Category Archives: Magritte, René

Artists wrestled here!

The Human Condition, 1933, René Magritte
Background Image: The Human Condition, 1933, René Magritte

This poem makes me think of Jean Baudrillard’s work on the simulacrum in art, specifically the third stage (of his proposed four stages) in which the sign / work of art suggests there is no there there, no actual reality underpinning the work. In this poem Emily wrestles with creating something that can only lay in “Repose”, like a corpse on the “Easel”.

It’s interesting how many times Emily seems to intuit the modern and post modern movements in her poetry. Many of her poems deal with the process of writing, such as “Have you got a Brook in your little heart” which could be read as her describing the physical process of writing a poem and where inspiration might be coming from. She makes a direct connection between the natural world and art as if they are one in the same in that the words on the page literally become the brook flowing through the poem which itself is the well-spring of inspiration (as well as a metaphor for the ink she writes with) for the poem we are reading.

In this poem, however, she is more skeptical of the process. Instead of inspiration flowing freely, here “Artists wrestled” with the act of creation. And this “here” is quite literal in that she is referring to the paper the poem is written on – which she again refers to as the “Easel” – and she seems to be demanding that the poem make itself known by ending all but one of the lines with an exclamation as if she is trying to coerce the images into a reality beyond the confines of the page / “Easel”. As if the efforts of the best artist, the “Student of the Year” can somehow transcend the limitations of art and create creation through their efforts.

And it’s her use of the word “Easel” which made me think of postmodernism because she is not writing a poem about a “Rose” on a background of “Cashmere”, rather she is writing a poem about a painting that is trying to capture some beautiful element of nature. We are multiple levels removed from nature in that if we consider a real “rose”, and then we consider a painting of a real “rose”, and finally in this poem we consider a poem about a painting about a real “rose”, we’re so far removed from the rose that it no longer resembles a rose anymore, it is just a word containing the letters “r-o-s-e”. We should even consider the fact that the final line of the poem, “Repose” shares a rhyme only with the word “rose” as if it is imitating the rose, a ‘re-rose’, a simulation of a rose, but not the rose itself.

Thus, unlike “Have you got a Brook in your little heart” in which the act of creation begins with nature and then flows into the artist and out through the ink on the page, this process does not go the other way around. The artist cannot inspire nature, they can only be inspired by it. The one benefit to this relationship however is that the artist is able to give a vocabulary to nature who is otherwise indifferent to whomever is observing it and thus allows the rest of us to have the language to appreciate nature. A rose may be beautiful, but a poem about a beautiful rose allows us to actually articulate that beauty, though it is no replacement for the real thing, the poem only lies in “Repose” upon the “Easel”.

Deconstruction / Postmodernism: Simulation of the Real

René Magritte’s 1928 painting “La Trahison des Images” (“The Treachery of Images”) is a fun example of the simulation the real. On the one hand it is just the image of a pipe, not a pipe itself – it is a simulation of a pipe. On the other, however, is the fact that it is, in fact, a real painting of a pipe. The painting does in fact exist even if what it is a painting of does not exist.

Another example is from the novel War and Peace when Marya gives her brother Andrey (an atheist) an icon to wear around his neck as he heads off to war. She simply believes this icon will keep the grace of God with him as he heads into danger, and though he does not believe in God he does wear this because he loves his sister. In neither case is the icon actually God nor is it love, but it simulates both of these things at once (in a different way to each of them). Later in the novel a peasant woman describes how an icon in a distant church was physically weeping, yet Andrey’s friend, Pierre, explains it was all a trick to separate poor people from their money. The peasant woman takes offence because to her the weeping icon was a sign of and by God, but for Pierre it was a sign of corruption and deceit.

I use these two examples of icons because Baudrillard talks about religious icons and the role they play in the religious experience. An orthodox Catholic places great importance of the icons of Jesus and Mary and St. John the Baptist, whereas some Protestant faiths (those of the iconoclasts tradition) do not believe religious imagery should be used since it gets in the way of the act of God’s breath of life into the soul. This then raises an interesting paradox within Protestantism’s belief of self-salvation (the individual working out their own salvation) of thus interpreting God differently than their neighbor, unlike the Catholic’s who have a structured hierarchy of images with which God is already interpreted for them. The iconoclasts may be “the ones who accorded [the images] their actual worth”, but what exactly is this “actual worth” since it differs from individual to individual?

In short, which is real? The icon or the absence of the icon? The pipe, or the simulation of the pipe?

To build on the religious experience of images, Milton’s Paradise Lost describes the fruit that Adam and Eve ate as being an apple, yet nowhere in the Bible is there any distinction as to what fruit it might be, it’s simply the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the fruit of the tree of life). No apples are in the Hebrew Old Testament book of Genesis. Yet ask any “man on the street” what fruit was eaten in in the bible and they will (most likely) say it is an apple. The apple has become a symbol of the downfall of humanity, the fruit we ate which got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden (Paradise). Humanity was tricked and the apple has becomes a symbol of this deceit, a dissimulation, when in fact it was originally that which gave us the knowledge of good and evil (the knowledge of God himself).