This is not a pipe – Magritte’s most famous painting
Rene Magritte - The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929

René Magritte – The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Museum Associates/LACMA

Published: September 17, 2019

Introduction

This is Not a Pipe is a painting by famous Belgium artist René Magritte. The work shows a pipe, but below it, the artist there is a quote by the artist in French “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which when translated to English, it means “This is not a pipe.” The work was created in 1929 but still puzzles many viewers to this date.

When you look at the simple painting, you will see a pipe, even if you stared at it for hours the image will still be of a pipe. But you may start doubting your abilities to get art when you read the words below it saying it is not a pipe. Before you go crazy trying to figure out what is, I would like to put your mind at ease and tell you that it is in the broadest sense, a pipe. But technically it is not. It is a painting of a pipe.

Reception

The painting received some backlash from the audiences because it was suggesting the idea of nihilism. In one of the interviews, Rene defended himself by stating: “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!

The French text below the pipe

The text below the painting communicates a simple concept that any viewer can grasp quickly. It is not a pipe but a drawing of a pipe. The question “If it is not a pipe, what it is?” is more profound than just a question that needs an answer. What seems to be a mere linguistic gaffe is a deliberate design in the way that language was constructed.

Rene Magritte – This is not a pipe, 1935, oil on canvas, 27 x 41 cm

Another version of René Magritte’s This is not a pipe, 1935, oil on canvas, 27 x 41 cm, private collection © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, photo: Schirn/schirn.de

Surrealism

This is Not a Pipe is a surrealist work, a type of art where artists understand emotion and ideas without being complicated by trying to link the image to what your mind already knows. Surrealism involves being honest in art. Using the concept of surrealism, Magritte used the resemblance to push directly beyond what you think you know.

Surrealism began in 1924 by Andre Breton, a French poet. At the time, it started as an experimental art concept that aimed at eradicating the traditional, oppressive rationalism of the affluent society. Surrealism was intended to encourage the imagination of viewers and create perceptions without any conscious and rational control.

Most surrealists in the past experimented with new methods of expressing themselves but Magritte maintained his straight illustrative style that he developed while working as a commercial artist. Magritte and several other surrealists aimed to shake up the way the society used to see, thinking, and experiencing things. Magritte thought of himself as “a thinking person who paints.”

René Magritte at work in his living room, 1964

René Magritte at work in his living room, 1964, photo: pinterest.com

Analysis & Meaning

This is Not a Pipe can be interpreted in many ways according to what the viewer perceives. For example, it is not a pipe but oil paint on canvas, which can be filled with tobacco and smoked. The painting encourages the viewer to use his/her free mind to explore the logical shortcuts that human takes in an already put up and well-accepted chain of thoughts and encourage alternative thinking.

This is Not a Pipe is supposed to encourage society to take things literally. In his work, Magritte undermines the philosophical assumptions of the society about the nature of reality in a witty manner when compared to contemporary conceptual artists.

Just like many other works by the artist, This is Not a Pipe does not beg viewers to ask the question “What is it?” but rather, they find themselves asking. The representation of this painting shows Magritte’s fascination with intermingling images and words, something that may be attributed to the fact that he once worked as a commercial artist.

What makes Magritte’s drawing so offputtingly and troubling to many viewers is the fact that human beings don’t really “know” things but only access their images via language. We believe that there is a correspondence between what we see and what we say, which in realism is not valid.

This is Not a Pipe is intended to make the viewers question their reality. It evokes them to question their entire reality as well as everything they think they know. When you view this painting with an open mind, everything you thought you knew becomes an unversed stranger. You will not see things the same again.

Rene Magritte - This is not a pipe (detail), 1935, oil on canvas, 27 × 41 cm

René Magritte – This is not a pipe (detail), 1935, oil on canvas, 27 x 41 cm, private collection © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, photo: Schirn/schirn.de

French philosopher Michel Foucault about the work

For one to understand This is Not a Pipe, he/she need to understand themselves first. They need to understand that the language and reality do not share any organic relationship and that the names of objects don’t come about when you view it. This argument was supported by Michel Foucault – French philosopher and social theorist.

Throughout his entire career, Michel Foucault explored the contemporary system of representation using art. He used This is Not a Pipe by Rene Magritte as he was his corresponded. Foucault agreed with the views of Magritte that signs are arbitrary, circumstantial, and conventional.

According to Foucault, This is Not a Pipe is not “strange” because of the contradiction between the image on the painting (the pipe) and the text the disproves the image (This is Not a Pipe). He asserts that contradiction can only exist between two texts or statements, whereas in This is Not a Pipe, there is only one text and an image.

Michel Foucault - This is Not a Pipe. With Illustrations and Letters by Rene Magritte. 1983, translated and edited by James Harkness, published by University of California Press, Berkeley

Michel Foucault – This is Not a Pipe. With Illustrations and Letters by René Magritte. 1983, translated and edited by James Harkness, published by University of California Press, Berkeley, photo: roeandmoore.com

About the artist

Rene Magritte is known for creating witty images that stimulated careful consideration from viewers. He often used familiar images or objects but presented it in an unusual context, thus challenging the audience’s preconditioned acuities of the reality. His take on art has influenced many people, drawing him a considerable number of followers from pop art, conceptual art, and minimalists. Despite dying in 1967, Rene Magritte paintings are still stimulating viewers to date and probably for unforeseeable futures.

Rene Magritte’s often induced viewers to question his creations, and is less provocative compared to other conceptual artists such as Yoko Ono, Ai Weiwei or Jenny Holzer. Magritte utilized repetition most often than not, and to the contempt of critics, he made a point of producing several copies of his most famous work.

Magritte was not an artist

The painting perhaps depicts the personality and behaviors of Magritte. If you think about This is Not a Pipe and the fact that the painter doesn’t think of himself as an artist, you can find some correlation between This is Not a Pipe and this is not an artist.

Magritte also never thought of himself as a painter but rather a philosopher, theorist, or a thinker that utilizes everyday and regular objects to communicate his philosophical thoughts and ideas in a visual format.

Unlike other “artists,” Magritte’s main objective was to express a simple idea to the society, which is easy to see throughout his other works. Magritte used his skills to encourage society using the dissimilar graphics and text, repetition, misnaming images, mirroring, and partial concealment to create a mysterious illusion.

Biography

Rene Francoise Ghislain Magritte is a Belgium native who was born in 1898 and is credited for being one of the surreal art pioneers. He was the eldest among his three brothers, and his father a businessman. The family moved around the country frequently due to the nature of his father business. Magritte mother passed when he was still young through suicide, something that affected him so much he immersed into fills, literature, and art to assuage the feelings. It was at this time that Magritte became painting enthusiast.

He left his home in 1916 and went to the capital of Brussels and spent some times at the Academie des Beaux-Arts. During his stay in the city, he became friends with a fellow student named Victor Servranckx, who significantly influenced Magritte with his idea of art. Magritte was also influenced by the works of Ferdinand Leger and Jean Metzinger which introduced him to cubism.

Magritte served in military service as required by the Belgium law, and shortly after, he married his childhood friend Georgette Berger. Magritte juggled a few jobs such as draughtsman in a wallpaper factory and freelancer poster designer. In 1926, the artist earned a short contract with Galerie le Centaure in Brussels as a fine artist. It was during his time at the Galerie that Magritte came across the work of Giorgio de Chirico which made him surrealist.

Pipe and passeport of Rene Magritte and Georgette Magritte-Berger

Pipe and passport of René Magritte and Georgette Magritte-Berger, photo: Weimarart/blogspot.com

The artists moved to Paris, France and stayed there for three years. During this time he encountered with Andre Breton’s surrealists such as artists Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Like his contemporaries, Magritte experimented with “dark” subjects such as hysteria and madness for a while but later shifted to using words and language in his work.

René Magritte - L’empire des lumières, 1949, oil on canvas, 48.5 x 58.7 cm (19 1/8 x 23 1/8 in)

René Magritte – L’empire des lumières, 1949, oil on canvas, 48.5 x 58.7 cm (19 1/8 x 23 1/8 in)

Magritte moved back to Brussels in 1930 and started a job in commercial advertising. His critics claimed that he might have used forgeries of other works to supplement his income and had inadequate time to develop his skills as an artist.

By the late 1930s, Magritte’s work begun to draw interest from international art collectors and soon his work became worldwide known. That made him contemplate giving up his commercial work. Just as Magritte works were started showing signs of success, he faced another obstacle in the name of World War II. Nevertheless, he continued his analogous style of art. He also experimented with colorful impressionistic palette in a bid to counter the drabness of war.

Magritte experimented shortly with an incongruous style he termed “Vache” or cow, which featured vulgar objects. As expected, Vache was very unpopular with critics, and so he returned to his signature style. Magritte works show how visual depends on the language. This is Not a Pipe, just as the word ‘pipe’ beneath it is likewise not a pipe. “Strange thing about this painting is that there are countless amounts of translation and ideas to what the work means, and they are all out there for anyone to look.”

René Magritte - La Famine, 1948, oil on canvas, 46.5 × 55.5 cm

René Magritte – La Famine, 1948, oil on canvas, 46.5 × 55.5 cm, photo: kqed.org

The artist’s visual language was most often based on extreme simplicity, which makes his paintings vastly memorable than those by other artists. The recognition value of Rene Magritte’s works has enabled them to become beloved elements of pop culture to these days.

Conclusion

Today, Magritte’s works are in an exhibition in Paris. The show wants to explore the artist’s keen interest in philosophy and how he converted his philosophical ideas into art. In an interview with Reuters, the custodian of Center Pompidou Didier Ottinger said: “Philosophical tradition, obviously, always rejected or had contempt for images because images belong to a sensual universe, and words belong to an intellectual universe. Magritte wanted to cross swords, meaning to engage in theoretical combat with the philosophers, to prove to them that images can express thoughts in the same way that words can.

In short, Magritte is not interested entirely in the painting that he creates, but rather how art can change our view of the world. This is Not a Pipe teaches us that the thing we want is not as unassuming as what we see, but its meaning is hidden behind what is in front of us. But it is never easy to eliminate the obstruction because our eyes have no issues with the object, but instead it is the thoughts and language in our minds.

Mere glance on the painting can give your life a whole new perspective. This is because you shifted from trusting your own eyes. Your eyes will see the image as just an ordinary painting and become uninterested, but your mind will grasp the mysteries behind the work and the thought-provoking questions that will arise.

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