My Interview with René Magritte
The following is an excerpt from an interview I did for the BBC with the Belgian artist, René Magritte. I met with Magritte in the south of France, in Carcassonne, on a beautiful fall day in October in 1967, and was delighted to find him in exceptionally high spirits. As one of my most valued souvenirs, I still keep the bottle that held the magnificent wine (a 1942 viognier signed by the artist) that René shared with me. The interview aired later that year.
Hyatt Carter and the Belgian artist René Magritte are seated in comfortable chairs facing each other. Placed nearby on an easel so they can both view it is a large reproduction of a famous painting by Magritte: The Human Condition.
Hyatt points to the painting.
HyC: I’ve often wondered why you call this painting The Human Condition.
RM: What conclusion did you draw?
HyC: None. I’m still wondering.
They both laugh.
RM: Sometimes, in a fictional tale, you have a story within the story. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you have a play within the play. Here we have . . .
René gestures, inviting a response.
HyC: A painting within the painting.
RM: Notice that the painting within the painting—here, in front of the window—shows the landscape that the painting hides from view.
HyC: Yes, I see.
RM: (pointing as he explains) The actual tree in the landscape—you can’t see the tree itself. You can see the tree in the painting—right there. But you know the real tree is there behind the painting, because your mind projects it out there in the real landscape. The logic of the painting demands this. You picture it in your mind. And that is also how you see the real world in everyday life: you see the world as being outside yourself, but what you actually experience is a mental representation—(he taps his head)—a mental event, inside, in here.
HyC: I get it now. The painting is a metaphor about how we see. A visual pun. Clamn dever, to use a Spoonerism.
RM: Indeed. Because it’s also a metaphor about how we don’t see. What’s out there— really?
HyC: And that reminds me of the famous opening line of Hamlet. The first scene begins with Bernardo asking . . .
Hyatt gestures, inviting a response.
RM: Qui est là? Who’s there?
HyC: Two simple words, but as portentous as the four chords that open Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And, as much to the point, the question of all Knock, Knock jokes. Who’s there? What’s out there?
RM: And why?
HyC: It raises so many questions. It’s the pictorial equivalent of the koan in the Zen tradition.
RM: Yes. When looking at the painting, you can wonder about what is imagined and what is real. Is it about the reality of appearances or the appearance of reality? What really is inside, and what is outside? What do we have here: reality, or a dream? If a dream is a revelation of waking life, waking life is also a revelation of a dream.
HyC: And the curtains—what about the curtains?
RM: That is the question.