The Treachery of Images

The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe)-Rene Magritte-1928-1929
The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe)-Rene Magritte 1928-1929

A supremely thought provoking and troubling  philosophical painting by the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte. We are presented with a meretriciously drawn image of a pipe while beneath the neat legend paradoxically informs us that Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). It seems that before us is less a painting than another one of Magritte’s  monstrously banal, and ultimately terrifying, pictorial mysteries.

The pipe drawn with such painstaking exactitude is of course just a representation of a pipe. You cannot hold in your hands, stuff it with tobacco and smoke it, which is surely what is required of a pipe for it to be a pipe. Yet we feel perplexed and somehow obscurely cheated. If it the case that ‘perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves’, then all we can know are images of the world, and images are by their very nature treacherous. All we have is the map, and as everyone knows, the map is not the territory.

37 thoughts on “The Treachery of Images

  1. Especially like the allegory with the map… Yes. It is probably my favourite piece of Magritte. Yes, I’m very sure of it. I saw it in an exhibition (as I mentioned before, see how very boring I am), oh so very crowded it may have been, I also made up my mind. Hm. But from this time on I always smell that hot, unhealthy air and feel hands pushing my back when thinking of Magritte’s peintures, what a pity indeed.

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  2. So we can never trust what our eyes see for the image may hide from us the true nature of the thing. That we even sally forth into the world is a triumph. Tread carefully, each foot step may take off you off the edge of a cliff.

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  3. “Perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves” : I completely agree with your statement… there is something quite naive and extremely realistic when it comes to MagritteĀ“s painting… and yet … it seems surrealism and Realism could be linked to a certain extent… there is a fine line, or could be a fine line between those artistic movements… And we can see that in DaliĀ“s paintings. Sometimes mundane objects could become something totally different according to how we use them. Or (maybe from DaliĀ“s perspective): if they appear in dreams, for example.
    Excellent post dear Mr Cake. Love & best wishes! šŸ˜€

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    1. Thank you Aquileana. Of course another way to read the painting would be that objects in dreams always have a different, symbolic meaning. Surrealism and Hyper realism are definitely related in their aims. Glad you found this as thought provoking as myself.

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  4. It’s a bit worrisome when artists like Magritte enter the popular culture (referenced in mainstream movies, printed on mass products and so on), because they turn into these cheap pretenses for wittiness. His riddles receive automatic answers.

    Which is why it’s so refreshing to pause, think, and then look at his artwork as a whole. Genius playfulness.

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    1. Magritte and Dali are the two artists commonly associated in the popular imagination with Surrealism because their art and techniques were co-opted by advertising. Magritte started out in advertising, which gave him the idea of using words in painting, though with the express aim of subversion, however that didn’t really matter to the advertisers who appropriated his techniques. That is why I have concentrated on less familiar Surrealists as some aspects of Magritte have become over familiar, then look at them with fresh eyes. I hope you approve of my reading and thank you for the thought provoking comment.

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  5. I have always thought that this image along with its message were the first intended Conceptual work the world was given: it could just so easily be ‘ceci nes pas une auto’ or ‘BigMac’ It is as if Magritte gave permission to all artists and viewers to do anything and see anything from now on. How much trouble he caused. The ripples rebound to this day.
    “FAKE NEWS!”

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    1. Excellent point… Magritte was working in advertising when it started to remodel the world into the media landscape that saturates and dominates our consciousness today. We cannot trust what we seeing. Interestingly I posted about Trump as Situationist and spectular president. I will send you the link.


  6. More and more folk are discovering that the semi tongue in cheek discourse of de-evolution that inspired Mark Mothersbaugh and the Cassalles brothers to creat DEVO in Akron Uni in 1970’s, has come into being. And scarily, each generation of humans that forgets a little more about civilisation and morality passing behaviors down the line will result in perhaps a split along the vision of Huxley. Alphas and Omegas.

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  7. I enjoy this paradox. The uncomfortable feeling comes from both the image and the words being part of the same work: if you “fall” for the representation of the pipe, i.e. if you thought of it as a pipe even for a moment, then if you *believed* the words telling you it isn’t a pipe, it feels like you were duped twice. Especially since it hits you that if the pipe was a lie, then likely the words are too, but if the words are a lie then it’s still okay to think of the image of the pipe as a pipe, so you weren’t actually duped twice…

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