Magritte et les Philosophes [“Magritte and the Philosophers”]

Magritte et les Philosophes [“Magritte and the Philosophers”]
Sémir Badir ​​​​​​​

Les Impressions Nouvelles, Brussels, BE, 2021
176 pp. Paper, 16€
ISBN: 978-2-87449-874-9.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
June 2021

Few modern painters are as popular and thoroughly discussed as René Magritte, the major representative of Belgian Surrealism (if not Surrealism tout court). Yet in spite of the general consensus on the historical and cultural value of his work, the properly artistic dimension of Magritte is still open to debate. For many, his subjects and themes are more original and thought-provoking then his style, which may seem somewhat academic and shallowly old-fashioned (those who don’t like Magritte even call him a Sunday painter). This judgment is a blatant case of misreading, however, not because it is always possible to reinterpret Magritte’s style as a kind of tongue-in-cheek rebuttal of many pseudo-innovations or revolutions, but because aesthetic is not really –or better: really not– what is at stake in Magritte’s work. Actually, Magritte didn’t like to paint (perhaps a characteristic he shared, yet in a completely different domain, with Hitchcock, who also preferred the preparation of a movie to the actual shooting), and the artist has never ceased to claim that his visual creations are essentially a form of thinking in and with images. Granted, this conceptual or philosophical dimension of the painter of “This Is Not a Pipe” (1928-1929) or “The Human Condition” (1933 and 1935) has never been ignored or denied. However, this book by Sémir Badir, a Liège-based specialist of epistemology and semiology, is perhaps the very first to take this dimension very seriously.

To study the “thinker” Magritte, the simplest solution has always been to examine the body of his own writings on the meaning as well as ambitions of his paintings and to check the reading of these texts –since many years easily available in a careful edition by André Blavier (see the various editions of the Écrits complets [“Complete Writings”]) – by complementing them with the essays of those who institutionalized Magritte as a painter-thinker (the first name that comes here to mind is of course that of Paul Nougé, the central figure of Belgian Surrealism and a powerful promoter of the non-aesthetic, that is political as well as philosophical interpretation of Surrealism in Belgium and elsewhere). Although easy and pleasant to read, Magritte’s texts are not always very clear, while voices such as that of Nougé are always in danger of twisting the intervention of the painter in a certain direction, despite the extreme closeness, at least in the 1920s and 30s, of Magritte and Nougé (the latter often coming up in these years with the title of the former’s paintings).

Sémir Badir’s approach is quite different and in all its apparent simplicity dramatically far-reaching. The author takes Magritte’s writing on art as the point of departure of his investigation, but rather than trying to sort out the real or hidden meaning of these self-comments by close-reading them and eventually applying them to the images awaiting interpretation, Badir reads the visual material through the lens of concepts and questions borrowed from a series of great Western philosophers (and by the way, most of them were actively read and annotated by Magritte himself): Plato, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Sartre, and Foucault (the structure of the book is crystal-clear: It follows a chronological line and after the brief introduction devotes one chapter to each philosopher). The aim of this confrontation is not to “match” Magritte and this or that philosopher, but to examine to what extent certain philosophical ideas can help disclose and elucidate the properly philosophical nature of Magritte’s painting. Thus Wittgenstein is the guide in tackling the difference between saying and showing; Sartre, the searchlight shining on the notion of an image as the negation of a certain object or reality; Plato, a stepping stone in the reflection on visuality and ideality; Kant, the source of a renewed debate on presentation versus representation; Hegel, a landmark in rethinking the role and place of freedom in the historical evolution of an art; Nietzsche, the unavoidable reference in Magritte’s struggle with questions of truth and lie; and, finally, Foucault proves to be the best possible way to wrap up this philosophical trajectory by returning to the analogies and differences between words and images (a problem already introduced in the chapter on Wittgenstein). All these concepts are then used in the close-reading of works whose status can widely vary: Some of them are considered masterpieces; others are generally discarded as shameful errors, silly jokes, and cynical mystifications. Yet in all these cases, relying on key philosophical interrogations allows Sémir Badir to display the thought processes materialized in the paintings.

Although always very cautious and meticulous while systematically refraining from jargon and overinterpretation (like all good philosophers, Sémir Badir is more keen in asking questions than in giving answers), this book is never pedant. It avoids the pitfalls of the a posteriori philosophical explanation of the naïve artist who “did not know what he was doing” (sic). Instead Badir uses philosophy, that is concepts and problems rather than full-fledged systems, to make more explicit the actual work of the painter-thinker as shaped in his works. The book is not an attempt to prove that Magritte is an Hegelian or a Platonist, for instance. It is an exercise in critical thinking that shows how deeply philosophical Magritte’s paintings are and, perhaps, what even the finest of philosophers as well as their pupils and critics can learn from him.