Magritte's Irrational Logic

London show confirms Belgian painter's place as master of visual enigma

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`MAGRITTE is a great painter. Magritte is not a painter." So observed Louis Scutenaire in 1942: a suitable paradox for Rene Magritte (1898-1967), artist of the paradox if ever there was one.

This surrealist picturemaker once told an interviewer he could as easily have been a mathematician. (Lewis Carroll, with whom he shared a dreamlike sense of absurdity, illogical logic, and discrepancies of scale, was a mathematician). Magritte liked to be an artist while pretending that he was not really one. In some ways he can be thought of as an anti-painter. His paintings are ideas. They have even been described (by a comedian, admittedly) as "gags."

Magritte certainly aligned himself as a subversive among subversives. Opposed to the concept of "the masterpiece," he made "images" rather than "paintings," and demonstrated their deliberate lack of uniqueness by replicating some of them at will many times over. He took pains to make them look impersonal, with a bland surface and a minimum of gesture. He developed a technique that drew attention away from technique.

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Yet these paintings (plus a sculpture or two) he spent his life making are entirely individual, and they are being seen more and more as works that can be experienced on an aesthetic level - even, perhaps, his most deliberately vulgar works, the so-called "vache" paintings he made as a rude gesture towards Paris and the Surrealists there who had not exactly lionized him.

Early criticism did often dismiss him as a peripheral figure and not a true painter. But in our post-Post-Modern world we are either freer or more confused, and Magritte's work today looks very much like art. No doubt he would have disavowed this with caustic horror: He, along with his Belgian Surrealist confreres, deplored aestheticism. Or said they did.

As hordes of admirers surge round the Hayward Gallery here, the popularity of this master of the visual enigma appears stronger than ever. Where does that appeal lie?

Mystery is Magritte's subject. Illusion is the tool painters use to persuade viewers into willing suspension of disbelief. One of the mysteries Magritte explores is the ease with which we are so persuaded. He makes a painting of a pipe, rudimentary like the illustration in an infant's first reading-and-picture book. But he writes under it "This is not a pipe." He lifts such amusing banality (it is true, it isn't a pipe - but is it Art?!) into a kind of psychology by his title: "The Treachery of Images."

This title might be applied to his work as a whole, not all of which is quite so simplified (or so uninteresting once the initial frisson has passed) as this picture is in its approach to the paradoxical world of representation versus the represented.

Ernst Gombrich in his 1960 "Art and Illusion" (a book in which he investigates ideas close to Magritte's, but never once mentions this artist) wrote of "effort after meaning."

This is a state of mind we have that makes it possible to ignore the ambiguity of images on canvas. The "realist" painter and his compliant viewer join in a plot to connect the painted image with the "real" one, even though we know all the time we are looking at a painting and not the thing it represents.

In Magritte's most intriguing images, he finds a way of setting up an illusion, then of disabusing his viewer of the illusion ... and then, or at the same time, ending up by establishing a fresh illusion of surprising memorability. To get the point of his works, we have to comply with his illusion first.

WE have to accept, for example, that in "La Condition humaine" - a painting of a painting on an easel in front of a window - that we are in fact looking at an actual window with an actual painting in front of it. Then we can move to the next stage: on the "painting" is painted precisely that part of the "landscape" outside the "window" which, from our viewpoint, is displaced or covered over by the canvas. Of course even then we have to take Magritte's word for it that the hidden image is identical with the painted image covering it. It may not be! But the trick is performed with economy, like a conjurer carefully explaining how he is doing it. In the end what we enjoy is the fact that here is an illusion only possible within the illusory - or ambiguous - world of painting itself. So the anti-painter has produced a pro-painting. Myth is exploded, and myth is reinvented. Painting survives. Or does it? With Magritte, certainty or convention is disrupted by questions because even the conviction of his final i mage is illusory. He touches in this way on the illusory nature of much human experience - "La condition humaine."

Seeing an entire show of his work like this leaves one with considerable admiration for Magritte's inventiveness. It also convinces that he was something more than an idea-man (though his ideas have successfully fed the advertising industry over many years, and have endlessly stimulated the designers of logos and TV-show introductory graphics.) Under that dead-pan surface hides a kind of raging poetry. It is surely not without symbolism that his paintings are so frequently concerned with surfaces and wh at it is that breaks the illusion of surfaces. Magritte's work is on display at the Hayward Gallery through August 2 before traveling to New York, Houston, and Chicago.

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