René Magritte: Selected Writingsby Elizabeth Berkowitz
René Magritte: Selected Writings
Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner, Eds.
Translated from the French by Jo Levy and Adam Elgar
(University of Minnesota Press, 2016)
Today the Belgian artist René Magritte is most popularly known as a Surrealist painter, but he was never fully embraced by the doctrinaire followers of André Breton’s more dominant Surrealism, nor did he accept Surrealist methodology—its emphasis on psychoanalysis and automatism in particular—as dogma. In his text “Surrealism in the Sunshine: Manifesto No. 2 – November 1946,” for example, Magritte denounced automatism as an “ineffectual” poetic tool and identified “[i]nvestigations into the unconscious” as “of no interest” to artists, belonging instead “to the field of psychology alone.” Opposed to critical pigeonholing of his work as Surrealist, Magritte claimed in a 1958 interview with Georges d’Amphoux that he didn’t want his work “to be called anything.” He continued: “I hope that the critic or historian will elucidate, by the written word, the unforeseen possibilities that my pictures call forth.”
In lieu of characterizing Magritte’s visual art as simply Surrealist, a more apt term might be “enigmatic.” His paintings’ hybridization of photorealistic details and unexpected deviations from viewers’ compositional expectations transform Magritte’s works into mysterious, uncanny spaces. It is therefore fitting that Selected Writings, the most extensive English translation of René Magritte’s writings to date, is shadowed by the burdens and benefits of enigma. In 1979, André Blavier published René Magritte: Écrits Complets, a compilation of 219 of Magritte’s texts, interviews, and poems in French, with Flammarion Press. In 1987, a selection of 124 of those texts, translated into English by Jo Levy and edited by John Calder, was scheduled to be published by Calder Publications, but instead languished in the Calder archives in Caen, France, until this current edition brought Levy’s translations to light, with edits, annotations, and six additional Blavier texts translated by Adam Elgar. Nonetheless, the 1987 selection criteria for the Levy-translated texts remains unknown, rendering Rooney and Plattner’s Selected Writings something of a found object, much of its organizational framework lost to the decades. Ultimately, such a conceptual lacuna benefits Rooney and Plattner’s collection, as well as the author of Selected Writing’s preface, Sandra Zalman, as all were then free to delve into Magritte’s writings unencumbered by Levy and Calder’s agenda. One of the hallmarks of such interpretative freedom is the extent to which Selected Writings suggests an alternative reading of Magritte and his work. In Selected Writings, both the critical writings and Magritte’s texts categorize Magritte less as a Surrealist painter and more as a poet, Marxist, and practitioner in the tradition of the modernist avant-gardes, who desired to realize both personal and political ideologies through a diversity of aesthetic mediums.
Zalman’s preface foregrounds Magritte as a Marxist activist, a characterization she views as integral to understanding his literary and visual output. Zalman interprets Magritte’s “world upside-down” aesthetic, in which familiar images or scenarios turn to the absurd, as an expression of his Marxism. “Surrealist Games” (ca. 1933), for example, unfolds as follows: “One day some wretch who didn’t have a hat and was jealous of those who did set fire to the village barn, so it would spread and set fire to the hatter’s shop. / Moral: Hats get burnt when they are too dear.” To Zalman, such twisted logic exemplifies Magritte’s broader attempt to disrupt the bourgeois system as, in her words, a “double-agent.” In paintings such as The Son of Man (1964) or in writings like “Surrealist Games,” Magritte appears to meet pictorial and literary expectations for a bourgeois audience (a realistic portrait of a man in a hat, a linear narrative which involves a hat) but then subverts his audience’s expectations to unsettle and ultimately dismantle the assumptions behind those expectations. There are more overtly Marxist texts in the collection—among them his 1935 response to the previous year’s Soviet mandate for Socialist Realist art, in which Magritte declares his art “only valuable in so far as it is opposed to the bourgeois ideology”—but Zalman’s identification of latent Marxism in the absurdity and uncanniness of his painting and writing denotes a particularly novel manifestation of Magritte’s politics.
In her introduction, “The Alphabet of Revelation,” Rooney situates Magritte’s writings and visual output as autonomous actors in Magritte’s overall project of disruptive aesthetics, and underscores the importance of the literary to Magritte’s practice. Indeed, Magritte held poetry as a standard by and through which to characterize his most successful paintings. Rooney notes that Magritte consulted poets, not painters, when determining the titles for his pictorial works, and Magritte’s “A Poetic Art” (1955) identifies painting as that which merely makes “possible the creation of visible poetic images.” Writing of one of several works entitled L’Empire des Lumières in 1956, Magritte claims that the painting’s juxtaposition of day and night had “the power to surprise and enchant us,” a power Magritte identifies as “poetry.” Similarly, in his unpublished manuscript “Knowledge of the World” (1963 – 65), Magritte states that “images—painted or drawn—meet with poetry” in order to bring life or power to the former, subsequently classifying “poetry” not as a literary entity, but rather as a totalizing aesthetic phenomenon which “is not explainable” but can only be “thought, written, painted.” Throughout Selected Writings, one finds an interest in semiotics that elaborates upon the implications of The Treachery of Images (1929), Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe above the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Texts like “Words and Images” (1929) and “London Lecture” (1937) likewise dwell upon the dissonance between words and images, with the latter illustrating the arbitrariness behind the assignation of textual signs to visual signifiers to suggest that the word “bird” might just as easily denote the image of an egg, or the word “mountain” an image of a bird—depending upon context, association, or authorial choice. Broadening the characterization of Magritte to include his role as a writer underscores the extent to which questioning systems of meaning, textual and visual alike, was an essential element of Magritte’s practice.
Indicating the breadth of Magritte’s creative output beyond painting, Selected Writings is tremendously varied—it contains essays, poems, short stories, interviews, even the script for a since-destroyed film, “Space of a Thought” (1932). Ultimately, the collection suggests that readers should approach Magritte beyond the framework of Surrealism and instead through the lens of a European avant-garde tradition that dissolved rather than enforced boundaries among creative fields. Such an affinity was not lost on Magritte, who was an artist cognizant of his role in the narrative of modern art history. (He opines on Impressionism and the development of modern art in “Battle of Wits” (1950), and discusses his own aesthetic maturity within an art historical trajectory in “Life Line” (1938), situating his works as distinct progressions beyond the inspirations of Futurism, Georges Seurat, and Neo-Impressionism, as well as Surrealism.) Selected Writings’s narrative of medium-autonomy rather than medium-hierarchy in Magritte’s creative practice effectively expands the interpretive lens through which to consider the artist’s work, releasing Magritte’s artistic successes both from the confines of his paintings alone as well as from his limited subscription to mainstream Surrealism and its tenets. Perhaps the greatest virtue of Selected Writings, beyond facilitating English-language access to Magritte’s writings, is its alignment of Magritte with the great polymath artists of 20th-century modernism, who bent styles and genres to ideological dictates rather than confine an ideology to a singular aesthetic form.