“We need to understand that Magritte can be a cypher for how we can relate to an artwork or an artist’s oeuvre. His work demonstrates the power that any art can have on us, in that we can be changed by it, if we let it. The question is can we let ourselves be affected by a work of art?”
One hundred and fifty years before Kant wrote his Critique of Judgement, the results of which Gadamer could not abide, Diego Velázquez painted his portrait of ‘Pope Innocent X’. Ever since, art connoisseurs have revered the work, for example, Hippolyte Taine described it as “the masterpiece amongst all portraits.”1 If Kant had wanted to ingratiate himself with the Pamphili family, Innocent X’s descendants, and viewed the portrait, perhaps he might have had much to say. Switching between thoughts on how beautiful the work was and how his subjective taste was entranced, I’m sure he would have rhapsodised in his own way and held Velázquez’s work in high regard as consummate proof of his ideas on the subjectivisation of aesthetics. Undoubtedly Kant would have regarded Velázquez as a genius, if pushed to make such a comment, but then he also would have added, “Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given.”2 Thus reminding us of his separation of rules, (and implicitly facts, truth and objectivity), from aesthetics.
Kant becomes gloriously unstuck, though, when one imagines him looking at a different painting altogether. Three hundred years after Velázquez, Francis Bacon painted several variations on Velázquez’s original work and managed to create a total reformation and a new icon within the history of art. ‘The Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,’ affectionately known as the ‘Screaming Pope’, is a work that Kant would have surely dismissed as devoid of any aesthetic quality whatsoever. However, the tide has turned on Kant because, as we know, there are many respected art critics and aestheticians who venerate Bacon’s work and consider it a triumph of genius. Robert Hughes said, “once you have seen two or three of Bacon’s screaming popes, you can’t get them out of your mind.”3 And this is it. This is Gadamer’s point. Some art “has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.”4
Perhaps, its as well now to make clear and bring completely in focus that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we are building a template for how we could engage with one another. Make no mistake, all Gadamer’s work on aesthetics has an implicit ethical lesson. Sometimes when trying to understand one thing we need to look at another and, even more importantly in this case, critically examine and pay great attention to how we are actually doing the looking. However, let us continue onwards.
Bacon’s portrait of a screaming Innocent X is unforgettable in a way that possibly, dare I say, Velázquez’s might be. The power of each to haunt us is palpably present, however, Bacon’s shocks, disturbs and engages us intellectually as we are caught staring at it trying to comprehend what on earth is happening. It seduces us and, at the same time as imprinting itself on our minds, causes a shift in our way of understanding what art can be. When one sees the ‘Screaming Pope’ for the first time one comes away changed. The experience of it alters our perception of what painting is. Somehow the work invades our mind, sets up shop, and makes us slightly different from who we were before. And this power, Gadamer understood, is the “true being” of art: the power to change “the person who experiences it.”
Bacon’s visceral and shocking imprint produces an emotional outcry from some as they see the silent scream of a forever-transfixed pope. However, one can also experience the mental outcry that yearns to understand and make sense of what it is seeing. Explanations zip rapidly across our minds as we filter information surrounding the painting, such as when it was produced, in case a clue might be gleaned. Or, if we know that Bacon was a lifelong atheist and beaten by his father to try and rid him of his homosexuality, we start conjecturing and pontificating. Desperate attempts to quantify the work come thick and fast. It’s a visual representation of the death of God, a reflection upon the Nuremberg trials where Nazis were questioned inside a glass box, or the ultimate figure of authority suffering the retribution of tortured son. Bacon himself was keen to always avoid and evade any such explanations in order to allow the visual to represent itself rather than being overlaid or smothered by words. Consequently, because of his evasion and the work’s internal resistance to categorisation it blocks neat definitions and ensures that the gaze of the spectator is held and never really released as it continues to linger in the mind as an ever-present visual question that cannot be answered.
Whilst Bacon’s work scorches and sears our mind with its image, another artist working at the same time was doing something similar. Although both would have strenuously denied any cohesion between their activities beyond that they were both painters. Rene Magritte, working in Belgium, but with strong intellectual ties to Surrealism, had been pursuing his artistic project that sought to disrupt traditional notions of how art can be perceived and, indeed, what it can provide. In stark contrast to Bacon, Magritte’s temperature was cooler and somehow more distant. Arguably, too, Magritte’s painterly ability was in a minor key compared to Bacon’s absolute, but always disrupted, major one. Magritte’s style was more along the lines of the illustrative as opposed to the grand master. His work was always about the idea rather than the display of artistic virtuosity. However, let’s us get back to the theme.
In 1868, Édouard Manet painted one of his iconographic scenes of the bourgeoisie at rest, ‘The Balcony’, containing friends and family as the main figures in an homage to Francisco Goya’s ‘The Majas at the Balcony’. The work’s reception at the 1869 Paris salon was, typically for Manet, far from appreciative, with his work being described as “discordant.”5 Maybe, because he didn’t insert female nudes into ‘The Balcony’ as he did with his 1863 and 1865 salon entries ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’ and ‘Olympia’, the criticism was more restrained than outraged. Possibly of more interest to us is that, wittingly or not, Manet establishes an unusual aura in the figures of ‘The Balcony’, as they each seem to be wholly isolated and independent from each other. I say, “possibly,” because there is an argument that Magritte in his ‘homage’ to ‘The Balcony’ manages to unify them.
A confident and self-assured Magritte painted ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ in 1950. The work is an exact reproduction of ‘The Balcony’, except that each of the figures is replaced, or encased, by a coffin shaped to match their posture as depicted by Manet. Unified by death, the figures have been resolved under Magritte’s hand – is how an art historical analysis could begin. However, what interests me is the evidence of the same power to shock and disturb as we saw with Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’.
Viewing Magritte’s work alters one’s understanding of what a work of art can be and how we are to engage with it. Again, as with the ‘Screaming Pope’, Kant would have dismissed ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ as some kind of nonsense, because his understanding of aesthetics is simply short-circuited by Magritte. Magritte forestalls Kantian notions of beauty and taste, because he was not interested in merely replicating nature on canvas, his priorities lay outside of such a restrictive view of aesthetics. Magritte’s views on his art are his and have an interest in their own right. However, as always we must keep to our topic and in this instance look to Gadamer.
Gadamer’s ideas, as we know, rotate upon a new axis of engagement: one that demands we consider that the spectator can be a malleable figure. The work of art has its “true being” or, perhaps switching things around, the work can truly said to be art, if it changes the person who experiences it. When regarding Magritte’s work, and possibly this happens the first time, do we not come away altered? Are our sensibilities and understanding of aesthetics not dashed to the floor, or at least mildly jostled, when we stack up ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ against the long line of ‘traditional’ art with its litany of landscapes, portraits and figurative permutations upon religious tales of yore? The sight of coffins so obviously taking the place of figures, even if we were ignorant of Manet’s original, forces a pictorial confrontation that seems to wilfully disobey the very text of how we should refer to death. It instantly unsettles and provokes and the question to ask becomes, do we ever come away from something that has unsettled and provoked the same as we were before we had the encounter? I suspect not, but then I would wouldn’t I, because I’m a Gadamerian rather than a Kantian. Let’s look at some more Magritte’s and see if we can further grasp what Gadamer is trying to tell us.
Some works like ‘Clairvoyance’ or ‘Day and Night’ are cunning creations that appear to be almost visual gags. They appear as visual incarnations of ‘what if’ ideas. However, other works impact in a more profound way.
‘The Great War,’ for example, works to continually irritate us because the hydrangea is precisely in the way of where we want to look – the Edwardian costumed lady’s face. We don’t cope too well when faces are covered up, obscured or removed entirely. Perhaps instinctively we are upset and disturbed by this. The face is after all where we direct our gaze when regarding each other and it is always our first port of call when examining portraits, the surroundings are forever secondary.
In ‘Not to be Reproduced’, Magritte plays further with this unsettling theme by giving the work the sub-title – Portrait of Edward James – a device he repeats in ‘The Pleasure Principle.’
Both works deepen our sense of being unsettled because the solitary protagonist is actually named and the work is expressly presented as a ‘portrait’. Our expectations, therefore, become visually and textually distressed by Magritte, courtesy of his visual decisions and titling. Magritte continues throughout his work to explore the idea of stunning our expectations with yet more ways of interrupting our usual ease of regarding portraits. ‘The Rape’ and ‘The Lovers’ both continue to disturb our gaze by removing or altering our understanding of what we expect to see.
As with all of Magritte’s work, each painting has its own semantic and interpretive possibilities, however when seen together from ‘The Great War’ onwards there can be seen, within Magritte’s work, a vein of deliberateness that seeks to strike at the very foundation of what we want to see when admiring a portrait. The strike in each case leaves an indelible impression in our minds that, once seen, cannot be erased. Just like Robert Hughes description of Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ you can’t get Magritte’s works out of your mind. Working with an un-masterful painterly technique or not, Magritte’s art hits home and does its Gadamerian work: the spectator walks away changed by the experience.
Incidentally, as one opens oneself up more to the work of Magritte, one starts to see a language taking shape through the re-working of different yet similar ideas. However, it is not an objective language, because we each establish with Magritte’s works a unique understanding that functions as a ‘common language’ solely between the works and us. What I see and understand is going to be different to what you see and understand. There might be some shared cross-over points, but if we are to truly engage with the works themselves and allow them to ‘speak’ back to us rather than be ‘translated’ by another third party, we need to direct ourselves to the works themselves. When conversing with Susan we don’t really want Nigel to interlope and speak on Susan’s behalf. Likewise, when ‘conversing’ with Magritte go to the primary source, his works, not to your friend, an art historian or Daily Mail columnist.
Finally, though, we need to understand that Magritte can be a cypher for how we can relate to an artwork or an artist’s oeuvre. His work demonstrates the power that any art can have on us, in that we can be changed by it, if we let it. The question is can we let ourselves be affected by a work of art? Are we able to stand in front of something that we know could push us, change us, re-shape our boundaries, redefine our customs, and tinker with our deepest thoughts and emotions? Because what I hope to have shown with Magritte and Bacon can be found, and should be found, in the whole gamut of art. After all, one person’s Magritte is another person’s Miró, Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Goya, or even Velázquez or Manet.
- Bosky, Bernadette Lynn, “Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine”, Cyclopedia of World Authors, Vol. 5, page 1971.
- Kant, I., Critique of Judgement, Section 46, 175.
- Hughes, R., Francis Bacon: Horrible, Guardian, 30th August 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/aug/30/bacon.art
- Gadamer, Truth and Method, 102.
- See Castagnary, J.-A., Balcon (Le), in Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siecle, Vol. 16, 281. (Actual phrase is more like, “This contradictory attitude disconcerts me”).