One thing that you will immediately notice about Magritte’s work is that when you look at the title, it does not match our brain’s explanation of the visual experience we just received. Even if a picture generally does not need a title or a date, here the titles are not descriptive but have their own significance.
Magritte himself explains this well: “The titles of pictures are not explanations and the pictures are not explanations of the titles. The relationship between the title and the picture is poetic. This explanation retains certain characteristics usually forgotten by the conscience but intuited by extraordinary events that the reason could not elucidate.” To create such ‘events’, after finishing his paintings, Magritte called in his friends to find a title for his works through ‘collective invention’.
Magritte’s exploration, therefore, takes illusion as the foundation of the expression of the human thought. Words and images are both illusory, hence the mutual play of words with pictures. The titles are words to which we give rational meaning, while the pictures are images that we accept, albeit intrinsically irrational, since the two-dimensional image already belies our perception of a three-dimensional world — not to mention the four-dimensional universe.
Both images and words can lie and are not in the domain of absolute truth. In ‘The treason of language’ the famous 1938 painting of a pipe with the inscription ‘this is not a pipe’, it is both the treason of language and of image. We seem to question the written word but are subjugated with the image, yet they both point at how limited is our cognition of the real world, and how influenceable our brain. We are in Magritte’s conception alone and ‘sans famille’ (i.e. without ascendance or descendance) in a world that deceives us and of which our only understanding is illusory. Our only anchor to a meaningful world is by means of our dreams or imagination (a synthetic process of explaining the world without recurring to rational explanation). But in order to communicate or express our imagination we have to use words or images, both of which are limited and untruthful media.
Rene Magritte once said, “the function of painting is to make poetry visible.” Magritte transferred metaphor into visual form.
A print of “This is not a pipe” by Rene Magritte is available for purchase at art.com.