Allow me to indulge in the obvious for just a moment: I tend to like art that makes me smile. Mind blowing, I know, especially since we’ve looked at some humorous work together before, here and here. But there is something so appealing about art that inspires grinning. Magritte’s Clairvoyance does this for me.
See? It is a painting of an artist painting, but his model and the image on his canvas are nothing alike! Hee-hee! I like the playfulness of that. It resonates with the kid in me, riding my bike, proudly announcing “Look mom, no hands!” Like Magritte is shouting “Look Elysia, I can paint a bird without even seeing one!”
Wait, it gets better. Note that he isn’t looking at an egg and painting a tiger, or looking at an apple and painting a bird. Eggs grow up to be birds. He really is showing off how he can see into the future for this egg. His title nails it: Clairvoyance, indeed!
Eggs are worthy enough subjects. A bird might be preferable now and then, but there is no real aesthetic need to go and dream up a bird if an egg is what you have to work from. Eggs are a staple of art, an object deemed to be great practice in drawing, a standard model when learning to do shading, and a frequent subject of still lifes.
“Some teachers in their earlier lessons in still-life, give as a model…an egg… If you stop to consider the subject as carefully as you ought, you will soon be convinced of its beauty of form, as well as the gradation of tint noticeable from highest light to deepest accent of shade through the intervening half tints.” *
I wondered for a bit if looking at an egg and instead painting a bird could be out of boredom with the traditional practice of technique. “I’m tired of drawing what I am ‘supposed’ to, so I think I’ll fly away in my imagination.” Maybe that would be the case if I were the one painting, but Magritte’s capabilities in realistic representational painting are such that I doubt Clairvoyance is his way of complaining about having to paint eggs.
I do like to think of Clairvoyance as a metaphor for breaking from the historical tradition of painting what you can see, to painting what you can dream up. Not only is this painting a joke, it is a statement: I can paint a bird when all I can see is an egg. I am not hindered by mere reality. Art can be more moving and complex than what you can see in real life. This egg will be a bird someday, so I am painting it’s future. I can imagine it and paint it. I don’t have to see what it will be first. I get to paint pictures from my head, not just faithfully reproduce what I can see with my eyes. My imagination is bigger than what can fit on this table for me to look at.
Magritte paints birds elsewhere too. Sometimes they bring cheery blue skies. Sometimes they fill in for people. Sometimes they are victims of cruel pleasures. They don’t typically appear in the way we see birds in nature. They suggest meanings beyond “this image is a bird, doing bird-like things.” The artist’s experience with surrealism means he is also associated with interpretation of dreams and Freudian analysis of the subconscious. So…a bird can mean something very different from Webster’s definition.
In Clairvoyance, the bird could simply be helping Magritte make his visual gag, or it could have deeper meaning. It could be signifying his desire to break free from the shell of the rules and traditions of art, a symbol of his desire to see the potential in every model. There are lots of ideas about the interpretation of birds in dreams, and it could relate to one of those. Though if you try and tell me that the bird in Clairvoyance is a Freudian symbol for the male sexual organ, you’re gonna have a tough sell. I don’t buy it.
When I saw this painting as part of The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938 exhibit on tour at the Menil Collection in Houston, there was a photograph on the adjacent wall:
This gelatin silver print is tiny, considerably smaller than your standard 3×5 inch snapshot, but in person I could clearly make out the egg on the table. Magritte looking at an egg, painting himself looking at an egg painting a bird. It made me giddy.
What do birds mean to you? Seen any visual jokes lately?
I enjoyed this blog post that argues Magritte isn’t a true surrealist.
Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone was created the same year.
Clarkson, Lida and M. J.. “The Study of Still Life, continued.” Ingall’s Home and Art Mgazine. November 1890 to October 1891: pg 280. Web. April 30, 2014. http://books.google.com/books?id=6bwaAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA280&lpg=PA280&dq=art+lesson+shading+egg&source=bl&ots=Rk_Nf-jIv4&sig=GmnIsEtf-KyI-0CX042EFNn0gR8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=eQBgU5-MA-GI2wWPl4GYAQ&ved=0CGgQ6AEwBzgK#v=onepage&q=art%20lesson%20shading%20egg&f=false