Article: René Magritte and Realist Surrealism

Thursday, April 16, 2009 8:35:15 PM

René Magritte and Realist Surrealism

by Mariana Borges Veras FYSE – Gödel, Escher & Bach 10-24-08

“Magritte often flaunts reality by giving it its most acceptable guise and then denying it by the old disclaimer, ‘I never said such a thing.’” [i]

Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte followed Surrealist standards and painted everyday objects in unrealistic settings – a traditional means of prompting the viewer to question his or her own thought process.[ii] Magritte’s work is unique in that he maintained a Realist quality in his paintings, something that did not interest most Surrealist artists. Instead of applying the Surrealist notions of distorting reality to the actual physical appearance of familiar objects in his work, Magritte chose to give these objects the familiar physical permanence they have in real life, and tampered with other factors we often take for granted: gravity, scale, and the relationships of inside and outside. [iii]  In creating a very real fake world within his paintings, Magritte was able to “more closely [imitate] the dream world.”[iv] This blurred line between reality and fantasy generated an “ambiguous relationship between subjective and objective realms,” providing a new platform on which to question understanding. Rather than establishing the notions of object and subject as disparate, Magritte’s works challenge us to think of them in terms of fluid levels of cognition.[v] His nuanced interplay between Realist and Surrealist techniques allowed for a more interesting deconstruction and analysis of the cognitive processes involved in perception. Magritte’s grounding in Realism gave his paintings a sense of non-departure from the world of common sense, which forces the viewer to seriously consider Surrealist doctrine, to reconsider how one understands not just a painting, but also reality.

This intertwining of reality and fantasy pushed him into a different domain of philosophical artistry than those being explored by his Surrealist contemporaries. Born in Belgium, Magritte (1898-1967) moved to Paris for three years in the late 1920s to join the Parisian Surrealist School. His lifetime was marked by a large spectrum of artistic development, yet no major movement regressed to the philosophies of Realism in the same way Magritte did. At the turn of the twentieth century, art reached a critical point in its history with the development of Dadaism, which challenged the nature of art itself, questioning whether its purpose was to express a certain cognition, or to trigger interpretation. [vi] Art was transformed from a means of expression to a means of imposing analysis. Surrealism emerged in the late 1920s, taking much of its philosophical basis from the Dadaist manifesto. [vii] However, while Dadaism challenged the nature of art itself, Surrealism challenged the nature of human thought. [viii] When André Bretón wrote the controversial Le Manifeste du Surréalisme (The Surrealist Manifesto) in 1924, he paved the way for an all-encompassing philosophical movement with an intention to call attention to automatic levels of analysis of the human mind. [ix] The work, be it literature, music, or art, produced with Surrealism in mind would ultimately promote the understanding of perception. [x] By challenging perception, the Surrealist artist taps into a new level of thinking: metacognition. Magritte quickly became of the most self-aware artists of the School, said to be the “only one of his circle who clearly stated the nature of the (fruitful) misunderstanding which bound the French Surrealists to Freud: a desire to activate the unconscious as a subversive force.” [xi] Magritte very clearly painted outside of these intentions, not just bringing the unconscious to light, but also questioning the illuminative process. His methods are especially unique in that he was able to bring the viewer into familiar territory while challenging his or her thought process, ultimately creating intellectual vulnerability through deceptively comfortable paintings.

His earliest works toy with the cognitive process in such a fantastic way simply because they dealt with such traditional objects. His most well known piece “La trahison des images” (The Treachery of Images) of 1929 is unique in that it quite clearly tampers with the standard understandings of gravity and space, yet does not seem abnormal. The pipe seems to be floating in space, yet it retains qualities of an object in a real world. The shading on the pipe seems to be true to some perspective, and the viewer does not intuitively question the light source. The pipe is also quite unrealistically large, yet this logic is disregarded as the viewer sees the object as an image. Immediately, then, the viewer recognizes the pipe as both an object and a subject of a painting, embodying both art and reality.

La trahison des images 1929

More crucial to understanding Magritte’s intention is to understand how the image calls to mind the nature of human mental organization. The viewer immediately recognizes the fact that the image in the painting is that of a pipe, and our schematic means of understanding the world proves to be a burden: by immediately categorizing the image of a pipe as a pipe object, the viewer falls into the pitfalls of perception – to the “treachery of images.” The mind automatically jumps to the conclusion that “this is a pipe,” an oversight Magritte seeks to address.  In writing “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) at the bottom of the painting, Magritte is able to call attention to the fact that the viewer has jumped quite a number of steps in understanding. The “pipe” we perceive is not a pipe, but a painting, an image representative of our “pipe” schema. Not only are we immediately hindered in using creativity in understanding an image, relying on our schema rather than our imagination, but we also take quickly take our understanding for granted. Our perception seems to live independently of our logic.  In this sense, the phrase “this is not a pipe” serves as a platform for Magritte’s prerequisites for truer understanding.

The mind, to Magritte, is bound by its understanding of the world as reality. As a Surrealist artist, his purpose is to call attention to these faults and to generate a guided inspiration, which will leave the viewer with a new understanding of the nature of human understanding. [xii] Magritte presents this process in a three-part form of thought: liberation, imagination, and resemblance. [xiii] By succumbing to the statement “this is not a pipe,” the viewer becomes liberated from the preconceived notions that guide image analysis. The viewer is then forced to come to terms with the fact that the image is but an image and that the image is but an image generated within a painting. The image is not a pipe, nor does it even exist in our three-dimensional realm. Following liberation, the viewer can explore his or her imagination, and search for a better interpretation. The mind, however, must reach an understandable conclusion guided by an inherent formal logic, and reaches a point of resemblance. [xiv] Here, the viewer attaches his or her cognition to its resemblance to other things, applying his or her interpretation of the image to their method of understanding of the world around them. In this means of understanding “understanding” lies a certain amount of irony: we can only understand using the same process that got us into trouble in the first place. In this way, Magritte shows that we are even limited in our reactions to shifts in perception. We must process our interpretations, even when “liberated,” within a rigid, often-illogical structure for process. Therefore, with sufficient understanding of the piece, we all reach similar conclusions, just as we reached similar first impressions.

The reactions to “La trahison des images” established the image as a pivotal and influential step for the Surrealist movement. [xv] It seems fitting then, that at the end of his career, Magritte should return to the ideas brought up by “La trahison des images” and create a piece that furthers the analysis of levels of thought. Magritte painted “Les deux mystères” (The Two Mysteries) in 1966, in the same standard of his other paintings involving paintings themselves. Creating a painting of a painting functions as a means of adding new layers of perceptual analysis. “Les deux mystères” is unique in that it is self-referencing. The painting of “La trahison des images” within the painting creates a recursive system, drawing on Magritte’s interpretation of the mind as a series of orderly cognitions. Unlike “La trahison des images,” “Les deux mystères” is painted with much less attention to realistic qualities. The shading and detailing is not as valued, and seems to suggest that instead, Magritte focused on the overarching understanding of the piece. While this departure from the Realist qualities of his earlier pieces suggests a devaluation of the importance of making a painting look real, it is important to note that the image still retains a realistic quality. The perspective presented to the viewer seems to imply the existence of a room, with a wallpapered pipe and easel within. The premise is very believable, yet it is clear Magritte has more in store for the viewer.

The Two Mysteries (Les deux mystères) 1966

The notion of a twisted frame of reference allows Magritte to explore intuitive conceptualization of the world from a different point of view. While the premises of the disparity between perception and reality in “La trahison des images” can be translated into the way the viewer interprets the world he or she inhabits, the creation of a new world within the painting in “Les deux mystères” suggests a false interpretation of even invented worlds. [xvi] In generating confusion with viewer location, Magritte seems to suggest even our new interpretations of reality can be disintegrated. “Les deux mystères” creates two situations: one in which we feel we are in the room viewing a painting of a pipe, and one in which we are viewing a painting of a painting of a pipe. [xvii] Similar to our levels of analysis, reality exists in different levels depending on our understanding of it. Yet the inclusion of “La trahison des images” within the image suggests even more: we are not really viewing a painting, or pipes, or a room, but two-dimensional representations of what we believe to be such. The ability to create images that so intensely toy with our situational intuitions and first impressions makes Magritte far more inspirational than many of his contemporaries.

It is important to note that even in these mind puzzles of paintings, Magritte stays true to the fundamentals of Surrealism. The painting within “La trahison des images” is intuitively considered art, for it exists on an easel, and is quite obviously an expression of the reality within its situation. This assumption means that the room, which it exists in, is another form of reality, yet we know this reality is but a painting, almost a “sub-reality,” as we have discovered so from the messages within the sub-reality “artwork.” The object we discern within the piece becomes our clue to examine the painting as a subject, as not a physical embodiment but a conceptual one. It is here where Magritte’s manipulation of Realist art techniques takes hold and aids in creating dimensions of reality, which directly parallel the dimensions of thought.

Magritte very consciously painted, always very aware of the divide between what we see and how we see it. In applying Realist art principles, this notion becomes especially clear, paving the path for increased insight on the potency of the subconscious mind. The endless merging of Realist and Surrealist doctrine sets him far apart from his contemporaries, and allows him to reach an even higher level of insight – exploring how individual perceptions can in certain circumstances, be detrimentally universal, and how our cognitive steps are all guided in similar fashions.


[i] James Thrall Soby, Rene Magritte. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1965), 12.

[ii] “Guggenheim Collection Glossary” []

[iii] Randa Dubnick, “Visible Poetry: Metaphor and Metonymy in the Paintings of Rene Magritte." Contemporary Literature 21.3, Art and Literature (1980), 416.

[iv] Ibid, 419.

[v] Silvano Levy, "Foucault on Magritte on Resemblance." The Modern Language Review 85.1 (1990), 52.

[vi] “Guggenheim Collection Glossary” []

[vii] Robin Adele Greeley, "Image, Text and the Female Body: Rene Magritte and the Surrealist Publications." Oxford Art Journal 15.2 (1992), 51.

[viii] Ibid, 50.

[ix] Ibid, 50.

[x] “Guggenheim Collection Glossary”

[xi] Klaus Herding, "Hamburg and Rome. René Magritte and Surrealism." The Burlington Magazine. 124.952, Special Issue in Honour of Terence Hodgkinson (1982), 470.

[xii] Levy, 54.

[xiii] Ibid, 54. 

[xiv] Ibid, 55.

[xv] Petra Von Morstein, "Magritte: Artistic and Conceptual Representation." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 41.4 (1983), 372.

[xvi] Ibid, 272-3.

[xvii] Ibid, 272.


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