The Power to Surprise and Delight Us (René Magritte)

This came across one of my social media feeds today:

René Magritte, Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières), 1953–54, oil on canvas, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice, Italy

I was momentarily taken aback, completely engaged in the moment. Clearly, I thought, this painting is showing that time of day when the sun’s going down, in the spring or fall, but the sun’s behind the trees, so where you are is already dark while the sky is still light. It’s getting cooler where you are, without the sun. But it’s not yet night. Kind of cozy. Maybe you’re hurrying home or heading out to meet friends. A lovely moment, I thought, captured beautifully.

But wait. That looks like Magritte, although this painting isn’t supernatural or weird (in a good way, Magritte). It’s a building lit by a streetlight as the sun’s going down. I’m not a Magritte expert, but I didn’t think that Magritte would paint a lovely moment. So I peeked at the caption (yep, Magritte) then clicked through to the description by the Guggenheim, where their writer uses very different words than I do to describe this painting: paradoxical, confusing, unease, confusion, unsettling. Magritte has painted day and night together, and  experts agree that this is unnerving. From the Guggenheim:

 . . . 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. Sunlight, ordinarily the source of clarity, here causes the confusion and unease traditionally associated with darkness. The luminosity of the sky becomes unsettling, making the empty darkness below even more impenetrable than it would seem in a normal context.

The Guggenheim and I are having a disagreement here, although I suppose that the Guggenheim is “right” if this is what Magritte intended. But unnerving? Not so much for me. Take a look at this one, though:

René Magritte, The Portrait, 1935, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Unnerving, yes?

Or how about this one:

René Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, oil on canvas, Private Collection (Could it be that of Thomas Crowne?)

I’ve always been a bit freaked out by “The Son of Man” (above), partly because I can’t help but imagine how it would feel to have an apple glommed onto your face (although it’s supposed to be hovering),and his left arm looks like it’s broken or worse, but also because explanations of this painting, including Magritte’s, are, for me, unsatisfactory. From the man himself:

At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

Fine. But why an apple? Why “The Son of Man?” Why the disturbingly bent arm? Or maybe “why” is the point. Maybe the point is that we’re curious, that because the man (this is a self-portrait, so in this case, the man is Magritte) has an obscured face, we want to see it even more (“we always want to see what is hidden”). We wonder, why a green apple? Why that background? Why a red tie? Is it possible that it’s all somewhat random? Maybe Magritte liked green apples and red ties. Maybe the choices are as simple as that. And make sense, in a way, from a man who likes to mess with us, as seen here:

René Magritte, The treachery of images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), 1948, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

I do like this one, though once I figured out (or more likely, was told) the trick, it appealed to me less. There’s nothing more to it. Nothing to wonder about, or learn, or engage me. It’s clever. Done.

So back to the Dominion of Light series, that the first painting above is from. Here’s another – he painted similar scenes over 20 times:

René Magritte, The Empire of Light II, 1950, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York

I don’t know. I’m just not disturbed by it. To each his/her own, I guess. I agree more with this description than any other that I’ve read: “What is odd about the nature of the blackness that presses against the lamp is that it feels as if it could be a layer of blanketing warmth – protecting us against the flighty dangers of that cloudy and forever unruly dreamscape.” (From The Independent: Click here for Michael Glover’s brief but thorough discussion of this painting.) And Magritte himself said of this painting, “This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power poetry.” Surprise and delight, rather than disturb. Interesting. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “The Power to Surprise and Delight Us (René Magritte)

  1. So The Portrait was, to me, the most disturbing of these images – the eye seemed to be reminding me that when I eat meat, I’m consuming something with a face….(someone…Satre? William S. Burroughs? said he never ate anything that once had had a face) and here is that piece of ham staring right at me.

    I did like the play of light and dark…and these reminded me of quite the reverse – when you know it is day and sky grows dark with storm…

    Thanks again, Karen, for adding such interest to my day.

  2. I agree with you about the first one, Empire of Light, that it seems kind of cozy to me, but the last one, Empire of Light II, seems to capture a different contrast of light that certainly isn’t unsettling to me but it doesn’t capture the sense of coziness. I guess it just seems more of a contrast to me, less realistic.

  3. I’ve always loved The Empire of Light. I never found it unnerving, but as you said, sort of welcoming and cozy — and photographic. I think that’s the key to what the experts found unsettling. Magritte was violating one of the unspoken rules of Western painting, which was to simulate the dynamic range of the human eye when portraying areas of light and dark. Instead, Magritte’s painting is like a photograph — expose for the sky, and the backlit foreground goes dark. That’s what perplexes the experts: Magritte is breaking the rules without admitting it. It’s like a magician’s slight of hand and misdirection. This is not a painting about how we see the world or the nature of of reality. It’s a painting that violates the rules of painting by using the limited dynamic range of a photograph.

    Paradoxically, that’s probably why the painting looks less unsettling and threatening to a younger generation of viewers. The way we see the world in an age of omnipresent digital media is far more photographic than it was in Magritte’s age. And so now the painting just looks natural (even though it’s not actually the way the human eye sees the scene, but rather the way a camera sees it if it isn’t post-processed to increase the dynamic range ).

    • Really interesting analysis Peter. Sounds just like Magritte, to break the rules without admitting it. I hadn’t thought about this painting in photographic terms – hoping to see his show in Chicago next summer, and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about your comment as I look. Thanks for your perspective and for reading!

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