Magritte: invention, imitation, meaning, ars combinatoria

René Magritte to Harry Torczyner
on Imitation, Invention, & Meaning

[. . .] I can state categorically that the cultural offensive I have in mind should be viewed “positively,” that is, not consisting in such “comparisons” as, for example, the one that I used in conversation with you, casually, when I merely noted that the imitated is being taken for the imitator. That refers to a kind of anecdote, amusing to us, but likely to be taken too seriously by the public. Indeed, the public has a habit of zeroing in on the anecdotal side of History. It is best not to cater to such habits if one means to “work” in a less mechanical manner. If one goes on the offensive, then one must truly attack such habits by stressing the things that are usually ignored. When I think of painting, it is, de facto, opening an offensive against such habits, even though I don’t actually have that in mind. De jure, it’s solely a question of ideas that, by their nature, cannot really be discussed.

As illustration, an isolated example, I take one of my pictures: “La Découverte du feu” [The Discovery of Fire], which depicts a burning iron key (another picture shows a burning trumpet). Nobody had ever thought of that before, or, at least, nobody had ever mentioned it in writing, speaking or painting. The “anecdotal” history might reveal that a few years after the birth of this picture Dalí painted a burning giraffe, and that owing to an intensive publicity campaign he is the one who is believed to have invented the notion of an unusual burning object. Thus, the “anecdote”' misses the point, it is ignorant of the invention in its purity, its measure, it only takes into account a superfluous exaggeration that waters down the precise vigor of the original invention. To avoid falling into this error, any “positive” offensive—in the case of “La Découverte du feu”—must only aim to enlighten, it must not concern itself with what happens elsewhere, with the clumsy uses to which the notion of a burning object may be put. This clumsiness, or, rather, this unintelligence, reduces great things to small things, the unknown to the known, following a practice that is the opposite of any true act of Mind. In confirmation of this, the public’s interest in current plans to inspect the Moon is right in line with this habit of reducing and mixing things up: people want to reduce the mysterious to something knowable and the familiar feeling we have with regard to things of which we are ignorant (for example: the mystery of the exact number of fleas on the youngest lion in the bush or the complete “lunography”) then gets confused with the non-familiar feeling of mystery (for example, the mystery inherent in the comfortable room in which one sits to smoke one’s pipe).

“Anecdote” interests the good folk who learn from it that Racine was unpopular in his day and that another so-called poet who is forgotten today was greatly admired. However, those good persons do riot know Racine any better (I am not Racine, notwithstanding the tacit obligation to be).

As for the munitions our armies require, I must admit that the only kind I can provide are . . . the pictures I can paint. These are demanding, and I have just enough strength to satisfy them, + or  .

SOURCE: Magritte, René. Letter to Harry Torczyner, 24 January 1959 (excerpt), in Magritte/ Torczyner: Letters Between Friends, translated from the French by Richard Miller, introduction by Sam Hunter (New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1994), pp. 35-36.

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