Face Making

Le blog de l’artiste peintre franco-américaine Gwenn Seemel. Les articles sont en anglais et en français, et souvent ils sont bilingues.


2008 . 07 . 31 - Comments / Commentaires (2)

I used to hate-hate-hate Surrealism. A bunch of navel-gazing process-oriented half-baked Freudian gobbledigook was how I described it. But then I took a semester in Paris in 2002, and the city was going through a maddening six month long celebration of Surrealism. Every museum was doing retrospectives and introspectives and lack-of-perspectives: I couldn’t think clearly with all the Oedipus complexes invading my very soul! I was annoyed. Like the time I visited DC and the National Portrait Gallery was closed, I felt stupid for not having planned my visit better. 

And then, to make matters worse (better?), I was in mime class one day, and my new-found teacher/guru/god, Ella, was (as usual) dispensing pearls of wisdom with withering clarity, when, quite suddenly, she asked what the single most important cultural innovation had been in the twentieth century. The answer shocked me more than the so-assertive question: it was Surrealism. It had changed all the rules.  Everything was permissible now because of it.

Magritte's Le viol

René Magritte’s The Rape 1934

And it’s true. Once Ella pointed it out to me, I couldn’t stop seeing the influences of Surrealism in every aspect of society. For one thing, modern advertising often uses juxtaposition, the Surreal recombination of the everyday, to put products in a consumable light.

She’d convinced me: I would put away my natural dislike and take a closer look at this movement. I started with René Magritte’s work. Ever since I’d seen The Rape in an art history lecture, I had had a bit of a crush on the Belgian painter. He may have been a Surrealist, but this piece persuaded me that he was something more than his colleagues.

So I took special care when I came across Magritte’s work and I began looking into his theories about art. He said that “the real value of art is in its ability to provide revelations which free the viewer.” He grounded his work in the everyday things which he painted, but, by forcing those familiar objects to interact in strange or fantastic ways, he lent the commonplace an aura of mystery.* He made people look again at the world around them.

I could see that in his work, and I wasn’t the only one. Magritte is the best known of the Surrealists. In the US (specifically in Texas), where he earned his first real successes, he’s even better known than Salvador Dali. Magritte was actually a little too “pop” for his compatriots—his wide appeal shocked those elitists to their pansy core. Maybe that’s why I like his work so well!

a Bourgeois drawing from 1947

Louise Bourgeois’ Untitled 1947

And then, one way or another, I stumbled on Louise Bourgeois’ work. She’s an American artist, but born French, and she has only fairly recently been reclaimed by the land of her birth. Thirteen years Magritte’s junior in life and more like twenty years behind him in her career, Bourgeois doesn’t qualify as a Surrealist proper. She’s just like the rest of us, exploring the territory the Surrealists opened up. Something in this sculptor/printmaker’s work got to me, starting with her drawings (like the one above). I devoured her images and writings** along with Magritte’s.

Bourgeois' Quarantania I and Magritte's La rencontre

Louise Bourgeois’ Quarantania I 1947-1953
René Magritte’s The Encounter 1926

And that’s when I started to notice this funny little thing about these two completely unrelated artists.

Bourgeois' Cell (Choisy II) and Magritte's L'eloge de la dialectique

Louise Bourgeois’ Cell (Choisy II) 1995
René Magritte’s The Praise Of The Dialectic 1936

Their work was surprisingly similar.

Bourgeois' J'y suis, j'y reste and Rene Magritte's La revelation du present

Louise Bourgeois’ I’m Here, I Stay Here 1990
René Magritte’s The Revelation Of The Present 1936

They both worshiped at the church of juxtaposition.

Bourgeois' Cell (three white marble spheres) and Magritte's L'ombre monumentale

Louise Bourgeois’ Cell (Three White Marble Spheres) 1993
René Magritte’s The Monumental Shadow 1932

Juxtaposition is their work.

Bourgeois' Untitled (with foot,

Louise Bourgeois’ Untitled (with foot, “do you love me”) 1989
René Magritte’s The Secret Life 1928

And I couldn’t help but juxtapose the two of them!

Bourgeois' The age of condom come and Magritte's Saucisse casquee

Louise Bourgeois’ The Age Of Condom Come 1989
René Magritte’s Helmeted Sausage 1929

It was an odd sort of match since the way that they talked about their work was so different. 

Bourgeois' Fillette, and Magritte's Le printemps eternel and Le premier jour

Louise Bourgeois’ Little Girl 1968
René Magritte’s The Eternal Springtime 1937 and The First Day 1943

Their influences and reasoning couldn’t have been more disparate in some ways, yet here they were producing eerily complementary work. (Note the title of Bourgeois’ piece.)

Bourgeois' Single III and Magritte's Lola de Valence

Louise Bourgeois’ Single III 1997
René Magritte’s Lola Of Valence 1948

I was discovering all sorts of things in the space between their oeuvres. But, just as their visuals set my imagination on fire, their writings—the words in and about the work—were ruining it for me. 

Bourgeois' Untitled (chair) and Magritte's Ceci est un morceau de fromage

Louise Bourgeois’ Untitled (chair) 1998
René Magritte’s The Is A Piece Of Cheese 1937

I became convinced that words and images were not a volatile mix: they were a cancellation combination. These artists’ words were stopping me from seeing their art as I wanted to see it.

a Bourgeois drawing from 1947 and Magritte's Le pan de la nuit

Louis Bourgeois Untitled 1947
René Magritte’s The Tail Of The Night1965

I couldn’t get the opposite things they said out of my head, so their works stopped talking to each other for me.

Bourgeois' Henriette and Magritte's Le puits des verites

Louise Bourgeois’ Henriette 1985
René Magritte’s The Well Of Truths 1967

I ended up writing a paper about this journey of mine for my art theory class at Paris VII.

Bourgeois' The Guilty Girl Is Fragile and Magritte's La philosophie dans le boudoir

Louise Bourgeois’ The Guilty Girl Is Fragile 2000
René Magritte’s Philosophy In The Boudoir 1947

And I expanded on the paper the next year for my senior thesis at Willamette University.

Bourgeois' No Exit and Magritte's La lecture defendue

Louise Bourgeois’ No Exit 1989
René Magritte’s Reading Forbidden or Forbidden Reading 1936

By the time I graduated from college, I was near-rabid about how words had no place in visual art, how they didn’t allow viewers to experience the work their own way but instead forced an interpretation on them. As Magritte himself put it, “if you must understand poetic images, you should know what it means to understand the work. It is to absorb the image or to take it into yourself—and not to explain it.”* I was so very tired of all the explaining and rationalizing.

In other words, just five years ago, I was adamant that an artist’s words harm her-his work, but, while I may still have some issues with words, I now blog! What gives? 

I could try to rationalize it, to explain it, but that would be silly! Instead, I’ll leave it at this:

Patern Kervinio

Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on canvas
33 x 28 inches

This is a painting I completed six months before leaving for Paris in 2002.

Ellis Island Pilgrim, a portrait of Dino Bajagilovic as a pilgrim

Gwenn Seemel
Ellis Island Pilgrim (Bosnian-American)
acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 inches

And this is a painting I finished just a few weeks ago.

I reserve the right to grow, change, and juxtapose.


*From René Magritte’s Écrits Complets (or Complete Writings), edited and annotated by André Blavier (published by Flammarion, Paris, 2001).

**Louise Bourgeois’ Deconstruction Of The Father, Reconstruction Of The Father: Writings And Interviews 1923-1997, edited and with complete texts by Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (published by the MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000).

***Translations of quotations and titles are my own.

- The context makes the art.
- Photography’s gift to art
- Untitled

CATÉGORIES: - English - Featuring artists - Philosophy -

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(2) Comments / Commentaires: Juxtapose.

-- C.J. -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --


Do you really believe that Magritte didn’t inform any of Bourgeois’ work? It seems like too many coincidences depicting to specific of subject matter to be accidental, doesn’t it? Or were both artists simply so prolific that overlap was inevitable?


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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

It’s possible that Bourgeois is influenced by Magritte: I certainly can’t disprove it.  That said, from the research I’ve done, it seems very unlikely that she is responding directly to his work with her own. 
And, in the end, I don’t think it particularly matters how or why their works are similar.  They’re also different enough that a juxtaposition strengthens them both—makes them more interesting than they already are.

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