It takes only a little suspension of disbelief to enter the world of a painting. Once inside that world, you can be as convinced by it as you like.
Unless, that is, the artist chooses to shatter the illusion.
Looking at a painting can be like looking through a window. We give (the artist permitting) the paint surface as little substance as a pane of glass in a window. And we unquestioningly accept that what we see through the glass's transparency - or through a painted surface - is a real world of trees and grass and sky.
Belgian artist Ren Magritte (1898-1967), in "The Door to Freedom," poses the question, with slightly disturbing wit: "But what if the landscape beyond the window glass is actually painted on the glass? What if it is part of the glass, rather than an actuality on the other side of it?
The window in this painting is shattered. Impossibly, the fallen glass fragments still have on them, like afterimages, those parts of the landscape that were seen through them when the pane was intact.
The painting is a deliberate nonsense. From this conclusion it is only a short step to saying that painting in general is a deliberate nonsense. It is a deception perpetrated on the willingly deceived.
And from here it is no distance to the idea that what our eyes see, whether in a painting or in "reality," may also be deceptive.
Magritte was a master of this kind of questioning. He did it through painting rather than aesthetic theories or scientific formulas. We do not, his works seem to say, live in a world of indisputable facts.
"We see [the world] as being outside ourselves," he wrote, "even though it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves."
*A show of Magritte's work is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh through March 26. The exhibition was organized by and previously shown at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society