Painting of the Day

17 Jun

La Condition Humaine. by Rene Magritte (1898-1967). Oil on canvas, 1933. Currently on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Rene Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, he worked in a wallpaper factory and was a poster and advertisement designer until 1926. Magritte settled in Paris at the end of the 1920s, where he met members of the Surrealist movement, and soon became one of the most significant artists of the group. He returned to Brussels a few years later and opened an advertising agency. Magritte’s fame was secured in 1936, after his first exhibition in New York. Since then, New York has been the location of two of his most important retrospective shows–at MoMA in 1965 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992. La Condition Humaine is one of many versions Magritte painted on the same theme. The picture is emblematic of the work he produced in Paris during the 1930s, when he was still under the spell of the Surrealists. Here, Magritte executes a kind of optical illusion. He depicts an actual painting of a landscape displayed in front of an open window. He makes the image on the painted picture match perfectly with the “true” landscape outdoors. In doing so, Magritte proposed, in one unique image, the association between nature and its representation through the means of art. This work also stands as an assertion of the artist’s power to reproduce nature at will and proves how ambiguous and impalpable the border between exterior and interior, objectivity and subjectivity, and reality and imagination can be.

Additional notes from theartstory.org:

Surely the most celebrated Belgian artist of the twentieth century, Rene Magritte has achieved great popular acclaim for his idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism. To support himself he spent many years working as a commercial artist, producing advertising and book designs, and this most likely shaped his fine art, which often has the abbreviated impact of an advertisement. While some French Surrealists led ostentatious lives, Magritte preferred the quiet anonymity of a middle-class existence, a life symbolized by the bowler-hatted men that often populate his pictures. In later years, he was castigated by his peers for some of his strategies (such as his tendency to produce multiple copies of his pictures), yet since his death his reputation has only improved. Conceptual artists have admired his use of text in images, and painters in the 1980s admired the provocative kitsch of some of his later work.

Magritte wished to cultivate an approach that avoided the stylistic distractions of most modern painting. While some French Surrealists experimented with new techniques, Magritte settled on a deadpan, illustrative technique that clearly articulated the content of his pictures. Repetition was an important strategy for Magritte, informing not only his handling of motifs within individual pictures, but also encouraging him to produce multiple copies of some of his greatest works. His interest in the idea may have come in part from Freudian psychoanalysis, for which repetition is a sign of trauma. But his work in commercial art may have also played a role in prompting him to question the conventional modernist belief in the unique, original work of art.
The illustrative quality of Magritte’s pictures often results in a powerful paradox: images that are beautiful in their clarity and simplicity, but which also provoke unsettling thoughts. They seem to declare that they hide no mystery, and yet they are also marvelously strange.
Magritte was fascinated by the interactions of textual and visual signs, and some of his most famous pictures employ both words and images. While those pictures often share the air of mystery that characterizes much of his Surrealist work, they often seem motivated more by a spirit of rational enquiry – and wonder – at the misunderstandings that can lurk in language.
The men in bowler hats that often appear in Magritte’s pictures can be interpreted as self-portraits. Portrayals of the artist’s wife, Georgette, are also common in his work, as are glimpses of the couple’s modest Brussels apartment. Although this might suggest autobiographical content in Magritte’s pictures, it more likely points to the commonplace sources of his inspiration. It is as if he believed that we need not look far for the mysterious, since it lurks everywhere in the most conventional of lives.
My comments:
Whereas the last few paintings I’ve posted here gravitate towards the expressionistic side (I mostly commented about those paintings in terms of their formal qualities, especially how the artists used paint and color), Magritte is an artist that is more focused on ideas rather than forms with his work. This painting, with a title as broad and all-encompassing as “The Human Condition,” illustrates a fundamental tension that arose with the advent of Modernist painting: whether art should be judged on how well it imitates nature (as it had been from Classical antiquity until the Modern era) or something else. Modernism’s long series of artistic movements (starting generally with Impressionism) all offer different alternatives to that goal of art, for imitation of nature. Magritte, it seems to me, saw art’s purpose as a way to reveal truths about the world that control the way the world works and drives people’s behaviors all while amazingly remaining unclear and illusive to our conscious awareness. As he once said, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”
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