The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe) by René Magritte

René Magritte

The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929, Oil on canvas, 60.33 x 81.12 x 2.54 cm, Los Angeles County Museum; Purchased with funds provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection, 78.7, © C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: Digital Image © 2020 Museum Associates / LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY

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Fake News?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) in his work on the five senses ranks sight as the most important/dominant of all of them; this is also echoed in Souda, the tenth-century lexicon of Byzantine culture.

It could be argued that René Magritte with his work challenges our ‘leading’ sense. While right before our eyes we have a curvaceous, plain, two-coloured pipe—its front section brown, its back section black, with a circle in gold separating the two colours—its caption informs us authoritatively that this is not a pipe. Is it our eyes or the creator of the image (with its statement) that deceive us? Is it possible that our eyes betray us? And since sight is the ‘top’ sense, how can we disregard it and instead follow someone else’s instructions on what we are supposed to (not) be seeing?

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying.

This is what Magritte commented on the work he produced (Torczyner 1977: 71).

Magritte’s statement brings a sigh of relief, because our eyes have not betrayed us; instead the artist invites his viewers to engage in semantics, in word play. The artist makes a valid point, since the core of images is treacherous—they are lying to us by telling us the truth: this is not a real pipe, but rather a visual reproduction of the actual object, which in turn makes it a pipe after all, since our brain is capable of registering the difference between the two (i.e. nobody in their right frame of mind would try to smoke the image of a pipe). Even Magritte himself refers to [his] ‘pipe’ (‘could you stuff my pipe?’)—he does not qualify it as ‘the representation of my pipe’.

It could be suggested that the treachery we witness in this painting is comparable to Judas’s act. The disciple uses a kiss, which is normally indicative of affection and endearment, to facilitate his betrayal of Jesus. In other words, it is a betrayal that ‘betrays’ the very essence of the medium it uses for its accomplishment.

 

References

Barron, Stephanie, et al. 2006. Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Ludion)

Lymberopoulou, Angeliki. 2018. ‘Sight and the Byzantine Icon’, Equinoxonline 2.1: 46–67

Torczyner, Harry. 1977. Magritte, Ideas and Images, trans. by E. Miller (New York: Harry N. Abrams)

Wear, Delese, and Joseph Zarconi. 2010. ‘The Treachery of Images: How René Magritte Informs Medical Education’, Journal of General Internal Medicine 26.4: 437–39


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