René Magritte in the Age of Photoshop

I went along to SFMOMA on Friday to see its Magritte exhibition before it ends on 5 September. I was lucky enough to see a similar show eight years ago in London, so between those two I've probably seen about ten or twenty percent of his one thousand paintings. A reasonable sample.

The paintings were great, of course, but I was bemused by the tone of the accompanying explanatory notes. To suggest that Magritte was unique and that we'll never see his like again is a little over-the-top. Delvaux and de Chirico captured a similar mood in their work at the time, and in some respects bettered it (though don't get me wrong, I love ol' René). And as for nowadays, just look around: everyone's a Magritte.

Every two-bit advertiser armed with Photoshop has used surrealistic juxtaposition in otherwise realistic images. After all, it's so easy: once you've played around with Photoshop, you see how easy it is, and you see its hand everywhere. How many photo-real flying pigs have you seen advertising the unbelievableness of the amazingly cheap and super-spectacular Product X? The only thing that's unbelievable is that they figure we'll still be impressed by a photo-real flying pig. It's the Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Enya's Watermark of the print world: beloved by advertisers, and similarly flogged to death by them.

This surfeit of Photoshopped images inevitably lessens the impact of much of Magritte's work today; we find nothing surreal in surrealistic juxtaposition any more. But not all of his work relied on man-with-apple-over-face or woman-with-fish's-upper-body juxtapositions to achieve their impact. My favorite painting in the show was divided into four panels, comic-like, with a man reading a paper in a drawing-room in the first, and the same drawing room shown empty in the last three. Strictly speaking, this wasn't a surrealistic image at all, but it was certainly intriguing.

Photoshop has a lot to answer for. It's dealt a severe blow to hand-drawn cartooning in the magazine industry; now that any art director can whip up a vaguely-amusing caricature by bending Clinton's face with a filter or two, who needs a cartoonist? Black-and-white art hangs on in newspapers, but how long will that last? Already, cartoonists are expected to work in color more often than in black and white, and while the results are often good, something is also lost in the process, just as in the switch from black-and-white to color film. Unlike movie-makers, cartoonists can't just load in a different type of film to achieve a different result: coloring cartoons, whether by hand or by Photoshop, takes extra time and effort on the part of the cartoonist. And like movie-makers, cartoonists working in color must deal with new problems of color scheme and composition.

The hope is that over time these transitional pains will work themselves out, and artists of all kinds will find new ways to surprise us with the digital manipulation of photographic or drawn images. Many already are, of course. Eventually, the simpler Photoshop tricks will seem hopelessly passé, and perhaps even advertisers will try to use the program a bit more subtly. Maybe then Magritte will seem fresh again.


First published in Walking West, 28 August 2000.
This page: 13 February 2001; last modified 16 February 2001.

©2000-01 Rory Ewins