A cousin of mine owned a small painting by Magritte. I thought it was a picture of a rose in a vase, but it wasn’t a rose, but a pear; and the rose was inserted into the pear. The rose didn’t look very much like a rose but I thought it was a rose. I was intrigued by the painting, its vivid colors, the objects so precisely painted but so puzzling.
Currently, there is an exhibition of Magritte’s paintings at the Museum of Modern Art; and, of course, I wanted to see it. My son Marc was visiting me at the time; and I was glad to have him join me, as an art lover and a psychiatrist, to help me better understand Magritte’s underlying themes.
I knew that Magritte was described as a surrealistic artist, whose objective was to encourage viewers to question what they see and try to find meaning behind the reality of what was in front of them.
A very popular work of this artist was entitled The Pipe. It is painted with such photographic precision that we don’t need a title to tell us what it is. It’s not a pipe that can carry heat or water in a building, but a pipe that people, usually men, smoke for pleasure.
Underneath the pipe, but within the painting itself is what has been confirmed as Magritte’s handwriting is a line in French (his language) that reads “Cici nest pas une pipe” – (translated in English – “this is not a pipe”)
It has been recorded that to shock and puzzle viewers, Magritte would say, “Of course, it’s not a pipe” – you can’t use your hand to stuff it with tobacco, you can’t pick it up, and you can’t smoke it.”
By rearranging objects and using strange versions of animals, Magritte forces viewers to take a deeper look at what is in front of them and what they might truly represent. Marc points out Magritte was influenced by Freud’s theory of the unconscious.
In a different direction, my mind turns to the money we paid for admission to this exhibit. We paid in cash, pieces of paper. Why do we assume it will be accepted as money – maybe because just as Magritte tells us this is not a pipe when we see a pipe, the government tells us this is not paper – it’s money. And printed on every piece of paper that is accepted as money is printed that this note is legal tender for all debts, public and private. And to make us feel more secure, every bill states In God We Trust.
On the way home, I tell March about the Magritte that I used to see at my cousin’s house. I never did get to understand its underlying meaning or what it represented; but I’m still in touch with the reality that she didn’t bequeath it to me when she died; and with art prices soaring today, it must be worth a lot of money.