The Treachery Of Images

On this journey we will explore text and images or vice versa. When we look at images we tend to take them for what the are, at face value almost. Once we introduce text, whether as a caption, title, or  as a part of the image, it can have a significant affect on how we read the image.

For this particular exploration I will use the work of one of my favourite artists to illustrate the point, Magritte PortraitRene Magritte, a Belgian surrealist painter.

Magritte may not have had the commercial flair, or lust for money, of Salvador Dali, or the strangeness of Max Ernst, or indeed for that matter the weirdness of Paul Delvaux, but for me he is probably the most provocative of the surrealists.

“I do not like money, either for itself or for what it can buy, since I want nothing we know about.”
Rene Magritte.

Magritte painted images that are so subtle in their execution that the very ordinariness of the scene can be its most striking attribute.

It can take quite some time before the message sinks in.

Very very subtle. 

Unlike other Surrealist  artists, Magritte’s style is highly realistic, but this realism is a sucker punch, it only undermines the authority and certainty of  ‘appearance’ – of our understanding of the external world. 

BrandtAs Magritte himself puts it:

“We see the world as being outside ourselves, although it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves.”

In 1948 Magritte produced his thought provoking The Treachery of Images ( This is not a pipe). This painting demonstrates the artists attempt to have the viewer question their reality.

The painting portrays a large single pipe, against a beige background, and at the bottom of the painting, is written –

“This is not a pipe.”


The point that Magritte was making  is simple: the painting is not a pipe; it is an Image of a pipe. Simple but also very complex when you think about it. Visual representation depends on resemblance, this seems to be a case when it really does matter what the meaning of is is.

When Magritte was asked if the painting was a pipe, he replied that of course it is not a pipe, and suggested that they try to stuff it with tobacco and smoke it.


He used the same technique in a painting of an apple, portraying a large green apple, with the line “This is not an apple.”

Well try eating the apple…


In the Second Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1929, Magritte offered 18 sketches, each illustrating a supposed three-way relationship with words and reality.

His intention with this series  was to introduce the theme running through all of Magritte’s artistic output, the ambiguity of the connections between real objects, their image and their name.

Lets have a look at this series in more detail.

mot1An object is not so attached to its name that one cannot find for it another one which is more suitable

       We can translate the handwritten words ‘le canon’ as the ‘the gun’ but could this be Magritte, with his sense of humor, engaging in word play, ‘the canon’, the ‘thing setting the standard’?  


mot2There are objects which can do without a name :

The French word for the rowing boat or little boat  is ‘canot’

– another play on words…?

A word sometimes servesmot3 only to designate itself:

We can translate Ciel’ as sky…

but also Ciel, a tincture in heraldry also called  bleu celeste or celeste (sky-blue).

An object encounters its image, mot4and objects encounters its name. It happens that the image and the name of this object encounter each other.

Can’t see the wood for the trees?

mot5Sometimes the name of an object occupies the place of an image

A hand, a box and a rock, but why the handwritten word canon again?


A word can take the placemot6 of an object in reality:

 ‘Sunshine’. Or ‘the sun’ if you like. Does it link to the next image?

An image can take themot7 place of a word in a sentence.

Well, yes, but logically the sun should be hidden, no?

An object can suggest thatmot8 there are other objects behind it.

Do you wonder what is behind the wall?

Everything tends to make us think that mot9there is little relationship between an object and that which represents it.

Confusingly, the ‘real’ and the ‘representation’ are of course the same here…

The words which serve to indicate two different objectsmot10 do not show what may divide these objects from one another.

The ‘surreal’ labelling in French translates as ‘person with memory loss’ and ‘woman’s body’.

In a painting the words aremot11 of the same substance as the images.

But are they?

You can perceive words and images mot12differently in a painting.

Is Magritte saying a new meaning can be created by juxtapositions like this?

A shape can replace the imagemot13 of an object for any reason.

A very confusing play on shapes here…

An object never serves the same purposemot14 as either its name or its image does.

The man is calling his horse – or is he calling his horse ‘horse’?

Sometimes the visible shapes of objects,mot15 in real life, form a mosaic.

René seems to have drifted somewhat from his original theme here…

Vague or unclear shapes have a precise significancemot16 every bit as necessary as that of perfect shapes.

Again, the example has left language slightly out of the debate. But the point could be extended…

Sometimes, the names written in a picture designatemot17  precise things, while the images are vague.

Well… yes… but not  that pesky canon again…….

Or equally, mot18the opposite:

But is the word ‘fog’ imprecise?

” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1

Cartoon 1

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