Art Through Time: A Global View
Writing Art: La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe)
The Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte often challenged viewers’ expectations and perceptions through the juxtaposition of unrelated objects in his works.
Extending this strategy, Magritte also included text in many of his paintings, sometimes labeling images with the “wrong” word or playing on the relationship between word and image by exchanging one for the other. His paintings, thus, raise questions about the ways people tend to talk about and understand images. In particular, Magritte investigated the common habit of using the same words to describe both pictures of things and the actual objects they represent. So, for instance, without the words, no one would hesitate to identify this picture of a pipe as “a pipe.” Adding the words makes this more difficult; if it is a pipe, could someone smoke it?
In La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), or The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe), Magritte sets image and words against each other to great effect. The pipe is rendered quite simply and naturalistically. The writing across the bottom of the canvas, “This is not a pipe,” also appears in careful, perfectly legible script. Ironically, however, these two maximally clear systems of representation undermine clarity when placed in combination. The writing in this painting functions almost like the opposite of a traditional picture caption. Rather than saying what is in the picture, these words are phrased in the negative. The text, rather than explaining the image, subverts what seems to be an easy picture, making it more difficult to grasp and prompting viewers to rethink the nature of visual signs.
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