Subconscious associations – or titling, redux

[Image removed – Société des Auteurs dans les arts graphiques et plastiques does not permit Magritte’s work to be used for editorial or educational purposes, but you can still google it]. 
The Empire of Light

The repost of the titling article a couple of days back was a deliberate choice to set you up for today’s somewhat more abstract and surrealist discussion. I was recently re-looking at the way Rene Magritte handled day-night transitions or zones in the same painting to see if there were any ideas there which could be translated to photography in a beyond-literal way, specifically inspired by the above painting. It’s one of my favourites for several reasons. There are physical elements which I personally find appealing, such as the fluffy clouds and the heavy, tonally-rich shadow areas; it’s non-literal in that the image shown is actually impossible to see in reality given the physical constraints of the world; and finally, the use of colour to split the mood of the painting so decisively in two (relaxing, safe, pleasant above, slightly sinister and potentially dangerous below) – yet maintain a complimentary color palette and aesthetic that still tricks the audience into believing it’s physically plausible. I think the implied continuation of the scene outside the edges of the painting (especially at the right  – no neat cut points here!) contributes very strongly to this. Actually, all of the above is true and not true: there are several paintings in the series, which Magritte gave the same titles: The Empire of Light. All of them have the same elements, however: fluffy white clouds against a blue sky; a dark, slightly foreboding urban element with a high ambiguity factor at the bottom of the frame, and a single street light. After viewing this and many others of Magritte’s paintings, the real question I’m left asking is usually around the titles: how do they clearly manage to relate to what’s visually present whilst simultaneously neither being literal but giving you the feeling that there’s something philosophically deeper going on? And moreover, how does one learn to title like that?

[Image removed – Société des Auteurs dans les arts graphiques et plastiques does not permit Magritte’s work to be used for editorial or educational purposes, but you can still google it].
The Treachery of Images

The more I look at Magritte’s work (who was also a somewhat less art notorious photographer in his day), the more I believe the titles and the image are inseparable; however, some historical research suggests that he worked in two ways with paintings: either starting from a philosophical idea – which often later got condensed into the title – or he worked completely in reverse, with elements of themes that dominated at certain portions of his life* and then played a sort of parlour game with friends in the same surrealist philosophical circle to try to give the work a name. I personally think is much easier to understand The Treachery of Images than The Empire of Light; in some ways, even though the former is not anywhere as literal, it’s conceptually more straightforward because it was intended to represent the distillation of an idea into a simple visual form, which goes along the lines of:

  1. Every painting or picture, no matter how realistic or good or easily recognisable, is not the original object.
  2. The image presented is a stand in for the original object and merely represents or conjures by association the qualities and physical properties and of that object – an effigy, in effect.
  3. The initial visual impression of the above image is a very literal one, because the image is unambiguous: we see a representation of a pipe, and our brains make the associative leap to assume that it represents the pipe and its physical qualities.
  4. The text then serves to break this association by forcing us to read, notice and comprehend it because it is unusual and out of place (breaking pattern, thus drawing attention to it) in the painting: “This is not a pipe”.
  5. The title of the image could be something literal, like “The pipe”, or something conceptual, like “Illusions”; in this case, the idea behind the image came first, and was refined down to “The Treachery of Images”: in that we can make potentially dangerous mistakes assuming something is, as opposed to something represents.

*Clouds, birds, spherical bells, chess pieces, men in suits, pipes, trees, picture frames, food items etc. – it actually seemed like he was mostly staying within a fairly universally recognisable vocabulary for the time period; this is interesting because use of anything obscure would have greatly increased difficulty of interpretation of the paintings, which were already not exactly literal or straightforward to begin with. We don’t have quite as big a problem with this in photography because we can only represent real objects, which greatly increases recognisability and reduces the potential for misinterpretation/ confusion.

In many ways, The Treachery of Images is a very solid distillation of the conceptual side of Magritte’s images: they aren’t literal, and the elements used represent something – sometimes ideas in  themselves, or historical/personal associations, or something else. But whatever the case is, an apple is never just an apple. The titles exist to both help us through the interpretation (avoiding ‘the treachery’) by giving us a window into Magritte’s thought process, but also to force us to stop, really think about subconscious, almost reflex assumptions about the world – and subsequently look harder.

[Image removed – Société des Auteurs dans les arts graphiques et plastiques does not permit Magritte’s work to be used for editorial or educational purposes, but you can still google it]. 
The Son of Man

Perhaps the most famous of Magritte’s paintings, The Son of Man has a title that feels like it almost carries all of the information necessary to decipher the idea, but not quite; you can feel it tugging at the edges of your brain, but the viewer is still forced to make that final logical leap themselves. My interpretation is a biblical one: the apple represents knowledge and original sin; Eve is no longer in the picture, but her descendant is once again clothed and hiding their shame – the face can represent individualism, identity; a visible face, honesty and openness. (The garb is also typical of what Magritte wore; is he referring to himself?) A hidden face becomes shame or ambiguity or simple untrustworthiness; the obscuring apple is presumably hiding behind knowledge. What throws us out a little here are the visual qualities of the picture: it’s far too ‘clean’ and ‘happy’ with traditionally flattering and ‘good’ light to imply the sort of malice we’d expect from a businessman hiding his face (and implied activities). That lends a sense of hope, I think, which is confirmed by the title: ‘son’ implies this a subsequent (and possibly better) generation.

There is of course no way to know if was thinking all that when he was painting it, or simply set out to make a self-portrait without his face, and saw some apples on the counter – and then presented the painting to his surrealist philosophical circle and they named it after what they saw; it could be that the strong resonance of title with image was the result of the audience, not the creator**.

**Interesting idea: allowing your audience to title an image based on what they see, which may be very different from what you saw or intended at the time of capture.

[Image removed – Société des Auteurs dans les arts graphiques et plastiques does not permit Magritte’s work to be used for editorial or educational purposes, but you can still google it]. 
The Banquet

In a lot of cases, the process must have been quite a lot more iterative than that – the result of a discussion, rather than a straw poll or a single person thinking. I suppose we can think of this as the evolution of a title: the above image is a good example. If I had to guess, it was more like a stream of consciousness and series of associations, which probably went something like this (individual lines representing steps in logical progression):

  • Sun dominates sunset / egg / country estate
  • Evening / power / food / formal – stuffy – official
  • Official event in the evening at formal location…
  • voila: The Banquet!

Having already created singles and series around an idea or theme – I’m going to have to try this second method for a future set of images, with the ultimate goal of combining the two…MT


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  1. Jeff in Dallas says:

    At first I hoped this was a new photograph from you and an accompaniment for ‘Only the clouds are free’

  2. Have a look at the paintings of Franco Innocenti.

  3. Ming
    Not really on topic here, it relates more to the previous titling post, but I guess some readers may be interested in an article by Ian Pool in F11 ‘The power of the title’ – in ‘The Deep End’ column, issue 64 page 150-149.
    Free e-magazine can be downloaded as pdf.

  4. Ever heard the proverb “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? That seems like a more obvious connection, with interesting implications for obscuring the man’s face, too. Of course, the original train of thought was probably something completely different…

  5. Pavel P. says:

    There is a Czech musican and entertainer who also paints…he makes satirical paintings…his painting are always conected with the title…title gives his painting a meaning…

    One example:

    He named this photo: “Tsar Alexander is selling Alaska to Americans”….

    He always puts titles that gives the painting it’s meaning…

  6. Well, I think that surrealists together with their dadaist friends liked to upset the so called logic thinking and to that aim they often used element of shock, surprise often shown in a scandalous form ( Margritte is a quiet boy even if loved to make puns and funs). Serge Diagilev when asked by young adept what to do to impress him answered- surprise me. Another art form that took the line up was Fluxus. Once I saw a photograph of american highway with numerous road signs, one of them read- IGNORE THIS SIGN.

  7. Ming,

    Interesting post, and up my alley as a university art history major. You should definitely read more about Magritte’s relationship to the Surrealist movement, and the movement itself.

    Surrealism was all about the unconscious and its ability to unlock the imagination. The influence of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was profound on the Surrealist movement, and André Breton’s launch manifesto, in which he describes Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism,” also reveals a lot about the intentions of the movement. While Surrealist images are often romantic, they have no, and are not really meant to have, a basis in reality (not only subject but also lighting, etc.), and this is by design.

    I also think Sgt. Pepper’s is a great aural expression of the Surrealist movement (though much later :-)), have a re-listen.


  8. If your thoughts are not already based on it, I would strongly recommend reading Michel Foucault’s book This is not a pipe. It deals precisely with the questions about Magritte’s paintings you are suggesting here – and has a brilliant analysis of that and other paintings, the essence of which is, in short, the discrepancy between visual (the image) and linguistic representation (titles of and written elements in paintings,…) in our culture and art. I’m reading the whole book (which is not very long) with my students in philosophy class during one semester in the second year of art school. Well worth the effort! G

  9. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” :
    … not a pipe dream..
    And isn’t that also about the difference between reality and *any* perception of it?
    Whatever “reality” is…

    ( When language developed there were a lot of words left over … and so philosophy emerged.
    Some physics even says reality ceases to exist when there is no one there to observe t..)

    Magritte seems to say
    – – –

    And what about this?

  10. Sometimes, when I feel so sleepy that I begin to dream before even closing my eyes, I feel my mind creating a relation between completely disconnected things and I am just a confused spectator. No logic at all: I prefer to snap out of it. When titling my photos, which I only do for exhibits, sometimes the title comes out when I am not thinking about it. Like solving a problem when you have decided to put it to rest. Magritte’ titles feel like that to me: a connection impossible to create consciously but that finds a way to resonate with other people’s minds, perhaps because it is created in a way common to all of us within our brains…

    • The connection is definitely there, but you have to consciously not think about it to understand it – hard to explain but I fully agree with you.

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