Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Surrealism (pt. 15)

René Magritte often dressed around in a suit and bowler cap as an expression of individuality and personal style among the art community.  This formality was part of the artist's charm and wit to impress upon others a deceptive pretence of simplicity, when in fact his art contained some of the most cerebral and complex themes to grasp.  Not like Salvador Dalí, who adopted eccentric mannerisms, fashions, and behaviors in public to further promote his style of Surrealism, Magritte took pleasure in fooling the crowd with seemingly ordinary formality and blending in, as it were, with the rest of the world—but not quite.
This painting, Golconda, is named after a historical city in India which now rests preserved near the modern city of Hyderabad.  The scene of the painting appears to be one associated more with European suburban settings, featuring plain-looking apartment-type buildings.  It's an unexceptional day with cloudless skies and no indication of disturbance.  In fact, there seems to be nothing abnormal about this painting at all, just not taking into account that it is populated with floating men.  Whether they are falling like rain or simply levitating in mathematical equidistance, these figures compose a crowd.  And, like most crowds which one can find oneself in, there is more to this crowd than meets the eye.
Besides the interest in their odd placement along the canvas in geometric symmetry (and the fact that they're just standing in mid-air), the intrigue of this painting is the optical illusion of perceiving a subtle difference when handed a grandiose one.  We at first notice men scattered about in the sky, and their abundant sequence communicates uniformity.  In truth, they are all wearing similar costumes, but actually Magritte has painted each man individually.  What at first looks like a cut-and-paste-type replication practice proves in fact to be an experiment in cognition.  Do we see individual men when we first look at this painting, or do we instantly see a collection of identical, floating males wearing the same kind of suit and bowler cap?  Their spatial layout in the scene even fools our eyes from noticing that several of the men are facing different directions.  They are different heights and of differing builds, with unique facial features—but all we notice is that they are standing on air.  The mind, in that sense, leaps to the surreal; it first pays attention to the abnormal and only after the fact perhaps takes into account the practical, the ordinary, and the realistic.  And, if we're really paying close attention, we'll finally notice the unusual background—particularly the strange façade of the building on the right.  Its uppermost row of windows is cut off in an architectural anomaly of design.  The building ends too soon.  But how many of us spotted that when we first took a look at this painting?  Your brain is stunned by the sight of the floating men and yet doesn't seem to fully notice the men or the scene which they inhabit.  What is it about the surreal that our minds instantly connect to, though it be totally foreign or utterly incomprehensible?  The Surrealists explored this connection with fervor in the early half of the 20th century.

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