Weekly Photo Challenge: Rene Magritte–The Master of Contrasts

Once again, the timing was perfect for this week’s photo challenge.

Yesterday, I visited the René Magritte exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and was struck by Magritte’s playful and provocative artistic style.    He was one of the major figures in the Surrealism artistic movement, and a master of contrast.

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Born and educated in Belgium, Magritte become an influential member of the Surrealism “revolution” in Belgium and Paris in the 1920’s.   This intellectual and political movement was influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx .    In their manifesto, writers and visual artists pledged to use their art to explore the creative potential of the unconscious. One method they used was the irrational juxtaposition of objects.

Within the Surrealist framework, René Magritte developed an artistic style, which “de-familiarizes the familiar.”  His artistic aim was to “make everyday objects shriek aloud.” (Oxford University Press, 2009)  How does he do this? Let’s look at the portrait above in which Magritte replaces the expected object (a face) with the unexpected (an apple).  This contrast between the “unfamiliar” and the “familiar” compels the viewer to reassess the objects and their meaning.

I despise my own past and that of others. I despise resignation, patience, professional heroism and all the obligatory sentiments.–Rene Magritte

In the next image, Magritte playfully asks us what would happen if we looked down at our dinner plate and saw an eye in a slice of ham blinking at us … (I’m sure vegetarians and carnivores would agree with him on this point.)

Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte, The Portrait

…or if the sky replaced part of the human eye.

The False Mirror, Rene Magritte

The False Mirror, Rene Magritte

Magritte’s iconic objects–like the bowler hat, the pipe, the apple– became symbols in his unique artistic vocabulary and reappear throughout his work.  They are also symbolic of Surrealism.

magritteGolconda_1923692b

Golconde, Rene Magritte

In “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” (pictured below) and his other paintings from the second half of the 1920s, Magritte began to juxtapose images and text.  In the picture below, he pairs a 2-D image of a pipe with the words “This is not a pipe.”  In this way, he asking us to consider the difference between the real object, its 2-dimensional image, and the word “pipe.”   By contrasting these 3 forms, he is shaking up our conventional expectations once again.

Rene Magritte, Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

Rene Magritte, Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Even at his most playful, Magritte’s work can be unsettling.

I love subversive humour, freckles, knees, the long hair of women, the dreams of young children at liberty, a young girl running in the street.–Rene Magritte

The Lovers, Rene Magritte

The Lovers, Rene Magritte

In “The Lovers,” the viewer is expecting a romantic moment, but Magritte paints the couple with bags over their heads.  By denying us the voyeuristic pleasure of watching two lovers kiss, Magritte makes us question our cultural assumptions and habits.

In his later work, like “Le Model Rouge” Magritte changes ordinary objects (a pair of feet) into something quite different, which makes us question  the relationship between animate and inanimate objects.  I may never look at a pair of shoes the same way again!

Rene Magritte, Le Model Rouge

Rene Magritte, Le Model Rouge, 1935

Magritte’s influence and popularity has continued to grow long after his death in 1967.   After learning more about his work, I could see his influence on Pop and Conceptual artists, like Andy Warhol.  I have to admit that his work has become so commercialized and imitated that I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the exhibit.   But it is extremely powerful and really helps me appreciate Magritte’s unique and revolutionary artistic vision.  The exhibit runs until mid-October, so if you’re in town, I encourage you to visit the Art Institute of Chicago.

Now it’s your turn.  Do you agree that René Magritte is a “master of contrasts?” Are there other artists that you’d add to this list?  Does his work upset conventional expectations and make you think?  Or, has his work lost its appeal because it has been imitated so much?

Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte, Not to be Reproduced

If you’d like to read more about him and his work, here are several links:

And for other unique interpretations of this week’s photo challenge, click on the links below:

13 replies »

  1. 🙂 When I saw the first picture, I just thought: “ah, Margritte! Excellent choice!”
    I hadn’t even thought about him, even though it’s almost logical when one thinks of this weeks’ photo challenge theme!
    Have a wonderful day 🙂

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  2. I’ve seen Magritte’s work referenced over the years, but I didn’t know much about him except that he was a master of surrealism. I’m sure that it would be powerful to see his collection in person. The Warhol exhibit came to Atlanta’s High Museum a couple of years ago, and I wasn’t quite sure if I was impressed because of the wow factor, or because of his vision. In comparing the two, I think Magritte’s work is far more interesting. Thanks for getting my brain moving!

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    • Hi Elisa! Thanks so much for your thoughts. Yes, it is surprising what an impact the collection has. It is exciting to see and it is so illuminating. I remember feeling the same way when I went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Unforgettable!

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  3. Great choice for the theme and a really interesting post. I know a lot more about Magritte than I did before! I love the weekly challenges for the chance they give to see how other people interpret the same theme. When you asked about other artists, Georgia O’Keeffe sprang to mind. Blossoms and bones, and a really unique perspective.

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  4. Love your academic take on this week’s theme. Magritte’s work is fascinating, I think it compels us to look at things more closely…and differently. Thanks for sharing 🙂 By the way, I loved it when you used the phrase “cultural assumptions”. I heard a lot if it in my cultural studies classes at university.

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