Sunday, 29 March 2009

René Magritte

Not to be Reproduced, 1937
Oil on Canvas 80 x 65 cm

Victoria & Albert Museum, London
April 2007

This is a painting that I have seen quite a few times and is my favourite Magritte. Most recently in the Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This explored the influence of Surrealism on the worlds of fashion, design, theatre, interiors, film, architecture and advertising. It had some interesting exhibits to show how artists engaged with design and how designers were inspired by Surrealism. This painting was in a quiet corner in one of the first rooms and although it wasn’t over a fireplace, which is how I always imagine it would be hung, it looked at ease in the V&A environment.

Like the majority of Magritte’s paintings it shows us a scenario that at first glance seems completely realistic but almost immediately we recognise that it doesn’t make sense. His aim was to overthrow the idea of a painting as a window on reality and make you think about what you are seeing. He never explained his work and particularly disliked people decoding a symbolic meaning in it.

Nowadays his imagery is absorbed into popular culture, but at the time I can imagine that the paintings induced a degree of panic into the viewer. It shows collector and patron of the Surrealists, Edward James, looking into a mirror over a fireplace. However, the image in the mirror is either a doppelganger beyond the mirror or a temporal shift showing a reflection from an earlier instant when the man was facing into the room. Another explanation could be that it depicts a surreal mirror that deceives by denying the subject the narcissism of seeing his own reflection. The idea came from Paul Colinet, a member of Magritte’s secretive group of Belgian Surrealists based in Bruxelles.

The novel on the mantel is Edgar Allen Poe’s “Narrative of A. Gordon Pym” in which the protagonist journeys south from Nantucket and discovers a vast white chasm, rather than the “pole”. The journey in the novel can be seen as a metaphor for death and rebirth, but I don’t think there is a symbolist intention in its inclusion. Magritte, like many surrealists, was an admirer of Poe’s preoccupation with the mingling of the real and artificial in his fiction, and the novel actually masquerades as non-fiction. As the journey unfolds the narrative proves to be distorted and unreliable, and the reader realises that he is dealing not with sight but with vision. The inclusion of this particular book is the clue that Magritte is challenging the way of looking where we pass over many things, discarding them as unimportant. He is making sure that the mind sees in two different senses, both with the eyes, and without eyes. Significantly he depicts the reflection of the book correctly, contradicting the reflection of Edward James.

Magritte was a melancholic man, given to ennui and boredom, but any interpretation of metaphysical loneliness in his violation of the physics of the reflective surface in his surreal mirror is probably in the mind of the observer rather than the intention of the painter. Personally I find the painting melancholic.

©blackdog 2009


  1. An excellent, very detailed, and informative interpretation! Exact looking may be important (e.g. the book written by EAP), but it is only something, never sufficient to clear up a bit the real confusion the painting of M. does confront us with. His paintings are "Denkbilder"/images for reflecting we have to do, e.g. about the question 'What is reality?' or 'Do I know who I am?' or " Can I recognize who you are?"
    I always admire the contrast of very sharp-perfectly precise- superrealistic painting style and insecurity-confusion- surrealism considering the depictured situation. The painting might be based on a philosophically sceptical, modern 'Weltanschauung'.
    I feel a touch of melancholy, too, while looking at the pic- considering the loneliness, anonymity, impersonalty, coolness and strangeness of the figure = no individual person, there is not any communication possible- it is like looking or talking to a brick wall, like staring into space, like running against the empty wall (German phrase: gegen eine leere Wand laufen) - a feel of tristesse, enhanced by the dark, formal suit like that of a banker, and a kind of nihilism/ nothingness! I don't know anybody who is not fascinated by this painter! We don't come to any end!

  2. the essential of this text! The title isdq=Magritte,+Reproduktion+untersagt&source=bl&ots=jyHYzIMVAJ&sig=9hGoiCSDDn1y1meOafHdiGvBbKg&hl=de&ei=xOnQScuHDMqIsAaew42VCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=5&ct=result
    Oh, sorry, what a long link, terrible, but the analysis might be very profound (sadly only in German)- the term "Depersonalisierung" has been ironically meant, of course! In the beginning of april I will be in Rotterdam, I hope to see the original!

  3. Oh, sorry: The term "Depersonalisierung"hints the essential content of this interpretation, including all 'portraits' of E. James. The title has been ironically meant...

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  5. Oh, sorry, the main part of the 'story' has been deleted (please, do delete the former text; sorry, I have almost always technical problems to add any comment -at once) - but I would like to repeat the text because I am so pleased/happy of this my personal experience:

    Yesterday I looked at this painting in original in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen Rotterdam- I have to say the clothing of the two figures is purely black- if I remember correctly- I have been well prepared by your interpretation (my friend said there is a concrete connection between Poe-book and the mirror-reflection) -the painting hangs in the -surrealists- room where other paintings of Magritte (e.g. "Jeunesse- interesting, also for your wife) and some paintings and sculptures of Salvador Dali are assembled- but there is no communication between the Magritte -painting and the other one's because the figures are representing a strict refusal of any communication- this is and remains a main impression-- but then something happened, a really strange imagination: While I was in the room (some times), a school class sat on the ground and listened to the art explanations of a guide ( dressed in black) and listened to a strings-trio (dressed in black, too) who played modern and classical music - in correspondence or in opposite to the paintings around them. Suddenly as the musicians played classical, sweet music of Vivaldo or ?, I imagined the two Magritte figures turning slowly around, the first one serious-some sad, the second one smiled gently, probably moved by the music, they didn't see me, they seemed to stare into vacancy, but some seconds later they turned around again..., I was not allowed to take a photo, but other persons photographed, maybe TV? But I think nobody saw that moments except myself!

  6. I should have said that the image I have used is of poor quality, and agree that the jaclet is darker than shown, however, I think you can see the folds in the cloth so not totally black. I am pleased you had a special moment with the painting despite (or because of) the unsympathetic hanging. As I have said in the text I alwayys feel it belongs over a fireplace in place of the traditional mirror.