Ceci N’est Pas Une Article
I remember the first time I encountered Rene Magritte with astounding clarity. I was a high school junior sitting in my AP English class in the back corner of the room near the door with a poster of Bob Dylan smirking down at me. This seat was important to me because it’s where I could easily hide from my teacher if I didn’t want to contribute to the conversation about poetry. It also had the best view of the projector screen — perfect for the kung fu movie marathon after the AP test. In this instance, that seat was also the perfect place to meet my creative idol.
House was a great teacher because he loved everything strange. His walls were wallpapered with posters, pages ripped out of magazines, art prints and record covers, and his filing cabinets were covered in things that can only be described as oddities — creepy busts, action figures, former students’ ceramics projects, whatever. This was the teacher who taught us how to tie a tie, had us bring in yams for “Things Fall Apart” extra credit and had a cat named Alex Trebek. We were interested in, and actually retained, every word he said because he made everything weird and interesting, if not hilarious. And what’s more weird, interesting and potentially hilarious than surrealist art?
We were about to begin reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” and House thought it would be appropriate to introduce it by teaching us about surrealism. He began with cubism — Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp — to warm us up to “the weird stuff,” as he called it. I was still in the school of “this is art?” at that time and spent that part of the lecture staring out the window. Our teacher moved on to Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. I was mildly interested in them.
The first Rene Magritte painting that showed up in House’s surrealist slide show was “Golconde.”
“First impression?” House asked in his typical dry tone.
We stared at it and said nothing.
“It’s raining men,” he said.
It was indeed. If you’re unfamiliar with “Golconde,” go ahead and Google it. Basically, it’s a painting of an unassuming line of buildings covered in a field of bowler hat-wearing men suspended in the air.
I was fascinated. It had all the markings of something I wouldn’t consider art, but done with obvious skill. (My definition of art was related to whether or not it looked good, of course.) House spent the rest of the lecture discussing Magritte, not because that’s what he had intended, but because that’s what we all wanted to do.
Magritte was an incredibly normal person. He didn’t have an iconic mustache or unibrow like Dali or Kahlo and he wasn’t known for his loud personality. He was just a guy who could paint. He painted optical illusions, men with their faces obscured by apples, trains coming out of fireplaces, giant floating masses of rock, decaying feet turned into boots, tubas on fire … He was bursting with images, very weird ones.
He was full of things to say about art and about identity. He wasn’t like Dali at all. He didn’t paint alien elephants tottering on mile-long legs or blobby faces held up by stilts. He worked with the precision learned from realism, but his philosophy was summed up by the words: “ceci n’est pas une pipe” — this is not a pipe. What you see is definitely not what you get.
Something about that lecture, and Magritte, had sparked something. I signed up for AP art history the following year and it quickly became my favorite class. I had yet another teacher that made everything she said stick. DeGroff was an English teacher, but she loved art history. She continuously took art history classes at the community college and approached the subject as an avid student sharing the cool things she’d learned instead of as a stodgy teacher.
That class and DeGroff continued what Magritte and Mr. House had started. The world around me was getting bigger and the stagnation that every high school student feels at the end of a long four years of bell schedules was kept at bay. The Magritte effect continued through that class and bled into my summer. I spent hours reading about art, talking about art, looking at art and doing art – drawing, writing, music, anything creative that I could get my hands on. Now, as I embark on the spring quarter of my fourth year, I can safely say Magritte is still with me. Magritte is my spirit guide.
House told us that Magritte painted men in bowlers and trench coats because that’s what he wore every day. DeGroff’s answers to our “Why is this considered art?” questions were always along the lines of, “Because the artist convinced someone that it was.” Magritte’s biggest impact on me was found somewhere in between those two things.
Magritte was a nondescript man with huge, out-of-the-box, beautiful ideas and he was an artist because he knew he was and wanted to be. Thanks to him, and thanks to the teachers like him, I know that the spirit of creativity is the one that keeps me going and the thing I never want to lose sight of.