Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative:
Issue 13. The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924
The Persistence of Mystery: René Magritte as a Regional Artist
Author: Janet Stiles Tyson Published: November 2005
Abstract (E): The aspect of Réne Magritte's oeuvre that best fits into conventional definitions of surrealism is that of unrelated objects brought into juxtaposition, such that they provoke a realization of mystery in the midst of daily life. However, this writing proposes that the mystery in Magritte's pictures stems from an older, Low Countries tradition of simulated, mysterious encounters - namely that of the private devotional painting. In order to link painters and paintings from the fifteenth century with an artist and pictures from the twentieth century, "The persistence of mystery" cites cultural traits - notable among them, a fondness for home life - that would establish continuity between the two groups of work in respect to their intentional conception and potential reception.
The Belgian painter René Magritte "comes from a specific artistic climate," that nurtures a "tradition of transcendent quietists - painters such as Van Eyck and Memling." Thus Dore Ashton wrote in a 1959 New York Times review of two gallery exhibitions for the artist, who died in 1967. Ashton further noted a "strange Flemish personality" that exerts a "persistent, hallucinating power." In Magritte's art, "the viewer has the feeling that something takes places that he cannot name." (Ashton 28) Ashton's reference to a regional climate that nurtures a persistent mystery or, perhaps, surrealism in fifteenth-century Netherlandish pictures and, five hundred years later, Magritte's art is not unique. Many articles on Magritte, written during the mid-twentieth century for a broad swath of educated American readers, linked his images to a region whose linguistic, religious, artistic, and political culture is far more complicated than such articles could admit.
Perhaps because of this complexity and her modernist scorn of easy interpretation, another critic summarily dismissed any such connection between Magritte's art and the region in which it was made: in her 1970 landmark monograph on Magritte, Suzi Gablik tersely stated that attempts to situate Magritte's oeuvre in a Flemish artistic tradition "cannot be pursued to advantage." There is "in some of Magritte's pictures that sense of eternality, of time suspended, which recalls the hermetic quietism associated with Memling, Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden," Gablik conceded. "Present also is an analogous interest in ordinary objects and domestic interiors. But these tracks do not lead very far." (Gablik 13) Gablik, whose research on Magritte included an eight-month stay with the artist and his wife, Georgette, paired her own opinion with a quote she had obtained from Magritte, himself, effectively aligning their views. Magritte stated: " 'Grouping artists . because they are "Walloons" or because they might be, for example, "vegetarians," doesn't interest me at all . .' " (Gablik 13)
Thus, on one hand, stands an example of reception of Magritte's work that embraces him as heir to a regional tradition of mystery and, on the other, two authoritative and rather autocratic dismissals of the possibility . Situated between these two opinions, however, is another possibility - a case for considering Magritte as a regional artist. How can Magritte be addressed as an artist who worked within some parameters associated with the culture of a particular geographical location? How can pictures made during the fifteenth century and pictures made during the twentieth century fruitfully be compared as manifestations of regional culture? Or, can the work of one of Belgian's foremost painters be situated within a context other than that of Parisian surrealism - which continues to be perceived as definitive of the international practice? This essay will situate Magritte's work within a regional context, by demonstrating that both Magritte and the Netherlandish painters used visual motifs and strategies that would affect their viewers in comparable ways, consistent with certain characteristics of regional culture - in spite of five hundred years elapsing between the occasions of their conception. However, demonstrating such comparable means and intentions requires consideration of some related issues, among them, Magritte's resistance to classification as a regional artist. Magritte's comments about "vegetarian" artists suggest that, even after he had achieved international renown, he was concerned about any categorization that could limit appreciation of his art. Placing his art in a regional context would have become one more way of explaining its meaning - psychoanalysis would be another - and Magritte considered any attempt to decipher the mystery of his art as wrong-headed.
In light of Magritte's protests, then, a regional framing of his art seems to call for especially careful definition of the region in question - which is that part of Western Europe variously known as the Low Countries, the (Southern) Netherlands, and, since 1830, Belgium - in terms that establish continuity between cultural conditions of the fifteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Are there aspects of visual, material, domestic, and urban culture that have persisted over the centuries in spite of hundreds of years of externally provoked political, economic, and religious upheaval, as well as internecine conflicts between the peoples of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels? Continuity in these areas of culture makes it possible to compare artists and artworks of the fifteenth century and the twentieth century, and to compare the intentions and the visual procedures of Flemish artists who painted Christian devotional images and Magritte, a Walloon artist who lived in Brussels and painted a wide variety of secular pictures.
One cultural trait that spans the centuries and links Magritte's work with the Netherlandish pictures is an intense appreciation of domestic comfort and privacy. Since at least the fifteenth century various sources, ranging from the popular to the scholarly, have recognized this region's culture as pervasively, persistently bourgeois and focused on the rights and rites of domestic life (Elliott 65) - a trait Magritte ironically mirrored by insisting on working at home. In the exhibition catalog for Flemish and Dutch Painting: from van Gogh, Ensor, Magritte and Mondrian to Contemporary Artists , Rudi Fuchs wrote that "Flemings" keep close to their "home ground": "There, at home, on their own patch, . they encounter marvellous adventures - melancholy, absurd, lyrical, wistful, surrealist adventures." Fuchs further observed: "In his Brussels parlour Magritte conjures up fantastical anecdotes and apparitions. The windows in his paintings are the windows of the house he lives in, and the hat is his own hat." (Fuchs 25)
The region's longstanding devotion to the privacy and comforts of home has mirrored what could be called an insistence on spiritual privacy. Catholicism has endured, as the majority religion in what now is called Belgium but, for centuries, pragmatic, local respect for privacy and individual conscience continually has prevailed over dogma. (Elliott 59) In the fifteenth century, mounting discontent with much Church policy and practice prompted widespread regional resistance to centralized Roman authority and priestly pronunciations about God's word. Instead of attending church, the faithful increasingly relied on individualized, spiritual experience in the setting of the home . Devotional pictures that illustrated examples of domestic observances of religious faith would have been appreciated deeply by home-loving, fifteenth-century viewers.
Another important consideration is that of 'mystery', the word most commonly employed to describe the effect of Magritte's imagery. What is meant by this term, which often has been used to describe the effect of works by Magritte and the Netherlandish painters? Can mystery be defined in such a way as to establish a basis of comparison between the two groups of pictures? As the OED states, 'mystery' has two kinds of definition. Theologically, it is "usually, a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving." Non-theologically, it is "something beyond human knowledge or comprehension; a riddle or enigma." The two kinds of mystery differ in their origins, yet both resist reason and comprehension; mystery is to be accepted and experienced as necessarily and rewardingly unknowable. If mystery is thus defined, why has it been employed as an effect in these bodies of work? One possibility might be that all of the artists in question, in spite of diverging religious and secular motivations, sought to make pictures that would evoke mystery in the midst of everyday life. In doing so, they might stimulate wonder in viewers tempted by or preoccupied with domestic comfort, security, and privilege. The means they chose for achieving this end was the realistic painting of ordinary objects and/or everyday settings - in ways that eluded rational explanation. As such, focus is shifted from what pictures are supposed to mean to how pictures are intended to operate. For decades, meaning has informed reception of Magritte's pictures and the Netherlandish paintings. But recent scholarly writing about both bodies of work supports the potential for fruitful comparison of their functional operation.
In her doctoral dissertation, Lisa K. Lipinski has argued on behalf of function by applying theories of affective simulation to Magritte's pictures. On the part of the Netherlandish pictures, assertions about their affective purpose and operation have been made by Craig Harbison and Reindert Falkenburg. For all three of these writers, the viewer is neither the passive recipient of a painted fait accompli nor a layperson lacking the specialized information required for valid understanding of recondite imagery. Instead, persons who engage with the images in question participate in an exchange that is animated by both their own stores of individuated experience and by the carefully structured visual simulations set forth by various artists. As such, viewers' responses - and the idea of multiple encounters and receptions should be emphasized - contribute to the works' open-ended meanings.
One example of ways in which pictures simulate mystery is found in a traditional theme of Christian art, the Annunciation, which engages certain motifs and formal strategies common to Magritte's pictures and the Netherlandish paintings. As narrated in the Gospel of Luke, the Annunciation story is one of many Biblical accounts that situates religious and spiritual experience in mundane time and space. In it, the archangel Gabriel appears to a young Hebrew virgin named Mary, and tells her that God that has chosen her to bring his son into the material world. Not all of the pictures considered here have that specific title, and those by Magritte have no immediate visual correspondence to the Biblical story. However, it may be argued that they all have been constructed to operate in comparable ways.
The gospel narrative provides only a subtle indication of Mary's specific situation when the angel appeared. In the King James account: " . the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail! Thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee . !" Mary "was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be." The angel tells her not to be afraid and, telling her who her son will be, explains that she will conceive by the Holy Ghost. Luke 1:38 records that Mary responds by embracing the mystery: " . Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." The central panel of the Merode Triptych (c. 1375-1444) generally is accepted as the first picturing of the Annunciation in a domestic setting. Earlier, known pictures have the encounter between Mary and Gabriel outdoors or inside a church. Attributed to Robert Campin, possibly assisted by Rogier van der Weyden, the Merode panel simulates a moment shortly after Gabriel has uttered his greeting and pronouncement of Christ's significance for humanity. The materially circumscribed, everyday actuality surrounding the angel's extraordinary appearance and announcement is emphasized by two pragmatically designed pieces of contemporary furniture - a reversible bench and a tilt-top table - that are given notable prominence. The bench brackets Mary's head and shoulders. The table, set between the angel and the virgin, bears a smoking candle and a book whose pages are fluttering - both taken as evidence of Gabriel's abrupt landing.
The simulated space for Campin's proposal of everyday privacy, disrupted, is made even more intimate in van der Weyden's own Annunciation (c. 1435), which features a bench similar to that in the Merode panel, but also is furnished with a richly draped bed. The angel touches down, his knees flexed to steady his landing and/or to presage his kneeling in homage, and Mary's hand is held up in an open gesture that may indicate surprise. But, although van der Weyden imparts to his figures a greater sense of emotion than Campin's, the great drama in van der Weyden's picture is in the situation overall. As would be common in 15 th -century Bruges, a young woman from a respectable and prosperous family is reading and praying in the security of her home. Almost on top of her and quite unexpectedly, a creature in resplendent robes drops in, his wings shimmering.
But Mary is not alone in this extraordinary confrontation with the angel. The picture clearly engages the viewer, as well. While Gabriel's gaze is cast toward Mary, his body partially, invitingly, is turned toward the viewer, extending his greeting outward. Mary, even more so, is outwardly turned, as if to model gracious acknowledgement and acceptance of the angel's presence. The gentle concert between the two figures, along with their open poses, tacitly shares the situation and invites viewers to be taken into the possibility of that which is simulated. The viewer's positive embrace of the unknown is an internalization of life-giving mystery.
Harbison has cited other themes - primarily the Passion of Christ and the Sorrow of the Virgin - as simulated to encourage active reception, while Falkenburg has discerned a somewhat different function than that above for Netherlandish pictures of the Annunciation. Harbison has written about paintings that encourage viewers to "think on, envision, participate imaginatively in the life and Passion of Christ." (Harbison 95) Harbison also has emphasized the ways in which fifteenth-century artists simulated visionary experience in ordinary, everyday terms and has contrasted this quotidian quality to that of contemporaneous Italian pictures, which generally featured holy persons experiencing visions amidst dazzling light and fringes of clouds. (Harbison 99) In his essay in Early Netherlandish Painting at the Crossroads , Falkenburg, too, has noted the everyday surroundings in the Annunciation panel of the Merode Triptych . Active reception would describe this simulation of Mary's bourgeois Netherlandish house as a different sort of demonstration than the one I have proposed. Viewing the picture in relation to contemporary devotional texts, he has suggested that the room Mary occupies is a visual model for the pious viewer who wished to metaphorically furnish a wholesome and welcoming interior space - an analog, that is, for the individual heart or soul - for Christ to enter and dwell within. (Ainsworth et al 6) Without dismissing Falkenburg's reading, it seems to me that fifteenth-century pictures of the Annunciation also could serve the function Harbison has described - as inviting models for empathic, active reception.
Magritte's "The Annunciation" 1930
In its turn, Magritte's L'Anonciation (1930) contains no explicit reference to the passages in Luke's Gospel. Nor would Magritte have conceived the picture to operate on a theological level. Yet Paul Nougé, who likely titled the picture after Magritte sent him a sketch of it (Whitfield 55), understood its potential in those traditional terms. Magritte often asked for or permitted his friends to suggest titles for his pictures. His solicitation and acceptance of their ideas indicates the extent to which Magritte acknowledged his pictures' affective operation and the importance of reception as a vital contribution to the meaning of his art. In the case of L'Anonciation, it furthermore indicates Magritte's awareness of the Biblical narrative as an established and oft-illustrated subject for visual artists.
Taken apart from its title, however, Magritte's painting retains the potential to startle and mystify. As an example of Magritte's anachronistic realism, L'Anonciation is painted so that each detail is asserted with equal lucidity and imminence. A large portion of the painting's surface is occupied by the cluster of strange, vertically oriented elements that comprise its central focus. Hemmed in by shrubs and ragged boulders, these elements are obviously artificial, and may be taken as architectural (the grelots-adorned, metallic-looking screen), figural (especially the pair of bilboquets), and/or a combination of both (the pierced-paper screen). Dominant by dint of its scale, placement, and bold contrasts of light and dark, this bizarre cluster suggests a ruin akin to an ancient temple in the jungle (Whitfield 55). Another possibility is its resemblance to an abandoned commercial/industrial site, the sort stumbled upon in most urban areas. In any case, its monumentality and immediacy, beneath a muted, Netherlandish sky, stimulate wonder.
It also seems that Magritte's painting extends an invitation akin to that of the fifteenth-century pictures - without the anticipation of a specific religious response. Magritte, himself, spoke of his "faith in the unknown possibilities of life" and said that human happiness depended on "an enigma inseparable from man and that our only duty is to try to grasp this enigma." (Lipinski 321) Citing Magritte's own writing, among other sources, Jacques Meuris posits that "a latent idea of the existence of an immanent deity" might inform the mystical experience Magritte sought to evoke for viewers. While acknowledging that pursuit of such a possibility is fraught with some peril, Meuris asks if the enigma in Magritte's paintings might indicate "remnants from an upbringing marked by mystification . ". (Meuris 70) And Lipinski has written that, by employing simulation, Magritte sought to "bring about an encounter, an affective experience, of wonder, surprise, disbelief, confusion or bewilderment." (Lipinski 211) Regardless of their spiritual or secular aim, such statements propose that the experience of mystery provoked by Magritte's pictures was intended to be accepted without rationalization, as such attempts would neutralize a mystery that, in Magritte's case, was secular rather than religious in nature.
Thus, in respect to both the religious and the secular images addressed herein, the viewer is challenged to relinquish logic and forego attempts at explaining the vision in familiar terms. In Magritte's painting and in van der Weyden's, the question's urgency is underscored by its being brought into the material world. The desolate site depicted in Magritte's painting may seem more alien than the room in which van der Weyden situated Gabriel and Mary. But, consistently in Magritte's pictures, what is simulated is the physical world, no matter how disrupted it may be by his fragmentation of the sky, as in Les marches de l'ete (1938 or 1939), or his use of grisaille, found in Souvenir de voyage (1951) - two examples of several paintings by Magritte that may have been informed by Netherlandish precedents. Van der Weyden and his peers generally accomplished this disruption through rather subtler means, by such visual strategies as compression and fragmentation of space. But in both bodies of work, the simulated reality is destabilized and rendered more personal and private as the instability is received and experienced by each viewer. Such an experience is all the more valuable for individuals in affluent cultures, who may insulate themselves from mortality, loneliness, and suffering (their own and that of others) by surrounding themselves with things. Magritte understood that humans possess an interior mystery, a profound realization of the possibilities of mortal existence that could be numbed by material surfeit or stirred by encounter with his mysterious pictures. The Netherlandish pictures operate within a comparable realm of intentionality. They too, are made to stimulate viewers' engagement with the mystery that is embedded within familiar, material reality.
Magritte's "Personal Values" 1952
Les Valeurs Personnelles (1952) is another painting by Magritte that arguably shares an even closer relationship to the fifteenth-century pictures discussed above. Like the setting for van der Weyden's Annunciation , the room Magritte painted in Les valeurs personnelles constitutes a crowded stage whose compressed space is enlivened by the play of gentle light and shadow. Space further is opened up or loosened by inclusion of fragmentary additions or extensions. There is the window light's reflection from pale and shiny surfaces, including the wardrobe mirrors, those mirrors' reflection of the window and the outdoor space it reveals and, of course, the blue sky and puffy clouds of the walls. Magritte's spatial strategy recalls the ways in which van der Weyden and his peers employed views through windows and exterior doors, glimpses into other rooms, areas beneath bed canopies, and reflections in mirrors to add to and complicate the definition of simulated space. Other similarities between Magritte's picture and many of those from the fifteenth century include the neatly draped bed and the attention to detail in the floor, with its casually overlapped Oriental rugs. The pencil, the shaving brush stop the armoire, and the large pill or pod are placed with the matter-of-fact informality of details typical to Netherlandish pictures - from intricately tiled floors to smartly plumped pillows. And, although Mary is not sitting on her bed in the Annunciation paintings, Magritte's leaning comb suggests an acquiescent, Mary-analogue - while the looming, centrally situated goblet exhibits the imminence and aplomb of the angel, Gabriel. This reception is not an attempt to rationalize or interpret Magritte's picture in iconographical terms, but to describe what contributes to its mystery. The bed and wardrobe suggest peace and privacy, security and order. The goblet is a precipitous presence in their midst, along with other elements one might not expect to find in a bedroom - not on such a scale, at any rate. The effect of this picture is unsettling and the viewer, in accepting the possibility of being unsettled, experiences mystery.
The ideas proposed above probably would not have persuaded van der Weyden, Jan Van Eyck, Hans Memling or any of their fifteenth-century peers that they could share conceptual intentions with a secular artist who lived five hundred years in their future. And Magritte's dismissal has been duly noted. Would those skeptics be more likely to accept another artist's opinion? In 1998, the Belgian conceptualist Wim Delvoye participated in an exhibition devoted to contemporary artists whose work was seen as kindred with Magritte's. Writing in the book that accompanied the exhibition, Delvoye observed: "We are all children of a Low Country tradition of surrounding the most obvious with a mystical or fantastic aura . . Does not the so-called Magritte-feeling of many artists exist more in a line going back to Jan Van Eyck. ?"
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Janet Stiles Tyson is a second-year graduate student in art history in the School of Visual Art, the University of North Texas . Her essay, "The persistence of mystery," originated as a paper presented at the 2004 annual conference of the Association of Art Historians.