Conditioning Reality (Rejected AS 141 final project)

Posted on March 24, 2013


  Human Condition II- 1935

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”

René Magritte (1898-1967)

Magritte is one of my favorite artists. He is a surrealist painter whose masterpieces are as mind-boggling as can be. What I like about him is that his works are not just mysterious in terms of aesthetics, they are also mysterious in context. Mysterious, sometimes bordering on disturbing. He is a surrealist, after all. He plays a lot with underlying meanings and representation. What I enjoy the most about his works is the constant application of philosophy – I always find myself being existential and skeptical about the concept of reality after a Magritte viewing.

Whenever I look at his paintings, I always wonder about the reality behind the painting. I wonder what concept Magritte wants to symbolize. I wonder if there’s a sensible world, something we can see in real life, in his paintings or if those are just the stuff of dreams. That’s what interests me the most.

Magritte’s famous works include “The Treachery Of Images” (featuring the pipe that is not a pipe) and a series of paintings, one of them is called “The Human Condition” which I will discuss.

 The Human Condition- 1933

In 1933 Magritte painted a confusing masterpiece showing a “painting within a painting”. The painting within the painting shows a seemingly accurate depiction of the world outside, which is shown in the painting as well. Magritte plays with the concepts of reality and representation – what do we know about the “world outside”?

“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.

Which is how we see the world, namely, outside of us; although having only one representation of it within us. Similarly we sometimes remember a past event as being in the present. Time and space lose meaning and our daily experience becomes paramount.”

We all have our own perspectives about reality, but none of these can accurately capture the “real” reality, the “things-in-themselves” as Kant would say. We can shape our perspectives, organize them, paint them the way the painting-within was painted on the canvas. But this depiction cannot accurately capture the tree existing outside. It is always, in some way, skewed.

One more philosophical food for thought before moving on: The painting-within represents the reality outside, but what represents the painting-within? They (the painting-within and the supposed reality outside) are both fabrications that we view as spectators. So according to Magritte, there isn’t really a difference between them. Confusing, right?

Aesthetic intentions

If I were to modernize the painting, I would take a picture of the “world outside” (for example, the landscape with the tree in it) and have it blown up in the size of the canvas in Magritte’s painting. It would deal with the actual, it would represent the world outside as it really is. Photography, after all, deals with the actual.

Using the physical and depictive (formalist) level of analyzing a photograph, I would assume that Magritte intended to show the edges of the canvas. This suggests a three-dimensional world outside and that part of it was compressed onto a flat surface which is the canvas.

In terms of framing, Magritte used a frame-within-a-frame strategy. The canvas within the painting is a passive frame, meaning it suggests a world outside. As a spectator viewing the painting-within-a-painting, we are presented with a world which suggests a world outside. This is true for both the painting-within and the reality in the painting. The entire work suggests a world outside. The mode of representation is where the world is being seen.

Magritte’s works focus on the representational space. This is the space directly experienced. The painting-within is mimetic, meaning it is a direct reflection of the “reality” outside the canvas. The question burns into the spectator’s mind: is this painting, my perspective, an accurate enough representation of the actual reality? Or am I just fooling myself?

The “Human Condition”, in all its ambiguity, is an accurate depiction of the human condition and the human conditioning of reality.