Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Rene Magritte

Posted in art by Jason Gray on January 9, 2010

“The Son of Man”

Rene Magritte was a painter who focused on opposing realities.  Realities that, somehow were more tangible and expressible than those defined by the typical parlor tricks of other Surrealists.[1] Possibly this was because Magritte’s subjects were mundane subjects, items and people you might run into on a typical day, people and items that an average person would instantly equate meanings to that Magritte could then shatter.  In his work, an immense hovering cloud would fill a mere wine glass, a pipe was a painting was a pipe, and an artist could make a nude woman real through his brush. Through these paintings and more, Magritte’s reality was to oppose reality, and somehow, inexplicably, his opposition to reality also defined it.

“Attempting the Impossible”

In 1928, Magritte painted a work that was to be a formulaic outline for the ideas he would express and explore throughout his painting career.[2] The painting, entitled “Attempting the Impossible”, is the composition wherein the artist makes real, through his brush, a nude woman of his ideal.  In this painting, he explores ideas such as, how works of art as artificial things define reality and are sometimes even mistaken for reality, the position society places upon the abilities of the artist and what his/her responsibilities and limitations are, and how the artist forms intimate relationships with his/her subjects and therefore paints his/her ideal in all things, which in turn also taints the actuality of his/her representations.

The word “reality” somehow escapes easily informed definitions when one attempts to explain it.  Is reality merely what you can touch?  And if touching defines existence (reality) then when a person caresses the surface of a canvas, is the image then real, or merely, is what is real, the physical expression of the paints and canvas beneath one’s fingertips?  Magritte certainly felt that the opposing realities of an image, the physical one that the viewer is a part of and the imaginary one confined to the image’s borders and the mind of the viewer, were worth exploring.  In fact, he spent approximately forty years expressing his revelations on the topic in paint.  A prolific career for certain, but one which experienced very little change in terms of content or form, despite the hyperactive advancements going on in the art world around him.  To point out, it would be easy to compare a painting, which he finished in the nineteen-twenties to one at the end of his life in the nineteen-sixties; therefore, a painting such as, “Attempting the Impossible”, may summate the entirety of his life’s efforts.  For Magritte, the irony of intentionally investigating, repeatedly, the same subject and coming up with similar results, would have seemed consistent to the purpose of his work.  After all, nothing is futile in a reality where nothing and everything exists in unison.

In an age of television and film’s dominance, it is easy to understand how Magritte might have envisioned painting as a nasty trick;[3] one wherein, the actual world is exchanged for an artificial one, and nefarious because the artificial one sometimes replaces our memories of the actual one.  For instance, consider in current times how people imagine their lives as how it appears in the movies and it is easy to see why Magritte would have felt compelled to explain this.  In his own words, Magritte describes this focus in relation to his paintings’ titles, “The titles of [my] paintings were chosen so that they would provoke in the observer an appropriate mistrust toward that unthinking tendency to indulge in easily attained self-satisfaction.”[4] With this in mind, it is conceivable that Magritte intended to explore how works of art as artificial things define reality and are sometimes even mistaken for reality.

In a painting such as, “Attempting the Impossible”, the artist, a man, realizes his vision of a nude woman by literally painting her to life in the air in front of him.  In this case, the relationship between the subject and its title is immediately obvious, or so it would seem.  In the title, Magritte likely scrutinizes upon both the words “attempting” and “impossible”.  For instance, the rendering of a man creating a woman out of thin air by no more than his mere facility, inspires true conscious and subconscious male fantasies about finding the “perfect woman”, or in general terms, the ideal other.  In a way, this action is not impossible, for Magritte has surmounted the implausibility by creating a reality where it might occur, within the viewer’s mind.  In this way, Magritte has fulfilled the fantasy and acted like a magician, making something out of nothing;[5] the “attempting” has become the “doing” and the “impossible” has become the “possible”.  A context such as this, expresses his view on how an artificial idea can affect actual ideas.  The male fantasy of envisioning a nude woman is perpetuated further, and in this circumstance, the image effects the male viewer’s expectations of the world around him.  However, the activity of the fantasy, as it can exist only on the canvas, expresses the artificiality of the act of painting through depicting what can only be imagined and never truly realized.  This permits the viewer to cultivate a false sense of expectation, and thereby explains the weakness and functionless quality of painting as it might only ever represent reality and never truly become it.[6]

In this way, artists are robbing their viewers of true experiences by luring them with false ones.  This point of view was one that separated Magritte from the other Surrealists,[7] whom held an almost spiritual reverence for the action of painting.  This is part of why Magritte lived mostly beyond their immediate contact, and his special disgust for the elevation that the term “artist” implied kept him from ever inhabiting a studio set aside for his work; “Magritte, unlike the Paris Surrealists, was not an anti-Bourgeois bohemian who violated as many tabus(sic) as possible.  He was, instead, a simple, unobtrusive middleclass citizen who explicitly rejected the designation of ‘artist’ for himself.” (26) 1B  Another possibility for his intention in this respect, may have been to explore the inseverable connection between a viewer’s position upon a work of art and his/her own experiences.  In this case, each interpretation is relevant to the individual, or non-“artist”/viewer, whom reacts to the piece subconsciously on the level of the individual’s memories.  Magritte might have wished for observers of this painting to question how and why their personal reactions differ from others, whereby also examining why this link must exist and how it is formed.

“Attempting the Impossible” is unique in Magritte’s repertoire of paintings[8] in that it contains an image of an artist, and in this way, also an image of the profession of Magritte.  Therefore, it is determinable that Magritte may have wanted to speculate, with this painting in particular, on the position that society places upon the abilities of the artist and what his/her responsibilities are because of it.  In the Paris-centered, art society that Magritte inhabited, the abilities of the artist were worshipped with an almost reserved sort of elevation.  For nearly one hundred years, France had dominated the culture surrounding art by almost exclusively offering each new movement or advancement in theory.  This is why Magritte moved there in his youth, for a short time,[9] and also why he attempted to become elusive to it for the remainder of his life in Belgium; he felt that too much importance had become ingrained into the profession.  Art had become too elevated a topic, and because of this, the relevance of the artist within society was too significant.

The Europe in which Magritte lived was, needless to say, not static.  Having witnessed one World War already, Magritte’s environs were in a state of flux: politically, economically, and socially.  Communism had gained ground as an intellectual answer to the political problems of society, and many artists were sensitive to its promise, including Magritte.[10] As a movement, communism promoted the importance of labor and the equal distribution of wealth.  Many artists felt that they should represent communism’s political agenda in their work and therefore that art should become the vehicle for spreading its message.[11] However, some artists, even sympathetic ones like Magritte, believed that this was elevating art too far, making it more important than it was, and never included political messages in their work.  After all, Magritte thought art to be no more than an illusion of what is real.  This is why he befitted the artist in “Attempting the Impossible” with the seemingly magical power to create life out of thin air.  Also, like in his later painting of the infamous pipe, “The Use of Language”, Magritte makes reference to the “realness” of the picture’s subject, in this case, a woman being painted.  Similar to how a magician saws through the torso of his beautiful accomplice, the woman, which the viewer sees being revealed before them, is merely an illusion; she is not of flesh and blood but rather paint and canvas.  Even the artist in the painting is not real nor his activity.  Thus, art as it relates to society, is little more than “smoke and mirrors”, no more capable of changing the course of politics than an actual magician might be.  Therefore, as arguments emerged between artists as whether to express the goals of their politics exclusively, Magritte has issued a challenge to the viewer to consider what the real role of the artist in society might be and for the artists themselves to validate the purpose of their creations when they serve no reasonable or logical functions.

“The Use of Language”

By Magritte considering himself less of an artist and more of a man with ideas,[12] he was able to explore more of what he felt the true nature of art to be; a connection on the level of the individual rather than on the whole of society.  He wanted to instigate questions and idea making in his viewers, not with the false presumption that his ideas would change their world, but rather with the expectation that their ideas would open up new channels of investigation.  He saw the world as a splendor of ideas and the artist merely as a collector of them; the artist not as a creator but as a cataloguer.  Magritte said, “To equate my paintings with symbolism, conscious or unconscious, is to ignore its true nature. [Viewers] hunt around for a meaning to get themselves out of the quandary, and because they don’t understand what they are supposed to think when they confront the painting….they want something to lean on, so they can be comfortable.  People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image.”[13] In this respect, as a cataloguer, Magritte does not create the fantasy of man to “pull a woman from a hat”, but he merely makes reference to it, exploring the idea of it not in a literal way, but in a poetic or ephemeral way.

In history, there have been a myriad of instances wherein the artist forms an intimate relation to the subject of his/her art, as in the Greek myth of Galatea and Pygmalion.  In this story, Pygmalion carves a version of his ideal woman, Galatea, out of a pristine block of stone and then becomes enamored with it.  After which, an empathetic Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, blesses it with life and the two, Pygmalion and Galatea, fall instantly in love.[14]

It is easiest to envision a man in the role of the artist searching for his idealized female personified through the swill of his creative flow.  Possibly this is because of the romantic nature of men, constantly expecting to find better gratification beyond that which is easy to attain.  To imagine an artist, concentrating intently on his subject, attempting to execute his imagination of perfection through the limitations of his media, careful and contemplative with every movement of the hand, then it is easy to correlate the emotions one experiences with real people and objects to those that appear in the artwork.  Every artist is given to implicating his/her emotional longings in the work that is created, whether internal or external.

In “Attempting the Impossible”, Magritte comments on the relationship between the emotional artist and his subject; wherein he depicts a painter, with his soft brushes and paints imitating the look of flesh, creating a woman in his ideal, an ideal rich and variegated in its fantasy and intimacy.  With extrapolation provided by a popularized Sigmund Freud, many of the Surrealists, including Magritte, conferred upon his theories in their work.[15] Freud’s controversial view that man searched in his lovers a vision of his mother was especially significant to them.  In the situation of this painting, whether the nude woman is the artist’s mother or his lover, one is not certain, but certainly a relationship is implied between the two as the artist is not merely painting a portrait on a two-dimensional plane, but instead, he is painting this image to life.  A creator/creation position that expresses, in this instance, a special importance that this artist has placed on his subject, which can only be explained as intimacy.  However, because of this intimacy, it is surmisable that the artist is never perfect in his/her translation of what is seen into what is shown, and instead a more likely result becomes what the artist wants to show.  For instance, if the image of the nude woman in “Attempting the Impossible” is based on a real nude model, than we can assume that the artist has taken special license to change certain aspects of how the woman actually appears in his rendition of her as his imagined ideal.  A differentiation implied through the truth that he has chosen to bring this particular version to “life”.  In other words, because the artist forms an intimate relationship with his subjects, he then feels free to affect an angle here or a shadow there, further illegitimatizing his execution of depiction in order to fulfill his subconscious will.  Therefore, any painting, portrait, landscape or otherwise, is a marriage of the artist’s ability to render and his/her compunction to alter towards his/her own aesthetic direction.  Magritte saw this as significant especially as certain works of art have effected our own expectations of reality and memory of events.

Above all else, Magritte was a painter focusing on opposing realities.  His images, though often surprising and puzzling, related well to actual experiences;[16] through his realm of painting, we as viewers, came to understand our realm of life better.  Ultimately, Rene Magritte’s offering to the world was a view that challenges our perceptions of reality and that encourages each of us to analyze what our positions in society represent.  However, he also hoped to reach us at a deeper level; an internal layer where our realities are readily opposed and where anything is possible.  In a moment of reduced defense, (apart from his typical, verbal subterfuges)[17] Rene Magritte once said, “The creation of new objects, the transformation of familiar objects, the alteration of material in certain objects, the use of words in conjunction with images, the application of ideas that friends had introduced me to, the utilization of some visions from half-sleep or dreams: all these were the means I used to establish a connection between consciousness and the outside world.”[18] As a cataloguer of ideas, the outside world became for Magritte, fertile territory for exploration, though never too far; that part was left up to the viewer.  For as Suzi Gablik put it in her accord to Magritte, “The eye sees as the hand grasps.” [19]

Works Cited

  1. Gablik, Suzi. Magritte. Thames and Hudson, 1992.
  2. Gohr, Siegfried. Magritte. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2000.
  3. Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Warner Books, 1942.
  4. Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Harry N. Abrams, 1993.
  5. Hughes, Robert. The Portable Magritte. Universe Publishing, 2003.

Schneede, Uwe M.. Rene Magritte:Life and Work. Barron’s Educational Series,1982.

[1] Robert Hughes, The Portable Magritte (Universe Publishing, 2002), 5.

[2] Hughes, The Portable Magritte, 6.

[3] Suzi Gablik, Magritte (Thames and Hudson, 1992), 77.

[4] Uwe M. Schneede, Rene Magritte: Life and Work (Barron’s Educational Series, 1982), 13.

[5] Sigfried Gohr, Magritte (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2000), 19.

[6] Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993), 1004

[7] Gohr, Magritte, 10.

[8] Hughes, The Portable Magritte, 6.

[9] Hartt, Art, 1004.

[10] Gablik, Magritte, 41.

[11] Scneede, Rene Magritte, 129.

[12] Gablik, Magritte, 9.

[13] Schneede, Rene Magritte, 101.

[14] Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (Warner Books, 1942), 112.

[15] Schneede, Rene Magritte, 68.

[16] Gablik, Magritte, 14.

[17] Gablik, Magritte, 9.

[18] Schneede, Rene Magritte, 125.

[19] Gablik, Magritte, 11.

8 Responses

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  1. callum said, on November 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    The 2nd picture from the top is disgusting very digusting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. jasongrayfineartist said, on November 7, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Really? Is it because she looks like an amputee?

  3. Nealh said, on November 14, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    No, its because callum doesn’t understand it.

  4. aaaapooooooo said, on November 24, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Maybe he does get it but the fact the artist felt the need to show all of the girls privates is a bit perverted and grose… He could be more discreet?

  5. jimmy said, on December 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    what the hell is the 2nd pic its totally gggggrrrrroooooooooooooosssssss!!!!!!!! that is so gay u purve by the way i like beer im drunk harg harg harg now if u dont mind im gonna go pass out now

  6. Ashley said, on December 13, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Really? lol Nudity is not gross….its totally different than being naked. Have you never been to an art museum? In my art classes we have to paint/draw nudes a lot. It’s not gross!

  7. smmcroberts said, on December 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Those who think Attempting the Impossible is “gross”, should re-read what the author has stated: “…each interpretation is relevant to the individual, or non-“artist”/viewer, whom reacts to the piece subconsciously on the level of the individual’s memories. Magritte might have wished for observers of this painting to question how and why their personal reactions differ from others, whereby also examining why this link must exist and how it is formed.”
    Those coming from a culture in which nudity is taboo may react strongly to the nudity and miss the wonderful visual “joke” Magritte is playing on us.
    I think Magritte would’ve been okay with the “that’s gross!” reaction as long as there were some people who could get beyond that.
    To me, the female form being painted resembles the depicted artist: so that it looks like he’s painting himself [his ideal?] in female form. I like this work on many levels!

  8. […] Rene Magritte […]

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