Magritte Words Images Essays

“Words and Images” 1

In 1929, in the last number of La Révolution Surréaliste, René Magritte published a short series of images with captions, under the title “Les Mots et Les Images” (“Words and Images”). This relatively little-known essay explores the relation of line, picture, letter, word, and meaning. It’s a useful starting-point for the topics I want to consider in this seminar, partly because it’s an early effort; partly because it’s a specifically graphical effort; and partly because Magritte concerns himself with just the sort of issues I care about. I’ll post the frames here one by one, with informal comments. (The translations of the captions are my own; Suzi Gablik has published a translation which I’ve read (probably in her Magritte), and the French is pretty simple, so our translations may converge — but I haven’t seen hers in a long time, and have not consulted it in preparing the version I offer here.)

Here’s the first image:

Un objet ne tient pas tellement à son nom qu’on ne puisse lui en trouver un autre qui lui convienne mieux

An object does not adhere to its name such that one could not find for it another which suits it better (I don’t have the French right at hand — I’ll add the original text as soon as I get it.)

This restates the basic structuralist premise about the relation of words to their referents; there’s nothing about a leaf that makes “leaf” a more appropriate word for it than, in this case, “canon” or “cannon.” Words don’t have an ontological relation to their referents.

I’d add — though it’s not an immediate inference from this image — that the relation between words and their referents depends solely on the practical communicative effect of calling a leaf (or whatever) one thing rather than another. If I developed the affectation of calling leaves “cannons,” people who spend a lot of time with me would get used to that and allow for it, while people less well-acquainted with me might be perplexed. The habituation and perplexity don’t derive from the essential characteristics of plant structures specialized for photosynthesis, nor from the letters or phonemes for “leaf” or “cannon.” The meaning of “leaf” or “feuille” is a function of people’s expectations of one another. When those expectations approach a very high degree of predictability, we can freeze them into definitions — but even then, people continue using the words in ways that escape our definitions, and we must either reassess our definitions or try to persuade people not to use words that way.

“I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

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La trahison des images (René Magritte)

Magritte’s best known work by far is of course his drawing of a pipe with the text Ceci n’est pas une pipe. He made several versions over the years, but the work originated in 1928 or 1929. The title Magritte gave to this painting is La trahison des images — the treachery of images.

Less well known is the fact that in the same year, Magritte published an intriguing article in the surrealist journal La révolution surréaliste, entitled Les mots et les images. This article shows that the phenomenon so playfully taken up in La trahison des images was only one element of a larger set of problems in verbal and visual representation occupying Magritte.1 Here’s the first page:

Magritte,  1929, Les mots et les images, p. 32

Magritte’s article offers 18 panels dealing with different aspects of the relation between words, images, and reality. As a succinct overview, it is extremely effective. I have used it in my own work to clarify the distinction between depiction and description.

While Magritte’s 18 sketches have been reproduced in several places (e.g. French version, English version), the original is somewhat hard to find on the interwebs. Which is why I’m sharing it here. Use the JPG versions below, or download the PDF here. Enjoy!

Magritte 1929, p. 32
Magritte 1929, p. 33


Magritte, René. 1929. “Les Mots et les Images.” La Révolution surréaliste 12: 32–33. (PDF)


This entry was posted in Linguistics, Poetry and tagged art, depiction, mostread by mark. Bookmark the permalink.


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