Magritte’s grotesquerie: from fear to pleasure

Creating. My only wish is to be enriched by exciting new ideas. For me, art consists in expressing charm and pleasure. Before the war my works reflected anxiety. Experience of conflict and a load of suffering has taught me that what matters above all is to celebrate joy for the eyes and the mind. It is much easier to terrorize than to charm… I live in a very unpleasant world because of its routine ugliness. That’s why my painting is a battle, or rather a counter-offensive. The world is so strange. And can we ever know the world?

—  René Magritte, 1947

SOURCE: Magritte, René. Magritte Interviewed by Louis Quiévreux, in René Magritte: Selected Writings, edited by Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner, translated by Jo Levy with six pieces translated by Adam Elgar, preface by Sandra Zalman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 108.

[The author contrasts Magritte’s use of the grotesque to the handling of fearful imagery by other surrealist painters.]

Le Portrait, as well as Hommage à Alfonse Allais, demonstrates Magritte’s involvement in a high degree of play — or indeed, the interplay of incongruity at the physical and conceptual levels — to discharge effectively semiotic drives of ‘nonsense effects’ to downplay fear or anxiety, and ultimately to realize the triumph of the pleasure principle over the reality principle in work and in response. [….] In the above two grotesque objects, as in others we shall see, physical incongruity and conceptual incongruity, the realistic and the imaginary, co-operate with each other to engender what Magritte calls ‘le charme de l’étrange’ (‘the spell of the strange’) (p. 460), whose aim it is to fulfil our (un)conscious desire to re-make reality, to transform the physical world.


... I will focus on several grotesque objects that Magritte composed in the 1930s to illustrate at length the ways in which they subordinate fearfulness to playfulness by allowing the interplay of physical incongruity and conceptual incongruity, the literal and the figurative, the dream-work and the joke work, images and their titles. With the predominance of playfulness over fearfulness, of pleasure over pain, Magritte’s grotesque objects inspire the viewer with a humorous attitude towards symbolic prohibition and signification, and materialize the Surrealist triumph of the pleasure principle over the reality principle in work and in response.



If Surrealism, as Breton notes, is indebted to Magritte for conjugating the literal and the figurative to achieve a surréalité, Magritte’s grotesque objects exactly epitomize such a conjugation, or indeed, interplay, of the literal and the figurative. Magritte seeks to arouse not merely visual shock or absurdity (at the literal level) but verbal shock or absurdity (at the figurative level). In so doing, Magritte shows his Surrealist colleagues how to embody a high degree of play in grotesque images — which appear so frequently in the Surrealist destruction of a rational unity — and thereby allow the triumphant reign of the pleasure principle (in work and in response), the ultimate end of Surrealism. If, as Breton has suggested, the purpose of the Surrealist image is to undermine a rational unity and thus give rise to ‘the greatest humour’, then Magritte’s grotesque objects, by producing two levels of humorous or nonsense effects through the interplay of the literal and the figurative, would have a better claim to the title ‘Surrealist’ than those of other Surrealist painters.

SOURCE: Chao, Shun-liang. Rethinking the Concept of the Grotesque: Crashaw, Baudelaire, Magritte. London: Legenda, 2010. Chapter 5: The Surrealist Grotesque: Magritte’s Object Lessons (pp. 130-167), p. 144, 159, 165 (concluding paragraph).

Magritte Study Guide: Links & References

Surrealism: Selected Links


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