“The Enigmatic Visions of René Magritte”).

This familiar unfamiliarity can be seen in paintings like these where the objects look they way we’d expect them to look but they are either placed unexpectedly or painted in unexpected proportion to the rest of the painting:

Le Tombeau des Lutteurs, 1960

Le Tombeau des Lutteurs, 1960

The Listening Room

The Listening Room

Golconda, 1953

Golconda, 1953

The pictorial language, like other languages, evokes mystery de facto if not de jure. I try—insofar as possible—to paint pictures that evoke mystery with the precision and charm necessary to the realm of thought. It’s obvious that this precise and charming evocation of mystery is composed of images of familiar objects, brought together or transformed in such a way that they no longer satisfy our naïve or sophisticated notion. In coming to know these images, we discover the precision and charm that are lacking in the ‘real’ world in which they appear.

~René Magritte, preface to exhibition catalogue, René Magritte, Musee d’lxelles, April 19, 1958. (Torczyner 132).

Perspective, Madame Récamier de David, 1951

Perspective, Madame Récamier de David, 1951

Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952

Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952

Read more about this “Personal Values” here: http://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/27665#

Empire of Light (L'Empire des lumières), 1953–54

Empire of Light (L'Empire des lumières), 1953–54

Read more about Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières) here: http://tinyurl.com/yfmkeaz

The art of painting—which actually should be called the art of resemblance enable us to describe in paint a thought that has the potential of becoming visible. This thought includes only those images the world offers: people, curtains, weapons, stars, solids, inscriptions, etc. Resemblance spontaneously unites these figures in an order that immediately evokes mystery.

~René Magritte, statement in exhibition catalogue René Magritte in America, the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts and The Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, 1960 (Torczyner 132).

Voice of Space (La Voix des airs), 1931

Voice of Space (La Voix des airs), 1931

Read more about Voice of Space (La Voix des airs) here: http://tinyurl.com/yhtkf2g

Time Transfixed

Time Transfixed

Take a look at this site to read more about Time Transfixed: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/34181

La condition humaine (The human condition), 1933

La condition humaine (The human condition), 1933

Do you see the painting within the painting? Take a look at this site: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=70170

AN INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: Wander on over to these two links and see poet Mark Young’s ekphrastic interpretations of our mimetic painter: from Series Magritte and more from Series Magritte.

Magritte and Titles

The titles of my paintings are conversational commodities rather than explications. The titles are chosen in such a way that they also impede their being situated in some reassuring realm that automatic thought processes might otherwise find for them in order to underestimate the significance,. The titles should provide additional protection in discouraging any attempt to reduce real poetry to an inconsequential game.

~René Magritte, Lecture given November 20, 1938 at the Musee Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp (Torczyner 121).

“Once painted, [Magritte’s] image has to be given a name, like a newborn child that must be baptized. A strange and indissoluble bond exists between each newborn and its name. A name is annunciatory, revelator, serving neither to define nor to interpret its bearer. So it is with the titles given Magritte’s pictures. Sometimes he asked advice by letter, or he would convoke actual family council. His circle of close friends would then gather under his presidency to decide on a name. Sometimes Magritte would decree that a work was to bear the title of one of his favorite books.” (Torczyner 110)

“Magritte was not a “literary” artist, and his work was more about situation than narrative. Nevertheless, his titles were important to him, and they are never neutral. They were, so to speak, pasted on the image like another collage element, inflecting its meaning without explaining it. They reflected his browsing in high and popular culture. The Glass Key comes from Dashiell Hammett, and references to the Fantomas thrillers (on which Magritte, along with the rest of the Surrealists and everyone else in France and Belgium, doted) are everywhere. On the other hand, The Man from the Sea is Balzac’s title, and The Elective Affinities Goethe’s. Then there was Edgar Allan Poe. Magritte used him repeatedly. The Domain of Arnheim, Magritte’s image of a vast, cold Alpine wall seen through the broken window of a bourgeois living room, with shards of glass on the floor that still carry bits of the sublime view on them, is the title of Poe’s 1846 tale about a superrich American landscape connoisseur who creates a Xanadu for himself.” (Hughes “Art: The Poker-Faced Enchanter”).

Magritte’s Word Paintings

“Between 20 and 25 per cent of the paintings Magritte did in Paris (between September 1927 and July 1930) were word pictures. The actual number was in excess of forty, some of which are destroyed or untraced, leaving thirty-six that re known. The pictures can be classified into three categories according to what other kinds of form coexist with the words. There are those in which words are accompanied by representational forms, those in which they are accompanied by abstract and/or semi-abstract forms, and those in which they are accompanied by both.” (Sylvester 170).

Magritte’s concerns, “were with language itself, the way that meanings are conveyed or frustrated by symbols. The manifesto of this was Magritte’s painting of a pipe, inscribed Ceci n ‘est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). Precisely: it is a painting, a work of art, a sign that denotes an object and triggers memory. No painter had ever put this fundamental fact about art and its operations so clearly before. When Magritte, in The Use of the Word, 1928, labeled two virtually identical and amorphous blobs of paint “Mirror” and “Woman’s Body,” he was not making a joke about narcissism; he was showing the extreme tenuousness with which language may cling to what it describes. This sense of slippage between word and thing is, of course, one of the sources of modernist disquiet. In finding image after image for it, Magritte became one of the artists whose work is central to an understanding of modernist culture; and his visual booby traps go off, over and over again, precisely because their trigger is thought itself.” (Hughes. “Art: Enter the Stolid Enchanter”).

The Treachery Of Images

The Treachery Of Images

This is Not an Apple, 1964

This is Not an Apple, 1964

“What an image is not has a bearing on what it is. The proposition that a representation is as alien as a word to the real object is taken by Magritte to indicate that the image functions as though it were a word. . .The comparability which Magritte’s work establishes between words and images is based, essentially, on their respective correlation with a third entity, the real object. The painter makes the case that both types of signifier operate identically in relation to the notion which they signify. . .Words in Magritte’s work are primarily negators of the pictorial. Almost without exception words contest the signification of what is shown.” ( Levy, “Magritte and words”).

The use of speech

The use of speech

Les Mots Et Les Images [Words and Images], 1929

Les Mots Et Les Images (Words and Images), 1929

Magritte’s illustrated text “Words and Images” appeared in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1929, and explored the gap between images, inscription, and titles. According


to Magritte: “An object is not so wedded to its name that one cannot find another which suits it better.” (http://www.unc.edu/depts/europe/pedagogy/meta/mod3/analysis.pdf)

Les Mots et les images is key to understanding Magritte so here’s the translation of what was written (start reading at the top of the leftmost column and read down then go to the middle column, etc.):

Column 1:

  1. As object is not so linked to its name that we cannot find a more suitable one for it.
  2. Some objects can do without a name.
  3. Often a word is only self-descriptive
  4. An object encounters its image, an objects encounters its name It can happen that the object’s name and its image encounter each other
  5. Sometimes an object’s name can replace an image.
  6. A word can replace an object in reality.

Column 2:

  1. An image can replace a word in a statement
  2. An object makes one suppose there are other objects behind it.
  3. Everything leads us to think that there is little relation between an object and what it represents.
  4. Words that serve to designate two different objects do not reveal what can separate these objects from each other.
  5. In a picture, words have the same substance as images.
  6. In a picture we see images and words differently.

Column 3:

  1. An undifferentiated form can replace the image of an object.
  2. An object never performs the same function as its name or its image.
  3. Now, in reality the visible outlines of objects touch each other, as if they formed a mosaic.
  4. Vague figures have a necessary meaning that is as perfect as precise figures.
  5. Written words in a picture often designate precise objects, and images vague objects.
  6. Or the opposite.

Whew! So now back to the words pictures…


Le miroir vivant [The living mirror], 1928

Le miroir vivant (The living mirror), 1928


The empty mask, 1928

The empty mask, 1928


Le Miroir magique [The Magic Mirror]1929

Le Miroir magique (The Magic Mirror), 1929



La clef des songes (The interpreation of dreams)

“Magritte’s word and image paintings, such as The Interpretation of Dreams (1952), often appropriate the style of elementary school textbooks that present spelling or grammar lessons. According to André Breton, Magritte used this ‘object-lesson’ format in order to ‘put the visual image on trial.’ They are similar in style to the linguistic models used by Ferdinande de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics (1915), who was the first to put forth the concept that signs and symbols of language are arbitrary constructs, meaning that the word ‘tree,’ a sign built from letters, has no physical resemblance to the actual object of a tree, and is related to it merely through context and associations imposed by the social construction of written language.” http://ordover.wordpress.com/2008/09/06/on-magritte-language-and-dna/

For several of Magritte’s other word paintings:


If you’re inclined to read an in-depth and very scholarly analysis of Magritte and semiotics, I highly recommend this article http://courses.washington.edu/hypertxt/cgi-bin/

Works Cited

Hughes, Robert. “Art: The Poker-Faced Enchanter.” Time Sep. 21, 1992. Web. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,976541,00.html

—. “Art: Enter the Stolid Enchanter.” Time Mar. 5, 1979. Web. http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,916638,00.html

Levy, Silvano. “Magritte and words.” Journal of European Studies. 22.88 (Dec. 1992). 313. Print. http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.csun.edu:2048/ps/i.do?action=interpret&id=GALE|A13450036&v=2.1&u=csunorthridge&it=r&p=LitRG&sw=w&authCount=1

“The Enigmatic Life of Renee Magritte.” “Life” magazine. http://books.google.com/books?id=IlYEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA113&dq=rene%20magritte&as_brr=3&pg=PA113#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Sylvester, David. Magritte: The Silence of the World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc: 1992. Print.

Torczyner, Harry. “Toward Pleasure.” Magritte: The True Art of Painting Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: 1979. Print.

Further Reading



http://www.magritte.be/ (Go to the virtual gallery and “walk” around)








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