Readings — From the September 2016 issue

This is Not a Painter

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From a conversation between André Gomez and René Magritte, a Surrealist painter. The interview was conducted in Paris in 1948 for the Radio Suisse Romande and collected in René Magritte: Selected Writings, which was published this month by the University of Minnesota Press. Translated from the French by Jo Levy.

andré gomez: My dear Magritte, how did you get into painting?

rené magritte: Allow me to ask you: what do you mean by that question?

gomez: Well, the widest possible meaning, that is, How did you come to give up other material means of expression and stick to painting?

magritte: I could quite well answer: I did this and that, a series of movements in time. But that wouldn’t tell you how.

gomez: Yes it would, since you did, at a particular time in your life, decide to give up writing, music, or poetry in order to paint.

magritte: But I didn’t give up anything at all.

gomez: You began by painting?

magritte: Listen, between ourselves, if you asked me how I happen to be blond rather than dark, to have fair hair rather than black hair, I couldn’t answer.

gomez: I understand, because in that case you had no choice, but all the same, you did at a particular time in your life say, “I am going to paint,” and you started to paint.

magritte: Ah, well, don’t you see that I had no choice, no more than I could choose the color of my hair. It happened. I don’t know how it happened. I have always painted. I really don’t remember how it came about.

gomez: You never went to school, you —

magritte: Ah! Obviously, I ended up going to school, but that’s a manner of speaking.

gomez: I’d like to ask you, if you don’t mind, to give us a few facts, a few words about your participation in the Surrealist group.

magritte: Do you know that the word “Surrealism” doesn’t mean anything to me now? Like the word “God,” for example: it’s a word used to sum up or shake off a worry. It is simply useful to say, “Yes, that’s surrealist; yes, God did that,” then we know where we are.

gomez: Yes, but —

magritte: The word means nothing to me, I can’t use the word.

gomez: Yes, but it is nonetheless true that for a certain time this group whose name I shan’t pronounce did have an important influence on the period and individuals, from the literary as well as the pictorial point of view, and it enabled painters to break away from old, more or less mistaken formulas and give us —

magritte: I dare say, but don’t you think it is the painters, poets, and writers themselves who freed themselves from formulas, who created new ways of thinking, it isn’t the word —

gomez: Of course, they invented the word to express their ideas.

magritte: Certainly, yes.

gomez: Now I also want to ask you how you see contemporary painting, the direction and future of painting.

magritte: I’m sorry, I’m going to be frank. Painting bores me. Painting is one of those activities that doesn’t seem to me to change anything in life, it’s always the same old habits.

gomez: No more interesting than that?

magritte: A painter is a good draftsman, and I see his picture. Well, that can’t help me any more than the carpenter who’s done a good job on his table.

gomez: Who are the painters that satisfy you, if I may put it like that? Whom do you especially like?

magritte: No one, my dear sir, no one.

gomez: Since the world began.

magritte: Since the world began, yes.

gomez: But don’t you think men like Courbet, or like Ingres, or like Cézanne, or like Renoir, or, closer to our own times, Picasso, have contributed something, however little, something important to painting?

magritte: Of course, relatively. It’s important in the art world, obviously. Picasso, Ingres, Courbet are great figures, but the world could get on just as well without them.

gomez: Do you think that you could have painted as you are painting today if Courbet hadn’t painted as he did, or if the Impressionists hadn’t liberated painting from the studio?

magritte: Perhaps not.

gomez: If Surrealism hadn’t allowed the imagination to show something different from what we normally see in painting —

magritte: Listen, I think I probably wouldn’t have painted in the style I use now, but I think I would still have tried to create new sensations.

gomez: Yes, but doesn’t every painter try to create new sensations?

magritte: Oh no, I don’t think so.

gomez: Photographic painters, I’d say. But I don’t think you can really call that painting.

magritte: Some people do.

gomez: But I don’t think that kind of painting helped today’s artists to free themselves.

magritte: I think that what has helped to free these painters from their chains is — a certain freedom.

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