Words and Rene Magritte

Images of Resemblance: Magritte’s semiotic explorations


  1. The insertion of words into paintings, photos, collages was a widely practiced method  throughout the twentieth century avant-garde and Rene Magritte’s experiments with  words is a part of this tradition but at the same time these works have they own narrow focus.     
  2. In the 1920s Magritte was inspired by Giorgio De Chirico’s painting and especially by the strange correlation in his works between images themselves and its titles.  
  3. In several series of works Magritte focused on the problem of «how words and images differ in their modes of signifying» and that’s why he can be perceived as visual semiologist.
  4. But we should remember that it is retrospective understanding of his works and « Magritte has become much more readable—his mode of thinking and working more mainstream—as Conceptualism and Poststructuralism have moved visual art so much closer to language and philosophy than it was under High Modernism».
  5. In such works as «The Palace of Curtains», « Empty Mask», «Violation (Attendat)» Magritte raises the question about resemblance of figurative images. Here «resemblance is one kind of similitude, namely, similitude of appearance». The picture «The Palace of Curtains» shows two frames – one with word «sky», the other with image of sky’s fragment.   At first glance the work demonstrates two types of representation, «one working by resemblance and the other by arbitrary association».  But in this and other mentioned works “the dividedness, the fragmented quality and the separateness of their components deprive them of anything that resembles reality, destroys all narrative content (Ottinger)».
  6. So  «with these paintings, we are always reminded that we are in the presence of . . . a painting», this art is about art, about methods of constructing of painting images.
  7.  There are several works by Magritte in which he uses idea of concept blobs. Such works as «Living Mirror», «The Uses of Speech (1)», «Lost World» I and II  look like sketches for compositions. At the same time several label’s senses are abstract and these works are attempts to make thoughts substantial and visible,  it is conceptual space or landscape which is depicted literally.
  8. In the Key to Dreams series, Magritte creates sets of pictures with captions, they remind «fashion of vocabulary flash cards or early reading workbook sheets », but correlations between words and images are almost always wrong.  One of possible interpretations –  it is « swerve away from standard assignments and displacement within the system that founds the semiotics of dreams».
  9. But do we trust more to the image or to the caption? This question is important for the interpretation of famous Magritte’s work which depicts tobacco pipe  in combination with a sentence “This is not a pipe”.  There are several interpretations of the work.

The disturbance of the common logic that captions refer to the visual contents to which they are

attached .

«A sort of General Semantics point that the image is not the thing»

Foucault’s suggestion that caption refers to capture itself, so the sentence is not a pipe.

  1. The main theme for Magritte’s experiments with words is the equivalence/nonequivalence of words and images. He poses problems but makes no attempt to solve them.


By Kotyleva


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