This is Not A Pipe: Magritte’s Belief in Undecidability
In Les Mots et Les Images, Magritte notes that ‘everything tends to make us think that there is very little connection between an object and what represents it’ and that ‘an object never fulfils the same function’. Influenced by the Surrealist movement that was emerging from Paris, Magritte’s art began to play with the notion of language, representation and art. Most infamous is his painting of a pipe with the caption ‘This is not a pipe’. The painting emphasises that a picture of a pipe and the real object are not the same thing thus undoing a more traditional, mimetic motivation in art.
Andre Souris talking of Surrealist thought labelled the word as ‘ a highly combustible object’. Magritte emphasised that words and images must be freed from ‘the obsessional urge to give meaning to things so as to use them or dominate them’.
In his art, Magritte provides attentive analysis of the arbitrary nature of language. Like Wittgenstein, Magritte believes that language is made up of games rather than acting as a picture of facts. Knowing the words that make up a language is not the same as speaking or writing in it. A player may know the name of the chess pieces – rook, castle, queen – yet this does not necessarily mean that s/he will be able to play. Words have uses and these uses are dictated by the rules of the game. Neither Wittgenstein nor Magritte would have agreed with the simplistic understanding of language as words that stand for some thing. This view would ignore the rules of language and how it is used in patterns of use.
Magritte’s word-pictures provide a commentary on language and art and they seem to suggest to us that pictorial representation and verbal description work in much the same manner. Just as words are symbols so are pictures and importantly, pictures need not necessarily resemble what they represent. Representation can be arbitrary and almost anything can be used as a sign.
In art, a finished work may bear little resemblance to its subject. When Picasso was asked about his portrait of Gertrude Stein and told that it did not resemble her, he replied ‘No matter, it will’. Here is the conflict between resemblance and representation.
We usually attribute resemblance to things which may or may not have a common nature. We say ‘as alike as two peas in a pod’ and we say, just as easily, that the fake resembles the authentic. This so-called resemblance consists of relations of comparison, whose similarities are perceived by the mind when it examines, evaluates and composes. Likeness is not concerned with ‘common sense’ or with defying it, but only with spontaneously assembling shapes from the world of appearance in an order given by inspiration. – René Magritte
Magritte based his word paintings on a child’s reading primer. The juxtaposition is startling and seems to reflect Baudelaire’s advocating of ‘that unexpected element, strangeness , the condiment indispensable to all beauty’. In Magritte, strangeness is linked to the mysterious play of undecidability in representation.