Magritte taught us to distrust the painting, and in doing so, he taught us something about the world

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Have you ever felt odd? Perhaps an odd feeling came upon you one morning at the market. You saw the piles of vegetables and the cuts of meats covered in clear plastic. You noticed, with particular attention, the little signs above the individual fruits giving their names and prices. Suddenly, it seemed unaccountably odd that any of this should make any sense to anyone. How very strange that these numbers and words and pictures and physical objects are all related, you thought. It was a warm morning and you walked out into the sunlight with a beating heart and a sheen of sweat on the palms of your hands. For a few more moments you trusted neither sun, nor earth, nor sky. All aspects of reality seemed as arbitrary to you as those signs above the fruit in the market. And then the feeling faded and you were back in the world again. You proceeded to go about your day.

ID_IC_MEIS_MAGR_APRené Magritte must have had mornings like that. Think of the painting he made in 1935. The painting is called “La Clef des songes” (The Interpretation of Dreams). It is a painting of a board with four panels. The board is like an old school primer, used to teach children the names of things. There is a horse, a clock, a pitcher, and a valise. Under the objects are words. The horse is labeled “the door.” The clock is labeled “the wind.” The pitcher is labeled “the bird.” And the valise is labeled “the valise.” Why are three objects mislabeled, while one object is correctly labeled? Maybe it is like our confused morning at the market. We felt odd not because the fruits were labeled incorrectly, but because the relationship of signs suddenly struck us as utterly arbitrary even when everything had been labeled correctly. Likewise, when we see the three incorrectly labeled objects in “La Clef des songes,” we begin to distrust even the correct labeling of the valise. What does the word “valise” have to do with the picture of the valise, and what does the picture really have to do with the actual thing? When we represent reality in words or pictures, do we come closer to that reality, or push it further away?

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