The Adman Magritte

Magritte as Cartoonist and Shill

PopeyeMagritte was the first painter I had a crush on. In high school I got my hands on Suzi Gablik‘s book about Magritte, and was completely smitten. I was susceptible to the surrealists in general – at that age there’s a need for the fantastic, for something that slips past the thudding particulars of “real life” – but Magritte was the one I admired most. In Magritte, the fantastic becomes immediately graspable; everything is laid out on the surface. It’s become reflexive to say that Magritte was interested in painting mainly as an intellectual enterprise, but that doesn’t make the observation any less true. In high school, we enter into the world of ideas and try different ones on for size. It was remarkable to find someone capable of making ideas materialize in paint.
Of course, being an admirer of his images, and keeping them in my memory like vicarious dreams, I suffered awareness of their shameless appropriation. His paintings continue to be thoughtlessly digested by pop culture, most particularly in comics and advertising. Ad men constantly raid his store of visual obsessions – the juxtapositions of unlikely objects delineated in clear, even light; the scrim of bright blue sky riveted in place by small bright clouds; and of course the man with the bowler hat, either levitating in the air, or his face obscured, not with an apple or pipe, as in the original paintings, but with whatever product the advert happens to be hawking. Of course, to some degree, Magritte left himself open to appropriation; you can’t copyright a blue sky, or a man in a bowler hat.

A Magritte show at the San Francisco MOMA gave me the chance to become reacquainted with his work. I approached it with a degree of trepidation, with instinctual distrust of one’s high school tastes. The main thing I’d forgotten in the interim is how funny Magritte is. The visual solemnity of some of his dreamscapes (and the seriousness that accrues to painting as a matter of course) had subsumed, in my memory, his sense of humor. My forgetfulness was all the more remarkable because his playfulness spans the entire course of his career. How could I have forgotten his 1950s copies of famous portraits, in which he replaced the original sitters with coffins, built to mimic their postures (if the sitter was sitting up on a couch, the coffin turns up at a right angle, where the waist would be)? Or the almost conceptual-art “Representation” (1937), a painting of a woman’s pelvic area, with the frame carved to hug the curves of the woman’s hips (this painting-object so literal in its “objectification,” it bestows a perverse tenderness to the pubic scene)?

One painting, in the second room of the exhibit, made me laugh out loud. Called “The Subjugated Reader” (1928), it shows a woman standing, holding a book in her hand, with a look of alarm – even terror – on her face, her wide eyes fixed on the book’s open pages. The arm with the book is held away from her body, but only so far, as if she wants to put the book down, but finds herself unable. It’s as if the book has just reached out and grabbed her with invisible, monstrous arms – though of course it remains just a harmless little book. The laugh was produced in an instant, in far less time than it takes to describe the image: it has the instantaneous humorous “shock” of a single-panel cartoon. It easily could have come off the drawing board of Glen Baxter or B. Kliban. (Even the woman’s face, vaguely doughy and with a slightly outsized nose, reminded me of Kliban’s characters. Another painting, of a fleet of giant baguettes hovering in the air outside a window, would have fit perfectly in Kliban’s cartoon-book “Tiny Footprints.”)
Of course, the comparison is backwards – it is Kliban and Baxter who are influenced by Magritte – his aura dispersed not only into advertising, but into comics. Nonetheless, it isn’t typical of a painting to release its meaning in a single burst at first glance (this “burst” like an idea that suddenly pops into one’s head, or alternately, like the instinctive laugh produced when seeing someone trip and gracelessly fall on their ass). The painting does not invite further contemplation; you don’t get drawn into its handling of form and light, its pictorial atmosphere. Beyond its simple humorousness, the painting’s ambush tactic is allied to the tactics of cartooning. In fact, enough of Magritte’s tactics and preoccupations overlap with those of comics, that I had to wonder if Magritte might have missed his true calling. Of course, materially, he was better off as a painter – but thematically, he might’ve been more at home as a cartoonist.
First and foremost of his comics-simpatico preoccupations is his interest in conjunctions of image and the written word. The most famous example, of course, is “Ceci N’est Pas Un Pipe” (which seems to stop just short of even thornier metaphysics: what if the written caption proclaimed “Ceci N’est Pas Une Peinture D’un Pipe”? Or, after it became well-known, why not a copy with the caption swapped in: “Ceci N’est Pas Une Peinture Fameuse”?). Some of his word-obsessed pictures go to such lengths to deny the ordinary pleasures of painting, they reach painting’s radical limits. He has a series of pictures of oddly-shaped wooden frames, each with a word (like “Foret” or “Salon”) written on their otherwise blank framed space. The frames have usually been leaned carelessly against a wooden wall. Anyone hunting after even the minimal pleasures of painted wood texture would be disappointed – the wall has the dull quality of fake wood paneling. The radical boringness of these painting amounts to a kind of comedy. It’s only the fact that there are words placed in them that induces us to look at them, or at least to “read” them.
Some of the word-experiments are more unsettling. One murky, almost featureless landscape is populated with black blobs – they could be droppings left by some oily, unearthly (and probably equally shapeless) beast. Each of the blobs is assigned a legend: “arbre” (this one stretches vertically), “nuage” (this one floats in the muddy air), “village a horizon,” “cheval,” “chaussee de plomb.” The threat of this painting is not that these eminently understandable words have been stolen by the blobs, but rather that without such words, this is what the world would revert to.
The Punchline
A second comics tropism in Magritte’s work is his use of panels and borders. This is most explicitly on display in “The Man With The Newspaper” (1928), which breaks the picture into four quadrants, each quadrant showing the same room, from the same viewpoint. In the first panel, there is a man seated at the table, reading a newspaper. In the remaining three panels, the room is empty, except for its accoutrements: the table, two stools, a curtained window, a metal plate hung decoratively on the wall, a vase of flowers, a picture frame with an indistinct painting (probably a landscape), and a tall black metal heater or stove. These objects remain steadfastly in their places over the course of the four panels, and the amount of light coming in through the window remains constant. We are given no hints to tell us how much time has passed between these views of the room – the three “empty” panels could be pictographic “snapshots” taken a few seconds after the man has left the table (or for that matter prior to the man having arrived at the table), or each could be taken a year apart, on a day with similar weather. The “joke” in this painting, beyond its deadpan, photocopy-like repetition, plays on our assumption that the human being should be the subject of the picture. If we saw the same man, in four panels, in four different rooms, we would think little of it. But to have the subject become the inanimate room renders the man an interloper – an aberration in a world given over to the mute aura of objects.

Less obvious in its relation to comics is Magritte’s use of fragmented pictorial space in his series of facetious “comparisons.” In “The Six Elements” (1929), Magritte situates six pictures in a painting of a wooden frame (this frame is, essentially, six frames stuck together into one sextuply-divided frame). Setting the images in this faked pictorial space gives them a temporal unity; he is not using the “panels” to traverse time, as comics panels usually do. He is using the panels to make comparisons and juxtapositions, and in the process, to play with systems of classification. The six “elements” are represented in turn by pictures of fire, windows on a building façade, a woman’s torso, clouds, trees in a forest, and a collection of the weird little bells Magritte was so fond of painting, all placed on a surface resembling corrugated tin. These “elements” relate to each other only because they’re corralled together in the same picture (and having been doubly corralled by the picture’s title). The break-up into panels is a step toward pictorial language – breaking up pictures into semantic units, like words, in order to make “sentences” of them. This is the fundamental aesthetic motor of comics – in fact, comics’ basic feat of transposing time into a spatial dimension (across the page) is a subset of this more fundamental property: the panels in comics provide a language of comparison and juxtaposition, and it is the pictorial “comparison” of one panel to the next that allows us to deduce the passage of time.

Finally, I had to think about Magritte the cartoonist because I began to wonder if his pictures might actually “work” better as cartoons – if the fact that they’re paintings isn’t something of a distraction. He isn’t particularly interested in mimetic representations of the physical world; the early paintings, in particular, are almost shocking in their shoddiness. Hair, wood, ocean, feathers – they’re all rendered as painter’s “effects,” brush-tricks you could pick up from those TV shows that teach you how to paint a landscape without having to actually venture outside. This is Magritte’s preoccupation with ideas at its most bald: he’s not interested in wood or hair as sensual, material things, but the idea of wood or hair. If, as in one of his paintings, a leaf is turning into a bird, it doesn’t matter what sort of leaf or what sort of bird – what matters is the idea of a leaf turning into a bird.

Ultimately, I felt there was a redundancy to the exhibit, as most of the paintings achieve their effects equally well as reproductions in a book. Of course, in a book they’re smaller, but this actually minimizes the pictorial clumsiness of the painted surface. And they seem more appropriate book-sized, perhaps due to some vestigial aura of books, the medium through which ideas have been carried through millennia – to render Magritte’s paintings book-sized is to render them the size of thoughts. It’s only one further step to suggest the images might work better as drawings, where surfaces would be even less important. Reduced to lines, objects are rarefied to their most abstract visual state – as a drawing, a representation can hover closer to the realm of ideas than the realm of independent material objects.

The exception to the efficacy of his images as book-sized reproductions is found in his later work, where he took far more care with his painting technique. The late, large-format canvasses are all of a piece: not the size of thoughts, but the size of dreams. We can be taken in by their whole atmosphere. An example of this later mode would be “The Heartstring,” which shows a giant glass in a valley, so tall it half-cups a fleecy cloud (the only cloud in the sky). The size of the canvas helps to convey the monumental nature of the image. Another example would be “Blood Will Tell” (1959), which shows a large tree at nightfall. There are two open doors set into the tree; in the lower hollow, there is a miniature house with its windows lit up, and in the higher one, there is a featureless grey ball. The scene is suffused with a sense of nocturnal mystery.
It should be noted that his addition of effectively rendered pictorial “atmosphere” is still a very de-particularized atmosphere. The tree, the sense of night falling, are persuasive – everything has the proper texture. But the tree is not a particular tree, a tree that might have stood at Magritte’s bedroom window when he was a child; and the valley in “The Heartstring” is not a particular valley that could be located on a surveyor’s map. “Atmosphere” is merely one more element for him to utilize in his dialectic of ideas. When night falls gently, quietly, it is a very particular feeling, which we feel with the whole array of our senses. But because we experience it in different places, at different times, and because it is a feeling that repeats itself, the feeling has the capacity to detach itself from the particular – and to become an idea.

The central contradiction in Magritte’s work seems to be this. He is fascinated by objects, a fascination that finds expression in the authority they tend to hold over the human subjects in his paintings, in his distortions of their sizes, in his habit of isolating them from their usual environments, in his delight in pulling their names off and slapping other names onto them. But while objects are first and foremost material things, Magritte is not interested in their specific materiality – he is interested in the de-particularized idea of those objects. This is ultimately connected to the appropriation of his imagery in advertising. I had forgotten that as a young man Magritte made a living designing advertisements and posters, as a biographical snippet at the head of the exhibit mentioned. It’s not merely that some of his work tries too many trick effects, and stumbles into kitsch (which is one of the raw material of advertising). His connection to advertising goes deeper, down to his method.
It’s no an accident that Magritte used non-copyrightable bowler-hatted men in his work. The bowler hat and businesslike attire of the quintessential “Homo Magrithicus” is a method of de-particularizing them. They are not specific men, but Man: anyone and no-one. In one painting they fall from the sky in massive numbers, like some factory-produced rain. They have no biographies – in the suit, in the bowler hat, they are the idea of a person.

“Advertising also deals in deliberately de-particularized images – a kind of enforced anonymity.”

Advertising also deals in deliberately de-particularized images – a kind of enforced anonymity. An advertisement may be interested in selling a thing, but it does so by selling the idea of a thing (and at any rate, mass-production has blurred the distinction between a thing and the idea of that thing). The people who inhabit advertisements are people without histories or biographies (except if they’re celebrities, in which case their biographies matter less than the aura of power and success that their personage has come to represent, and at this level they are replaceable by anyone else who could invoke that aura). In the frictionless world of advertising, no history or biography will stick. Rather, history and biography are cannibalized for the abstracted “ideas” they might represent; if we find a picture of the man staring down the line of tanks at Tiananmen square, we can be sure the ad is not really about the student democracy movement in China and the subsequent crackdown – the image is being used to sell the notion of “resistance,” “heroism,” “rebelliousness,” etc. If the image is used in an advertisement for a news program, it is being used as an idea of “news.” Of course, in this paragraph, I am myself using the image of the Chinese protester as an idea of an image grounded in specific biographical and historical coordinates which has been used for other purposes.

If there is a family in a magazine ad, we understand their photo-albums are filled with forgeries – they are an idea of Family. If there’s a feast set out on a table, it’s not food that someone actually went on to eat – it’s an idea of a feast. If there’s a beautiful summer night, it’s not the beautiful summer night an actual person recalls with nostalgia – it’s the idea of a summer night. If there’s a sexy woman, she’s not really a person who can be found in a bar and persuaded to divulge her phone number – it’s the idea of a woman who’s sexually available. This goes beyond theatrical artifice, and the efficacy of props: these advertisement-phantoms don’t even lead fictional lives.
The ad world is empty of particulars, so you can wear the advertisement’s environment and aspirations like a set of clothes. Particular things already belong to someone – a de-particularized thing is available for purchase. Said another way: if the advertised object were particular, it would be happening to other people, but if it’s de-particularized, it’s open for your habitation. In addition, advertisements always imply futurity: that which you will own, and that which will come to pass once you own it – and that which has not yet come to pass is of necessity an abstraction.

Once more for clarity: advertising doesn’t sell things, it uses ideas to sell things – usually in conjunctions of words and images, and usually with a picture that reveals its meaning in a single “burst,” not as a result of prolonged contemplation. They’re not particularly profound ideas, but ideas nonetheless: success, youth, hipness, sexual magnetism, power, safety, happiness. Magritte and advertising share the same basic language – a language which is equally effective in inviting the viewer to enter a fictive pictorial-space or a fictive commodity-space. Perversely, Magritte’s world, while being deliberately (even ostentatiously) fantastic, is the more recognizable one. A few last miscellaneous observations:

Having already been acquainted with Magritte’s more well-known images, I found myself drawn to the more obscure ones on display. A few of these barely amount to paintings. The early “The Catapult Desert” (1926) takes after deChirico, with his emptied spaces and obscured subjects - but here there is even less. There are some curtains, some grey clouds, part of a board cut in the silhouette of a man’s head, with a metal bar driven though it. All of these things are oddly truncated by the picture frame or by the other objects. Nothing is in the center – there’s no subject, nothing interesting compositionally, or even figuratively – the objects don’t congeal into some larger “meaning.” The eye slides off it, no matter how hard you try to make it stick. I was particularly charmed by “The Prince of Objects” (1927). This is a painting so unreal, and so obscure of intent, it defies written description – yet despite its unreality, it is the antithesis of the fantastic. The picture is of a weirdly shaped black frame – I can only call it a frame because it seems to make an attempt to enclose something. In fact, you can see through its middle, like a donut, except for a green wood pattern that appears at the upper left corner of the framed hole. About a quarter of the way down, the wood pattern fades into nothingness – not torn away, but gradually melting into the air. This thing is as inexplicable as an object from some unknown dimension, beyond the scope of the ordinary senses, and yet, it inspires no awe. It’s as if Magritte made a trip to a different dimension, and brought back with him the most useless and boring thing he could find.

What I particularly missed in the MOMA’s exhibit were some of the more disturbing examples of his work, paintings where the ideas are not quite fully digested. I’m glad to have been reminded of his humor, but as a teenager, unsurprisingly, I’d been equally drawn to his sense of unease and the macabre. Some of his canvases carry not only the peculiar logic and displacement of dreams, but their disturbing, off-kilter nightmarishness. The only painting in the MOMA exhibition that had this whiff of nightmare, I thought, was “The Central Story” (1928), which features a table with a tuba and a briefcase on it, and standing behind it, a woman with a white cloth over her face, her hand at her throat. The conjunction of unlikely objects – tuba and briefcase – is too textbook surrealist, but the woman is a genuinely unnerving presence. Part of this derives from her hand, in its choking gesture. The hand seems too masculine, as if it’s been ineffectively transposed from another person’s body. It is blotched with grey shadows, giving it a grimy caste. Part of the aura of the image derives, certainly, from the autobiography attached to it. Magritte’s mother drowned in a river when he was young, and evidently he saw her dead body – the current had pulled her nightdress over her head, covering her face, as the woman’s face in the painting is covered. When you look at this painting with his history in mind, you see a demonstration that the particular is as full of mystery as the realm of abstracted dream-ideas.
Charlie Brown