Is This Not A..?
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
He is a secret agent, his object is to bring into disrepute the whole apparatus of bourgeois reality. Like all saboteurs, he avoids detection by dressing and behaving like everybody else.
Magritte works in a sense like an Indian. He backtracks, swerves, disguises his footprintsoand moves steadily forward in the silent forest which shelters all true creative activity.
James Thrall Soby3
Before the era of electronic diversions, many an “artistic” teenage boy found succor in the trinity of Salvador Dali, M.C.Escher, and Rene Magritte. Perhaps it was in hope that the lusty psychoanalytic truisms of melting watches, Pygmalion-like hands drawing themselves and trains shunting out of fireplaces might give vision to the volcanic hormones flooding the male adolescent mind as much as his body. Mea culpa. It’s tempting to say, “and then I grew up.” Except that, though Dali and Escher have long since been toppled in my pantheon, I’m still not over Magritte. At the same time as he loses believers, he also creates converts; James Thrall Soby for instance, gushing in the quote above, had twenty years earlier dismissed Magritte as an illustrator of regurgitated puns.
Though I don’t accept Magritte’s adamant rejection of psychoanalysis, of dreams or any other interpretive method4–some of his works only reveal themselves through such readings–I share his sentiments insofar as that direction is not what makes his work relevant to contemporary art and to adult viewers. When asked why he thought his work was so popular, Magritte replied, “I hope I touch something essential to man, to what man is, to ethics rather than aesthetics.”5 Though for many viewers Magritte’s staying power is dependent on his serving as a mirror for their own projections and for his revelation of a supposedly essential being, no matter how cliched, I think we can take him up on this question of ethics. This is where his work continues to have an often unexpected and contemporary social resonance. Magritte’s public persona might be that of a reclusive petit-bourgeoisie, but we need to remember that after World War II, he was a paid-up member of the Communist Party and submitted The Survivor (1950) to the Communist Party-organized exhibition, Art and Peace, held the same year. Like Martha Rosler’s series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967-72), in which she collages images from the Vietnam War with ads for luxurious home interiors, Magritte also brings the war into a domestic space, complete with flowery wallpaper. A rifle leans against the wall, rivulets of blood flowing down its barrel to pool onto the ground. It is as explicitly anti-war and political an image as Magritte will make, and while neither this work nor Rosler’s are in the exhibition, their inclusion could have substantially altered viewers’ assessments of him.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself. At LACMA, a taste of Magrittean flavor is first encountered in the rather dapper bowler-hatted attendants who look like a cross between English bankers and stray droogs from Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange. Charming, yet menacing. That image is perhaps more relevant than we might wish, given Burgess’ explanation that a clockwork orange is a human, devoid of free will, who acts as a wind-up toy set in motion by God, the Devil, or the Almighty State. And who accordingly acts in unquestioning obeisance to that trinity.
Depending on one’s associations, one then enters either cheered or ruffled through a tall, narrow replica of the surrealistic cutaway door from Magritte’s painting, The Unexpected Answer (1933), and onto thick carpet (a blessing for sore-footed museum trudging) that resembles a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Covering the entire ceiling are panels of collaged LA freeways. The world turned upside down. Rather than presenting a new slant or disorienting my sense of space, it catapulted me forcefully back in time, back to an adolescent’s bedroom.
The exhibition design comes courtesy of artist John Baldessari, tilting one’s first impression towards the goofy side of surrealism and away from its social intervention–towards Dali, away from Dada. That shift is a pity, since Magritte has much more to offer than instant gratification–despite Baldessari’s probably-correct assertion that the design was something Magritte “would have done, or agreed with.”6
Magritte’s playfulness and immediacy are what ensure his permanence as a crowd-pleaser; conversely it’s his projections of conflicted and stunted masculine desire that locks us into an adolescent response. While Baldessari again correctly asserts that “Magritte was interested in invigorating cliches and stereotypes,” those cliches and stereotypes have become so pervasive to the point of banality in art and popular culture that their mere re-presentation no longer creates any dissonance within the viewer. Their very familiarity becomes comfortable entertainment, what Henri Matisse might have called “armchair surrealism.” A further link to entertainment is here provided by Pierce Brosnan’s mellifluous tones reciting the audio tour. (Brosnan informs us that his brush with Magritte’s work led to him wearing a bowler in the film, The Thomas Crown Affair.)
In the LACMA exhibition, where Magritte’s artwork is juxtaposed with that of contemporary artists, the floor and ceiling, while initially entertaining, soon distract from viewing the work itself, with floor-based sculptures in particular having to compete for attention. For example, a Robert Gober work, Cigar (1991), loses its uniqueness as an artist’s sculpture and becomes more a design element as it lies atop floating clouds. While these design flourishes might beautify the space to resemble a hip furniture showroom, they ultimately distract from a more engaged consideration of what exactly is Magritte’s relationship to contemporary art.
Magritte began his working life as a designer creating advertisements and posters, so one can’t help making parallels with other artists whose art practices drew inspiration from their day-jobs, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Raymond Pettibon, Andy Warhol or Barbara Kruger, all artists represented in this show. Magritte’s legacy is central to Pop Art–despite his condemnations of it, describing it once as “sugar-coated Dadaism”7–and the exhibition pays justified attention to that link, ranging from Jasper Johns through those already mentioned above to the image-text paintings of Ed Ruscha. But these are also the more pedestrian sections of the exhibition and though art-historically instructive, there are few surprises.
While Magritte’s work would petrify under a feminist gaze–all those cut-up women, all those rape scenes, those shrouded heads– a feminist critique is noticeably absent from the exhibition. One exception that is invigorated by its proximity to Magritte is Kruger’s typically declarative Untitled (It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it) (1990). Hung near to a couple of Magritte interiors, The Listening Room (1952) and Birthday (1959), it immediately exposes those images’ gendered play on space. Normal sized rooms crammed with giant objects, or small objects in miniature rooms? Size does matter, Kruger states, but maybe not in the way Magritte intends. The person whose labor maintains those kinds of spaces would soon lose enchantment. Who is it, after all, who has to clean out those adolescent rooms and minds, not to mention wash their underwear?
While the women in the show needn’t bear the burden of feminist critique, Sherrie Levine’s A Pipe (2001), a cast copper simulacrum of the pipe from the exhibition title image; Eleanor Antin’s This is not 100 BOOTS (2002), from her iconic series of disembodied boots as cultural and social markers; and Vija Celmins’ Untitled (Comb) (1970), a giant facsimile from Magritte’s Personal Values (1952), pay homage that’s a little too direct. Seen elsewhere, those works communicate a wry wit, but here they become part of the sideshow, something that one might cherish from the gift store. Likewise, works by some of the male artists in the exhibition, such as Richard Artschwager or Mike Kelley, or Gober’s aforementioned Cigar, seem merely derivative, barely holding their own against or challenging their Magritte references; they fail to satisfy, being a little too reverential, too daddy-worshipful. Even Marcel Broodthaers, who once described Magritte as “a father who ate his children,”8 and a key figure within Magritte’s legacy, gets scattered within the shuffle, not quite eaten up but certainly diminished. Similarly, the otherwise gloriously awful “bad” paintings of Martin Kippenberger, another central acolyte, here don’t improve on Magritte’s worse “vache” period.
I did experience a slight jolt, more a glow, from Ray Johnson’s collage, Untitled (Magritte) (1971), in which, instead of the expected green apple hovering in front of the face of the besuited figure from Magritte’s The Son of Man (1964), a round hole is cut out to reveal a bloodily red ground. It’s a small work, but it powerfully imparts turbulent interiors within placid exteriors.
Many of Magritte’s paintings, with their flatly painted style, can be experienced equally well as reproductions–their aura, contrary to Walter Benjamin’s theories on the subject, elevated precisely because of their mass dissemination. On the other hand, almost in keeping with his trade as a designer of advertising images, Magritte himself creates his own reproductions, exposing him to the criticism that he was a perpetual recycler of ideas. He would often revise the same image, sometimes to the extent of parody. For him, though, this repetition, this blending, was a necessary discipline of variations and closer viewings often enlighten by revealing startling differences between the works. He would often develop images through preparatory sketches and plan intelligently devised solutions to what he deemed “problems” of what the image might expose or hide from view. Gustave Flaubert, writing about himself, is also applicable: “Because I always sense the future, the antithesis of everything is always before my eyes. I have never seen a child without thinking that it would grow old, not a cradle without thinking of a grave.”9For Magritte, the motif of a single leaf, for example, was a solution to the problem of a tree, or an egg an anticipation of a bird. His works therefore are not only moments of frozen time, as in Time Transfixed (1938) with its smoke-spewing locomotive coming out of a fireplace (one can hardly blame critics for their Freudian interpretations), but also unfold across time. He took precise care to remove incident and accident, to examine the out of the ordinary and to arrive at a decisiveness “in the image of mystery.”10
His versions of The Red Model are ostensibly solutions to the “problem” of the boot, and its concealment of feet. The images immediately enthrall, their foregrounded, bloodless feet caught mid-transformation into leather boots, though the transformation could also be occurring the other way. The 1937 version seen here, in its magisterial size of 183 x 136 cm–large for Magritte–reveals details absent from the 1935 version. On the gravel on which the boots rest are four coins, a match, a cigarette butt and a torn up newspaper clipping of Magritte’s own The Titanic Days (1928). Also in the exhibition, the latter image is a strikingly violent scene of attempted rape, of the woman’s entire body being invaded and taken over, but also visually effaced by the man’s shadowed body.
The reference to The Titanic Days challenges us to take seriously the otherwise possibly too-spectacular boots/feet of The Red Model. The coloring of the feet and boots respectively mimic the skin tones of the woman’s body and the darkness of the rapist’s suit in The Titanic Days. What we are left with then are grim and corpse-like remnants of the act of violence, with the dropped coins, match and cigarette butt as forensic evidence.
Another example of Magritte’s “variations” can be seen in the paintings entitled The Rape, from 1934 and again in 1945. Each version replaces a woman’s facial features with the “features” of her torso–breasts for eyes, navel for nose and pubic hair for mouth. The result is a disturbing oscillation within the tropes of fetishism, misogyny, violence and parody.
The 1945 version is from Magritte’s so-called “sunlit surrealism” period, his much-maligned attempt to detach himself from the horrors of war by resorting to impressionist brushstrokes combined with the saccharine colors of Renoir. In this version, Magritte’s nymphette is blonde, her prepubescent body/face barely sprouting breasts and with pubic hair yet to grow; his cheery palette of rosebud pinks, sunny yellows and sky blues create an angelically lewd precursor to Lisa Yuskavage’s pneumatic tweens. (Yuskavage’s paintings are not in the exhibition)
With their sense of pastiche, deliberately provocative imagery and loose brush handling–so unlike his more familiar sign-painterly precision–these “sunlit” works are some of the most contemporary-looking in the exhibition and would delight any number of Los Angeles galleries showing “bad” painting. Ripe for critical re-assessment, many arouse comparison with the satires and grim social commentaries of expressionists like Otto Dix or Georges Grosz. In a brilliant and possible riposte to his own bourgeois everyman, in A Stroke of Luck (1945) Magritte casts an upright pig as his main protagonist, its back to the viewer but peering over its shoulder out towards us. A cheery, fairy-tale image? Hardly. Like Grosz’s porcine businessmen and George Orwell’s Animal Farm–incidentally, published the same year–Magritte’s pig strolling towards a cemetery reeks of those fattened on war, and looks to me unnervingly Cheneyesque.
As much as it is possible to politically re-assess Magritte’s work, I think it is also possible to cultivate a feminist “counter-reading” of some pieces that might otherwise be dismissed as misogynistic. The Rape images command attention; they are stark, even vicious, appearing as caricatures of the feminine. In the work of subsequent generations of feminist artists we can also find use of similar bodily imagery coupled with unequivocal critiques of gender representation. Martha Rosler, for example, in her Meat images from her collage series Body Beautiful or Beauty Knows No Bounds (1966-72), re-presents the fragmented or constrained female body as both the surface and fleshy contents of the domestic appliance. In Small Wonder, from the same series, Rosler’s reference is directly to Magritte’s The Rape. Using a magazine advertisement for women’s underwear, she affixes breasts to the outside of the bra and lips across the figure’s girdle. Part of the tagline reads, “Even with today’s natural look, every body needs a little discipline.”
From such perspectives we can return to some of Magritte’s imagery as representations of the male, disciplining gaze rather than of the female, disciplined body. In the case of The Rape, the male, even when viewing a woman’s face, only sees her naked body as a prospective conquest. The eyes don’t have to wander, because the trophy is already internalized. The implied violence is where Magritte might criticize the male’s visual preoccupations. No wonder Magritte’s generic male, camouflaged by his sober suit and pulled-down hat, turns his back to the viewer to hide what his gaze may enjoy–not what is being seen but what is already held within the eyes. As in The Stroke of Luck, with its phallic grave markers, it’s the satiated pig that turns slyly round to look back at us.
The Rape is here further complicated–if not defused–by another Robert Gober piece, Untitled (1990). A pillow-like sack cast from beeswax leans against the wall, emulating a truncated human torso. Suggesting a co-existence or transition between the sexes, rather than the violent assault of Magritte’s The Titanic Days, the torso is split down the middle. On one side is a pendulous breast, on the other a man’s hairy chest. The juxtaposition seems almost mundanely domestic given the sack’s pillow reference and its approximation of a bag of cat litter. The fetishism inherent in Magritte’s version is here undone.
The inclusion of a biting Phillip Guston painting, The Blackboard (1969), with its hooded Ku Klux Klan figures, shows us the possibilities Magritte might have achieved had he not reverted to his already well-trodden iconography and familiarly flat, even safe, style. It would have been instructive to see more Gustons in the show, as he and Magritte work their way through overlapping influences. Guston’s Mother and Child (1930), (not in the exhibition) is clearly inspired by the monumental, neoclassical figures of Picasso, though set in a landscape influenced heavily by de Chirico. One can see the same legacy of Picasso in Magritte’s early figures, like those in The Titanic Days. And of course, de Chirico’s influence is stamped all over Magritte, with the latter famously describing how his first view of a de Chirico brought him to tears.
Guston and Magritte also shared a formative, traumatic event that is played out in the work of each. At the age of ten, while living in Los Angeles, Guston found his father’s hanged body, an event that we can associate with the brooding menace pervasive within Guston’s early figurative works and the figuration he would return to in the late sixties. In a 1930 drawing, a hooded Klansman ties a noose while others huddle behind him, and in the background a dark man hangs from a tree limb. In the subsequent painting, The Conspirators, also 1930, the hanged man is absent but the sense of threat is even more forceful. While the imagery alludes more to the virulent presence of the KKK in 1930’s Los Angeles than to his Jewish father’s suicide, that event could not have been far from Guston’s mind. Similarly, when Magritte was fourteen, his mother’s drowned body was found with her dress swept up and covering her head, an image that recurs in Magritte’s early work as hooded figures, such as in The Central Story (1928) (not in the exhibition), or The Lovers (1929).
Both Guston and Magritte were highly exalted for what became known as their “mature” styles, and both received critical maulings when they deviated from those, with an almost cowered Magritte returning from his “vache” and “sunlit” periods to his more familiar style and iconography. His painting The Cripple (1948), for example, is one of the most bizarre in the exhibition. It’s a portrait of a grizzled, bearded man, his face covered with tobacco pipes. Whether the pipes originate from his skin like cancerous growths or are some sort of parasitical invasion is unclear but the image has the ribald prankishness of a Paul McCarthy, and in fact looks like a portrait of him. To our eyes now, the painting seems fresh and contemporary; in 1948 it could only have been received as an aberration.
The breadth of Magritte’s work allows a curator–and reviewer–to make comparison with an almost unlimited roster of contemporary artists. I have mentioned Rosler, whose inclusion would have opened up our thinking about Magritte in newly critical ways. Another relevant artist is Mary Ellen Strom. Her video series The Nudes restages Magritte works and projects them the same size as the original paintings. In Nude No. 5, Taylor Davis (2006), which recreates Magritte’s Attempting the Impossible (1928), a model, who is in fact the artist Taylor Davis, re-enacts the myth of Pygmalion falling in love with a statue he has crafted and her being brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite. Magritte transmuted the creative power to a painter, and Strom transfers it again so that it is no longer the archetypal male artist who births his ideal vision of the feminine, it is a female artist herself who nurtures her own image. The video is shot and played in real time, punning on the “live” model being brought to “life,” but the subversive change is that as the artist and model, the woman shifts from object to subject of the work, which in turn alters the dynamics of the viewer, the act of viewing and the viewed.
Another artist whose presence would have shifted our viewing of Magritte is Aime Ntakiyica, a Burundian multi-media artist who resides in Magritte’s Belgium. Ntakiyica has recast Magritte’s bowler-hatted everyman with his own visage, thereby upsetting any easy reading. In a European “Union” riven by riots, sectarian conflict and nationalist resurgence, what does it now mean for a pan-European identity when a black face stands for the Euro-everyman? (Incidentally, in 1937 Magritte began four works of fragmented body parts, each entitled The White Race. While, as is typical with Magritte, there is no immediate correspondence between the title and the work, the significance here is the fragmentation of the body, and hence of identity.) Ntakiyica’s motivation is the revision of our sense of history and to impress upon us that art, no matter how seemingly innocuous, functions within a social context.
Ntakiyica also points us to the “images of racial mystery” within Magritte’s work, and these, for me, are where Magritte draws most interest and relevance. In the way that Magritte sought immediacy, representing an object or combination of objects that is so familiar, so known, that our foreknowledge acts as a blind-spot, our blindness extends also to how race might be factored into his work. This factor is exposed within Magritte’s depictions of the female body in ways that are indicative of Frantz Fanon’s writings about the sexual nature of racial fears.11 As I have described already in works such as The Red Model and The Titanic Days, Magritte pairs the creaminess of white female skin with the foreboding of darkness, which in his work can only presage violence, specifically of impending rape. Elsewhere, I’ve compared this tendency of Magritte to Georges Bataille, especially to the latter’s Story of the Eye, and its constant references to the pink and dark of female genitalia (as well as its invocations of “negroes”).12 Magritte’s use of “pink and dark,” desire and terror–the twin tropes of racialized sexual fetishism or of sexualized racial fetishism–is finally brought to light and placated in Lola de Valence (1948) (not in the exhibition). Despite being painted during his “vache” period, this painting is particularly delicate, almost serene. The nude female figure is based on the 1862 Edouard Manet painting of the same name, but is stylistically much closer to Matisse with its pink and black values, its fluid lines and decorative background. The image also explicitly illustrates Charles Baudelaire’s poem of the same name, visually quoting the phrases “desire hesitates,” and “the unexpected charm of a pink and black jewel” (in Manet’s painting, the dancer known as Lola de Valence wears a pink-set black gem on her arm). A piece by Broodthaers included here, Rene Magritte Written; Charles Baudelaire Painted (1972), underlines this connection between painter and poet, and their transliterations between image and text. Broodthaers, a poet as well as an artist, could have been the lynchpin to the exhibition, and even though he has seven works included here, their word plays and puns, their literary and intellectual references get lost within the exhibition’s emphasis on the visual.
Where art meets popular culture, what we wish for we might receive. What Magritte alludes to, an artist like Jason Rhoades later made explicit with the flagrance of events and installations such as The Black Pussy Soirees (2005 and 2006), with their primarily pink participants. Like some West Coast pasha with his own brand of macho multiculturalism, Rhoades gives his strictly by-invitation-only audiences permission to indulge. The soiree installations, like Magrittean interiors barely able to contain their contents, are a cascading bazaar of global tchotchkas, including carpets, cowboy hats, porcelain donkeys, Chinese rocks, dream catchers and Turkish hookahs. Their suggestiveness is illuminated by the lurid barrage of hundreds of neon phrases. In a compulsive gesture of bodily dismemberment,13 these consist of “pussy words,”14 each one a slang term borrowed partly from African, Caribbean, Creole and hip-hop slang for female genitalia.
This, finally, is the treachery of images, whether as viewers we have finally grown up or are locked in that adolescent bedroom.
Allan deSouza is Indian. He sashays through the noisy urban jungle.
- A.k.a. This Is Not A Baldessari, 2007. Printed text on paper, edition of 4,000. Courtesy of the artist and Talwar Gallery, New York.↵
- BBC Monitor Film, London, 1965. Quoted in James Thrall Soby, Rene Magritte (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1965), p. 7.↵
- Soby, p. 7.↵
- Numerous interviews with Magritte suggest aggressive dismissals or evasions from psychoanalytic readings of his work. For example, the 1962 exhibition catalogue The Vision of Rene Magritte (Minneapolis: The Walker Art Center) quotes him: “Perhaps psychoanalysis is the best subject to be treated by psychoanalysis.” On the other hand, Magritte was justifiably rejecting many of the critics’ trite associations of his work with popular ideas about the unconscious.↵
- Interview by Eleanor Kempner Freed, “Painter of Paradox,” Houston Post, December 26, 1965, Spotlight section, p. 7. Quoted in Sarah Whitfield, Magritte (London: The South Bank Center, 1992), p. 22.↵
- This and other John Baldessari quotes in this article are from LACMA press materials.↵
- Quoted in Whitfield, p. 17.↵
- See Magritte, Ecrits, p. 644, note 2. Quoted in Whitfield, p. 17.↵
- Letter to Lousie Colet, August 8, 1846, in The Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert, ed. Francis Steegmuller (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953).↵
- For further exposition on the “problem” and the “mystery,” see, for example, Stephanie Barron, “Enigma: The Problem(s) of Rene Magritte,” Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2006), pp. 9-26.↵
- See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2007).↵
- Allan deSouza, “It’s Not Punny if You Have to Explain It: Act III,” X-TRA, Vol.9, No.1., pp. 34-41.↵
- “The compulsive restaging of the white body as complete can only be performed through the dismemberment of the black body into ‘signs of bestiality, genitalia, grotesquerie.'” deSouza, p. 40.↵
- Jason Rhoades, interviewed by Heimir Bjoergulfsson, “Charisma Catcher,” ArtNet, 2006. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/bjorgulfsson/bjorgulfsson8-23-06.asp↵