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Looking at an egg

November 9, 2013

I’ve been in NYC for the last few days and got a chance to go to the René Magritte special exhibit that’s running at the MoMA. I’ve always respected Magritte but never paid much attention to him, and have never really put the effort into understanding what he’s up to. But now, after spending an hour in a room full of Magritte paintings?

René Magritte - Clairvoyance (Self-Portrait)

René Magritte – Clairvoyance (Self-Portrait) (1936)

I still don’t understand him, and I think he looks like T.S. Eliot (though Eliot was a good ten years older)–aristocratic nose, slicked-back hair, always in a suit and tie. In appearance, if not in artistry, more bourgeois than bohemian–certainly nothing like those prophets/profiteers Ezra Pound and Salvador Dali with their astonishing mustaches.

photo of T. S. Eliot

photo of T. S. Eliot

Also both quite intellectual–and legitimately so, I think, though there’s also a bit of gamesmanship involved. But that kind of thing plays better, I think, in poetry than in painting. An Eliot poem: a new (even if ancient) thought presented in a new (even if ancient) way. A Magritte painting: a new (even if ancient) thought presented in the style of a mid-century hand-painted advertisement.

Though perhaps that’s the point; perhaps attachment to form, to some relationship between form and content, is bourgeois. The point is to transcend the aesthetic and enter the realm of thought. To which I say: to hell with that.

But I also can’t accept that that’s (all) Magritte is doing. If the point was the thought he would just be lazy, the way Paul Klee (another rather intellectual artist) sometimes seems like he’s just being lazy in the execution (though in Klee’s case it can perhaps be excused as childlike playfulness). Or he would just be a “conceptual artist”; instead of the above painting (which must have taken Magritte several days at least to paint) he would simply give the same title to the following sentence: “The painter (which is myself) looks at an egg and paints a bird.” Instead Magritte painted it–painted it to with dull, lifeless, photographic precision, and painted all of it.

Why? I wish I had an answer; I like the painting, and want to justify it. But my art theoretical skills are not nearly good enough. Still, when I consider why I prefer looking at “Clairvoyance” to looking at, say, “The Persistence of Memory,” I realize: It’s the motion and the lack thereof. It’s how the painter translates egg into bird while the paintbrush hovers midair; how the bird in the painting-within-a-painting flaps its wings, but doesn’t appear to move. And how the background doesn’t force us to inhabit a vast universe but gives us a soft calm closed-off space almost like the interior of an egg. It’s dull, flat, but flatness, as I’ve said before, can be a virtue; it’s an opportunity for contemplation.

Magritte began as a futurist, but grew out of it, perhaps, when he realized the machine-world wasn’t an alarm clock that would wake everyone up, it was a train that would bring them to work every morning; and that art doesn’t need to wake people up, it needs to help them think, which is something different.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Wolfe permalink
    November 11, 2013 4:10 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this artist before, thanks for sharing this Joseph.

    This is off-topic, but I recall seeing several posts on your blog that have referenced Stanley Cavell. One of my grad school professors, Charles Young, recently posted some notes he wrote on Cavell’s “The Claim of Reason.” I thought you might enjoy checking them out; here’s the link if you’re interested:

    • November 12, 2013 9:04 am

      Thanks! I’ve been thinking a lot about Cavell again recently and will get around to reading those once I get a chance.


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