Rene Magritte and the Treachery of Images

If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream.” R.M.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967)
Rene Magritte (1898-1967)

Despite the width of the umbrella movement that is Surrealism, artists under such a canopy tend to hold a similar objective in their work: that of bridging the gap between reality and the imaginary, and challenging the conceptual paradigm that is modern human existence. In this sense, surrealist art can be labelled a form of visual philosophy, perhaps having parallels to absurdism or existentialism [the core tenets of which are discussed here]. The work of Rene Magritte best exemplifies such a surrealist movement. The Belgian produced a large number of, sometimes, almost comically questionable pieces of art, which aimed to connect abstract perceptions of the material world with human delusion and dream. Influenced by impressionism and cubism, Magritte’s work combines simplistic yet beautiful strokes with thought-provoking subjects. A selection of his best works is discussed below.

The Treachery of Images

'The Treachery of Images' (1929)
‘The Treachery of Images’ (1929)

The themes in Magritte’s 1929 work The Treachery of Images are apparent in much of his art during his ‘middle years’. Magritte discusses the representation of reality in comparison to material reality, which, in essence, is the crux of surrealist art as whole. This particular painting depicts (one must be careful, to depict or not to depict) a pipe, shiny and bold, and underneath, in eloquent and elaborate font, is written the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or “This is not a pipe”. The point Magritte is making here is that, although he has painted a representation of a pipe, one cannot describe such a representation as a ‘pipe’ because it does not hold the same properties as a material pipe that one can physically hold in one’s hand. In Magritte’s own words, “Could you stuff my pipe? No”.

It is this ‘treachery of images’ that, according to Magritte, clouds our perception of reality. We allow representations to superimpose themselves on material objects, and thus, we combine two separate lines of thought – reality and imagination – into one perception. What can be drawn from this, however, is not clear. It is one of the mysticisms of surrealism that the true motivation behind such philosophical particulars is rarely articulated. It could be supposed that one should simply just be aware of such an involuntary amalgamation, although how to combat it, and the benefits of doing so, remain vague.

[The Treachery of Images is held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.A., CA, U.S.A.]

'Not To Be Reproduced' (1937)
‘Not To Be Reproduced’ (1937)

Not To Be Reproduced and Others

A second, iconic work of Magritte’s is his 1937 painting Not To Be Reproduced, which again explores the concept of perception through surrealism. The work depicts the rear of a man, thought to be the poet Edward James, looking forwards into a mirror above a mantelpiece, which, whilst reflecting a book on the mantelpiece correctly, reflects only the back of James’s body, thus revealing no image of his face. The painting could be interpreted as a discussion of self-image, i.e. the paradoxes of the reproduction, through material tools such as mirrors, of oneself due to the inescapable fact that a human’s eyes will never lay sight on their own face. This is a concept that, in modern times has been veiled by the use of aids, but is still an important psychological and even metaphysical issue; how does one project the image of oneself if one has never laid eyes on oneself?

[Not To Be Reproduced is held at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands]

'The Portrait' (1935)
‘The Portrait’ (1935)

A trait of Magritte’s that stood him apart from other surrealists such as Salvador Dali or Max Ernst was his ability to portray his arguments and thoughts through the depiction of every day objects. Dali and Ernst relied on larger, more abstract collections of warped dimensions and landscapes, whereas Magritte chose to subtly alter the nature and/or structure of normal scenes in order to challenge human psychological precondition. His 1935 work The Portrait is a perfect example. There is no attempt to alter the fundamental fabric of existence in the image; as Dali did is his 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory, otherwise known as ‘Melting Clocks’. Magritte simply encourages the observer to consider what is meant by everyday existence by depicting a slice of ham with a human eye placed in the centre. There is nothing else abnormal about the work; in fact, it is almost photographic in quality. It is this surrealist subtlety that gives Magritte’s paintings their edge – their philosophical vigour if you were – because they focus on less ‘mind-blowing’ concepts and concentrate on otherwise insignificant particulars.

[The Portrait is held at the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.C., N.Y., U.S.A.]


Magritte consistently bridges the wide gap between dream and reality in human consciousness, encouraging his observers to consider why it is accepted to separate these two very-much-interlinked concepts. While other surrealists do the same on a wider and larger level, our Belgian artist achieves a more personal impact by relating this amalgamation to the narrative of daily life. Debatably, and perhaps in a different way, Magritte portrays his thoughts in a more immediately convincing way than his surrealist colleagues Dali and Ernst, but also the impressionists and Cubists before him.


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