René Magritte likes to mess with people. None of his paintings make much sense at first sight, but this one – ‘The Treachery of Images’ – must be one of the most frustrating and confusing ones he’s created. The pipe is set in front of our eyes with its complete pipe-like glory: clear, definite contours, an accurate sense of perspective and some skillful shading leave no ambiguity. Yet, the same matter-of-fact expression appears in the didactic words under the pipe written with a clear hand: you are wrong; this is not a pipe.
Why? Here’s what Magritte told us after painting this in 1929:
“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe”, I’d have been lying!”
You could try and be happy with that answer, but it doesn’t do justice to the painting. There is a metaphysical divide between the three sides of Magritte’s pipe that can be seen under the light of Ancient Greek philosophy: the metaphysical idea of the perfect pipe, a physical pipe which is a representation of this ideal of the pipe in the physical world, and the painting of the pipe – an image of the physical or the ideal pipe created by Magritte. These distinctions stem from the theory of the forms by the famous Greek philosopher Plato. Plato argued that objects as they existed in the physical world were simply manifestations of perfect, immutable, metaphysical ideas that exist independent of humans and are the origin of all human knowledge. Plato would argue that any pipe maker would have to look at the ideal of the pipe and try repeat what he sees in an actual pipe, and that the closer the two are the better the pipe maker’s pipe would be.
What Magritte does with the connection to the Platonic ideal is unclear: ‘The Treachery of Imagers’ might be a reminder that the perfect forms of Plato are forever unreachable for humans and that we must be wary of their incomplete images in the world; it might be a refusal of the ideals and a declaration that a pipe’s reality can only come from its material existence; it might even be a puzzle without an answer created only to get us confused. No matter what its purpose was, Magritte’s painting never fails to get a confused, skeptical second look from anyone who sees it.
René Magritte – Other Works