To Bring into Confusion

The Great War on Façades, René Magritte, 1964

 
 

The English word war derives from the late Old English (c.1050) words wyrre and werre; the Old French werre; the Frankish werra; and the Proto-Germanic werso. The denotation of war derives from the Old Saxon werran, Old High German werran, and the German verwirren: “to confuse”, “to perplex”, and “to bring into confusion”. Another posited derivation is from the Ancient Greek barbaros, the Old Persian varhara, and the Sanskrit varvar and barbara. In German, the equivalent is Krieg; the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian term for “war” is guerra, derived from the Germanic werra (“fight”, “tumult”). Etymologic legend has it that the Romanic peoples adopted a foreign, Germanic word for “war”, to avoid using the Latin bellum, because, when sounded, it tended to merge with the sound of the word bello (“beautiful”).

People who need war for psychological or/and material profit (to feel themselves greater and to make themselves richer) always embellish and glorify war to recruit the young people for possible victimization. To make the young kill and be ready to die in the process the war decision-makers offer satisfaction to youth’s unconscious narcissistic need to be admired for their self-sacrificial heroism. Young people, after the endless wars of human history and their passionate aggrandizement by social leaders throughout the centuries, developed the masochistic taste for exchanging their self-sacrifice for people’s grateful admiration.

René Magritte has represented War as an unattainable woman, seducing us with her very inaccessibility. Her face, so we believe, should be as beautiful as her garment. We dream to enjoy seeing it but this pleasure is never available – even the most obvious, the most justifiable wars are ambiguous! Wars are always too costly in terms of lost lives and bodily mayhem. A war is never won, it is just a Pyrrhic victory.

A Pyrrhic victory inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way; however, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit (another term for this would be “hollow victory”). The phrase Pyrrhic victory is named after Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War.

 
 

Guinevere van Seenus photographed by Tim Walker, Vogue Italia, December 2006

The Perpetual Tension Between the Hidden and Visible

“Those of my pictures that show very familiar objects, an apple, for example, pose questions. We no longer understand when we look at an apple; its mysterious quality has thus been evoked. In a recent painting, I have shown an apple in front of a person’s face at least it partially hides the face. Well then, here we have the apparent visible, the apple, hiding the hidden visible, the person’s face. This process occurs endlessly. Each thing we see hides another, we always want to see what is being hidden by what we see. There is an interest in what is hidden and what the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a fairly intense feeling, a kind of contest, I could say, between the hidden visible and apparent visible”.

René Magritte

 

René Magritte photographed by Bill Brandt, 1963

 

The apple is one of the most frequent and recognizable of Magritte’s motifs, appearing in various guises such as a floating orb in the sky, a masked entity, and perhaps most famously hiding the face of a man wearing a bowler hat. The ambiguity of its role in the present scene invites the viewer to contemplate possible interpretations without ever offering a definitive meaning, sustaining a sense of enigma that the painter prized above all else. For Magritte, the apple came to symbolize this perpetual tension between the hidden and visible, and he even used it to obscure his own visage in some of his self-portraits.

Suzi Gablik suggests that “Magritte’s paintings are a systematic attempt to disrupt any dogmatic view of the physical world. By means of the interference of conceptual paradox, he causes ordinary phenomena to inherit extraordinary and improbably conclusions. What happens in Magritte’s paintings is, roughly speaking, the opposite of what the trained mind is accustomed to expect. His pictures disturb the elaborate compromise that exists between the mind and life. In Magritte’s paintings, the world’s haphazard state of consciousness is transformed into a single will”.

Magritte’s transformation of a humble apple into an impressive boulder also reflects the enduring impact of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico‘s pittura metafisica on his oeuvre. De Chirico’s images such as Le Chant d’amour (1914), which was a seminal discovery for Magritte during the early years of his career, portrays inconsequential objects such as a ball or a glove as monumental symbols with mysterious and ultimately indeterminate import. Similarly, Magritte confers the qualities associated with rocks, such as heaviness and immobility, to the apple, creating a seemingly permanent monument to what is ordinarily a highly perishable foodstuff.

 

Postcard (1960)

 

The Beautiful World (1962)

 

The Straight Path (1962)

 


The Taste of the Invisible (1964)

 

The Song of Love I (1963)

 

Fine Realities (1964)

Turned to Stone

La parole donée (The Pledge or The Word Given), René Magritte, 1950

 
 

La parole donnée is part of a series of twenty paintings depicting organic objects turned to stone that René Magritte started in 1950. Sometimes referred to as his “stone age pictures,” these works celebrate Magritte’s love of paradox; the first of these images, for example, depicts a monumental stone chair whose aura of primeval significance is undercut by the minuscule wooden chair that is perched delicately upon its enormous seat. This punning yet eerie transformation of mundane objects through alterations in scale and material also occurs with living things such as a large petrified fish that would undoubtedly sink if plunged into water and the giant stone apple seen here, whose leafy stem underscores both its arrested growth and its incongruous presence amongst forebodingly angular outcroppings of mottled grey stone. Indeed, Magritte regarded the state of petrification as a visual expression of disaster and death. As Abraham Hammacher has stated, “One can trace this preoccupation with a petrified world in all. Magritte’s works Magritte did not regard petrification as a process, but as a kind of catastrophe, like that at Pompeii, when lava transfixed the world and brought all movement to a halt”. As David Sylvester notes, the preternatural calm displayed by these four images possesses an eerie quality, and he has commented that “La parole donnée has the violence of an earthquake at the start of time”.

 
 

From the series The Great Table, c. 1963