You might be surprised to hear that I was surprised to find a collection of René Magritte’s writings. I was surprised because I think of his paintings to be as deafeningly silent as paintings can be. They seem to stop language short. Of course, you might object that all paintings are silent. I know, I know. But some paintings make more of an issue of it than others. But still, you might say, what about that famous “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (1929)? And isn’t another of his most celebrated works, precisely “L’usage de la parole” (ca. 1929) — the one in which a bunch of dumb nondescript shapes are tauntingly given rough narrative identity by being labeled “horse,” “gun,” “cloud” and so on? Wasn’t Magritte an artist who directly incorporated language into his paintings?
Yes, but when Magritte wrote “This is not a pipe,” he wasn’t negating the pipe so much as he was negating the language with which we attempt to grasp it, just as when he wrote “fusil” on random blob he was undoing the power of the word rather than tapping into its power to make us see a gun despite the evidence of our eyes. For him, the best use of the word was in its breach rather than its observance. “Magic must not say anything: it must act,” he believed. If Magritte’s works invite interpretation it is only to resist it. His 1954 exhibition in New York was titled Word vs Image. I’m not sure Image won, but I’m certain Word lost. As Sandra Zalman suggests in her preface to this book, that show must have impressed some of the young artists of the day, among them Jasper Johns, whose first flag painting was begun that year. (Later Johns’s work would grow more discursive.)
As we learn from Kathleen Rooney’s introduction, Jo Levy’s translations of Magritte were commissioned by John Calder in the 1980s, but the project never saw the light. We’re lucky Rooney and her co-editor Eric Plattner have finally revived them, despite the translator’s death, and that they have supplemented Levy’s efforts with several texts that she did not get to, in versions by Alan Elgar; all the translations read fluently. The texts are of various kinds and genres. Many of the earliest ones, from the 1920s and ‘30s, are typically Surrealist prose poems — fragmented dreamlike narratives conveyed in an unruffled tone and often intensely visualized. Some of them could almost be film scenarios:
She goes into the woods. It is bathed in twilight. Trunks and branches gleam, vague and silvery.
She goes forward slowly as if she is weary. Soon she hesitates, stops, lies down on a bed of fallen leaves.
A shout is heard in the distance, a woman’s name.
With eyes wide open she stares at a broken branch hanging on by a few threads to a huge tree.
One of her hands has closed round the object she dropped when she lay down. Through her light dress you can make out her woman’s body. Her pale face expresses extreme weariness.
In fact, the cinematic connection becomes explicit in a group of texts from 1932 titled “Space of a Thought”: actual scenarios that, an editor’s note implies, were filmed, though the footage is not extant.
If you’re familiar with Surrealist writing, you might not find these prose poems terribly original in form, but their pictorial clarity gives them an unusual freshness. It reflects a clarity of purpose that becomes evident in a different way when Magritte sets his hand to any of the more usual genres of artists’ writing — manifestos, lectures, interviews, even a few exhibition reviews. Throughout the four decades and various modes of writing covered by these Selected Writings, there is one intuition consistently maintained: For Magritte, art was not reflection on reality but an alternative to it, thanks to which we can see reality as strange. The unease his images can produce was not their end but only a step toward wonder.
That sense of wonder was not intended to register what his fellow Surrealists had called “the marvelous” but rather the mundane, which is what is truly mysterious: “Instead of being astonished by the superfluous existence of another world, it is our one world, where coincidences surprise us, that we must not lose sight of.” Or again: “There has to come a time when mystery is no longer an object that can be talked about, so that I can really be in the truth of the mystery.”
Perhaps the fact that Magritte continued having to talk about this mystery means that he never succeeded in evoking it through painting. Or maybe it’s just that the painter had to keep speaking so that the paintings could keep their silence. Whether or not he ever succeeded in evoking the deep strangeness of existence in his art, the single-mindedness with which Magritte pursued that goal and the clarity with which he articulated it in words remains an inspiration.
René Magritte, Selected Writings, (2016) edited by Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner and translated by Jo Levy, is published by University of Minnesota Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.