Hegel's Holiday- 1958

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 7:55:54 PM


This post we'll look at Magritte's 1958 painting Hegel's Holiday. This painting owes its title to Paul Nouge, the poet. It should be pointed out, however - and in contrast to the obstinately persistent legend -that it was extremely rare for Magritte's pictures to be given their titles by others. While it is true that the artist loved to gather with friends in front of his completed pictures and enjoyed finding titles for these works in their company, we know of only a few examples indicating his actually taking up their suggestions: Georgette, his wife, tells us how "It often happened that, come the next day, he was no longer satisfied with their inventions, and would then choose a name with which he himself was happy." This is the case with Hegel's Holiday, for instance. The picture portrays an object whose function is to repel water - an umbrella -juxtaposed with an object which contains water - a glass. We should probably talk here not so much of a contradiction as of a contrast, since the idea behind the picture is not very profound. And indeed, it is for this reason that Hegel is on holiday, going without the rigorousness of logical demonstrations so as to devote himself to pictures of an entertaining nature.

                                  Hegel's Holiday- 1958

Hegel, the exponent of philosophical dialectics, is the inspiration behind this picture. Magritte sums up:

"I... thought that Hegel ... would have been very sensitive to this object which has two opposing functions: at the same time not to admit any water (repelling it) and to admit it (containing it). He would have been delighted, I think, or amused (as on a vacation) and I call the painting Hegel's Holiday."

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Let us begin with René Magritte's Hegel's Holiday (1958). There is a wonderful letter written by Magritte to the critic Suzi Gablik explaining the genesis of the work:

"My latest painting began with the question: how to show a glass of water in a painting in such a way that it would not be indifferent? Or whimsical, or arbitrary, or weak – but, allow us to use the word, with genius? (Without false modesty.) I began by drawing many glasses of water, always with a linear mark on the glass. This line, after the 100th or 150th drawing, widened out and finally took the form of an umbrella. The umbrella was then put into the glass, and to conclude, underneath the glass. Which is the exact solution to the initial question: how to paint a glass of water with genius. I then thought that Hegel (another genius) would have been very sensitive to this object which has two opposing functions: at the same time not to admit any water (repelling it) and to admit it (containing it). He would have been delighted, I think, or amused (as on vacation), and I call the painting Hegel's Holiday."

What is fascinating here is to watch how the work progresses almost beyond or against Magritte's will, as though he can only look at it unfold before his eyes. The subject of the painting begins as a kind of "stain" in the water that repeats itself from drawing to drawing before taking on its final form as an umbrella. It is as though there is some unconscious force at play of which Magritte is only an effect, which precedes him and which he can only trace out or follow.

Magritte at first draws without knowing what he is doing, then sees what he has drawn and tries to draw it again. He makes a mark before he knows what he has done and then attempts – unsuccessfully – to repeat or imitate it. But it is through this continuous process of imitating a previous imitation – of, we might say, imitating nothing or, as Magritte might say, imitating water – that the umbrella is unfurled, and something is created out of nothing. Magritte does not know at any stage what he is imitating or what his series of drawings has in common – or he could only say what it is by means of another drawing. But the extraordinary thing is that out of this series of comparisons something is produced that – perhaps – has nothing in common with that original line with which he began.

That umbrella is almost infinitely different from that "linear mark on the glass" he began by imitating. And what about the final comparison between the umbrella and the glass of water? Here too, as Magritte notes, there are two opposed things: an umbrella that does not admit or repels water and a glass that admits or contains it. But, again, the strange thing is that we somehow find something in common between these two opposites – or, at least, the problem is raised for us: what do these opposites have in common, what do both resemble, the one transparent and admitting water and the other opaque and repelling it? Is this not, however, the very problem of painting itself, this bringing together of two opposed qualities? The opaque and the transparent, that which admits light and water and that which excludes them, the canvas as a window and the canvas as a wall? Can we not say that Hegel's Holiday is a painting of painting itself, an attempt to show or represent the very thing that allows painting – painting as the transformation of unidentifiable blobs of paint into identifiable and nameable objects? Is not that passage from the mark or stain to the object we see there the very passage implied in all painting?

Now, we might ask: what allows this miraculous transformation from the shapeless blot to the finished and defined object? What guarantees the possibility– whose assumption Magritte was working under as he did these drawings – of the stain becoming a thing? In fact, these working drawings already contain the answer within them. For what we can see Magritte doing there is trying to catch up with a knowledge that already sees the line as something else. It is as though each drawing was done by another, which Magritte then attempts to make over in his own terms, only to discover that once again it has gone beyond him, contains something he has not seen before. And the pauses and hesitations in Magritte's method – the 100 to 150 sketches he took to get it right – arise because at the same time the line is both. It is both an attempt to copy that line which appears before him and what moves him beyond himself, forcing him to make another copy. It is almost – but, as we shall see, not quite – as though there is some pre-existing, unconscious knowledge that Magritte is trying to recapture, some memory he is endeavouring to evoke.

But, again, what explains this delay, the time it takes for that final "solution" to be found, is that, if he has to wait until he recognises that line which expresses this memory, he also cannot know what this memory is until he sees it as this line. And the impossible equivalence each drawing attempts to make – the two opposing things it brings together – is just that between this knowing and this seeing. We would say that each of these drawings is this equivalence, but that it would always require another drawing for him to recognise this, a comparison of it to something else. Or, as Magritte said about another painting we shall be coming to in a moment, if what is produced finally has the "unequivocal character of an image", it is still in the end "not a cigar that one sees but only an image of a cigar".

It is this relationship between the painter's own experience of the picture as he paints it and the feeling that he is already his own spectator looking back at it after it is painted that Lacan spoke of as the "gaze". It was the "gaze" for Lacan– that which sees you from the picture before you see it– that for him explained the possibility of the painter making his stains on the canvas, which, after all, resemble nothing, are mere patches of pigment, recognisable as objects or the images of objects. It is the gaze itself that Magritte is trying to represent in this series of drawings for Hegel's Holiday. As he retraces the line he sees before him on the glass, he is getting closer, he thinks, to what originally inspired the painting or he is seeing the painting as though it were already finished. He is engaged in the process of trying to represent the painting as it already appears to the other. He is attempting, in other words, to represent this gaze of the other. But the paradox is that, at the very moment he captures this gaze – makes an equivalence between the painting he sees and the painting as seen by this other– it reveals itself as a mere umbrella, something that seems to bear no relationship to anything else, to hover inexplicably in the air supported by nothing.

Our look is inescapably drawn towards the umbrella as the solution to the painting or as that in which the solution to the painting is to be found; but, as Magritte says, this umbrella does not admit or repels our look at the same time. What is demonstrated in the end is that there is no secret to the painting – that the umbrella does not unfold and support itself – but that it is only through our very looking at it, through its capturing and containment of our look, that it exists at all (like its opposite, the water). That is, what is shown is that, if the umbrella is the unconscious origin of the painting, as though Magritte has somehow forgotten it – and it is that prior gaze which allows him to remember it – this umbrella also only comes about at the end of the painting, after we ourselves have seen it.

We might speak of this peculiar temporality of the painting, a kind of future anterior or "as if", in terms of the suspension of disbelief – that suspension of disbelief Surrealist paintings are so famous for. In the Magritte "portraits" where an object hovers mysteriously in front of the sitter's face, we have the uncanny feeling that, if we are unable to see the person behind it, they are certainly able to see us. [1]

In other words, if the object in front of their face is opaque to us, a mere splotch or blob on the canvas, it is transparent, a figure, for them. (This is undoubtedly strange because the object must be much too close for them to see clearly.)  But what is also remarkable about these pictures – and this is just what we mean by that suspension of disbelief guaranteed by the gaze – is that we sense that it is only the gaze of this other that keeps the object suspended in the air, which  makes it weightless or transparent, not a real thing but only the image of a thing. In fact, it is really only our own transfixed and helpless look, attracted by this unaccountably levitating object that keeps it up. And Magritte would in a way speak here of the canvas itself – and in this we can understand these pictures too as representations of representation – as just this peculiar hovering object, suspended by nothing.

Magritte's pictures – think here of the rock in the air of The Glass Key (1939) or the train steaming out of the fireplace in Time Transfixed (1939), but also of the earlier dramas where a group of robbers is hunched around a doorway about to strike as in The Murderer Threatened (1927) – are all about this "suspense" or "suspension of disbelief", this pause or caesura between seeing and knowing, which is the mystery of painting and of appearance in painting. And this "suspense" should remind us of what Foucault says about Magritte's work – and particularly about his This is Not a Pipe (1926), another painting which, like Hegel's Holiday, tries to unite opposites. Foucault's argument about Magritte is that what we see in his pictures is the disappearance of the common ground between objects and between objects and the language that designates them.

Indeed, he goes further and says that it is this disappearance, paradoxically, that allows them to be compared. That is, words and things can be compared, but we cannot say what both resemble. He writes in his book on Magritte: "The incisions that draw figures and that mark letters communicate only by a void, a non-place hidden beneath a marble solidity”. [2]

Or, to put it another way, where could we stand in Magritte's paintings to see this comparison they make? As with the objects in Borges' heterotopia of which Foucault speaks at the beginning of his The Order of Things, it would take place only in an imaginary, fictitious place from which all ground has disappeared. This is why we cannot decide in Magritte's paintings– despite their critics and despite even Magritte's own statements – whether the objects brought together are the same or different, whether their metaphoric spark arises because it reveals a hidden affinity or a secret opposition. For this would require some outside measure or standard against which to compare them, which is precisely what we lack there. But this would also mean that, if we cannot say what third thing those other two resemble, we cannot say what either of them is before this comparison.

For it is only through its comparison with another that we can say what any object is or means. This is why Magritte emphasises so strongly – despite perhaps the evidence of his working drawings – that he did not begin by comparing any particular object to make his work. He was not, for example, inspired by a bike in his State of Grace (1959). It was not some pre-existing bike that was successively compared, before finally selecting the match that would best bring out the "essence" of the bike. Rather, it was, he said, with the very comparison between the bike and the cigar that the painting began. It was only after the original nexus of the bike and cigar that those other alternatives were possible. As he wrote: "The bicycle is not a subject that inspires me. It is inspiration that gives me the subject to be painted: a bicycle on a cigar" (letter to Andre Bosmans, October 23, 1959).

But, if everything begins with comparison in Magritte, if we can only say what something is through another, Foucault's point is not that there is simply no connection between words and things, that language is an arbitrary imposition upon the world. Rather, he argues that words and things do match and are not arbitrary – but that we cannot say what they have in common or what allows us to compare them. Take, for example, one of Magritte's "word" works, The Key of Dreams (1932). It might be said that by painting the words "the bird" next to a water pitcher, Magritte reveals that words have nothing in common to their object or that we can apply any word to any object. But the metaphor that is produced there – for the pitcher is in a way like a bird – demonstrates that their connection is not non-existent or arbitrary, but indeed no better or worse than our word "pitcher". It merely brings out certain qualities in the object, and the word "pitcher" would do likewise. And it is not as though there is anything behind these two predicates that can be named non-metaphorically, some underlying referent of which it can be said that it is both a pitcher and a bird, except by producing another metaphor for it. (This is perhaps Foucault's problem when he wants to compare different systems of representation in The Order of Things. For, even in his own terms, he would be unable to do so because he could not say what each of them has in common. They would all belong to or construct different worlds. This is perhaps why this monumental and magisterial book begins with laughter: because it knows from the beginning that the task it has set itself is impossible or self-contradictory, that it could only be accomplished by a "man" who, at that very moment, was already disappearing or dying.)

However, if the world is metaphorical, if its possible systems of classification might be otherwise – this is also Foucault's point – it is not as though we can simply think or speak this otherwise. We cannot but experience the connections we make as real. This would be as Magritte could only understand the union of the cigar and the bicycle in State of Grace as the only possible one, as though it were the memory of something that had actually happened. As he wrote in another letter to Suzi Gablik: "Lately, I've been trying to figure out how to paint a window picture, and how to paint a picture showing a bicycle [...] As you might be aware, a bike sometimes runs over a cigar thrown down in the street". But, again, as with the working drawings for Hegel's Holiday, if this series of comparisons can take place only after that initial memory of the bike and the cigar, it is also true that this memory itself would be possible only insofar as it reminded Magritte of something else or, to put it another way, only insofar as something else reminded Magritte of it – say, of another of those objects to which he compared the bike in those preparatory drawings.

The point is that we finally cannot say what Magritte's memory and the objects that evoke it for him have in common, why these objects remind him of something or why his memory is caught up with these objects. We can only say this: that neither his memory nor its objects would be possible without the other, and that precisely what both might be trying to recall is the memory of what both originally had in common. It is this memory which forms a kind of stain in Magritte's work, and we might say that the role of metaphor there is to turn this stain into a figure, to give it a fictitious depth, to lift it off its support, to suspend it (as the umbrella and cigar do respectively in Hegel's Holiday and State of Grace). [3] We can henceforth name or represent this memory, but only at the cost of not finally knowing what we name or represent, of only be able to speak of it metaphorically or through comparison – as the memory of another. [4]

And there is another great painting that takes up, like Hegel's Holiday and State of Grace, this balance of opposites (for do not Hegel's Holiday and State of Grace form a kind of balance? In the Hegel's Holiday, it is that of the glass of water on top of the umbrella; in State of Grace, it is that formed by the two wheels of the bike across the fulcrum of the owl on the cigar): Jan Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance (1662-4). Here too, everything pivots around an empty point, a stain that allows the four quadrants into which the painting has been divided to communicate with each other, initiating a measure or scale between them. And, as Michel Serres says in his analysis of the picture, we can understand the whole of the painting to be the blowing up or inflation of this point. He calls this process – so similar to Hegel's Holiday where we saw that small line expand in the water to become an umbrella, and to State of Grace where we saw the bike like a monad implicitly contain every other object in the world5 – by the Leibnitzian term "puncta inflata". [6]

Serres, that is, understands the painting as the blowing up or inflating of an always imaginary or virtual point or, more accurately, he sees the problem of painting as how to pass from the point as a non-figurative and all-too-material stain to a figurative and idealised image of an object.

Where is this point in Vermeer's painting, this point around which the rest of the painting turns, for which the rest of the painting stands in? It is precisely the fulcrum of the scale the girl holds in her hand. It is this which divides the painting into its four quadrants and allows us to pass from one quadrant or section of the painting to another. It inaugurates a kind of metaphor or scale which allows us to compare what would otherwise be incomparable. Now, what is it that is in fact joined in Woman Holding a Balance? If we look closely at the top right hand corner of the picture, we find there a tapestry of a Last Judgement, a scene depicting the weighing up and measuring of those weightless and immaterial things, souls.

The aim of this scale is thus to form a passage from this world to that other, from the microcosm of this world to the macrocosm of that other. To make the connection with Magritte's painting clearer, we would say that it is what allows the passage – or state – of grace. It is because of this metaphor or transport in Vermeer's painting that we can go from one world to another, from the prosaic and fallen things of this world with which the girl is surrounded to their secret and spiritual equivalent in either word or representation (for example, as tapestry) in another. But, as Foucault would say, this possibility has been lost in Magritte. We can go from one place to another, but we cannot say how we got there or there would be nothing at stake – no spiritual redemption or grace – in doing so.

There is no escape from the confines of this world, from the endless comparison of the same, which Foucault calls similitude. This is what we see in what we take to be Magritte's remake of Woman Holding Balance, representation (1962). It precisely makes the point that that other world is only, as it were, a representation of representation, set mise en abime within this one. To put it another way, it is only in and through representation that we are able to imagine some final concordance between words and things, some Last Judgement as to what things are or mean – a representation that would always defer this final moment. But in another way, of course, the painting is also saying that it is just this Last Judgement – which is also a kind of memory – that occurs not in some other world but at every moment in this one, every time we speak or name anything.

And is this not what we see finally in Hegel's Holiday? For what is it in the end that allows the balance there between the water and the umbrella, this bringing together of opposites? What is it that the water and the umbrella have in common? It is, of course, that line from which the umbrella sprang, which was, as Magritte says, at first "in the water and then underneath it". But, if we look closely at the painting, it is just this line – the point or spur at the top of the umbrella – which is missing. More precisely, then, it is because this line which they have in common is now missing that the water is allowed to balance on top of the umbrella, that the two can be compared. And it would be this line that we have called the stain. It is exactly through the disappearance of this stain that everything comes into being in the paining. It is through its exclusion that everything else is able to be balanced around it and compared to it. It, as it were, annunciates itself. [

It cannot be refuted because its very absence only proves it all the more. This is what representation is:
that which is proved in its absence, which appears without warning and which we cannot close our ears to. It is like the point of those scales in Vermeer: it suspends our disbelief; it makes the stain seem figurative or the painting seem real. It miraculously holds things up – as the water is held up or balanced by the glass. We might ask, again, how it is that this glass remains balanced on top of the umbrella?

If the painting were two dimensional, the glass would undoubtedly topple either backwards or forwards. That umbrella on which it rests would only be, after all, a thin, curved black line on which the glass would be precariously balanced like a tightrope walker. It is only because this line is three dimensional that the glass remains perched on top. In other words, it is by excluding that line they have in common – the fact that they are both in fact just flat stains, paint – that Magritte is able to balance the glass and to compare this water and umbrella that otherwise would have nothing in common.

And this, to conclude, might be what we mean by Surrealism: that more than real thing suspending our belief, which is neither simply fictional nor real, but surreal, above the real, sitting on top of the real – which creates the real, that series of comparisons or resemblances that make up the real. And is this not what Magritte meant by speaking of his painting in terms of resemblance and the of power of painting lying in its ability, like thought, to resemble anything, which is, of course, just what strikes us about Surrealism – the fact that this stain is able to transform itself into anything: flaming giraffes, rocks suspended in the air, shoes made of flesh and birds made of leaves. Foucault writes about this stain or similitude which allows these resemblances and which "like a sovereign makes things appear".
[10] Perhaps we see this sovereign crowned in Hegel's Holiday, crowned precisely with the transparent ring of a glass of water, testament to his power to make things appear by himself disappearing. And we must not forget that in French Hegel's Holiday is translated as Les vacances de Hegel - that Hegel who understood better than anybody the power of the "vacancy" of the king, the king as that "placeholder of the void", for whom everything and everybody stands in. That is, a king who works even when – and perhaps especially when – he is not working, who is always and never on holiday.

With thanks to Keith Broadfoot


1 See on this Son of Man (1964). To the side of the green apple held in front of the man's face there, we find a slice of slice of his pupil and iris, which is also green. This would be a marvellous illustration of what Lacan spoke of as the "gaze hidden behind its very organ" – that is, the eye. Also interesting in this regard is the intriguingly titled The Glass House (1939), where the idea of being "gazed" at without being able to look back is made clear. We also think the similarly significantly titled Not to be Reproduced (1937) is another beautiful exemplification of this "gaze".

2 Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, p. 41.

3 See on this The Place in the Sun (1956), where precisely the role of comparison is to give both of the objects there a kind of depth. And on this idea that comparison both allows us to say what an object is and means that we can never say what it is as such, we might consider Magritte's distinction between the hidden and the invisible, the object which hides something and the object behind which there is nothing. We would say that comparison obscures something in the object, but it is not something that could ever be represented as such, that could be brought out nonmetaphorically. In other words, it would be an example of what Magritte speaks of as the invisible as opposed to the hidden. And on this question of superimposition and comparison, we would want to refer here to Jean Clair's comments on "marquetry" and "intarsia" in his reading of Magritte in terms of Renaissance perspective in 'Seven Prolegomenae to a Brief Treatise on Magrittean Tropes', October 8, Spring 1979.

4 Intriguingly, in his Magritte: The Silence of the World, Abrams, New York, 1992, David Sylvester tries to trace the original impulse behind Magritte's work back to a childhood memory of his drowned mother, as represented in his early painting The Meaning of Night (1927). But precisely this memory is only a kind of "stain" there, a passing flutter of petticoats and gloves to which the protagonist remains blind. Also on this connection between metaphor and memory, we would want to read Clair's taking up of Magritte's art in terms of Athanaius Kircher's machine far the fabrication of metaphors, which comes out of a long history of similar devices for the production of memory (for example, Raymond Lull's), the whole tradition of images for things in mnemonics.

5 See on this also The Traveller (1935), in which we have a kind of “stain” made up of a conglomeration of other objects.

6 Michel Serres, 'Ambrosia and Gold', in Calligram: Essays in New Art History from France, ed. Norman Bryson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p. 121.

7 It is interesting that Representation was once going to be called Endless Holiday. Also on this relationship between Hegel and the mise en abime of representation – the complex question whether this "post-Classical" world of Magritte as opposed to Vermeer is Hegelian or anti-Hegelian – see In Praise of the Dialectic (1936).

8 See on this Annunciation (1930), in which the image is broken open to reveal a kind of "stain", which is perhaps the very weave of the canvas or representation itself.

9 And it is interesting to note that The Glass Key was once going to be called Representation.

10 Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, p. 46. The distinction between resemblance and similitude originally comes from Foucault's book The Order of Things and was taken up by Magritte in a series of letters he wrote to Foucault in response to it, though not perhaps in quite the same sense Foucault used it there. Magritte wrote:

It will interest you, I hope, to consider these few reflections relative to my reading of your book The Order of Things. The words Resemblance and Similitude permit you forcefully to suggest the presence – utterly foreign – of the world to ourselves. Yet, I believe these two words are scarcely ever differentiated. Dictionaries are hardly enlightening as to what distinguishes them. It seems to me that, for instance, green peas have between them relations of similitude, at once visible (their colour, form, size) and invisible (their nature, taste, weight). It is the same for the false and the real, etc. Things do not have resemblances. They do or do not have similitudes. Only thought resembles. It resembles by being what it sees, hears or knows; it becomes what the world offers it (letter to Michel Foucault, May 23, 1966).

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