Sunday, April 23, 2006

This Is Not A Pipe


This is not a pipe!.. No, it isn't. It is a famous art piece called La trahison des images (The Treachery Of Images) made by surrealist painter Rene Magritte in 1928. As you see it is only a very realistic painting of a pipe with the text Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe).

Magritte is one of the well known names in Surrealism, personally I like Magritte more than any other surrealist artist. He was also very much interested in philosophy and his paintings often confuse and provoke because he destroys ingrained notions about art, representation, and logic. Probably this painting is one of the most important art work made in the last century. It is a great example of semiotics but, for me, although it's a surrealist painting, is one of the earlier examples of conceptual art. In his book This Is Not A Pipe French philosopher Michel Foucault (he was also Magritte's friend) discusses this painting and its paradox.

Well, what do we see in this painting that makes it so significant? At first glance it looks like a tobacco company advertisement; we see a very realistic painting of a pipe, its shape, colour and structure give us the idea that "It is a pipe". Then we read the sentence: "This is not a pipe".

In fact it is true, it is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe (and for you it is a picture of a painting of a pipe. Well, actually it is a binary translation of a picture of a painting of a pipe!..). Magritte simply creates a contradiction between the text and image, but he does more than that! Our first reaction to this painting "Of course this is not a real pipe. This is an image of a pipe" is quite simple-minded according to Foucault. He is interested in how the contradictory text of the imagery and the discourse that “names” it are to be construed.

Let's look at the painting bit deeper. Although the sentence "This is not a pipe" creates a contradiction with the image, it also amplifies the pictorial image because it is not real. Same as the sentence "This is not a pipe". That text is "not" a pipe either!. Then we can ask ourselves "What is represented in this painting?" According to Foucault Magritte’s meticulous depiction of the "pipe" is not representational.

Pipe, as a name, is given to a certain group of objects. We can draw three conclusions if we read the sentence "This is not a pipe" in this painting:

  1. "This" painting itself doesn't represent an object called pipe.
  2. "This" the sentence itself could not represent a pipe;
  3. "This" mixed element of discourse and image, written pipe and drawn text "is not a pipe."”

This painting is a great example of how the systems of imagery and language cancel each other. Words and pictures are external representations of "things". Between an actual object and its image there is a strong connection; structure of the image resembles the structure of the real thing. But the relation between a linguistic representation and an actual object is arbitrary. The connection between a picture of a pipe and a real pipe is analogical but there is no connection between the word "pipe" itself and a real pipe.

The imagery in realistic painting implies resemblance. According to Foucault, in "This is Not a Pipe" resemblance and discourse are dissociated and broken. He replaces resemblance with similitude. In saying that an image resembles reality, one assumes the ontological superiority of the latter. With similitude, however, the objective "referent" is gone; things and images are "more or less like one another without any of them being able to claim the privileged status of model for the rest". Foucault says "this is not a pipe… but rather a text that simulates a pipe; a drawing of a pipe that simulates a drawing of a pipe; a pipe (drawn other than as a drawing) that is the simulacrum of a pipe (drawn after a pipe that itself would be other than a drawing)." To say the pipe image is a simulacrum is to say that it belongs to the order of things that are similar, that is, other drawings of pipes.

This demolition of resemblance, "this affirming and representing nothing," is a critical moment in the viewer’s consciousness.

René Magritte described his paintings saying:

My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.

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3 Noises:

At Sunday, April 30, 2006 1:30:00 PM, Blogger Sphinx said...

I really enjoyed this post, M. Well done! you know, Magritte is one of my favourite artists.

Thanks for the great post!


At Sunday, April 30, 2006 8:03:00 PM, Blogger . nothing . said...

Thanks M., Pleasure is mine :-)

At Wednesday, January 24, 2007 1:23:00 PM, Anonymous Serhan said...

i think its a great article indeed.
'The Treachery of Images' is fantastic piece of art which puts our minds on a table and plays with it.

'Ah, the famous pipe...I've been criticised enough for it!And yet...can it be stuffed with tobacco, my pipe? No it can't, can it,it's just a representation. So if I had written 'This is a pipe' below the picture, I would have been lying''

Rene Magritte in an interview with Claude Vial, 1966


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