René Magritte, “Forethought” (1943), oil on canvas, Koons Collection (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, all images courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

In his posthumously published book Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein proposes that we can better understand how everyday language functions by considering what he calls language-games.

Imagine, for example, that one person names objects and another person then points to them. Or suppose that someone piles up blocks and the second person reports how many are in each pile. There are many such language-games. Wittgenstein lists play-acting, guessing riddles, making a joke, thanking, greeting, praying, and numerous other examples.

Once we recognize the multiplicity and variety of these language-games, he says, then we will be less likely to adapt oversimplified accounts of language. His goal is to understand language as “an activity, or […] a form of life” in which many diverse language-games are at play.

Inspired by this famous account, let us construct an analogy with visual thinking. There are many visual-games associated with representation. And painting is an activity, a form of life if you will, that employs these games.

This analogy between written and visual languages will help us to understand the paintings exhibited in the recently closed René Magritte: The Fifth Season (May 19–October 28, 2018, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Consider, first, some visual-games presented in Magritte’s best-known works. He puts objects of radically different sizes within one picture. “Personal Values” (1952) shows a comb, bed, and glass, all roughly the same size. He represents objects that aren’t flammable on fire, as in “The Discovery of Fire” (1959), which shows a tuba on fire. In “The Human Condition” (1933) he sets a landscape painting on an easel in front of a window that is overlookin that very scene. And he represents distinct temporal moments in one picture. “The Dominion of Light” 1950) has a daylight sky and a darkened nighttime street scene — a motif of he revisited in numerous versions.

René Magritte, “The Dominion of Light” (1950), oil on canvas(© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

All of these various visual-games teach the same general lesson. A representation of something doesn’t have the same properties as that thing. In a picture, real things of diverse sizes can be presented as of the same size; objects that don’t burn can be depicted as burning; two times of day can be shown; and images can be set in front of pictures of the scenes they depict.

These philosophical ideas about representation are banal. In one of his best-known pictures, Magritte set an image of a pipe above the label, ‘This is not a pipe” — “The Treachery of Images” (1929), a work that fascinated Michel Foucault. (One version of that painting is in this show: a 1952 drawing also called “The Treachery of Images,” which contains a label in French, “ceci continue de ne pas étre une pipe.”)

We all know that a representation is not identical with what it represents and that representations and what they represent therefore have different properties. But while these ideas are simple, or, if you will, even dumb, Magritte’s pictures employing them are visually compelling. He thus demonstrates that being a successful philosopher-painter doesn’t require abstruse philosophical concepts. Simple ideas about representation suffice to make great pictures. When early in his career Jasper Johns painted American flags and targets, making flat images of things that are themselves flat, he showed that this idea had legs.

René Magritte, “Personal Values” (1952), oil on canvas (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In the late 1920s and 1930s, René Magritte (1898-1967) became famous. Associated, somewhat uneasily, with the Surrealists, he created many of his best-known images at this time. Then in middle age, during World War II, when Belgium was occupied by Germany, he undertook a bold experiment, producing two related bodies of works, which have mostly been heartily disliked even by his champions.

The San Francisco exhibition of 77 paintings, gouaches, and drawings was the first large show to focus on his so-called sunlit surrealist and vache periods. (‘Vache’ describes a fat woman or a lazy person; ‘peau de vache’ means cow-skin; and so ‘vache things’ are vulgar or coarse.) These are two related but distinctly different bodies of deliberately alienating works, the first rendered in the style of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the second, featuring images based on popular cartoons, painted with gestural brushstrokes.

Thus “The Fifth Season” (1943), which provided the title for the show, depicts men in bowler hats carrying paintings in gold gilt frames under their arms, rendered in Renoir’s style. “The Harvest” (1943) shows a reclining female nude with different parts of her body painted in blue, purple, red, and orange. “Forethought” (1943) is of a flowering tree, also done in this painterly style. “Famine” (1948) shows a group of heads apparently eating each other. And because there was a shortage of art materials during the war, Magritte painted “Night Sky with Bird” (1945) on a wine bottle.

René Magritte, “The Fifth Season” (1943), oil on canvas (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Magritte called his wartime images an exercise in visual hedonism. He believed that the Soviet victory over the Nazi invasion would lead to an era of social and artistic revolution, which would require a radical transformation of Surrealism. And so he called his art “a counter-offensive.”

These statements hardly seem an adequate explanation of this dramatic change in his personal style. If he really thought that these wartime pictures would give pleasure, then he was radically mistaken. It’s not obvious how sunlit surrealist or vache painting was an effective response to the wartime era, when Magritte remained in his native country or, even, to the changed postwar political life, when he briefly joined the Belgian Communist Party. Indeed it is hard to relate any of his personal statements to this art.

If we look to their appearance, then this body of sunlit surrealist and vache works marks a radical stylistic break with the more familiar, canonical Magrittes. But if we think of them as presenting various representation-games, then we may understand them as extending his prior strategies of art making.

With these works, instead of demonstrating the relationship between things and their representations, he turns to investigate one traditional style of representation. What would happen, Magritte seems to ask, if rather than the deadpan, neutral style of his best-known works , he were to paint like Renoir? And what is the result, he asks, if he borrows the caricaturist’s style for the vache paintings? Perhaps if he had continued in this vein, these works would have been better understood. And then maybe real continuity in Magritte’s career would have been apparent.

René Magritte, “Seasickness (1948), oil on canvas (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In fact, however, because sunlight surrealism and the vache pictures were so unpopular, Magritte did not continue to experiment in this fashion. Like Giorgio de Chirico, whom he admired, and Francis Picabia, Magritte created what became fashionably known in the 1970s as bad painting.

Deliberately inept painting, a visual form of camp, certainly has its pleasures. And so now that this particular art historical moment has become relatively distant, it’s unsurprising that a major museum is devoting so much attention to least admired period of a much appreciated painter.

But I cannot see that these ‘bad’ Magrittes change how we judge his full achievement. They really are dreadful paintings. If they had not been made by the same painter who created his canonical works, no one would give them a second glance. At this exhibition, I really felt that I was missing something.

Author’s Note: The suggestion that there is some parallel between the concerns of Magritte and Wittgenstein is not my invention; in her Magritte (1985), Suzi Gablik develops this idea, with reference to Magritte’s own writings about the word-image problem. But I understand the parallel differently.

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...

One reply on “René Magritte’s Bad Paintings”

  1. I was going to make some crack about Norman van der Rockwell but then I remembered that Rockwell’s paintings were truly quite skillful, in his deadpan manner of portraying American banality. It looks to me that Magritte, whom I have always championed (even called one of my lost 16mm. masturpieces ‘Mango Magritte – Ripe Fruit in a Power Dive’) went off the rails. Which possibility is unsurprising, considering his picturesque homeland had been overrun by unsmiling Wehrmacht supermen.

    Let us never forget that the war years were an exceedingly bad time for the low countries. People starved to death. Neighbors were ordered to inform on one another or taken out and shot. And at the end of the festivities, hostilities, the normally phlegmatic, tolerant Dutch lined up and executed the collaborators. How could any artist pretend normality when monsters like Dries Riphagen were the champions of society?

    Still, the paintings are, as the Filipinos call them, ”faintings”, so awful they make you wish to pass away in sadness. I can’t think of any other Twentieth Century big shot painter who indulged himself this way.

    Magritte’s joining the Communist Party post-war was a telltale sign as well: by that time the splendiferous crimes of Stalin were common knowledge. Only a French dodo like Breton could pretend ignorance.

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