Magritte & Perspective

Only thought can resemble. It resembles by being what it sees, hears, or knows;
it becomes what the world offers it.
— René Magritte

René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist painter, living between 1898 and 1967. He’s probably seen his fair share of war, given the time he was alive and living in Belgium. During the German occupation of the Second World War he remained in Brussels. But it seems to be something else that had scarred Magritte at young age: after already several attempts his mother committed suicide and was found with her dress covering her face in a nearby river. Magritte’s constant play with reality and illusion has been attributed to the early death of his mother. You can try and see a lot of meaning in his artwork as a reaction to feelings of alienation and abandonment during the war, but also his mothers’ several attempts of killing herself and succeeding.

Magritte is well-known for his witty and thought-provoking images. He often depicts plain and ordinary objects and puts them in an unusual context. With this he challenges the observer to question their preconditioned perceptions of reality. You know, the thing they say nowadays: when you assume you make an ass out of u and me (ohh I’ve always wanted to put that one in a blogpost). But you know this when you’ve seen his most famous work ‘Treachery of Images’ (aka. ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’) where you see an image of a pipe and not a pipe itself, therefore the pipe is not a pipe. As I was saying… it’s in the details.

René Magritte has described his own paintings as: “visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

And that’s actually why I adore his work so much. It’s all in the details. We assume so, so much by just looking. It is so easy to miss the actual meaning and fuck up. Which is why I wanted to talk about this artwork.

empire of light

a dark, nocturnal street scene is set against a pastel-blue, light-drenched sky spotted with fluffy cumulus clouds. With no fantastic element other than the single paradoxical combination of day and night, René Magritte upsets a fundamental organizing premise of life.

description from the Guggenheim at ‘Empire of Light’.

Of course there are many, many paintings by Magritte that depict the confusion or maybe the importance of perspective. But I found that The Empire of Light has a perfect division of two things. The work confuses the observer on two levels. Firstly: visually, as what we see with our eyes cannot be true in real life, as day and night simply cannot exist together at the same time. And secondly on a deeper level: we are confused on a moral level. Here being the light representing good, and the darkness its opposite: evil. So we ask ourselves, maybe without really thinking, can light and dark exist together at the same time? And where does that lead us? Aren’t we as humans such a patchwork creature of light and dark? And if yes, why does this picture feels so unnerving and eerie?

What I feel as I observe this painting is the unease that something bad is about to happen. There is an overwhelming darkness, but the sky somehow also soothes. Perhaps the light in the picture does represent purity or goodness, and that evil that is lurking always. It’s as if the two light sources within the painting (the sky, but also the street-lantern) oppose each other and wrestle with the viewer’s emotions. There is the natural light opposed to the artificial street light. Which leads to the nature vs man feeling. Maybe being the warmth of nature as opposed to the harshness of artificial, false and man-made light. Which once again nod to the notion of purity and evil.

While Magritte’s concerns lay deep within our use of language and our perceptions of reality, the concept intrigued Magritte. He once remarked “I got the idea that night and day exist together, that they are one. This is reasonable, or at the very least it’s in keeping with our knowledge: in the world, night always exists at the same time as day (Just as sadness always exists in some people at the same time as hapiness in others). But such ideas are not poetic. What is poetic is the visible image of the picture”.

(Letter from Magritte to M. Marion, 27 July 1952).

Magritte further explained the origin of the image in a radio interview in 1956: What is represented in the picture The Dominion of Light are the things I thought of, to be precise, a nocturnal landscape such as can be seen in broad daylight. The landscape suggests night and the skyscape day. This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power: poetry.


So what is it with Magritte and perspective? As this is also one of Magritte’s visible images, he put it so eloquently: it conceals nothing. So really, what are we looking at then? And how should we be looking at anything? And is there an actual right or wrong way to look at things?

If you’d like some more background on Magritte, there’s this nice Guardian article on Magritte’s timelessness.

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