Is it a pipe or not a pipe? That’s the question…

René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist. He was born in 1898 and died in 1967. His mother committed suicide by drowning herself, and is said to be found with her face covered by her dress. Some people suggest that this is the reason why many of Magritte’s images are of people with their faces blocked from view. In it uncertain, however, whether he actually saw his mother’s body as she was pulled from the river.
Magritte studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, but like many other modern artists, he did not like the strict rules of traditional art that was taught in art schools. His paintings began to be influenced by Futurism and Cubism. His first surrealist painting was “Le Jockey Perdu.” Soon after, he met André Breton, the creator of the surrealist movement, and joined the surrealist movement that Breton was leading.
Some of Magritte’s most famous creations were due to his work in the advertising business. One of these works was discussed during a media course that I took in France. Our assignments involved examining French advertisements and deciphering them. One of the images that we were given was Magritte’s painting called “La trahison des images.”

The Treachery of Images, or La Trahison des Images by René Magritte

This image is of a pipe. The script underneath the pipe says, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” meaning “this is not a pipe.” Magritte is drawing to our attention that the images that we are looking at are not the object itself. The picture is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. He uses his paintings to make the observer look closely at themselves and examine they was the mind works and how we interpret the things we see around us.

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Les Poèmes de Rêveurs

           Dreams are ultimately fleeting. We are in them for only moments, but they can carry profound messages within shocking juxtapositions of elements not normally found together. How then does one describe this purest sense of automatism in the structured setting of grammar and lexis? This ability is where in lies the genius and beauty of the poetry that was birthed from pioneers of such liberated rationality such as André Breton.

            Although the automation of the production these literary works was often over advertised, since many of these published works were often edited or in some ways indirectly though out, the essence of the writing lies within the seemingly random organization of thoughts and images presented by the poet into an underlying tone.  The surrealist poets were very adept at allowing their works to be unfettered yet somehow directed to a higher purpose makes their poetry a great contribution to the literary world. This ability would also be what eventually attracted artists to the movement and would allow paintings to begin to mirror this same use of the juxtaposition of unrelated images that when taken together would still leave the viewer with some inkling of purpose and tone.

            In his poem “Les Attitudes Spectrales” Breton portrays the surrealist poets genius as he is able to seamlessly step from reflections on the importance of life to imagery of the ocean to the perfume of a women. The imagery and organization, as with many writers of the Surrealist movement, seems to follow no rhyme or reason however the undertones of the poem seem palpable. This palpability is probably due to later editing of the “automatic” work. Breton’s poem here seems to dwell on a type of futility. It describes and often references death and seems to retain a dark tone throughout.

            One of the more striking juxtapositions and steps from one image to another was the segment of the poem in which Breton describes drapes he recalls from a town then moves to reflections of death.  A t this segment of the poem, Breton describes the drapes beautifully but with very little detail and using only implications to suggest the drapery’s form. He describes the drapes, that if you were to see him wrapped in them that you might mistake it for the end of your time, which for me beautifully rendered the at-first imageless drapes into dark and heavy flowing fabric. This segment is yet only another striking juxtaposition of ideas in the poem that overall contributes to what I felt as a tone of dread and futility.

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Individual expressions

Surrealism is an individual’s own expression and outlook of life.  In André Breton’s Manifesto, he defines Surrealism as:

Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.”

Surrealism as an artistic movement is a response to the happenings of the world. World War I has taken place. German forces control majority of Northern France and over a million citizens died throughout the war.  The surrealist movement acts as an escape for an individual to become lost within one owns thoughts, dreams and reality. With the troubles happening all around, it is no wonder why artists escaped to their own perception of the world and portrayed it through their art, whether it is paintings, literature, or theater.  Breton later confirmed,

“L’étreinte poétique comme l’étreinte de chair/ Tant qu’elle dure/ Défend toute échappée sur la misère du monde.”(Sur la route de San Romano, 1948).

Surrealism is an anti-authoritarian revolution and liberation of the mind. As in the Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes, “[Surréalisme] est un cri de l’esprit qui retourne vers lui-même et est bien décidé à broyer désespérément ses entraves,
  et au besoin par des marteaux matériels.” Many artists recreate their own sense of reality and liberate their minds from any known mandate or rule of the universe. Many paintings have juxtaposition, where the artist places or combines two contrasting images because with surrealism, there are no rules binding it down to a set conformity. It is a recreation and representation of one’s own mind.

“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown” – Réne Magritte

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A Dialog with Surrealism

In his “Manifesto of Surrealism,” Breton gives a definition of surrealism.  As he writes:

C’est de très mauvaise foi qu’on nous contesterait le droit d’employer le mot SURRÉALISME dans le sens très particulier où nous l’entendons, car il est clair qu’avant nous ce mot n’avait pas fait fortune. Je le définis donc une fois pour toutes :

SURRÉALISME, n. m. Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.

Breton’s writing gives us some ideas about surrealism; and, while he is highly ironic and often bizarre in his explanations and descriptions, such a method befits the style.

Turning to Max Ernst, a dadaist and surrealist painter from the early 20th century, I wanted to examine one of his works, “C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme” (“The hat makes the man”).

Art Name: The hat makes the man Date Created: 1920 Medium: Lithograph

To begin, I won’t describe this work with anything like “Ernst reflects” or “Ernst is showing.”  As per Breton’s prescription, surrealist art is meant to “dialog.”  As he puts it, “Poetic Surrealism, which is the subject of this study, has focused its efforts up to this point on reestablishing dialogue in its absolute truth, by freeing both interlocutors from any obligations and politeness.”  Thus, setting aside all proprieties, I will engage the photo as in a dialog, and the thoughts which I record here are simply my unfiltered remarks.  After all, I wouldn’t want the art to lie about me, would I?

“With the hat in the hand, comes man from throughout the land.”  It is a famous German Spruch which describes a gentleman’s magnetic politeness.  The figure in the middle, comprised by cylinders and hats like all the others, seems to have an “arm” extending out with a hat – a representation of our saying.  But when a man is made of hats, where is the politeness?  And when the hat makes the man, what does he have to extend but an inanimate shroud of a cap – once used to shade the light of a man’s intellect from the overbearing brightness of God’s Light – now used to shade the dimness of his shade?  The taller you seem, the more respectable they perceive you.  Stretch your arms high, and thank God for the extra inch of respect that your hat affords you.  But the hat must fit the head, and that’s a lot of hats.  Why are you writing such nonsense, Ernst?  Really, I thought a man of your caliber would be above such Quatsch. Thanks, Ernst, for having the hat in the hand.

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I dream of Friedrich

There were two quotes that particularly struck me in André Breton’s Le Manifeste du Surréalisme (1927). The first concerns the state of the mind of a dreaming man:

The mind of the dreaming man is fully satisfied with whatever happens to it. The agonizing question of possibility does not arise. Kill, plunder more quickly, love as much as you wish. And if you die, are you not sure of being roused from the dead? Let yourself be led. Events will not tolerate deferment. You have no name. Everything Is inestimably easy.

To start, this idea is distinctly Nietzschean when brought out of the realm of the dream and into reality. The idea of being “fully satisfied with whatever happens” rings of the idea of embracing the eternal recurrence of life, pleasant and unpleasant, with a continual “Yes”; an amor fati. The dreaming man let’s himself be lead by what occurs without a concern towards morality, for after all, it is a dream. But the crossing over from the dream seems to be the reality of surrealist art. Making sense matters far less (if at all) than expressing or conveying whatever is. Instead of the art being a medium for the artist to express anything transcendental or even simply aesthetically pleasing it seems almost that the artist has become the medium by which the art demands and manifests its own existence; the art controls the artist.

Breton describes a similar lack of control in his incorporating a bizarre sentence and image – “A man is cut in half by the window” – into his poetic works:

…the control which I had had over myself up to that point seemed illusory and I no longer thought of anything but how to put an end to the interminable quarrel which was taking place within me.

This seems to be a new concept in the history of French art: art as internal conflict. In this way Surrealism almost seems to me as a sort of Subconscious Impressionism – it is neither purely self-expressive, nor does it convey the artists perception of another. It is the artist’s impression of the mystery of their own subconscious (which, funnily enough, wouldn’t have been a mystery they would have been aware of or would have looked to solve without Freud’s influence, I think).

The two images I’ve selected to look at in class are two paintings by René Magritte (who I’m actually somewhat fond of):

“The Son of Man” (1964)

“The Man in the Bowler Hat” (1964)


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Overview of Impressionism

Impressionism is a 19th century art movement that originated in France. It has largely transformed an artist perception of creating art and the techniques used. Through the transformation, transcendental depiction is no longer seen as important and necessary to guide the viewer in remembrance of a greater good and of God.  Rather, the artists capture aesthetic beauty of life according to their own perception of life.

Characteristics of impressionist art include: outdoors compositions, ordinary subjects, inclusions of movements, short, fine brush strokes, etc. No longer do the artists create distinct outlines or clearly defined objects. Rather, they use a free brush technique. The artists capture momentary and transitory effects of sunlight within their pieces, and they have recreated the sensation of the eyes contemplating the subject rather than the artist purely recreating the object. In impressionist art, the artist does not blend the colors or use shading so that he or she can obtain the effect of intense color vibration.

Majority of the world did not accept impressionist art at first because of the different characteristics and the messages it can convey. For example, impressionist art removes any form of transcendental importance. The focus and purpose of the art removes God and His Holy prominence, and places it onto individualistic views and a person’s aesthetic pleasures for his or herself. The art captures the viewer into admiring the beauty alone. Impressionist art, in a sense, is an individual’s escape from the troubled and horrific world, into a realm of beauty and serene atmosphere. It takes aesthetic pleasures and creates an urge to consistently engulf oneself in a “perfect” atmosphere, which later leads many artists and people into a downward spiral.

Claude Monet, for example, recreates such an atmosphere in his “Water Lilies,” in which he recreated his garden at Giverny. The paintings are without a doubt, beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. It awes the viewer upon first glance, and captures the viewer to admire the beauty and think of nothing else other than its elegance. However, when contemplating the meaning of the painting, there are no deep incorporated meanings. It does not lead the viewer to examining or admiring a greater good for his or her life. The viewer does not contemplate on its significance and its influence to strive for a better existence while on earth.

The painting, as shown below, is in fact more visually pleasing than the real garden and water lilies itself. The vibrant colors and blurred depiction engulfs the viewer to admire its grandeur of real life. This, in actuality, describes just the beautiful problem with impressionist art. For myself, I am automatically overwhelmed by the beauty of this realm of a serene and aesthetically pleasing atmosphere, in which I should be reminding myself of the importance of art to be positively influencing my life and reminding me God’s gift of talent.

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The “dream-like” nature of Surrealism

Though art has always been a source of inspiration for different ideologies with symbolism and subliminal political and religious messages, it is arguably not until the 20th century that we begin to see its influence stretch beyond just forming ideas but rather into the creation of different ideological movements outside of the art world. We begin to see the representation of surrealist ideas not only in art but in literature, film, and music as well. Such surrealist ideas included unexplainable juxtapositions and non sequitors that can be closely related to characteristic of dreams and the mind. Sigmund Freud in the field of psychology and his study of dreams in the 20th century was certainly a key influence in the exploration of the “unexplainable” subconscious and the mind. Therefore, it is the case that surrealism paintings are chiefly characterized by their “dream-like nature” with their outlandish depictions of everyday objects or landscapes and with their unrelated themes and elements seen in paintings, sculptures, and even literary works during this time.

“I am aiming for its conquest, certain that I myself shall not attain it, but too indifferent to my death not to calculate the joys of such possession.”

This quote from the Surrealist Manifesto which explores the question of dreams and their representation in art, certainly attests to the fascination of philosophers, artists, and scientists, with the subconscious and the meaning behind dreams that was stirred up by Freud’s ideas and work in the 20th century. It is in this way that we see connections being made between science and art and literature as dreams become something sought to understand becoming for people a certain escape from the harsh realities of a violent war period that these surrealist artists found themselves living in between World War I and II.

Painters such as Salvador Dali and Andre Breton found close ties to science and art as they explored the idea of dreams in their paintings by erasing all notions of reality in their work. From melting clocks or weird animal figures to other very unrelated elements randomly placed in abstract backgrounds, such surrealists’ images hoped to capture the randomness and unexplainable nature of dreams that often perplexed them when studying the meaning behind them. It is also interesting to note that the fascination with dreams came at this time perhaps for example because of Breton’s personal experience with the study of psychiatry and art during a time of war. Certainly, post-war stresses on society but also on the soldiers and the citizens witnessing such violence and self-destruction had a great impact on the mind and as a result of the kinds of dreams conjured up at the time. The exploration of these dreams through art is not only a way to understand them better by recreating what is seen in the mind onto paper but it also serves as an escape in itself from the conventional rules and depictions of previous art movements and as a distraction from the reality of warfare that plagued the minds of the entire world throughout the 20th century.


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