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René Magritte

November 19, 2006 - March 4, 2007 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, West Hollywood

by Jody Zellen

Installation view, “René
Magritte and Contemporary Art:
The Treachery of Images”.

René Magritte, “The Treachery of
Images (This is not a pipe),” 1929,
oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 37”.

René Magritte, “Decalcomania,"
1966, oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm.

René Magritte, “Personal Values,"
1952, oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm.

“Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images” brings together 65 iconic images by René Magritte juxtaposed with 65 works by 31 contemporary artists. The exhibition explores Magritte’s influence, looking at quotations of both ideas and images. While some contemporary artists’ work is a direct homage, others use Magritte’s ideas about doubling, perception and representation as a point of departure for conceptually based pieces. LACMA invited John Baldessari to help design the exhibition, and Baldessari’s contribution takes signature elements from Magritte’s work and imposes them onto the architecture of the space. They are made to function as visual cues throughout the exhibition. One enters the museum through a scaled rendition of Magritte’s “The Unexpected Answer,” a 1933 painting in which the silhouette of a figure has been cut into a doorframe. By bringing this painting to life one immediately identifies with the figure in Magritte’s work, and thus travels through the exhibition with this image in mind. To cover the floor, Baldessari designed a blue carpet with puffy white clouds (from Magritte’s paintings) and wallpaper for the ceiling consisting of a montage of Los Angeles freeway intersections. Baldessari has also asked that the security guards wear bowler hats, to further identify them with figures in Magritte’s works. The result is a container through which to relate to the art.

Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe)” (1929) served as the catalyst for the exhibition. It is one of Magritte’s best known works, and is an icon of modernist art. In it, he painted a realistic rendition of an ordinary object--a pipe--filling up most of the canvas, below which he painted in script: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). The work calls into question what was for centuries taken for granted in Western art; the image is not a pipe, but a depiction or a representation of a pipe. Magritte often painted ordinary objects so as to give them new life through painting. In this way his influence was similar to Marcel Duchamp’s, whose idea of the ‘readymade’ changed the path of contemporary art. “The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe)” was a model for Joseph Kosuth’s “Definition (Thing),” in which he painted dictionary definitions of specific words. It also served as a taking off point for Baldessari. “Wrong” (1967) is an early example that is about the formal rules of art-making. Using photo emulsion and hand painted text, Baldessari created an image where a tree appears to grow out of the head of the subject--a classic faux pas in photography.

Other artists reference Magritte by using his works in their imagery. For example in Eleanor Antin’s “This is not 100 Boots” (2002) she photographed her 100 boots in front of Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” as installed here. Vija Celmins isolated the comb from Magritte’s “Personal Values” (1952) in “Untitled (Comb)” (1970). And Jeff Koons in his stainless steel sculpture “J. B. Turner Engine” (1986), references the train in Magritte’s “Time Transfixed” (1938).

While direct comparisons between Magritte and contemporary artists are evident throughout the exhibition, the real motivation behind the show is to illustrate how wide Magritte’s influence has been. Magritte’s visual vocabulary and artistic strategies, his use of image and text as well as the perceptual games he included in his works have influenced pop as well as conceptual art, and this influence continues to the present.

Because he is also quoted so often in popular culture, Magritte’s appreciation in high art often appears diminished. This exhibition brings to light both his popular and academic appeal. Michel Foucault’s 1968 essay “Ceci nest pas une pipe” uncovered some of the philosophical and analytical issues in the works, bringing his ideas to the attention of the emerging conceptual art movement. By looking at selected Magritte works, and seeing them in relation to artists including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Gober, and Ed Ruscha one becomes aware not only of the use of frames within frames (Lichtenstein); image to text juxtapositions (Ruscha); but also the use of banal subject matter (Johns); as well as the idea of making fantasies real (Gober). It might be enough to indulge in Magritte’s surreal, dream-like worlds--the oversized apple in “The Listening Room” (1952), or the double image in “Decalcomania” (1966). However, it is also possible to think past their initial appeal to their multifaceted meanings and relationship to language, perception, presence and absence. The fact that many contemporary artists have looked to Magritte would not be evident without this compelling exhibition. That LACMA and Baldessari have chosen to isolate aspects of his work, remove them from their original context and present them as unifying elements gives the exhibition another layer to decipher--a task that they assume Magritte would enjoy.

John Baldessari, "Wrong," 1967

Eleanor Antin, "This is Not 100 Boots."