August 10, 2010

Silencing the old blunderbuss

If ever the work of a painter needed to be retold and all visual evidence trashcanned, Magritte is the man. It doesn’t even help that he’s aware. “I always try to make sure that painting doesn’t draw attention to itself, that it’s as invisible as possible. I work like a writer who strives for a simple voice, refusing all stylistic effect, so the reader cannot see anything beyond the idea that I want to express. The painting itself remains hidden.”

It also doesn’t help that Magritte painted a pipe which says it isn’t a pipe but a welcome introduction into sort of conceptual art and illusion for gullible abecedarians.

I well remember walking into a room in a Brussels museum and being hit by that thing above. It’s who? Magritte? It’s when? 1948? Is that even possible? How can he, way before pop art, or the affichistes, or most anything else with a feel for the sublime in the low in art, understand the power of comic books so well as to condense their spirit into a single image? This is as good as the reformed Guston would become, but Magritte had it way harder to get there. There is really nothing halfway related, except for the fact that Picabia had painted his magazine nudes by the early 1940s, which are not as worthwhile as images themselves, but a similarly surprising anticipation of much more contemporary tactics in art on canvas.

The painting belongs to a work group called the période vache, which Magritte completed within five weeks for his belated first solo exhibit in Paris. The critical consensus seems to be that he was giving the Paris art world the finger. I can sort of believe that when I look at the work group as a whole, really there’s only one other painting that I like, again historically surprising, since this was painted 30 years before the invention of the Duracell bunny. I’m not into the other paintings any more than into Magritte’s default mode, which he would return to immediately after this exhibition. I’m only into the one painting.

There is too much love there, it cannot mean the finger. It’s called The Ellipsis, but it doesn’t feel as if anything had been left out. There’s that shadow of distrustful amazement where the barrel hits the face. There’s the relaxed tenderness of the disjointed right hand resting on the rather tense left. There’s the interplay of eyes—I sort of wish the one staring out at us from within the hat wasn’t there so very obviously, but it carries so many implications, so much of the artist as he would know himself, checking in on the new-found guy who easily knocks off a painting per day, that it really adds a whole new layer of meta fiction.

I followed a notion and googled the possible German word “Pistolenschnauze” for this post. I hit on this automatically translated excerpt from a novel by one B. M. Bower:

“Casey sah nach unten und sah, dass das, was er danach erklärte, war, das mittlerster sehender Mann auf der Erde, das Richten des Breitesten gerade bei ihm machte Schrotflinte, die er je in seinem Leben gesehen hatte, mundtot. Sein Fänger verlagerte die Pistolenschnauze zum Rücken von Casey Hals und stocherte das Keuchen herum, bärtiger alter Mann mit seiner Zehe.”

Let me translate that back: Casey looked downward and saw that what he would later explain was the middlest man who saw on the earth, silencing the blunderbuss he had ever seen in his life, adjusting it at its broadest. His catcher shifted his muzzle face to the back of the Casey neck and poked around his wheezing, bearded old man with his toe.

Which fits the present context pretty amazingly.

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