The Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) is referenced frequently in pop culture: you’ve got the 1999 re-make of The Thomas Crown Affair, the turkey with bowler hat against a baby-blue sky with clouds on Alton Brown’s TV series Good Eats; the poster for the movie Toys. In fact, it would be easy to say that any time you’ve seen the following items separately or in random combinations, you’re seeing quotations of Magritte: bowler hats, blue sky/white clouds, black umbrellas, horses, green apples, pipes, faceless men in grey suits and neckties. Paris Bottman’s rabbits on flying fish against powder blue skies with sharply-defined white clouds (a card illustrator, waterier than Mary Englebreit, high on whimsy) or against a sky that rains carrots? That’s reminiscent of Magritte, too. Magritte’s iconography has become a vocabulary we all recognize, even if we fail to know to whom to attribute it.
If nothing else, there’s the pipe (The Treachery of Images): Come on, you’ve seen it. It’s a brown pipe against a cream background with script in French at the bottom telling you “this is not a pipe” (Ceci n’est pas une pipe). In the way that, in the twenties and thirties, building on Picasso’s newspapers and the long history of still-life painting, commercial items found their way into high art (a deliberate wink at the difference between “high” art and mass production), the pipe is a relative of Stuart Davis’ painting of Lucky Strikes. Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans would not have existed without Magritte’s pipe. I prefer Magritte’s pipe. Not that you asked.
The point being: Magritte’s symbols have become iconic and familiar. They are totems of modernity. They are object lessons in anonymity and isolation, as emotionally dense as Edward Hopper’s contemporary lobbies and midnight lunch counters, even as they are aesthetically distant. Too, if Magritte was quoting sadness or isolation or a stark existentialism, he always seemed to have a sense of humor about it, or at least wit and cleverness. This was a canny painter, prone to quoting Caillebotte and commercial art alike, and Gallic-shrugging his way through it, as much Louis Jourdain (think the candelabra in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) as Albert Camus.
And while my favorite works by Magritte are not the same ones most commonly referenced —see The Lost Jockey (gouache 1948), Empire of Light, and Le blanc-seing (The Blank Check) — I confess myself helpless when confronted with umbrellas, clouds, pristine apples, and solitary horses among topiary trees.
Apparently the florist and design staff at the Aria in Las Vegas feel the same. Their August displays were a heady tribute to the symbols of Magritte. As clever as Magritte was, these florists aren’t slouching: clouds made of crysanthemums, with wooden umbrella handles or raining glass beads; a horse that is the sky and wearing the bowler hat. Topiaries as crisp and solitary as the best of Magritte and the only thing missing was the pipe.
It’s easy to gloss over Magritte as “too popular;” as the light-hearted twin of De Chirico, as a witty but repetitive commercial artist, a “pop artist” before the term became a compliment. But I disagree. I think there is something in Magritte that is more Godot than Godot; more Camus than Camus, and somehow more tender and as affecting as Hopper. There is a genius to The Blank Check I almost cannot bear: the way Magritte plays with vision and vertical lines while quoting the High Renaissance. Well, it speaks to me. The shorthand of umbrellas and clouds and hats speaks to me. It’s so difficult to know what will last, art-wise, what will continue to be relevant in five hundred years. Will it be the Warhol soup cans? The Hockney swimming pool? Will it be Jeff Koons’ rhinestoned and life-size plaster Pink Panther?
Or will it be Magritte and his pipe? His apple? His clouds? His lost jockeys among winter trees, wearing a coat of red? I hope so. And a tiny part of me wishes that the Aria’s evergreens and its mum-clouds and its fiberglass, brilliant cerulean horse could be a footnote.
People are funny. It’ll be the stupid soup cans or Duchamp’s famous/infamous Fountain.
In my lifetime, it’s the Magritte. It’s just possible that someone in the design department at the Aria feels exactly the same.