07 November, 2006

The problem of Magritte

Le Dormeur Téméraire, 1928

Above is, nominally, a painting. It certainly consists of coloured pigments applied to a canvas. But, really, it is a painting for people who don't like art. What is marginally curious about it is that it amounts to a collection of bland Freudian symbols painted blandly, symbols that have meaning only in context, removed from context—it is both ugly and defiantly meaningless. It is painting as text—a very dull text, without Magritte's usual puns. Why would anyone paint an image like that? A smile is brought to my lips, for the very fact of the question.

L'Assassin Menacé, 1926

Now this one is just as ugly, but much more interesting. Its ugliness, which is quite typical of the artist's work, is here transformed into a reflective surface, a contempt for 'painterliness'. You can read on the internet myriad accounts of the narrative represented here, taken from one of the Fantômas films, but there's not much point doing so. Its implication of narrative, I think, benefits from the complete implausibility, and even meaninglessness, of that narrative. There is simultaneously a realism—no floating bowlers or giant tubas—and an unrealism, a vacuity of detail or roughness, a purely stereotyped figuration. The blank rebuttal of this image I find almost heartbreaking. Go on, it says—interpret me. See? You can't. But you could reduce the image to a description, an ekphrasis, pretty well. Tom Stoppard, my old nemesis, did a play of it.


Absorbingly inhuman is the desire to paint such meticulous anti-paintings as these. I do not derive a scintilla of pleasure from them. The minute I saw L'Assassin I wanted to write an epic, as if there were some sort of potency lurking in the recesses of its cold blandness. I ended up with a fragmentary epyllion. These paintings will have to take the place of my first exposure to art, aged 8—one of Chagall's green fiddlers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—which I have forgotten, nevertheless the episode lives on in the family memory.

It may be an awakening to the algidity of this material that prompted my drift away from modernist art—towards the warmer climes of the Renaissance, so intricately real, and so sumptuously unreal. Those were paintings as paintings, not paintings as statements. Did the avant-garde ruin art, make it something else? Since 1872, or whenever you would have it, painting became a quest, a progress towards, an ecdysis of constraints. It became a game of permutations; the above are two such permutations, the passage of a form into obscurity. In those paintings are an early legitimation of Warhol, of the architecture of a modern university campus—the mystery of surfaces.

I fear something has been lost in the hunt for freedom. Perhaps this is why these deadened tableaux, a reckless sleeper and an assassin threatened, continue to fascinate me, as symptoms, or omens, complacent and threatening, of what has since come to pass.


Siganus Sutor said...

The image being somewhat small, one can guess if the person lying on the sofa is a man or a woman. S/he has breasts, all right, but also a kind of moustache... Maybe it was done deliberately, to add a touch of surrealism...

(BTW, who is the author of the second part of the post? Conrad or Tom Stoppard?)

Conrad H. Roth said...

It's a woman, the 'moustache' is a shadow or a gash. (And the post is Conrad all the way, my friend!)

chris miller said...

I've never felt compelled to construct a narrative -- even for paintings that seem to be calling for one. Is there some reason we should ?(other, of course,
than if we wish to apply for the docent's job at the local museum)

And -- I happen to like this painter whenever I see him-- not as much as many others,
but a whole lot more than most of the things that get called 'surrealist"
especially, Max Ernst, yeccch.

These two paintings remind me of scenes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

It's the mystery atmosphere -- not the mystery narrative -- that's appealing to me.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, Chris, as you know I am an Ernst man. Chacun, etc.

"It's the mystery atmosphere -- not the mystery narrative -- that's appealing to me."

Aye, but it is the sort of mystery that prevents further engagement, I fear--a cold mystery.

Anonymous said...

Tough crowd.

Max Ernst is a genius Chris. What is it you find "yeccch"-y about him?

The focus, to me, in Magritte's art is the intentional satire.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"The focus, to me, in Magritte's art is the intentional satire."

I could see that; but satire is a function of literature, not painting, so your statement accords well with my assertion that Magritte is a painter for people who 'don't like art'--or more accurately, prefer texts to paintings. Like myself.

Ernst's work, on the other hand, is much more formally interesting. I did a piece on him here.

Chris is really a traditionalist (and his primary field is sculpture, which he blogs about). Modernist art, it seems, is largely not his thing.