Image description: Rene Magritte’s ‘Time Transfixed’, 1938
It was not by wandering the halls of a museum, nor by studying him in any art project, that I discovered Rene Magritte. Instead, it was through the superabundant parodies of his work, most notably based on ‘The Son of Man’. One simply has to search “son of man parody” online to discover popular culture icons such as Darth Vader, Indiana Jones, and Batman all reinvented as the classic painting. Particularly incredible is the scale on which Magritte’s work is visible in the contemporary world; in artwork, design, advertising, fancy dress costumes, and it has even appearing in memes (in particular Magritte’s ‘This Is Not a Pipe’ pictured as Donald Trump with the caption: “This Is Not a President” among other examples). It is unlikely that one might find anyone who has not at least come across parodies of Magritte’s work even if he is not known to them by name. Why, then, is his surrealism so popular in popular culture?
To answer this question, I think it appropriate to look at the appeal of his visual language, since it is the primacy of sight that purveys so much of shared content and indeed art, or more specifically, how he communicates ideas and meaning to a viewer through visual means. Perhaps the most significant reason for the popularity of Magritte is that one can look at his paintings and instantly recognise one or more aspects that signpost it as his work alone. In essence, he creates intriguing juxtapositions with simplicity and photo-realistic execution, in combination with a quirky use of symbolism and motifs carried across his portfolio, which when viewed creates a use of visual language specific to the artist. Certainly, each of his paintings demonstrates several, if not all of the following visual attributes to appeal to the recipient across repeat viewings; these are: altering the familiar; the juxtaposition of objects; the mutation of objects (Metamorphosis); fragmentation; the creation of icons or symbols; altering perspective; illusion; the combination of words and images. Magritte’s style of combining familiarity, absurdity, and simplicity together in his pieces replicates well in the genre of album covers, specifically in the works of the late contemporary artist Storm Thorgerson (album cover artist for Pink Floyd). The most successful covers are those that follow Magrittian rules to stand out in the shop, grabbing and retaining your attention; the very best become iconic and synonymous with the music they represent.
The appeal of Rene Magritte’s visuality is one of ambiguity. In his life he vehemently denied attributing precise meanings to his work, never quite satisfying those who had come to him for answers to their own interpretations. Perhaps the most famous example of Magritte’s ‘anti-symbolism’ is when he was asked about his painting ‘The Treachery of Images’, which depicts a realistic portrayal of a pipe captioned with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (this is not a pipe). A casual observer may argue this statement to be false, since it is very clearly depicting a pipe. However, it is not actually a real pipe. In reality, it is a representation of a pipe — “Could you stuff my pipe? No,” remarked Magritte. To try and discern a symbolic intention within his work is a failure to grasp its mystery. The brilliance of Magritte is that he makes you yearn for symbolism, a method to the madness, by pretending to be a surrealist. By refusing to acknowledge that his motifs are symbols, he is tying academic’s hands behind their backs and denying the fallback of a dream dictionary. As a result, determining the meaning behind his art is more than simply reducing it to a collection of symbols. That is not to say a viewer is not allowed to associate objects within an image to symbolism, but more that they should not limit there understanding to the symbols that someone else found in it. My interpretation of his logic is that his rejection of fixed symbols does not mean his audience will not find connection or meaning in his work. The visual language in use is not one bound to a universal handbook of apples or eggs or trains or clocks that substitute for particular, intentional alternatives. Instead, it is a worldview that the meaning of his painting is in the head of the one perceiving the paintings, challenging us to look beyond fixed interpretations. By expressing this idea through the juxtaposition of quotidian objects and scenes, he is demonstrating that his visual language is there to entertain a sense of mystery that cannot be defined any one way.
I think that, fundamentally, this is why he is so widely appealing. You don’t have to understand his work to enjoy it, there is no Magritte club of ageing academics who relish in their own self-congratulatory understanding of his art. If I am not believable in my argument, listen to the man himself, for: “The mind loves the unknown, it loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” One need not be familiar with the classical motifs, or know the context of his life. I would even go so far as to say you don’t even need to know who he is; all one needs to appreciate the art of Rene Magritte is oneself.