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Magritte, The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe)

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe), 1929 (LACMA) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Voiceover: The Museum of Art, in LACMA, and we're looking at Magritte's The Treachery of Images from 1929 or also called N'est pas une pipe, this is not a pipe. Voiceover: It's a hilarious painting. Voiceover: (chuckles) It is hilarious! It's an incredibly real painting of a pipe. Voiceover: Magritte paints in this incredibly wonderful matter-of-fact, absolutely mundane, illustrative style. Voiceover: Yes, like he was illustrating a catalog. Voiceover: And with the words underneath, it's as if you're looking at one of the flashcards you would have as a child where it would say Voiceover: That would say "pipe" but it says, "This is not a pipe"! Voiceover: That's right. And, of course, he's right, it's not a pipe. It's a painting of a pipe. Voiceover: But it is a pipe. Voiceover: Where is the authority? Do we believe what we're seeing in the veracity of the illustration, the sort of perfect representation of the almost platonic pipe? Voiceover: It's the "or" pipe. Voiceover: It's the "or" pipe, exactly. Or, do we believe the text underneath, which tells us it's not a pipe? Which is stronger, the representation of the thing or the language that denies it? Voiceover: For me? Voiceover: Yeah, for you. Voiceover: The picture of the pipe. Voiceover: The picture of the pipe is more powerful than the language? Voiceover. Yes. Voiceover: That's so interesting because I think for most ... Maybe that's because you're an art historian. Voiceover: Maybe that's why I became an art historian! Voiceover: (chuckles) Maybe so! Voiceover: I believe whatever I see. Voiceover: Because so many people believe what they read and in a sense I think the language has a kind of authority. For me, there's this sort of perfect almost balance and struggle between the two where I just absolutely accept that pipe. It's there. It's this pipe. It's this perfect representation of a pipe. The language is completely denying it and has tremendous authority as well. It's this fantastic tension between that presentation and then that rejection of the presentation. Voiceover: Then of course there's the word "pipe" which is in a way just as much an abstraction from the actual item of the pipe. Voiceover: Ah, okay. So the representation of the pipe is two-fold. There's the representation of the pipe Voiceover: As an image. Voiceover: As an image that's iconic. Voiceover: And then there's the word. Voiceover: This linguistic symbol. Voiceover: Yeah. Voiceover: And they're both not a pipe. Voiceover: They're both not a pipe! (chuckles) Voiceover: That's right. They're both actually ways of representing a pipe or our notion of what that pipe is in somebody's mouth somewhere. Voiceover: What else could this be a picture of? It is a pipe! Voiceover: So you're denying the text. They're both in the painting. Voiceover: Okay, so when Magritte paints this he's clearly challenging this notion of authority and which and what and it's really playful. Voiceover: And also it's challenging the whole illusionistic history of Western art, right? Voiceover: No question about it. And he's doing it again with a kind of faux naturalism, right, with this kind of self-conscious naturalism which really sort of transcends naturalism in its sort of self reference. Voiceover: Perfectly painted and model of a pipe. Voiceover: But also perfectly written text. Because the script is again the kind of didactic script that you would find in a kindergarten classroom, which is really meant to be instructive and meant to be full of authority. So this is a painting really about the denial of authorities of language and representation, isn't it? Voiceover: I guess so. I remember when my daughter was really little and I woke up every morning and she looked at books with pictures just like this one, then pointed and I had to give her the names for things. Voiceover: You could have really screwed her up by giving her a book which said, "This is not a pipe"! (laughs) (jazzy music)