Reflections on a Painting by Magritte


Renee Magritte often reiterated that he didn’t ascribe “a meaning” to his paintings. This is quite convenient for someone attempting to interpret  them,  since it leaves each of us free to ponder about whatever particular meanings a painting of his  may convey to us.




       R. Magritte       La Belle Captive


     La Belle Captive represents for me a painting particularly apt for disquisitions about Landscape Appreciation and, as such, rather fitting as an opening for this series of Essays. By letting our imagination flow freely while contemplating the picture( and I'm confident Magritte wouldn't have objected to that) we can discern a number of themes pertinent to the study of the appreciation of landscapes.


    A landscape is primarily a visual message, so is a painting. The connection between landscapes and paintings is apparent in the picture: the beach, sea and clouds which form the elements of the “actual” landscape in the background are continued in the “painted” one, enclosed by a frame.  

         May be the frame is empty with no canvas, as if the frame were merely a window through which we perceive a particular segment of the larger landscape.Whatever the similarities, we cannot forget that a landscape painting is a bidimensional representation limited by a frame; the actual landscape, on the other hand, is all around us and unlimited, reaching as far as our vision can reach.

   Alternatively, it could be that there is an actual  canvas on which the landscape is reproduced exactly as it looks.  As Claudia K. points out:

   "The fair captive, the ocean, is perfectly captured within the picture frame, no distortion, unfiltered, the thing in-itself--unchanged by the artist's mood at the time, the way he lays brush to canvas, choice of medium, the things he doesn't see that are there and the things he does that aren't.” 


        The question of reproducing a landscape  exactly as it looks, is an intriguing one in the appreciation of landscapes. The one inside the frame may accurately look like the one outside; the original landscape (assuming there was one and it’s not an imagined landscape) might have looked like that to Magritte; the painted representation is perceived in a certain way to someone looking at the picture. However, the picture may be perceived quite differently by another person looking at it; in turn,  another artist may render his perception of  the same landscape in a different way and, again, his painting perceived differently by different onlookers. A certain consensus may be arrived at, between various observers, which may have happened to be together with Magritte when he was painting the scene, that there is a certain physical space occupied by a sand beach, the sea with its waves and the sky with its clouds; however, the holistic perception of that physical space, which is what we call landscape, will be different for each observer.

             May be Magritte’s intention in this painting was to draw our attention towards the intrinsic surrealism of what we call the” landscape experience” or may be he was just pulling our leg, we’ll never know for sure.

   A quote from one  of Magritte’s letters to Paul Nouge(1927) may be enlightening:  I have found a new possibility things may have: that of gradually becoming something else—an object melting into an object other than itself... In this way I obtain pictures in which “the eye must think” in a way entirely different from the usual.

             If I were asked to state in a couple of  words what makes a person  a landscape appreciator, I’d  be tempted to use Magritte’s metaphor about eyes that think. Or, as Ian Whyte puts it: While scenery is considered to be something to which everyone can react aesthetically, landscape is something to be examined with a trained eye. 

                Our thinking eyes or trained eyes are needed if we are to penetrate below superficial levels of meaning and interpretation to understand deeper meanings through the study of the iconography of landscape, a term derived from art history (Whyte again)The eyes of the casual observer look at the landscape registering haphazardly  some of its features.  The eyes of an appreciator (or, shall we say, his appreciating eyes?)”think” about  what they are looking at; comparing it with other landscapes, sensing the forms and their relations, the hues, the plays of light with shapes and textures. The eyes, being somehow placed between the outer and the inner,  think also  about the inner feelings and emotions that the mental image of the landscape has arisen. The appreciation of landscapes, like that of any other thing, is not  a purely intellectual attitude, it is as well an affective attitude, involving a relation to the landscape through sentiments, moods and emotions.

       The metaphor  ''trained eyes" may be given a more explicit form throught connoisseurship; someone whose eyes have been 'trained' for landscapes is a connoisseur of landscapes. F. Arler (in Aspects of Landscape or Nature Quality,  Landscape Ecology 15: 291–302, 2000) discusses this point extensively and I'll quote some excerpts below:  


     Taking all the above into consideration, the appreciation of landscapes appears to be quite a demanding attitude, however, in common with the appreciation of music, or poetry, or wine,  the rewards are commensurate: a heightened enjoyment of the subject appreciated.

    And, someone may ask, what about the flaming tuba in the foreground? Since, as I said, we are free to interpret meanings, I'd answer that the tuba stands there as a symbol of negative human intervention in a landscape: polluting factories, unsightly buildings...the lot. To remind us that cherished landscapes are easily spoiled and that we should take care of them with the same dedication or rather even more, that we use to preserve our artistic heritage.  


                                                      Essay written by Jorge D. Goldfarb

                                                              May, 2004



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