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.
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.)
…or if the sky replaced part of the human eye.
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.
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.
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
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!
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?
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: