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Magritte: Why the meanings in his artworks will always remain a mystery


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René Magritte’s surrealist art is iconic in style and cryptic in meaning. The visual barriers in his works suggest that there is a lot more to them than meets the eye.

Magritte’s work has an unwavering power to capture the imaginations of viewers. 50 years on since the death of the influential artist, his witty artworks continue to attract, shock, and intrigue to this day.

In a radio interview with Jean Neyens in 1965, Magritte famously said, "everything we see hides another thing". In particular, 'The Son of Man' reflects the artist’s mischievous habit of playing hide and seek with artistic meaning.

The clothes in the painting obscure a body, the apple obscures a face, the wall obscures a background, and the clouds obscure a sky; the painting provides more questions than answers and there seems to be more that is hidden than seen.

By drawing attention to the hidden nature of many meanings in his own art, Magritte reminds us that seeing might be believing, but it is not necessarily knowing.

His artworks explore complex considerations of how we view art and see the world; once we accept that we cannot fully know all meanings that exist in Magritte's art, we can recognise that all experiences of looking, whether at art or the wider world, provide incomplete understandings of the things that we see.

Additionally, as well as depicting barriers in his paintings to hide meanings, Magritte also highlights the inherent fallacy of images as deceptively real, as seen in 'The Treachery of Images'.

René Magritte toyed with the authenticity of ideas as never before in 1948's 'The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe).'

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Magritte was serious when he said it’s not a pipe.

"Can it be stuffed with tobacco, my pipe?" Magritte asked Claude Vial in an interview in 1966. "No it can't, can it, it’s just a representation. So if I had written 'This is a pipe' below the picture, I would have been lying!"

As the pipe is not a pipe, but rather a deceptive representation of a pipe, the same can be said for everything else depicted in his paintings (and, arguably, every other representational artwork.)

As such, there may be meanings hidden beneath the surface of Magritte's work, but even that which we see is not necessarily as real as it looks.

Particularly in the digital age, where we can access pretty much any and all information we desire at the touch of our fingers, it feels rare to be noticeably and unapologetically barred from the intended meanings of the paintings.

As visitors to art galleries, it can be tempting to want to know everything about the art we see; we read captions for quick facts, we search online for detailed readings, we take to the library to delve into academic books in the hope of knowing.

Yet, Magritte deliberately blocks our access to his paintings' full meanings. In his surrealist works, there are curious mysteries existing on and below the surface.

His paintings reflect the confusing abstract nature of conscious and subconscious thoughts through enigmatic, painted imagery. Containing invisible meanings that inspire imaginations, and raising questions about the very nature of seeing and perceiving, it is perhaps no wonder that Magritte's intriguing art is proving resilient to the test of time.

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