The Human Condition

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La Condition Humaine-Rene Magritte 1933
Subtly terrifying Rene Magritte’s La Condition Humaine uses the picture within a picture device that was to become a Magritte trademark. The painting is realistically banal, showing a painting by a window that is an exact representation of the obscured landscape. Or is it? Is the human condition the fact that we are trapped in the realm of appearances and any attempt to tear asunder the veil will reveal only another deceptive surface without any depth?

Magritte was characteristically unrevealing in his comments on the painting:

‘In front of a window seen from inside a room, I placed a painting representing exactly that portion of the landscape covered by the painting. Thus, the tree in the picture hid the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room within the painting and outside in the real landscape.’

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54 thoughts on “The Human Condition

      1. And quite right too… The Matrix is an updating of the old Gnostic belief that we live in an illusory world created by an malevolent emanation called the Demiurge who is himself under the illusion that he is God… Magritte asks similar questions regarding our perception of appearance vs reality. We are what we perceive, but what if what we perceive is merely the appearance of reality?

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      2. Bloody hell, they were a cheery bunch those Gnostics! Seriously though, I think most of us consciously or unconsciously are questioning the solidity or reality of the objective world. I know I have done this since i was a little child.

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      3. Part of the reason why Christianity caught on and Gnosticism didn’t was their pessimism. Borges said that it was a particularly English trait to doubt the solidity of the real world.

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      4. That’s really interesting- I would have seen it rather as a particularly Celtic trait; their beliefs were much about shifting of realms into each other and shape changing.

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      5. Bishop Berkeley was an Anglo-Irish Divine and philosopher (the town in California is named after him) who was a foremost idealist. Questioning objective reality and perception he came to the conclusion that perception couldn’t be trusted (he gave the examples of dreams and madness) and asked the question ‘if a tree falls in the woods but nobody witnesses it falling, has it actually happened’ and came up with the answer no. As he was a theologian he then came to the conclusion that God witnesses everything, and therefore we only exist in the mind of God, we are kind of like God’s dream. I am probably doing him a disservice with this brief analysis. Later philosophers got rid of God and in the process came to the conclusion that reality is subjective and as we all perceive differently and perception is deception anyway that there is no such thing as an objective reality. Dr Johnson to refute Berkeley kicked a stone but it must have hurt and the doubt persists.

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      6. That’s a brilliant summary and I think I would have liked him. Thank you again for the education. I’d heard about the tree falling in the woods thing but didn’t realise it was from him. Up to a point I guess objective science and physics can ‘prove’ or disprove certain aspects of perception, but then even these disciplines undermine themselves and reality as a whole when they start to push further into themselves, eg Quantum physics, ‘God’ particles etc. They’re blundering in the existential darkness as much as the rest of us! 🙂

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      1. Cake, I didn’t mean delicious frosting to eat! And I didn’t mean You! I meant using frosting as the device to hide what lies beneath. To obscure and deceive. Layers. What is real? What is here or what is out there? I thought you chose this piece to tie into facade. I agree it is disturbing, so we don’t have to agree on that point. Unless you would like to. Then by all means…let’s disagree! 🙂 I am picturing an undressed cake looking out at their frosting….and maybe top layer… Thank you.

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    1. I find it subtly terrifying in its implications. Magritte was known for his philosophical detachment, the idea was always the thing with him. As whether I like it or not, the answer would be yes because it makes me question how I view the world. Thank you for your comments, they are always appreciated.

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  1. Yes he was certainly detached, it is good to question not to go along with the crowd.

    So many people just exist from day to day. I always remember a comment that was made about the Scream, so many people are silently going about their business and screaming violently inside their heads.

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  2. At first I didn’t see why this would be subtly terrifying but I get it. It’s like when someone is trying to get to something and just keeps ripping off the same scene over and over. I don’t know what I’m trying to say…It’s late, lol.

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      1. lol, you go all mystic Cake and yes, I believe you could. 😀 I don’t like to think that we are all living in the matrix. That’s a scary thought.

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  3. Another aspect to the painting is the way that it is a stand-in for the disenchantment of the world as well as an enchanting stand-in. The former in the sense that the tripod, stretcher, curtains and window are obstacles to the real that’s represented. The latter in the sense that Magritte’s orchestration plays with the elements as though there is something that can be done about the way we see things that may be unreachable.

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  4. And I’m also put in mind of nightmares…most of mine (and I imagine those of others) seem coloured with the implacable malice of otherwise banal-seeming objects like this painting. The idea of mounting panic as you try to conceive what’s behind the illusion is the very stuff of nightmares, as are cracks in surfaces and the sense of seeking something elusive. I’m actually inspired to go and find out more about Magritte now. Thank you.

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    1. Excellent points here… Magritte’s paintings are deliberately bland and banal which makes them even more terrifying. As he was a Surrealist dreams and the Freudian interpretation was a constant source of inspiration. Thanks for your comments and glad I have spurred your interest. I will send you a link to a painting by Toyen in a similar vein.

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      1. Thank you- it being a Sunday in a world of small children I didnt get the chance today to pursue Magritte, but will do so this evening. On a slightly linked note, my two (7 and 5) have spent an hour or so this afternoon playing Minecraft. I always rant about it and ration the amount of time they spend in this ‘alternative world’ because i am the wrong generation to have ‘got’ gaming…but who is to say that their creation of and immersion in ‘worlds’ of their own devising, featuring all manner of life and creativity is any less valid than our ‘real’ world?

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