When Joe Cope came to our class to discuss the relationship between text, images, and power I was reminded of an image by Belgian artist Rene Magritte. This painting, titled “Treachery of Images” (see below) depicts the image of a pipe. Underneath the pipe French words are written and these words translate to, “This is not a pipe.” When I first learned about this painting, I didn’t think much of it. After all, art to me was always interpretational. No one can truly see an artist’s vision for their piece and as such viewers are often pushed to formulate their own analyses. In the case of this painting, viewers would have to decide whether to believe or understand what they are seeing or what they are reading. After going through Joe Cope’s lesson, I was able to make a little more sense of this dilemma as well as exemplify what we learned about in that class.
I’d say the best part about “Treachery of Images” was how blatantly contradictory it was. I think when people think about the relationship between images and text, the first concept that comes to mind is how text can support images. Captions, illustrative text, are common ways where text is used as a complement to their respective imagery. For example in the Souls of Black Folk, Steve Prince’s artwork is used to complement W.E.B DuBois’s text. Notice how I said complement and not illustrate. I feel that there is a huge difference between the two and I will discuss this later on. But anyways, what is so unique about Treachery of Images is that you can see a pipe, you know it is a pipe, but you are reading words that tell you that it is not a pipe.
When the artist was asked about this painting, he said, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!” I find this so interesting because when you think about it in a more abstract sense, he is right. The picture of a pipe is not really a pipe. The word pipe is not actually a pipe. Get where I’m coming from? And that is where I can see a line drawn between the words complement and illustrate. Illustrative text describes what is actually NOT there while complementary text provides extra information to what IS. I know this sounds crazy but when you think about it the English language in itself is very complex in its rules, sayings, and what it is unable to say. So my goal for this post is that it forces you to really think about how words can mean what they say and not say what they mean and how this can work in relations to images.
(Treachery of Images, Rene Magritte 1928)