Monday 18 December 2017

Representing Reality: Magritte on Words and Images

Representing reality*

By Martin Cohen

What is the relationship of words and paintings to mental representations - and 'reality' itself? The surrealist artist, René Magritte, is a philosophical favorite (along with Escher whose line drawings depict impossible staircases and infinite spirals) because so many of his pictures play with philosophical themes. Yet, less well appreciated, is his painting rests on a substantial theoretical base and a consistent personal effort to address the key philosophical question - through art - of the relationship of language, thought and reality.

In the Second Surrealist Manifesto, René Magritte offers 18 sketches, each illustrating a supposed 3-way relationship with words and 'reality. This page explores each image in turn. 

Unlike other artists of the Surrealist school, Magritte's style is highly realistic - but this is only a meant to later undermine the authority and certainty of 'appearance' - of our knowledge of the external world. As Magritte puts it:
"We see the world as being outside ourselves, although it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves." [1]
Les Mots et Les Images

An object is not so attached to its name that one cannot find for it another one which is more suitable [2] The handwritten words 'le canon' is usually just translated as 'the gun' -but could this in itself be a play on the sense of 'the canon', the 'thing setting the standard', especially of beauty?

There are objects which can do without a name.
The French word for the rowing boat is 'canot' - but the play on words...?

A word sometimes serves only to designate itself.
'Ciel' is sky... but?

An object encounters its image, and objects encounters its name. It happens that the image and the name of this object encounter each other.
As opposed to the later cases,

Sometimes the name of an object occupies the place of an image.
A hand, a box and a rock?

A word can take the place of an object in reality.
The dame is saying 'sunshine'. Or 'the sun' if you like. Does it link to the next image?

An image can take the place of a word in a sentence. [3]
Well, yes, but logically the sun should be hidden, no?

An object can suggest that there are other objects behind it.
The wall does not make me think there is anything behind it. The sun? The dame?

Everything tends to make us think that there is little relationship between an object and that which represents it.  [4] Confusingly, the 'real' and the 'image' are of course the same here...

The words which serve to indicate two different objects do not show what may divide these objects from one another. The 'surreal' labelling in French translates as 'person with memory loss' and 'woman's body'.

In a painting the words are of the same substance as the images.
But are they?

You can perceive words and images differently in a painting.
Is Magritte saying a new meaning can be created by juxtapositions like this?

A shape can replace the image of an object for any reson.
A very confusing play on shapes here...

An object never serves the same purpose as either its name or its image does.
The man is calling his horse - or is he calling his horse 'horse'?

Sometimes the visible shapes of objects, in real life, form a mosaic
René seems to have drifted somewhat from his original theme here...

Vague or unclear shapes have a precise significance every bit as necessary as that of perfect shapes.
Again, the example has left language slightly out of the debate. But the point could be extended...

Sometimes, the names written in a picture designate precise things, while the images are vague.
Well... yes...

Or equally, the opposite:
But is the word 'fog' (brouillard) itself imprecise?

Decoding Magritte

The images above all appeared in an article by Magritte entitled, rather literally, 'Les mots et les images' (Words and Images), in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1927. The series is intended to introduce the theme of all Magritte's painting, namely that of the ambiguity of the connections between real objects, their image and their name. The fifth statement here: "sometimes the name of an object stands for an image" he went on to illustrate with this image:

This is one of a series of 'alphabet paintings' or 'word paintings' produced by Magritte during his time in Paris from 1927 to 1930. Here, the words 'foliage', 'horse', 'mirror', 'convoy', written on the canvas, replace the image they designate. 'Placed at the tip of the points of a mysterious star and each inscribed on a brown stain, "any form whatsoever that can replace the image of an object", these words play a full part in the spatial composition of a new fantasy image. This painting undoes the connection that we spontaneously establish between objects, images and words.' [5]

Another clue as to Magritte's philosophy is provided by a series of paintings dealing with the concept of 'categories'. In The Palace of Curtains (1929) two frames contain respectively the word ciel ('sky') and a pictorial representation of a blue 'sky'. Magritte's point is that both the word and image 'represent' the 'real thing' - one works by resemblance while the other is only by an intellectual - arbitary - association.

Les Mots et Les Images

In two pictures called Empty Mask (a 'mask' being a 'frame', here) Magritte again makes a point about what 'represents' what. In the first picture the frame is empty by virtue of nothing being painted in the spaces, but equally in the second frame, full of characteristic Magritte images, the frame is still empty because these fragments do not represent anything. Or so at least art historians theorise. [6]
'The dividedness, the fragmented quality and the separateness of their components deprive them of anything that resembles reality, destroys all narrative content' (says one, Bart Ottinger).

Another image, The Threshold of Liberty (1929), adds a gun, threatening in surrealist fashion to destroy the conventional representations.

In the Key to Dreams series, which this page starts with an image of, Magritte uses images in the style of a schoolroom reading text, probably based on the Petit Larousse, texts in which an obvious and exact correspondence is implied. Thus his simple images pack a subversive message.

It is, as one art critic says, a school reading primer gone wrong - yet sometimes, not completely wrong, for example in the image opposite (Key to Dreams,1930) the lower right-hand cell is correct.

In the six panel image above, none of the nouns (the acacia, moon, snow, ceiling, storm, desert) match up.

The title, 'Key to Dreams' (La clef des songes) however implies that there may be deeper, hidden connections.

So are we any nearer to decoding that meaning? Not really. However, Michel Foucault knew Magritte and discussed these ideas in an essay 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' (This is not a Pipe). Foucault has some definite suggestions on the matter.

*This essay originally appeared on the now disappeared Pi Alpha. It has been slightly updated here.


• 1 This much quoted line comes from a lecture Magritte gave, entitled, 'La Ligne de vie' - how should we translate that though?
• 2 The first 12 translations are based on that at
• 3 This is NOT the translation at - which uses 'propositon' - ridiculous!
• 4 This is slightly better than the translation at
• 5 As explained here:
• 6 For example, this interestingand informative essay here:


Keith said...

This is a captivating topic, Martin, and one I haven’t seen explored before in Pi — explained, perhaps, by my never having gotten to see Pi Alpha, where you say the essay first appeared.

What much of René Magritte’s art portrays are images that ‘resemble’ the intended objects — ‘resemble’ being the operative word. So, as in his painting of a pipe, which famously bears the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ [This isn’t a pipe], the image is indeed of course of a pipe. The only distinction — perhaps one shouldn’t say ‘only’, to give Magritte his full due — is that it’s an image of a pipe, not an actual pipe. So perhaps the words, to be more precise, should be ‘Ceci est une image d’une pipe’ [This is an image of a pipe]. Though I’m not sure, in doing so, what Magritte — or his image of a pipe — would meaningfully gain from such a strange exercise. Especially since, under such ground rules, the same prefacing words — ‘This is an image of . . . .’ — would be required, no?, of every painting and drawing, by every artist. And, by simple extension, of every photo — of a breaching whale, of my grandson, of Angor Wat, of an act in ‘Cirque du Soleil’.

Adding such prefacing words, therefore, would arguably take redundancy and triviality and pointlessness to clumsy extremes (I wonder if pointlessness is the point). Surely no one would argue for such tiresome redundancy. Commonsensically, the meaning of what’s artistically portrayed is clear enough, to everyone, even without superfluously prefacing each painting or drawing (or photo) in that manner. The mind effortlessly fills in the blank: ‘This is an image of . . . .’ Hence, to that extent, I see Magritte’s familiar title ‘la trahison des images’ [treason of images] to be overwrought — the ‘treason’ part, that is. Maybe something more benign and banal, and less distracting, like ‘trick’ or ‘illusion’, would have served better.

Certainly, many of Magritte’s image-word combinations, and many of his images absence words, involve ‘trompe l’oeil’ — or, more to the point of the essay, surrealism. Yet on a larger platform, Magritte was successful in differentiating between the manner of signaling that images and words sometimes convey — including the surrealism of many of his juxtaposed images. Just two examples include a cloud (surrealistically) appearing to enter an open door; and a man reaching up to two faces placed on coat pegs, with the man about to choose (surrealistically) between a smiling and a frowning face for the day (vintage Salvador Dali, perhaps). Such examples play with the ostensible, ambiguous correspondence of objects to words and images — and how that may not always work, regardless of the language.

What I especially find interesting is the hieroglyphic feel to many of the images, their intermingling with words. An example of this feature is his ‘Le soleil est caché par les nuages’ [The sun is hidden by clouds], where the word ‘soleil’ is replaced by the image of the sun. The drawing of the sun in the sentence looks enticingly like a hieroglyphic — though, presumably, the intent is that the image of the sun in the sentence (in place of the word ‘soleil’) lacks clouds shrouding it. This hieroglyphic style, however, points to limitations in the case of trying to similarly ‘resemble’ abstractions, such as truth or idea or feeling, rather than tangibles, such as a carbuncle or soap bubbles. That’s where, perhaps, any drawing of similarities between, on the one hand, resemblance, interpretation, and correspondence in ‘Les mots et les images’ and, on the other hand, what stylistically bespeaks poetry breaks down.

(Oh, and pardon, Martin, any fracturing of French I may have been guilty of here.)

Tessa den Uyl said...

Maybe a 'key'question might be if we would feel as alive without the intention of description?

docmartincohen said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Keith, and thanks for your long thoughtful comment. I was interested to discover that Magritte was so philosophically commited in his art - I originally thought he painted first and allowed philosophical aspects to emerge. But having read more, I discovered that he was a true philosopher of language who attempted to investigate meaning and use thorugh images. No one else has done it so memorably, for sure!

docmartincohen said...

Could you 'unpack' that for me, please Tessa!

docmartincohen said...

I look on all this as very much in parallel with Thomas's investigations ...

Tessa den Uyl said...

We ascribe words to images, and give meaning to the word or the image? We like to understand what we see, and our understanding (mostly) comes through description. We look at something that we cannot place into description directly and start to decipher what we can make out of it. The words lead us towards an ‘appropriation’ of the image.

When the image is not in accordance with the word, the image is still in accordance with itself.

When we ascribe the word chair to the image of a cloud, the cloud itself has not changed. What modifies is that the word chair does not correspond any longer to our description of a chair. Now this is difficult to accept. ‘A cloud is not a chair,' or, 'a chair is also a cloud?’ Or ’nor a chair nor a cloud?’ The first is the answer we should give when doing a test. The latter would be a more appropriate answer but one would surely fail the test.

To me, what Margritte shows is that language rules our perception rather than the image in itself. We are ‘slaves’ of description. If I would teach children today that a horse lays eggs, tomorrow parents would tell me 'that is not true.’ The truth is, that truth moves by learned description. All too human?

Life is not gone when the word cloud would not exist, the cloud is still there, like eggs and horses. People talk about being independent, but of what? We are all dependant on description, conceptual constructions that represent life, but how much of life exists in words? Words create believe. The image in itself has nothing to do with words. Our confidence is faible.

docmartincohen said...

Thanks, Tessa. The thing is, as some contemporary academics like Douglas Hofstadter are arguing in books like 'Surfaces and Essences, language is really more about metaphors than it is about labels. Magritte's images seem to be using words as labels - but then let's also try to imagine what he means if they are NOT being used like that?

After all, most of the words in the English language started off meaning something different and evolved over time to their present usage, which is quite precise in the view of the 'language community'. And yet worlds continue to evolve even so. A 'chair' can now mean a chairman or chairwoman, for a small example - a few years ago it did not, but more interestingly, a tree or a log can be a 'chair' Suzanne Langer and Paul Ricoeur explore the use of metaphor, which they see as in many ways the essence of language...

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Magritte seems to me to be rebelling, through pictures, against the simplistic notions of linguists. What is the essence of a word? Is the word a minimal set of meanings? Or is it a maximal set of meanings? Today we say almost without exception: it is a minimal set of meanings. For example ‘woman’ = adult human female, no more and no less.

Aristotle may have thought differently. He wrote in his Metaphysics that a noun is ‘a sign of the definition’, and ‘a definition is one discursus or sentence’. He might have had in mind only the same as we do: a definition is a minimal description set down in a sentence in a dictionary. But then, a ‘discursus’ is the very opposite of minimal.

Supposing that the essence of a word is every possible meaning we associate with it or its referent. Then we understand associations such as those Magritte presents us with, although Magritte would seem to be deliberately, provocatively pushing the boundaries. Anyway, I would hope that I am not just a horse neighing in the fog here, and if this sentence is understood, perhaps I am not.

docmartincohen said...

"Suppose that the essence of a word is every possible meaning we associate with it..."

Yes, this seems a very fruitful idea - I'm sure you are picking up Magritte's sense too.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Maybe a bit off-track but in 'the dream and the underworld' by J. Hillman quote: Reversion through likeness, resemblance, is a primary principle for the archetypical approach to all psychic events. Reversion is a bridge too, a method which connects an event to its image.....
Epistrophe implies return to multiple possibilities, correspondences with images that can not be encompassed within any systemic account.
These views seem to connect with Magritte his work as well (?)

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