This is Not Your Father’s Rene Magritte

[The header mentioned in his article is no longer used, but it is still available. It was created by Andrea, who is responsible for any art you find around here that looks professional. -FM]

As my 2.72 readers know, the header to this site is based upon an couple of paintings by Rene Magritte. One of them is not the following:

The Human Condition - 1935

This is one of my very favorite Magritte paintings, however; it is called La Condition Humaine (“The Human Condition”) and was painted in 1935 (to distinguish it from a painting of the same name painted in 1933). Again and again, he used the device of hiding the object that he was painting. An example of this would be Le Fils de l’Homme (“The Son of Man”)—a self-portrait with a green apple obscuring his face. With “La condition humaine,” Magritte is obscuring what is behind the easel with an exact representation of what it is obscuring. Very clever, right? And beautiful!

So there I am at the library, and I notice The Art of Optical Illusions by Al Seckel. It is supposedly a book for young adults, but frankly, anyone who doesn’t find this book fascinating is dead. (Plus, it is the ultimate book for an LSD trip. I think.) So I’m flipping out as I flip through it, and I come to plate 33, titled “This is not a Magritte.”

This is not a Magritte

Seckel has almost nothing to say about this photograph, “This photographer caught an unusual painting by an artist.” No other information is given for the photo. It looks rather old—judging from the the man’s dress and the high contrast (but that could just be the photographer). Certainly, the photograph was set up; this was not a coincidence. In fact, it could be done as follows:

  1. Mount the camera
  2. Mount the easel with a canvas frame, but no canvas
  3. Take the picture and develop it
  4. Replace the canvas frame with a whole canvas
  5. Paint the picture with the help of the photograph
  6. Take the final photograph

It is wonderful to imagine that this photograph was taken before 1933 when Magritte first did this (as far as I know). Of course, it is also wonderful to think that some artists were trying to do Magritte in the real world. In addition to the photograph, there is a certain anti-art going on here, because anyone standing where the camera was at that time got to see this wonderful piece of ephemeral art. It is also possible that it is a fake. It could be a collage or worse. Regardless, I am interested in finding out.


I really like Rachel Maddow and I think she is really smart and knowledgeable. But the other night, she used René Magritte’s painting, The Treachery of Images to make a point. The painting is a realistic rendering of a tobacco pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) written on it. Here is the segment:

The problem is, that she seem to misunderstand the painting. Magritte was not being ironic. He was making a comment about painting (or photography). The truth is, The Treachery of Images is not a pipe; it is a bunch of dried paint on a canvas that looks like a pipe; in other words, it is a painting of a pipe. This may not seem to be a very interesting point, but there is actually a lot here. Images are just that: images. They only become meaningful in the mind. Everyone knows that painting that (depending upon how you look at it) is two faces or a single vase—or another that is an old woman or a young woman. Nothing changes in the painting, ever; but depending upon the state of your mind, everything changes.

Maddow used Magritte’s painting to good effect, but that effect depends upon trivializing the painting. I am not saying that everything is just a matter of how you look at it. I believe there is some absolute reality. For example, The Treachery of Images is most definitely oil paint dried on a canvas. Also: the current protests in Wisconsin are most definitely about union rights. But Magritte’s painting: it is most assuredly not a pipe.

2 thoughts on “This is Not Your Father’s Rene Magritte

  1. I’m sure the publisher will enjoy your enthusiasm. It would have been even more effective if the artist had wrapped the image around the canvas

Leave a Reply