When first I came across René Magritte’s famous painting La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), which says underneath a pipe in French “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”: “This is not a pipe,” I was quite confused. Of course it is a pipe. Just look at the painting!
I propose a simple test to check whether or not it actually is a pipe: put something in the pipe and smoke it. You can’t? Why not? If not a pipe, then what is it?
Rene Magritte wrote, “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!”
A meta-painting, like this one, reminds the viewer that they are not looking at natural objects in the real world. This then is the treachery of images: we confuse the object with its representation.
Magritte further complicated in his meta-painting of his notorious meta-painting: Les deux mystères (The Two Mysteries).
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(For more fun, check out some parodies of the painting: “This is Not a Pipe” Parodies.
Read more about meta-paintings in my posts Las Meninas: A Meta-Paining, Abstract Paintings are Meta-Paintings, Halfway: A Meta-Painting by Tofu St. John, and The Lack of Blank Spaces: Cage’s 4’33” and Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings.”
Read about meta-murals in these posts: The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City: Diego Rivera’s Meta-Mural, A Meta-Mural on Clarion Alley: Lo Llevas por Dentro by Jet Martinez, Repainting the Tenderloin: Mona Caron’s Meta-Mural “Windows Into the Tenderloin.”
Read these excellent posts from Museo del Prado: Meta-Painting: A Journey to the Idea of Art and Steffan Shaffeld: Part Three: Exercises 3.3: Meta-Pictures, and read the book The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting.)
8 thoughts on “If Not a Pipe, Then What?: Magritte’s Meta-Painting The Treachery of Images”
We’re not just looking at a painting; I think more importantly we’re looking at a representation or even more specifically an interpretation- we are looking at what a pipe means to renè Magritte; for this may not in fact be a pipe to some people who are of a different time/ place/ experience.
c.f. Michel Foucault’s “Ceci N’Est Pas Une Pipe” (1983 University of California Press, isbn 0-520-04916-0) for more on the intersection of 20th c. art the philosophy of language.
Good point, C-Mo. My pipes look quite different. Thanks for the reference Kt!
That image up there is neither a pipe nor a painting.
Specifically what I am looking at are some red, yellow, and blue (I think) lights all combined together to make colors in a shape that I recognize. But I am only looking at colored lights. From that I make my interpretation of what it symbolizes.