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Editor's Letter

This is not a pipe: Image and language

Sanghee Kim

Jan 07, 2021

René Magritte
The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929
© Museum Associates/LACMA

 

 

“A day will come when, by means similitude relayed indefinitely along the length of a series,

the image itself, along with the name it bears, will lose its identity.”

 

- Michel Foucault on The Treachery of Images by René Magritte. 

(Published in This Is Not a Pipe, Michel Foucault, 1983.)

 

 

Ok, stay with me. I might have lost you at “similitude,” though it just means a comparison between two things. And, what Foucault is trying to say is that the ultimate representation occurs when there is no way to differentiate between two things: a copy from its original painting, or an image from its name.

 

The widest point upon which a human eye can focus at any given moment makes up just three degrees of its entire visual field. The rest of this field is peripheral vision which, spanning 180 degrees, is a blur. A human eye can never see the whole picture. So, how come we rely so heavily on such a small piece of information? We see before we can speak, and sight is often implicit in our first experience of learning a language. An image of an apple is pointed out first, then the pronunciation of “apple” is mimicked, so we associate the sound with the written word. A common image is now shaped by its language convention, and from now on, an apple is round and red. 

 

Here begins what Ludwig Wittgenstein called the “language-game.” Wittgenstein argued that the basis of linguistic convention - the pattern by which we use language - is a communal activity, or “game”. We as a group of people decide to recognise one thing from another, and agree to adhere to a series of common rules – determining the relationships between what we see and the words we use. For example, a conventional apple is red because we have learnt that apples are red, so to describe the other apples, we say “green” apples. 

 

 

II Pleut (The rain) by Guillaume Apollinaire. 
First printed in the periodical SIC (Sounds, Ideas, Colours), No. 12, December 1916. 
Publication prevented by the outbreak of World War I. 
Courtesy of MoMA Library, New York.

 

 

Guillaume Apollinaire’s Il Pleut is a poem about rain, written in the shape of rain. The form of its lines could also be seen as a series of dots, or roads, yet the title of the calligram triggers our thoughts of falling rain. Thus, we see the lines as rain and cannot read the poem, or focus on the words to read the poem, and then cannot see the rain. Since either the image (the rain) or the language (the poem) have to be disregarded for each to be recognized, they are not true representations of one another. 

 

Now, back to Foucault’s idea of the ultimate representation when discussing Magritte’s The Treachery of Images - an unrivalled calligram. The artwork definitely depicts “a pipe” as we know from our language convention, however its caption places a barrier between the image and our understanding of a pipe. Here Magritte has broken the common ground between what the term, “a pipe,” is and what an image of a pipe represents. The image and the text no longer share a common ground, and so we are made aware that they rely on each other to make sense. You cannot differentiate them. 

 

 

“On this topic, it is evident that a painted image intangible by its very nature hides nothing,

while the tangibly visible object hides another visible thing - if we trust our experience.”

 

- René Magritte’s letter to Michel Foucault on The Treachery of Images, May 23, 1966

(Published in This Is Not a Pipe, Michel Foucault, 1983.)

 

 

To create a language convention is to take on a position of great privilege and responsibility, as it affects nearly every aspect of life - from the way we communicate, to people’s interpretations of the world around them. René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images disobeys and interrogates the “common ground” that usually sits between word and image, and therefore makes us re-examine the way we see. But, do we seriously contend that this is not a pipe? Or is the time-honoured establishment of language convention all too powerful for us to challenge?

 


 

 To respond to Editor’s Letter, please write to magazine@eazel.net

 

Suggested further reading

  

Much of the article is based on the writings of Rosalind Krauss on René Magritte, ambiguities of language and representation. Krauss’ full essay can be found in Art Since 1900: Modernism · Antimodernism · Postmodernism (p. 248-251). 

 

Further reading on The Treachery of Images by René Magritte.

 

Information about Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a French historian and philosopher.

Keywords: presentation, language, genealogy, sexuality, prison, structuralism.

 

Information about Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian philosopher.

Keywords: logic, language, perception, intention, ethics, religion.