The crisis of the object: Magritte's techniques

I had a really interesting day yesterday. By day, I work at a marketing agency called Catalysis. There’s a whole creativity thing going on, and the powers that be invited an artist in to talk about what we, marketers, can learn from the wonderful Rene Magritte.

My first exposure to Magritte was when I was doing an art project at school on the responsibilities of young people. I looked at young mums and used this image as reference:

The Spirit of Geometry, Rene Magritte

My 16 year-old self certainly understood the image in a completely different way to my 24 year-old self. As I found out yesterday, that was Magritte’s way of ‘modifying’ an ‘object’.

When Magritte was only 14, he watched his mother’s corpse as it was fished out of the River Sambre. The image of her floating there, with her dress obscuring her face, was to have a significant impact on his art.

Throughout his up-and-down career (at least from contemporary critics’ perspective), he would juxtapose ordinary objects, giving them an unusual context and thereby giving a new meaning to familiar things. You may know The Treachery of Images, which is a painting of a pipe with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe,’ or ‘This is not a pipe,’ beneath it.

The Treachery of Images, Rene Magritte

He may sound wrong but Magritte is totally right. He is quoted: "The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe", I'd have been lying!” The idea is that even the most hyperrealistic of subjects is still not the subject itself.

In approaching the ‘crisis of the object,’ in which the Surrealists questioned everything about reproducing an object onto a canvas or plinth, they took the question of "what is art?" close to the question of "what is reality?". There's a noggin-scratcher for ya.

Magritte's constant play with reality and illusion has been attributed to the early death of his mother. Psychoanalysts who have examined bereaved children have hypothesized that Magritte's back and forth play with reality and illusion reflects his "constant shifting back and forth from what he wishes—'mother is alive'—to what he knows—'mother is dead'”. In dealing with these two crises – of the object and of bereavement – Magritte employs the following techniques:

Object isolation, in which something is placed out of context

Time Transfixed, Rene Magritte

Modification, in which new elements are added to an object

The Son of Man, Rene Magritte

Hybridization, in which the object is combined with something unusual

Collective Invention, Rene Magritte

Scale change, in which proportions are altered

The Listening Room, Rene Magritte

Accidental encounters, in which an object is juxtaposed with an unlikely object

Hegel's Holiday, Rene Magritte

Double image puns, in which a picture contains two images

Perpetual Motion, Rene Magritte

Paradox, in which the object is convincingly portrayed doing something it cannot do

Golconda, Rene Magritte

And double viewpoints, in which he shows two convincing views at once

Not to be Reproduced, Rene Magritte

So next time you need to do something tricky, do the complete opposite first. And say Magritte told you so.

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