Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Realism, Schmealism: Magritte's Destruction of the Real in one Un-smokable Piece.
The Treachery of Images Rene Magritte. 1929. Oil on Canvas. Work currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I had the pleasure in 2007 to visit LACMA during the incredible Magritte show, "Magritte and Contemporary Art: the Treachery of Images." Works by Johns, Celmins, Gober, Baldessari, Ruscha, Artschwager, Kosuth, and Broodthaers were mixed with classical Magritte, and really fleshed out the influence the Belgian in the bowler hat has had. I spent hours here, but much of my time was spent really enjoying his signature work. It's not a big one. The colors are rather plain, and despite Baldessari's excellent design of the exhibit, could have been easily overlooked. However, once you see it, it's surprisingly challenging over eighty years after it was first shown. Your immediate reaction, regardless any art education you have received, is to argue against the key point. Of course it's a pipe! It was a visceral, snap reaction I had despite writing a few briefs on Magritte before. You can't avoid it. Artists often launch into wordy, meandering defenses of their work when it faces a challenge or criticism. Magritte had perhaps the best: "Of course it's not a pipe, just try to fill it with tobacco!" The antagonist's reaction to Magrittes defense was, I imagine, a lot of sputtering, perhaps cursing. But in one fell swoop with this image, the concept of representation has been pushed to collapse. It is a painting. Nothing more, nothing less. A painting of an object is not the object. Since that long-held-notion of "representation" is shattered, one can relabel what one creates regardless what it "looks like". This decoupling of real object vs "represented" object has far-flung consequences, if you think about it. How much legalese and advertising today is based on this principle of direct disassociation? The surrealists represented the first long-term movement following the disastrous Great War. The disconnection of projected truth (what is printed or shown) from reality was made clear throughout World War One, particularly for a younger generation who saw the enormous carnage at the front line yet, when injured and sent home, would see a totally whitewashed press convinced of a "victory" that simply wasn't materializing. Our own politicians continue with this. Hell, they couldn't survive, particularly today, without a total disconnect from fact in favor of a glorious projection. But my political views aside, Magritte's image is "meta" in every sense of the word. With one simple image and a seemingly contradictory statement, he burned down thousands of years of implied wisdom in the desire to depict the real: the artist cannot create reality. Some can come tantalizingly close, some come through in ways we don't immediately accept (the cubists), and some just say "fuck it."