Poststructuralism and the art of René Magritte

February 16, 2010

Magritte - Pipe

The Treachery of Images, 1928-29

I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about art. I can name at most two dozen famous artists and match their names to their famous works, and I can even bullshit a bit about symbolism, but that’s about it. But lately I’ve been reading Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Belsey, and I’m starting to get into the art of René Magritte in a big way.

I first came across the above image while reading Scott McCloud’s essential graphic non-fiction, Understanding Comics. That comic was my first introduction to poststructuralist thought, though I hadn’t realized it at the time. McCloud explains that the painting isn’t a pipe, it is an image of a pipe, which is a very different thing. McCloud goes on to write, “Do you hear what I’m saying? … If you do, have your ears checked because no one has said a word.”

If that sort of thinking blows your mind, or at least intrigues you a little bit, then check out these paintings by Magritte, and check out Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. If you’re like me, a newcomer to poststructuralist thought (though you’ve undoubtedly experienced it in some form already, it’s very pervasive), then this volume is a must-read.

Magritte - Interpretation of Dreams

The Interpretation of Dreams, 1930

Beneath the picture of the egg is inscribed “acacia”; beneath the shoe, “the moon”; beneath the hat, “snow”, etc. The painting draws attention to the arbitrariness of language. There is no real connection between a real glass, for example, and the word “glass,” just as there’s no reason the word “hammer” shouldn’t be “desert” instead. The painting mimics a child’s reading primer to show how early we learn these connections, or perhaps the panes of a window, to suggest that there is nothing at all beyond words, just empty signifiers.


Golconde, 1953

In an interview with, Charly Herscovici, a friend of Magritte’s and now owner of his copyrights, said of Golconde:

Magritte was fascinated by the seductiveness of images. Ordinarily, you see a picture of something and you believe in it, you are seduced by it; you take its honesty for granted. But Magritte knew that representations of things can lie. These images of men aren’t men, just pictures of them, so they don’t have to follow any rules. This painting is fun, but it also makes us aware of the falsity of representation.

Not to Be Reproduced

Not to be Reproduced, 1937

With this painting, I think Magritte is saying that we are always so obsessed with seeing what is “behind” and image, what it actually “means.” But instead of giving us what we want, he denies us the man’s face and instead reproduces his back, suggesting that what is behind the image (or the word, the signifier) is nothing but the image itself. It’s similar to what he accomplishes with the famous Son of Man painting, below.

Son of Man

Son of Man, 1964

Magritte says of this painting: “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” Of course, the point is that there is nothing behind what we see. The space behind the apple does not exist—there is only the apple. Or rather, the image of the apple, which is not an apple at all.

Portrait of Magritte

Portrait of Magritte by Lothar Walleh, 1967


6 Responses to “Poststructuralism and the art of René Magritte”

  1. Hannah Says:

    I personally like the Threadless take on Magritte
    It’s not a pipe! It’s a shirt! BITCHES!

    You may also like Duchamp who tends to think along similar lines albeit more… abstractly…

    • oddrid Says:

      Oh my god I NEED that shirt! Like BURNING!

      Thanks for the rec! God, you know so much more about art than I do. Glad you could suffer through my incoherent ramblings on Magritte. 🙂

      • Hannah Says:

        I actually really like talking about art and I don’t have much of a chance now that I am out of school. I really like the later discussion about the relationship of the viewer to the painting and the whole voyeuristic implication of that relationship. And how that relates to feminism with female body as art object. You would have died and gone to heaven in my feminism in art history class. (not to mention it was taught by my favorite teacher)

    • Sighter Goliant Says:

      Dear, I also highly recommend Duchamp.

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