What is Magritte saying about “the human condition” (this piece’s title)? I’m not sure. I invite you to say what you think within the comments. I especially encourage you to answer if you don’t want to read the rest of the post, or if you’ve never commented before, or both!
There is an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago right now called “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary.” I highly recommend it Beyond the paintings, sketches and photographs themselves, the layout of the exhibit is very pleasing in itself. I brought along my 2-month-old who, before falling asleep in his front-mounted carrier, spent about 20 minutes looking mostly at the overhead recessed lighting, but occasionally (at least I like to believe) took a glance at the different images. It was a very dark, clean feeling purplish space punctuated by canvases which end up feeling like they emanate out of the dark purple nothingness. There was one particularly striking corridor arranged with a sequence of partial perpendicular dividing walls down the middle, so that 5 or 6 canvases could be viewed in isolation and quiet even though the hallway was filled with onlookers.
At the start of that hallway was the image from above (this is the Wikipedia picture – the guards were fairly vigilant about not allowing photography in this exhibit – a rule which I generally appreciate because it makes people act slightly more like considerate human beings when they don’t have their phones in their hands the whole time).
What I noticed about this painting was not so much the philosophical observation it makes but just the clean, fresh technique. I noticed this aspect of Magritte’s paintings over and over during the exhibit, but the audioguide said very little about it, dwelling on the ideas and the history of surrealism instead. Each canvas has this precision, each form is sharply delineated, and there are very discrete light sources shown on each form.
I also selected this painting because it stood out among some of the other more pedantic philosophical images. I’m not sure if it’s Magritte or the audioguicde (probably the latter) but it tended to make these images seem like sort of inane Philosophy-101-type “lessons.” It was full of banalities like “this painting makes us recognize that we connect words arbitrarily with meanings” (in this tone like – of course before the 1930’s in Paris no one had ever thought of that!)
But this painting seemed to have a more mysterious issue at its heart. It is a painting of a landscape with a landscape-painting (of the same landscape) subtly impinging on the other landscape, with the boundary of the painting-in-a-painting barely perceptible but still very much present.
At the risk of sounding too broad – what is Magritte saying about “the human condition” by setting forth this arrangement? I have some inchoate thoughts about Kant, representations, representations-as-representations, even Dasein but nothing formed.