Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
Magritte at the Edge of Codes
Author: Silvano Levy
Abstract (E): What distinguishes Magritte's œuvre is that it is positioned at the interface of distinct systems of codes. The sign straddles and oscillates between discordant meaningful conventions. As opposed to Apollinairean calligrammatic amalgamation of signifiers into a cognitive middle ground, Magritte puts forward the binarity of incompatible readings. Diverse significations do not merge but simply clash. Even when codes are not transgressed Magritte prompts a defection from fixed meaning through non-sequitor. Space is destabilized and unitary components are dismantled. Integrality is violated and reconfigured. The code is at once asserted and subverted, thus curtailing the message. Semantic fragmentation and deformation erodes the codification of the message. Interpretation is inhibited so that meaning is deferred .
Abstract (F): Ce qui distingue l'ouvre de Magritte c'est son positionnement à la frontière des systèmes de codes. Le signe oscille entre des conventions de signification discordantes. Parfois il les traverse. A la différence de l'amalgamation calligrammatique de signifiants, proposée par Apollinaire et qui crée une moyenne de signification, Magritte propose des interprétations binaires, qui se contredisent. Chez celui-ci des significations disparates ne se fusionnent pas, mais, au contraire, s'entre-choquent. Même si les codes ne sont pas dépassés, Magritte fragilise le sens par la discontinuité sémantique. L'espace est déstabilisé et les unités picturales sont démontées. L'intégralité du tableau est outragée et reconfigurée. Le code est, à la fois, affirmé et subverti, ce qui détourne le fonctionnement du message. La fragmentation et la déformation sémantiques érodent la codification du message. L'interprétation est empêchée de manière que le sens soit déferré .
keywords: Magritte, Space, Fragmentation, Belgian Surrealism
The reason why a military aircraft is so manoeuvrable is that it just about manages to fly. It is designed to be so aerodynamically unstable that a slight adjustment would cause it to drop out of the sky. That is what effectively happens: one barely viable flight configuration is abandoned so as to allow an alternative trajectory to be assumed in seconds. The aircraft is therefore always at the edge of flying. In military jargon, it is 'pushing the envelope'.
The essence of this modus operandi is revealing when considering the deep structure of Magritte's paintings, which is analogous. What marks Magritte's pictorial composition is that it is consistently pictorially unstable. It pushes the envelope of representation. Typically, what appears to be a reliable and wholly comprehensible message turns out to be semantically volatile, often being destabilised and, even, cancelled out by a disruptive element. The meaning is momentarily annulled. As in the case of the military aircraft, the instability that makes this possible also allows an alternative configuration to be assumed with ease. Magritte's work sits, as it were, at the edge of the representational code.
The process is far from straightforward and the ways in which this 'switching' between pictorial trajectories occurs is, in fact, macrocosmically twofold. There are, of course, sudden switches between representational scenarios: one meaning is suddenly transformed into an alternative reading, just as a jet can suddenly change direction. But, that is where the analogy runs out. As well as semantically flitting within representation, that is to say within a delimited code, Magritte also alternates between codes themselves. It is not so much the direction of flight that is in question, but more whether, at times, it is a matter of flying at all. That is the conceptual point at which Magritte's work emerges as most disturbing. Our visual mores cannot but be perturbed when Magritte positions his messages at the interface of distinct systems of codes. The sign straddles and oscillates between discordant meaningful conventions. As opposed to Apollinair ian calligrammatic amalgamation of signifiers into a cognitive middle ground, where the verbal is orchestrated so as to resemble the visual signified, Magritte puts forward a binarity of incompatible readings. Diverse significations do not merge or follow on: quite simply, they clash. Moreover, even when he does not transgress codes, Magritte prompts a defection from predictable legibility by means of non sequitor . In a general sense, he puts two separate but correlated structural mechanisms into motion: on the one hand he destabilizes space, whilst on the other he dismantles unitary representational components are dismantled.
Magritte's dismantling of the represented object, the deconstruction of anatomy, as it can be termed, is effected in gradual stages. It begins by tentatively moving away from the finiteness of form in a way that destabilises the individual shape: the unity itself of the object, however, is still respected. In Les Pipes amoureuses de la lune (1928) the represented pipes are not 'taken apart' but simply denied a fixed form. It is as though a process of mollification were beginning and the pipes had not had time to melt away beyond recognition. Yet the instability of their configuration suggests that this is inevitable: the pipes become increasingly elastic and so seem to portray different stages of a progressive dissolution. Ultimately the process could be imagined to lead to the state of liquid viscosity seen in La Sortie de l'école (1927), where form is reduced to an irregular and unrepresentational amorphousness. In Les Pipes amoureuses de la lune though, the object is by no means as distorted as this. The context, though, is agrammatic: the setting remains vague. Nothing rests on the ground and the pipes are floating in mid-air. The setting is further confused by the blurred horizon line, which makes it difficult to distinguish the horizontal from the vertical. Without these fundamentals of orientation there can be little spatial cohesion and it is not clear what the correlation is between the foreground objects and the more remote areas. Even the illusion of a sky, stretching beyond the immediate scene, is somewhat contradicted by the three broad horizontal strokes of dark colour below the level of the moon. These superimposed patches remain outside the pictorial illusion and emphasize that the sky is actually a flat surface of paint. The space of the painting is essentially insubstantial.
The distortion in Les Pipes amoureuses de la lune is an example of a development that was to be characteristic of many works of the late 1920s. Since, however, the painting treats the simplest of objects, the process is shown in a limited light. The true taxonomy of Magritte's 'dissolution' only emerges when he systematically disassembles the composite form of the human body, which he subjects to a tortuous form of maceration. What, in Albertian terms can be described as the 'anatomical module', is subjected to the equivalent of an assault course. In an unrelenting manner, Magritte delves into the notion of instability in form. He conjures up degenerative and disfiguring situations that place figures on the boundary between remaining whole and disintegrating. A type of threshold is established that opens the way for what is to be the eventual total 'dissolution' of the body.
The most striking way in which Magritte edged the body towards the limit of its potential is by a form of test of endurance, a type of sportive trial. The idea of gruelling gymnastics is precisely the subject of Les Impatients (1928), in which figures that look like muscular athletes are engaged in strenuous and uncomfortable movements. These are contortionists, twisting and stretching. A similar and more extreme form of twisting and warping emerges in Les Idées de l'acrobate (1927-8), which goes further along the path of 'fragmentation'. The question of uncertainty about the feasibility of a particular contortional pose does not even arise, however, as it had in Les Impatients . The body here is stretched, elongated, misshapen and deformed beyond credibility and, at times, recognizability. Not only are the members altered in size and shape, but they are also disordered and, in places, joined together in an incorrect sequence.
This process of distortion and its accompanying 'mollification' of form gradually give way to the next stage of the dissolution of anatomy, its 'fragmentation'. Magritte's approach to this procedure is twofold. In some cases the solid object is broken up by a physical sectioning: forms are shattered or dismantled. Alternatively, there is a deconstruction of the formal aspects of representation. It is more a question, in this case, of contradicting the formal constituents of a depicted object such as reception of light and circumscription. In many works the complex form of the body is resolved into simpler components by means of the detachment of limbs or the slicing of the torso into portions. The body becomes a unit comprising independent and removable parts. The body is treated like the then novel Art Deco mannequin, which had a great potential for disassembly and the interchangeability of body parts. Indeed, mannequins frequently appear in Magritte's work at this period: in La Naissance de l'idole (1926) an artificial arm severed at the shoulder hangs limply on the side of a giant skittle. As was the case for the shop window mannequin of the twenties, the implication is that the detached parts can be reassembled. Accordingly, Magritte introduces prongs and sockets that could secure together the separated members. In the case of Le Supplice de la vestale (1926-27) there are rods protruding from a headless torso. What is significant is that Magritte makes the point that form is being torn apart by leaving the parts starkly disjointed. The division of form is unambiguous, if straightforward: the outer shell of a form is simply broken up.
A secondary, more complex, form of fragmentation, however, turns the spotlight onto 'anatomy' in its stricter, technical sense. Magritte goes on to reveal the body as having an internal structure, with concurrent layers of fabric. These are what are then subjected to a progressive penetration and effacement. The assault is on what Michel Foucault terms 'the internal relationship of subordination and organization that traverses the body' (Foucault 1966: 149; Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by the author.). In L'importance des merveilles (1927), for instance, there is both segmentation and stratification. The body is, once again, sliced horizontally, but instead of being dispersed, the parts retain their original sequence. They are distanced by means of divergent scaling. Whilst being firmly rooted in segmentation, the painting points the way to 'stratification'. A painting that emphatically implies a penetration of the layers of the body is Le Sang du monde (1926-27). As in écorchés, blood vessels and arteries appear on the surface. This is a penetration beyond surfaces. The three amoeba-like forms attached to the bodies look like giant cells or corpuscles that have been magnified under the microscope and the background form looks like an area of equally magnified tissue inlaid with blood. The implication is that we are seeing beyond what is superficial and immediately visible. It is as though a substratum of the body had been revealed. Scutenaire tells us that Magritte delves 'under the outer crust of objects' (Scutenaire 139). In a further development of his trajectory, Magritte prizes open the body ( Le Double secret (1927), or removes its constituent layers, as in La Grande nouvelle (1926), where there is a reduction to the skeleton.
But, such affronts on form are made solely on the level of physical structure. Magritte's offensive on convention also involves the dismantling of the methods of pictorial depiction themselves. So far the process of segmentation has been seen to lead away from precision and finiteness in representation: specific pictorial meanings have been loosened and replaced by interpretative flexibility. Semanticity has been vacillatory, but only inasmuch as the dissolution of the anatomical unit has operated on the level of solid form. Magritte, it can be argued, also effects a deconstruction on the level of the formal aspects of representation.
This particular posture first becomes evident when the corporeal form is seen to be reduced to the planar. In La Naissance de l'idole (1926) and Le Chevalier du couchant (1927) for instance, the entire body is deprived of its volume. Almost every detail of the body disappears and Magritte portrays a tenuous suggestion of a human shell. In this way, he alludes to the incipient stage of formal, textbook representation, the blocking-in of a body. At this level, where the body is denied surface features, the idea of substantiality is still, nevertheless, present since the forms do possess a degree of thickness. Consequently, in a further development Magritte proceeds to remove this final trace of volume. L'Esprit comique I (1927) can be seen to make just this transition from the 'solid' plane to what is effectively an 'insubstantial plane. This is achieved through the paper cut-out, which Magritte described as 'papier masqué' (René Magritte in Torczyner 165). L'Esprit comique I (1927) presents the figure as a flimsy blank sheet of paper punched with holes across its entire surface. As such, it could not be more incompatible with the notion of solid form. Whereas the silhouette of the form depicted suggests a broad-shouldered man pounding across a rocky ground, the substance making up the silhouette itself is without thickness, pliable and almost weightless. It is as though the figure had been 'emptied' of its pictorial resolution. There is an erasure of the graphic 'stages' by which a painted figure would be given form and substance. But, at the same time, it is undeniable that 'pictorial grammar' still persists. In the gouache L'Esprit comique II (1927) the figure of a boy made of paper is pictured striking a paper sleeping man with a large stone: in other words, there is a subject, an object and an indirect object. This form of organization will eventually be eroded by Magritte.
Remaining within the present discussion, it can be said that the disintegration of form progresses further and that the plane gives way to the line. In L'âge du feu (1927), which is somewhat a compendium of the dissolution and incorporates most of its stages, such as a division into planes, particularly in the face of the figure, there is a clear reduction to rudimentary outlines. What follows this is a stage of pictorial disintegration, which can be termed the 'blob' stage. The mark on the canvas is so indeterminate that it ceases to be meaningful. The progressive contestation of the anatomy of the pictorial unit reaches a point when plastic significance is absent. This is a substantial progression and was carefully thought out by Magritte. The transition in question is alluded to in a letter to Nougé (Collection DeKnop, Brussels). Magritte was patently aware of a new phase in his work: 'I think I have discovered something significant'. He writes that he was beginning to consider a new approach that modifies not so much the external relations of objects, but their internal structure . He suggests that isolated elements could merge freely. In this way, the letter continues, one thing could be melted into another. Representation is distorted to such an extent that interpretation becomes difficult. What are missing are 'the visible contours' (Magritte 61). This is a derangement of pictorial finiteness and tends towards objects with no representational meaning.
One 'isolating' strategy that Magritte adopted (the prerequisite to modification of internal structure) is that of encasement , usually in a grey slab of melted lead or carved stone. He applied this formula not only to single objects (which had the effect of 'grammatical' deactivation) but also to 'matières', as in La Saison des voyages . This had the effect of interfering with anatomical unity, that is semanticity. When the contents of the grey slab are substances , which have no definite outline - the sky being an unlimited, three-dimensional space and planks forming a continuous surface - the function of the grey solid changes from that of wrapping around a form to that of invading it. The question is no longer one of 'composition' but one of the internal make-up of an object, its 'anatomy'. Whereas an object can be confined to its own contours, something that has no fixed delimitations can be said to be partially erased by confinement. This is evident in Le Démon de le perversité (1927), where the slab acts as an interruption of what is normally a continuous surface. Whereas the planks of La Saison des voyages are simply intruded upon, here there is a fragmentation. In La Saison des voyages sky is trapped in a shallow niche and thereby loses its characteristic limitless voluminosity. All that remains is a token of representation. What would otherwise be an illusion of infinite space is entirely blotted out apart from a nominal sample. Nevertheless, the two represented substances are not totally invalidated pictorially. In their respective compartments, the sky and planks remain identifiable prototypes of potential compositional constructs and it is from this level of minimal, inert pictorial semanticity that Magritte's 'discovery' proceeds.
Beginning with elements in this already denuded state, he goes on to suggest a further distortion, that of 'gradually becoming something else'. Viewed logically, if something is to 'become something else' then its very identity is in jeopardy. When, therefore, Magritte proposes that sky be mixed with wood and wood with sky he is, in fact, proposing a debasement of the representation: the image would undergo a drastic decrease of semantic intelligibility. The sky/plank composite thus becomes an entity devoid of pictorial resolution. Representation veers towards imprecision and the habitual monovalency of the anatomical unit is disrupted. There arises an irresolvable contradiction that leads to representational amorphousness. In this way a transition is made from the minimal pictorial signification apparent in La Saison des voyages, to a state of virtual pictorial meaninglessness. What remains is plastic presence without representational value.
A painting that transposes 'sky' into an alternative pictorial element, the Albertian 'pavement' in this case, is Les Muscles célestes (1927). In the work, a portion of sky breaks away from the far distance, crosses the black middle distance and anchors itself to the foreground. This immediately contradicts the depth that the receding pavement insistently conveys. As a result, the principal function of the pavement, to accommodate objects and to establish their recession in space, is overridden by spatial instability. Solid objects have no place in this environment and, not surprisingly, Magritte omits them altogether. The subject of the painting is the 'legs of the sky' as Magritte had put it. They hint at the characteristics of wood: they have clear-cut outlines, they cast shadows and, in all respects, conform to the idea of a rigid plane. But also, like sky, they have a furling, unspecifiable configuration. Quite unlike flat planes, they make contact with the pavement at various points in depth. In effect, they are implicit zones of 'melting', places where contradictory meanings are fused.
What is significant, moreover, is that such loci of representational contradiction, where finite plastic interpretation becomes impossible, are not rendered as an imprecise blurs or as haziness. On the contrary, they are independent entities in the painting. Les Muscles célestes presents the paradoxical constituent as a 'limb' attached to a larger corpus. Even if, one would imagine, the final severance were made and the limb allowed to exist freely, it would still have finite presence. Magritte, therefore, invokes the notion of free units of meaninglessness that, nevertheless, can inhabit a fully articulated pictorial space. It is in this way that Magritte's 'discovery' could be seen to have ultimately resulted in a transition from planes to 'blobs', a term coined by Robert Roseblum (Roseblum 16). Planes, it has been shown, had been first isolated and then fused, with the result that a paradox of 'substance' was brought about. The ensuing pictorial contradiction was then seen to lead an absence of representational meaning. Finally, the resulting state of zero representation was seen to acquire autonomy within the painting. Having reached this point in his progressive denudation of representation, Magritte is in a position to advance the concept of paintings peopled wholly by semantically dysfunctional elements.
In further works Magritte does just this. He retracts all traces of pictorial signification and allows objects to fade into vague forms. Foucault has referred to such entities as 'stains, shadows, silhouettes' (Foucault 1973: 54). The aptness of the description becomes apparent in Les Traces vivantes (1927), in which shadow-like forms replace recognizable objects. This is a potential landscape scene, but it is stripped of content. It is populated only with indefinite 'blobs'. These 'traces', to use Magritte's term, are neutral and vacant rather than incomplete. The dark outer boundary envelops an inane core. As such, blobs are neither shells nor skeletons. They neither conceal an essence nor do they imply envelopment. With them Magritte has, in the words of Robert Lebel, 'broken away from any meaning' (Lebel non paginated). In so doing he reverts to an elemental, pre-representational state. Foucault writes of 'things hardly formed . with neither face nor identity' (Foucault 1973: 54). Blobs precede the whole schema of the representational procedure. Their pictorial value does not exceed that of rudimentary markers of perceived presence. Before the pictorial element can even begin to be formed, the artist, according to Alberti, conceives it in terms of a location: 'First, in seeing a thing, we say it occupies a place' (Alberti 67; translation John R. Spencer). Thus the blob state can be seen as the raw material of visual expression. For Marcel Mariën these are 'initial signs' (Mariën 132).
Rarely though does Magritte depict the blob in an independent capacity. Mostly it occurs with the written word. In Les Traces vivantes the phrase 'Femme nue' appears on the trunk of the tree. In other works a word or phrase is placed in close proximity to or actually on the blob. L'Usage de la parole I (1928-9), for instance, contains one blob with the word 'miroir' inscribed underneath it and another with the phrase 'corps de femme' below it.
It would be tempting to argue, at this juncture, that the meaningless blob marks the terminal point of the dissolution of the pictorial object and that verbal components are needed as channels for meaning. The appearance of 'named' blobs, in other words, signals the cessation functional representation. However, the fact that it is a tree with which Magritte associates the phrase 'Femme nue' shows that the word is not an explanation of its associated object. Indeed, Magritte never sets up an explanatory relationship between verbal elements and the blobs with which they are coupled. Foucault simply describes inscribed blobs as 'word carriers' (Foucault 1973: 53). They are far from 'explained' or 'deciphered'. Their only connection with their allocated words is to provide a physical support for the letters. They act like blackboards: they are 'occupied' by words but in no way reflect or take on their signification. In no uncertain terms, these 'captions' do not establish the semantic finiteness of the blob.
If, therefore, blobs remain meaningless as pictorial units then their function in the painting must be other than 'anatomical', that is other than illustrative of individual meanings within the work. Their significance bears, in fact, upon the composition as a whole. This broader subtext is hinted at in the gouache of L'Esprit comique , where the absence of individual objects is compensated by an augmentation of composition. Similarly, the shell-like forms in Les Traces vivantes may not be carriers of any intrinsic and isolated meaning but, as a group, they do take on the function of establishing what could be termed 'relative values'. Seen in this light, blobs certainly have a meaningful function. Viewed as clusters, they convey the notion of mutual differentiation. Their 'meaning', consequently, resides in how they and distinguished themselves. For example, we know that one blob is high up and that another is low down, that one is upright and another is horizontal, that some are long and thin whilst others are short and stout. Blobs thus emerge as contrasting, relative positions in a spatial setting. In quite a definite way, there is compositional orientation within Les Traces vivantes . From this perspective, it becomes apparent that, even at this extreme pole of Magritte's 'dissolution', pictorial grammar asserts itself. What emerges is a set of definite compositional relations, without vagueness or ambiguity, even though, by this stage, the individual object has disintegrated into no more than a mere mark of presence on the anatomical level.
Notwithstanding this practical annulment of the unit form, Magritte does not, surprisingly, conclude his anatomical dissolution at this juncture. Rather, he goes on to erode even the minimalist state of token 'presence' that the blobs have generated. As would be logical, minimal presence is relegated into absence . In a number of works devoted to this notion, Magritte makes reference to a specific subject, whilst simultaneously absenting it from the representational context. More than a non-representation or non-presence, this amounts to marking missing presence. This idea of pictorial vacuity is manifestly demonstrated in La Voix du silence (1928). Represented objects are, quite simply, denied presence. Magritte does not present a visual context in which objects cannot exist: he does not paint an abstract space for instance. Instead he presents a potential receptacle for forms and then shows it to be perceptually empty of objects. On the right of this painting there is a banal setting: a domestic dining-room. Even the picture hung on the wall appears to be of a traditional landscape scene. On the left there is complete darkness. There is a sudden leap from replete banality to pictorial absence. Yet the two halves of the painting are complementary rather than irreconcilable. At first sight the well-lit room, cluttered to the point of containing decorative vases and plants may seem totally dissociated from its neighbouring area where nothing is visible. But just below the partition we can seen that a little light is able to permeate into the dark area and that the floorboards show that there is spatial continuity between the right and the left of the painting. Both areas therefore exist in the same voluminous context and so the darkness on the left conceivably contains another room full of furniture and bric-a-brac. It is a potential space and a potential container of objects. The two sections only differ in that one is pictorially dormant, its space and objects remaining unexpressed. In La Voix du silence there are two alternative pictorial states, one that is fully resolved and one where space, form and light are blotted out leaving a pictorial silence (The title is particularly apt and expresses the notion of marking a missing entity.). 'Silence' signifies omitted sound rather than its non-existence.
Yet, it is also noteworthy that Magritte does not paint a completely black canvas. This is because the darkness in La Voix du silence is absence and not non-existence. Nevertheless, this remains an unspecified form of absence and the spectator is left to speculate, albeit within certain parameters, about what is missing. Such ambiguity, however, disappears altogether in a related work, L'Homme au journal (1927). Here, in contrast, absence appears in a manner that is emphatically precise. Of the four identical room settings depicted only one is occupied by a seated man reading a newspaper. In the others he is simply not there. Here therefore, Magritte actually shows us what he omits. Indeed, Magritte has differentiated between 'the hidden visible' and 'the invisible' ('Dans l'invisible il faut tout de même distinguer l'invisible et ce qui est caché. Il y a du visible qui est cache - une lettre dans une enveloppe par exemple, c'est du visible caché, mais ce n'est pas de l'invisible.'; Magritte 603).
This idea of pointing out an absence is more insistent in Personnage méditant sur la folie (1928), in which the spotlight is thrown on a particular point in space where nothing is present. The effect is achieved through the gestures of a sombre, solitary figure: his expression is serious, betraying a deep concentration, and his eyes stare fixedly at something on the right. Yet, as before, nothing is visible. The figure focuses attention on an empty table-top. Absence is patently the subject of the painting. Moreover, in this dominant absence is able to take on a particularly elusive quality. Whereas in L'Homme au journal Magritte showed what was missing, in Personnage méditant sur la folie he gives no clue about the omitted object. Within this rigid context, the pictorial object is able to dissolve to the extent of losing its identity as well as its presence while nevertheless remaining acknowledged.
The absence depicted in Personnage méditant sur la folie is the ultimate dissolution of the pictorial object. More than being erased, the pictorial presence is emptied of all significance. The last three 'retakes' in L'Homme au journal at least contained lingering traces of meaning, but here there is total vacuity. All that the painting does is to signal a location, an area on the right, which accommodates this vacuity. In a closing repartee, Magritte pushes his train of thought a little further by proffering an extension of his progressive conceptual diminution. Even though signification had, by this stage, been totally effaced, what nevertheless did remain semantically, even in Personnage méditant sur la folie , was the idea of the spatial volume within which the absence had occurred. Of course, the space that had 'contained' absence has been seen to have been contracting progressively: in La Voix du silence it occupied a whole room, in L'Homme au journal it was the size of the missing figure, in Personnage méditant sur la folie it became limited to the room on a table-top. In Le Soupçon mystérieux (1928) Magritte makes it contract still more by shrinking it to the space available on the palm of a hand. Consequently, indeterminate absence is reduced to miniscule proportions. The pictorial object regresses, therefore, to a state equivalent to that of the most elementary graphic mark that can be made, the dot. It is, indeed, the dot-like lack of signification and dimension to which our attention is drawn in Le Soupçon mystérieux . In other words, Magritte demonstrates that he can paint nothingness and that he can place it almost nowhere at all. Le Soupçon mystérieux is at the end of a long road leading to the dissolution of the object.
As well as marking a conclusion to a long line of experiments Le Soupçon mystérieux also points the way forward. The sombre figure could be seen to be in a state of expectancy. He is waiting for something to happen, for something to emerge from the tabula rasa . What did emerge and took Magritte's work 'beyond representation' was the written word. Through his use of words, Magritte directed his work towards a system of signification from which the pictorial was conceptually excluded. The bounds of representation were therefore overreached. Words in Magritte's work are primarily negators of the pictorial. Almost without exception words contest the signification of what is shown in paintings or sketches.
Representation has long been perceived as a self-sufficient system, a code with its specific rules and conventions. Jean Piaget has written of 'frontiers' beyond which there are only 'external elements' (Piaget 6). If words are indeed foreign to the domain of the pictorial, then their presence in a work of visual representation has the effect of situating that work on the periphery of the pictorial. By breaking across the frontier of the verbal, Magritte places his work at the edge of figuration. He 'pushes the envelope' of the pictorial. The representational code is at once asserted and subverted. The functioning of the message is impaired and eventually curtailed by a semantic fragmentation and deformation that erodes codification. Meaning is deferred .
Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting , Trans. John R. Spencer. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.
Foucault, Michel. Les Mots et les choses . Paris: Gallimard, 1966.
Foucault, Michel. Ceci n'est pas une pipe , Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973.
Lebel, Robert. Magritte,paintings , London: Methuen, 1969, non paginated.
Magritte, René. Ecrits Complets . Paris: Flammarion, 1979.
Mariën, Marcel. René Magritte . Brussels: Les Auteurs Associés, 1972.
Piaget, Jean. Le Structuralisme , Vendôme, P.U.F., 1974.
Roseblum, Robert. "Magritte's Surrealist Grammar." Art Digest . 1 5 March 1954: 14-16.
Scutenaire, Louis. Avec Magritte . Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1977.
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Dr Silvano Levy is a Reader at Keele University, England. He has published extensively on surrealism, with studies on René Magritte, E.L.T. Mesens, Paul Nougé, Desmond Morris and Conroy Maddox. His publications include Desmond Morris: 50 Years of Surrealism (1997), Desmond Morris: Naked Surrealism (1999), Desmond Morris: Analytical Catalogue Raisonné 1944-2000 (2001) and The Scandalous Eye. The Surrealism of Conroy Maddox .
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