Magritte and Contemporary Art: 
The Treachery of Images    

An Artist Ahead of His Time, and Ours


Images: John Baldessari's gallery design features Magritte's Personal Values next to Vija Celmins's Untitled (Comb), with Jeff Koons's stainless steel Rabbit in the right foreground.Left: the entryway to the exhibition, with Magritte's The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) on the far wall. Installation photos by Steve Oliver.

The Installation

NOTHING WILL QUITE PREPARE YOU for the setting of LACMA's astonishing new show featuring the works of René Magritte and thirty-one contemporary artists. As Suzanne Muchnic wrote in the Nov. 12 Los Angeles Times, “John Baldessari, a pioneering conceptualist represented in the show, has designed an installation intended to turn the galleries—and visitors' experience—upside down. The entrance will re-create ‘The Unexpected Answer,’ a Magritte painting of a door with a cutout silhouette of a ghostly figure. Visitors will walk through the open silhouette into galleries carpeted with a woven version of a Magritte-style blue sky with fluffy white clouds. The ceiling, where the sky should be, will be papered with images of freeway intersections. A big square window will be covered with a transparency of the New York skyline. The guards will wear derby hats. Not the usual Magritte exhibition, but it was inspired by institutional logic . . . . ‘We felt that it was time to not do just another Magritte retrospective’ [LACMA Senior Curator of Modern Art Stephanie] Barron says. ‘We wanted to look freshly at his work . . . . I was interested in what it was in Magritte that spoke to a number of artists.’”

John Baldessari, featured artist and exhibition designer: "The show attempts to look at Magritte in a new light, so we don't see him as a cliché or a stereotype." Photo by Peter Brenner.

An Artist Ahead of His Time, and Ours


Robert GoberUntitled, 1990, beeswax, cotton, wool, human hair, and leather shoe, 27.3 x 52.1 x 14.3 cm, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1990, © Robert Gober, photo © Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, by Lee Stalsworth.

René MagritteTime Transfixed, 1938, oil on canvas, 147 x 99 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, photo © The Art Institute of Chicago.

MAGRITTE AND CONTEMPORARY ART: The Treachery of Imagesexamines the diverse and sometimes subterranean ways that René Magritte’s images and broader themes have seeped into popular culture as well as influenced the work of American and European artists over the past fifty years. Rather than describing a direct chain of influence, the exhibition focuses on a broad and subjective dialogue that has taken place between artists across mediums and time.
    Magritte (1898–1967) is closely linked to the surrealist movement, which was founded in Paris by French writer André Breton in 1924. Surrealism was shaped by emerging theories of perception, including Sigmund Freud’s theories (though Magritte always denied any Freudian interpretations of his work), such as the psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny—a sense of disquietude provoked by particular objects and situations. The movement’s primary aim was to resolve the contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality—a super-reality—and to revolutionize human existence by freeing people from what the surrealists saw as false rationality and restrictive social customs.
    Initially influenced by Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, Magritte was one of the founders of Belgian surrealism in 1926. His work from this period frequently places objects in unusual contexts or with unusual words or phrases, thus giving them new and surprising meanings. In 1929, Magritte moved to Paris in order to collaborate with Breton’s group. However, the idiosyncratic Magritte grew tired of their rigidity.
In 1933, he broke from them by stating that the primary aim of his work from that point on would be to reveal the hidden and often personal affinities between objects, rather than juxtaposing unrelated objects. Nevertheless, he would remain associated with surrealism in general throughout his career.
    Magritte’s philosophical approach to images and language interested many postwar artists. In 1954, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg saw a groundbreaking exhibition of Magritte’s word-and-image paintings at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, and later acquired examples of these works. Magritte’s interests also foreshadowed other postwar artistic pursuits: a generation before the artists involved in pop art began working with images from popular culture, Magritte himself turned to this source. And before his death in 1967, Magritte even lived to see the impact of his own works on advertisements, popular culture, and television at a time when a number of the artists in this exhibition were coming of age.

In 1954, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg saw a groundbreaking exhibition of Magritte’s word-and-image paintings at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, and later acquired examples of these works.

Shift in Scale and Materials

Personal Values, 1952, oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis, photo © SFMOMA (98.562) by Ben Blackwell.


Vija CelminsUntitled (Comb), 1970, enamel on wood,
195.6 x 61 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Contemporary Art Council Fund, M.72.26, © Vija Celmins; phtograph of the artist with Untitled (Comb)courtesy of Vija Celmins and McKee Gallery, New York.

René Magritte

AN UNEXPECTED SHIFT in scale is central to the presence of the uncanny in both Magritte’s work and that of a number of contemporary artists. This is readily recognizable in Magritte’s Personal Values, which shows a group of oversized domestic objects in a diminutive bedroom. Alone, this assemblage is unremarkable. However, the discrepancy between the size of the objects versus the size of the room and its furnishings conflicts with Magritte’s realistic attention to detail of each of the individual elements and challenges the viewer to make sense of this illogical image.
    Inspired by Personal Values as well as the memories of a comb owned by her parents when she was a child, Vija Celmins’s sculpture Untitled (Comb) takes Magritte’s exaggeration of scale to its ultimate logical conclusion: a six-foot comb that mimics its size within Magritte’s painting. Part of a larger series of oversized objects, the labor-intensive two-year fabrication process of Comb represented an intense physical engagement for Celmins. Reflecting on this isolated, unusable, and oddly alarming object, she recently stated that she hopes that the piece will always bring to mind the painting that inspired it.

Vija Celmins’s sculpture Untitled (Comb) takes Magritte’s exaggeration of scale to its ultimate logical conclusion.

Words and Images

René MagritteThe Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection, 78.7,
photo © 2006 Museum Associates/LACMA.

John BaldessariWrong, 1967, photographic emulsion and acrylic paint on canvas, 149.9 x 114.3 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Modern and Contemporary Art Council, Young Talent Purchase Award, M.71.40, © John Baldessari, photo courtesy of Museum Associates/LACMA


PERHAPS MAGRITTE'S MOST celebrated contribution to art history is his play with words and images, typified by his iconic The Treachery of Images. Below a realistic image of a pipe, Magritte has written ceci n’est pas une pipe —meaning “this is not a pipe.” This simple phrase emphasizes the central contradiction of representation: the fact that the painting does not contain a pipe, but merely the image of one. Fascinated by the arbitrary relationship between everyday objects and the abstractions of language, Magritte’s exploration of the critical distance between images and language undermined the idea of a common system of communication and challenged the very idea of interpretation.
    The Treachery of Images influenced a number of conceptual artists. John Baldessari’s Wrong features a photograph of the artist in front of a palm tree with the word “WRONG” inscribed underneath it. This statement is both a judgment of the photo—an image that humorously shows the palm tree spouting directly out of the artist’s head—and a commentary on its technique. He created it after seeing an instruction book about properly composing images. ”I loved the idea that somebody would just say that this is ‘right’ and this is ‘wrong.’ So I decided I would have a painting that was ‘wrong,’ a work of art that was ‘wrong’—this seemed right to me.”

Magritte’s exploration of the distance between images and language challenged the very idea of interpretation.

The Body


Robert GoberUntitled, 1990, beeswax, human hair, and pigment, 61.6 x 43.2 x 27.9 cm, collection of the artist, © Robert Gober, photo by Jan Engsmar, Malmö, courtesy of the artist.

René Magritte, The Titanic Days, 1928, oil on canvas, 116 x 81 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.

THE BODY IN MAGRITTE'S WORK is not an object of fulfillment and plenitude. His early paintings often exhibit harassed bodies under extreme duress. His Titanic Days is one such composition, showing a naked woman desperately struggling with a clothed male attacker who seems to have invaded her body. (His 1934 work The Rape represents an equally disturbing displacement of anatomy and objectification, with a woman’s face transformed into the erogenous zones of her body.)
    There is a similar apprehension in Robert Gober’s work, exemplified by his isolated and truncated torso that is a hybrid of male and female elements tacked onto a sack-like form. This work is part of his larger investigation into the human body as an object of anxiety rather than pleasure. His sculptures highlight the importance of social and cultural influences on individual identity, in opposition to the use of biological factors as the primary influence. Gober’s isolated body parts as subject matter challenge his viewers to look again at something we have taken for granted—our own bodies. Gober’s torso speaks to the Freudian idea of the uncanny: testing the division between authenticity and simulacra, it deals with deep-rooted human fears of having our bodies, lives, and identities usurped.

Like Magritte, Robert Gober's work investigates the body as an object of anxiety rather than pleasure.

Pop Art

René MagritteDecalcomania, 1966, oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm, collection Dr. Noémi Perelman Mattis and Dr. Daniel C. Mattis.

Andy WarholJackie II, 1965, silkscreen, 61 x 76 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Graphic Arts Council Fund, M.67.21.5.

EARLY IN HIS CAREER, Magritte sustained himself by creating advertisements and other commercial artwork. Given its graphic simplicity, the image of the pipe in The Treachery of Images (and its subsequent related paintings) appears to originate from commercial advertising. However, as well as using popular culture as inspiration, Magritte also cannibalized his own body of work, using individual elements—such as his famous man in a bowler hat or objects such as bells and apples—as generic and interchangeable figures in the abstract economy of his representation. The man in a bowler hat and business suit is generally accepted to be a veiled self-portrait; this well-known figure is a play on the artist’s own middle-class identity, which stood in contrast to the stereotype of the bohemian artist.
    This conscious repetition by Magritte of self-referential elements prefigured Andy Warhol’s multiple representations of himself and iconic figures such as Jacqueline Kennedy. Warhol’s use of press images of celebrities highlights their universal presence in the culture as something akin to an inanimate commercial product. Looking at Warhol’s Jackie II, it is as if Warhol no longer sees a person but only an abstract sign that represents the idea of fame.

Magritte's conscious repetition of self-referential elements prefigured Andy Warhol’s representations of himself and iconic figures such as Jacqueline Kennedy.

Painting Badly


Rene MagritteThe Stop, 1948, oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm, private collection.


Martin KippenbergerPunch VIII, oil on canvas, 180 x 150 cm, private collection, courtesy Marc Jancou Fine Art, New York, © Martin Kippenberger.

IN 1948, MAGRITTE RADICALLY DEVIATED from the detailed, realist style that had made him famous and openly attacked the cultural ideals of good taste and craftsmanship. Created for his first solo exhibition in Paris in twenty years, the seventeen oil paintings and twenty gouaches from his sarcastic vache period, including the provocative The Stop, were all completed within about five weeks. Magritte’s goal was to shake up a complacent Parisian public and the exhibition was greeted with total incomprehension. The scandal it provoked almost ruined his career.
    This vache period (French for “cow,” vache can also mean something stupid or ugly) was long dismissed as a brief and uninteresting sideline in Magritte’s career. However, in the late 1970s and 1980s, a generation of artists interested in figurative painting embraced these pictures as a model of rebellion against the accepted standards of art history. Recent painters have also used the idea of painting badly and quickly as a way of rebelling against expectations of their art and as a mark of the authenticity of their expression. Here, Martin Kippenberger’s violent brushstrokes in the vibrant and yet disturbing Punch VIII demonstrate the artist’s raw emotional energy that refuses to be codified into something pretty and polite.

Magritte's rebellion against the accepted standards of art history provoked a scandal that almost ruined his career.

    Text by Sara Cochran.

    All Magritte images © 2006 C. Herscovici, London, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.