Undoubtedly, the Belgian artist René Magritte requires little by way of introduction. He is widely known as one of the key figures in surrealism, an artistic movement that impacted on both painting and sculpture and that reached its height between 1925 and 1940. Yet, it could be that the 1933 piece La résponse imprévue (The Unexpected Answer), is somewhat less well-known than Magritte’s artistic reputation itself or than a number of other pieces from his rather large oeuvre. Works like La Trahison des Images (with the famous subtitle Ceci n’est pas une pipe) or Les Amants are more likely to ring a bell than The Unexpected Answer. Nevertheless, the latter is a clear example of Magritte’s inimitable artistic style. The painting depicts a door; the observer cannot make out whether it is made of ordinary wood or, indeed, of gold. What is striking is the large, irregularly shaped hole in the door that is vaguely reminiscent of the human form. Yet, it is not clear whether it is the outline of just one person or whether Magritte, in this painting, sought to depict the cut out silhouette of an embracing couple (Lombaerts himself interprets the silhouette as the depiction of a loving couple). Whichever it is, it is clear that the area cut away reveals a yawning darkness on the other side of the door. Just like the lion’s share of Magritte’s oeuvre, this work belongs, stylistically, to surrealism. Indeed, just as in a considerable number of his paintings, the almost cartoon-like simplicity of this oil on canvas seems at odds with the insightfulness and depth of Magritte’s message, namely, that truly ingenious breakthroughs are seldom, if ever, the result of using the predictable points of entry that passages and doors provide and the expected answers that they contain.
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.
The museum space was transformed into a surreal experience to show the artwork it contained.
The floor was a carpeted Magritte-esque sky.
The ceiling was covered with images of freeways.
The guards all wore suits and bowlers, like they’ve stepped out of a Magritte painting.
The entrance to the exhibit was a larger-than-life replica of Magritte’s painting The Unexpected Answer.
When visitors entered the exhibit, it was like walking into Magritte’s world.
Magritte enjoys the game of juxtaposing and manipulating motifs.
An image could exercise such powers of seduction that the painter felt compelled to reproduce it many times. Rather than falling into repetitive indifference, he excels in revisiting work in this way.
Magritte completed The Treachery of Images , the famous ‘pipe’ picture in 1929.
A consummate technician, his work frequently displays a juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The representational use of objects as other than what they seem is typified in this painting, which shows a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement. Magritte painted below the pipe “This is not a pipe” (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true: the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe – a representation of one. Magritte also first uses another technique around this time: that of representing a familiar object and given it a name other than its conventional one. Through this gallery of word-paintings, Magritte plays on the discrepancies, paradox, clarity and obscurity of common sense. The question remains as to whether the words actually represent what we think. As a result, the painting becomes a type of language.
René Magritte described his paintings by saying,
My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, “What does that mean?”. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.