The Magritte Matrix- Exploring the Window Motif
Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Windows have been used as a metaphor to explain the process of looking into or through a frame- in much the same way we do with paintings. This similarity was first presented by the Renaissance theorist, Leon Battista Alberti in his book, "On Painting" Published in 1435. Alberti, a Florentine architect inspired many artists of the Italian Renaissance with his how to book, full of practical and theoretical advice. I recall the director of the art school I attended, William Falkler first mentioning this idea to me and explaing that the frame on a painting could also suggest the frame of a window.
Since the Renaissance the idea of a painting serving as a window has obtained good purchase with many other artists, including most famously perhaps, Rene Magritte, the surrealist painter from Belgium (1898-1967.) The work of his that caputures our attention mostly is his canvas of 1933, titled, "The Human Condition." This canvas is an intriguing commentary on the very nature of representation. In fact, it presents a conundrum of sorts that engages the viewer into a contemplation of- what is real- the image on the canvas or the landscape behind seen through the window, which of course is also a depiction. This tromp l'oeil game or fool-the-eye trickery of this highly realistic image adds to the questions invoked by the concept. The title, "The Human Condition" is equally open-ended and ellicits more questions than answers.
I love Magrite's work and have found these explorations very compelling and engaging. They could be regarded as visual puns and rhymes which contain a certain lightness that makes us smile. I've been fascinated by them since I first encountered them in art history courses back at Keystone College in the early 1970's. These works were very much in sync with the era as the 60's and 70's, which were replete with such sensibilities in song, verse, art and literature- it permeated the culture. Years later the theme of the window seemed worth exploring in my own work. So a series of these window-inspired images were created- a couple of large ones in pastel and at least one in oil.
Some of us will recall that wonderful movie from the 1990's, The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Pierce Brosnan or maybe even the original from 1968 with Steve McQueen. The latter version had wonderful scenes filmed to look like the Metorpolitian Musuem of Art in NYC, filled with dozens of bowler-capped men, confounding the authorities. The visage of the bowler-capped art thiefs- was purloined from another famous Magritte painting. Hence art inspires art.
Just this week, one of these window images, "The Sonata" was selected by the editor of the Ithaca Times for an upcoming cover of the arts section of this weekly paper. He was attracted to it by perusing my website. Another intrepretation of the window theme from the early 1990's was chosen for the September issue of American Artist Magazine of that year, by the editor, Stephen Doherty. This was a huge thrill at the time, to have my work gracing the cover of a national magazine. Sadly that long-standing art magazine was absorbed and discontinued.
The Sonata piece was initially inspired by a group of classical musicians who were playing in a restaurant- in an open window area in Greenwich Village. As I was walking past, I stopped to listen and take some photos which were later used as reference. I reinterpreted the images by using a bird's eye view of the cello player in the group. Then, I incorporated a chipping sparrow as the main protagonist of sorts, carrying a magenta ribbon through the canvases and into the sky. I may have had Ralph Vaughan Williams' composition, The Lark Ascending in mind as I did this. The setting is in a field with a farm in the background with setting sun in the distance. Part of the appeal and challenge for this type of painting is that space and vantage point are all invented. Yes, reference material was used, but the overall scene was invented. This visualization included the play of light and shadow as well as the perspective. Speaking of the perspective, in the Sonata, it uses a curvilinear type of exaggerated or distorted perspective- similar to that afforded by a wide-angle or fisheye lens. A similar perspective, where the orthogonal lines bend is also used in the still life painting with the three crows shown here.
In this pastel, three different canvas shapes were used- showing them on easels to possibly inspire the cellist. The canvases could be windows too- the interpretation is somewhat up to the viewer.
The other piece mentioned above that was used for the American Artist Magazine was created in a similar way, but with an entirely different concept. This one featured a self-portrait where I showed myself standing at the easel in my studio. On the canvas however, is a depiction of the Susquehanna River at Sugar Run in the background. This was a favorite locale from which I enjoyed painting and still do. That location has become under assualt by a fracking-related company in recent years, an LNG operation. So that is unfortunate development, but yes, another story.
But back to the painting- This work has a title that I thought further supported and added to the possible intrigue of the painting. I titled it "Auspicium" which was that ancient Roman place for finding divination or how the Gods speak to us through the reading or interpreting the flight of birds. It is related auspicious, as well, which has a positve connotation- with message that bodes well. As the painting features herons it further supported the idea.
Most of these works were initiated without an agenda or a specific goal. They came about rather playfully with just a simple idea coming to mind and then explored with very loose sketches. They might even be thought of as a visual expression of the stream of consciousness idea- which is being open to what occurs and sometimes editing or reworking as the works develop.
In recent years I have returned to the window theme again- this time with a more traditionalist type sensibility. These recent works have been still life paintings. Most were done here as arrangements in our home, but a couple of others painted int he Tuscan hilltown of Poppi- a village in the Casentino Mountain area east of Florence.
We open windows to view the beyond and allow the fresh air into our living spaces along with the light of the out of doors. A transition point, an interface of our worlds- a spatial extension- the open window allows for all of these. A close up, a view of a still life arranged on a table and view of the the out of doors - from close space to distant landscapes and clouds- the greater depth of field and increased optic are all part of the appeal. And of course the variety of light, the cool indoor light and the warmth of the late afternoon sun offering contrast and an opportunity to observe the inner and outer. and allow the fresh air into our living spaces along with the light of the out of doors. A transition point, an interface of our worlds- a spatial extension- the open window allows for all of these. A close up, a view of a still life arranged on a table and view of the the out of doors - from close space to distant landscapes and clouds- the greater depth of field and increased optic are all part of the appeal. And of course the variety of light, the cool indoor light and the warmth of the late afternoon sun offering contrast and an opportunity to observe the inner and outer.
There other pictorial methods related to the window device used by painters that are worth mentioning in closing, those being the painting viewed as a doorway, theatre stage or even a mirror. We see the stage concept used by Vermeer and other painters of the Dutch Golden age. This theatre conception was achieved by including a curtain shown pulled to the side- as if the scene had just been revealed to an audience.
Several of the paintings included in this essay are available at the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY. www.northstarartgallery.com