I am not especially fond of the René Magritte painting The Treachery of Images. It was created toward the beginning of his surreal work, and has always struck me as overly didactic. Just the same, if I were going to teach a course on Magritte, I would start with The Treachery of Images. It deals with his obsession: the distinction between image and reality. Even in his last years with paintings like The Son of Man, he was still focused on images and the reality that they obscured. It’s surprising that Magritte never reached the point of “painting” an empty frame, since that is what most of his work was leading to.
The Treachery of Images is just a realistic rendering of a pipe with the phrase, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — “This is not a pipe.” And Magritte was very clear about it. He said, “How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not?” So he is making what seems today to be the most obvious of statements: paintings are representations of things, not the things themselves. But it seems that it is not so obvious for certain political observers.
Four years ago (!) I discussed an instance where Rachel Maddow seemed to be confused about the painting, This is Not Your Father’s Rene Magritte. She seemed to think that Magritte was being ironic, “Of course it is a pipe! Just look at it!” And I suppose if The Treachery of Images were the only Magritte you had ever seen, you could be forgiven for thinking this. But who has only ever seen that one painting? And the title of the painting makes the artist’s intent clear.
Today, I found another example of this. Brian Beutler wrote, The Latest Challenge to Obamacare Should Embarrass Conservative Judges. It is an excellent article, well worth reading. For the politics! But he used The Treachery of Images to make a point about the lack of ambiguity in Obamacare. I agree with him about Obamacare, but he could not have picked a worse example to make his point. He wrote:
No, no, no! Magritte didn’t name his painting, “The treachery of words.” The words are placed on the canvas to help the viewer understand the nature of the image’s treachery. I’m sure that Beutler understands this because he says that the painting depicts a pipe. But Magritte didn’t scrawl on the painting, “Ce ne est pas une représentation d’un pipe” — “This is not a representation of a pipe.” It’s interesting that Beutler’s subject is the ambiguity (or lack thereof) of the law. But in the case of the painting, there really is no ambiguity. And if you ask me, that’s why it is one of Magritte’s weaker pieces.
I think I know what happened to Beutler. He really wanted to use the painting. If he’s like me, his entire article might have come out of his desire to use The Treachery of Images to make that point. And by the time the article was done, he realized that Magritte didn’t actually help him make his case. But he just couldn’t let go of it. He should have! He doesn’t need it. And it just perpetuates the misinterpretation of Magritte’s painting.