God bless the USO, without which we would not have cheap bus tours to world capitals from our neck of the woods. We went to Brussels over the weekend with one such tour group, an experience in itself. Normally, I love to show up in a foreign city, hit the ground with my own two feet, exploring and seeing only the things I want to see. However, there is something to be said for having stress-free bus transportation and we still got to spend half the time there on our own.
And then there was the tour guide, providing endless entertainment every time she used the word “artesian” to describe chocolates, lace, and beer. Later, as we dined, we couldn’t resist asking one another, “So, do you think these are real, arte-e-e-e-sian mussels?” And finally, later on the bus, punch drunk and giggling, we fell to quoting Inigo Mantoya: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” (I am really not trying to be mean… I’m the person who recently used the word “gentile” when I really meant “genteel,” because I tend to have these lapses. It was just kind of funny.)
All hilarity aside, my favorite thing in Brussels was the Magritte Museum. What can I say about René Magritte, other than that his last name does not have two “r’s,” as our tour guide seemed to think?
For me, his best work achieves the highest aspiration of art: the perfect distillation of mystery. Poetic and ineffable, it touches the void.
Take his preoccupation with jingle bells. As an object in the real world, a jingle bell is a cheerful thing, but latent with symbolism. Visually, the slit which breaks up what would otherwise be a sphere, hints at a dark unknowing within… and yet it is from there the jingle bell’s ringing emanates. As a named object, it is forever linked with the sound it makes and whatever feelings and signals we associate with that sound. Magritte was always looking to highlight these visual and linguistic relationships, even as he worked to subvert them, teaching us that all language and visual meaning is arbitrary and malleable.
Ultimately, all is one. Leaves stand in for trees and vice versa, birds can be leaves, the sky can be a bird, and a pipe is not a pipe. Even 90 years after he first started to paint, Magritte’s work can defy comprehension.
The Magritte Museum in Brussels is a special treat because the exhibit weaves biographical information with the paintings and numerous quotes line the walls between the works, illuminating his journey as an artist.
Like all artists, Magritte at times strayed from his usual concerns to experiment with new styles. He tried his hand at impressionistic painting in the late 1940s, but he ultimately returned again and again to the same themes and motifs. This got me thinking about the journey of all artists and the Zen proverb, which states, “for the beginner there are many paths. For the advanced, few.”
And another Zen teaching saying:
When you start on a long journey, trees are trees, water is water, and mountains are mountains. After you have gone some distance, trees are no longer trees, water no longer water, mountains no longer mountains. But after you have traveled a great distance, trees are once again trees, water is once again water, mountains are once again mountains.
Magritte was a forerunner of conceptual art, pioneering a new consideration of the meanings of images and words. He also used images to help us think about the mystery of life. My favorite piece in the museum is L’Empire des Lumiéres (1954). Day and night are both represented in the painting simultaneously, but the juxtaposition is not front-and-center. Rather, the contrast remains in the background as a mood-setting device. The real focus is on the mysterious emissions of light from an otherwise dark and lonely house. It is one of the most realistic and representational pieces in the museum, and yet it is also the most elusive.