Great Works: The Living Mirror, René Magritte (1928)

Private collection

"In the beginning was the word," says the gospel of St John. "In the beginning was the deed," replies Goethe's Faust. But if those prophets had been image-makers, they might have seen things differently: in the beginning was the blob.

The blob is the most primitive form of depiction. It may look like nothing, but it establishes a something as opposed to nothing. An enclosing outline or contour, however non-specific, marks the border between an entity and its environs. It creates a shape, a proto-figure.

Historically humans may not have begun by painting blobs. We can't know. The blob is primitive in the sense that it is basic. It does what every figure does (except the pin man). Historically, in fact, it's modern art that has taken a special interest in the blob. René Magritte was a great blobbist.

Magritte's The Living Mirror is one of his sparest works. A black field; four large splodges of white, with trailing connections between them; black writing within each splodge: that would be a rough description. It is hard to be much more committal.

Perhaps these white areas stand against a black background. Perhaps they're islands set in black surroundings. Perhaps they're hollows, opening out in blackness. Or perhaps they have no bodily/spatial existence at all. This could be a purely two-dimensional layout, with no solidity, no depth, like the elements of a diagram.

There is the writing too, of course. This is one of those Magrittes where things are given the wrong names, where there's a mismatch of images and words. Sometimes these pictures play their game with household objects. A bowler hat is called "snow". A shoe is called "the moon". A pipe is called "not a pipe". These blank estrangements are performed with textbook illustrations, in copperplate handwriting.

But sometimes these word-image games use what Magritte called quelconques formes – any old forms, non- descript forms, unidentifiable things where any name would be strange. They might be lumps, a bit like stones. They might be a kind of tray, irregularly shaped. And it's certainly strange when they get themselves labelled "human body" or "sad woman".

Still, what we see can be described. They may be unidentifiable, unnameable, but these quelconques formes are clear and solid and tangible enough. They are three-dimensional objects. You could imagine making a model of them, from stone or wood or clay.

And then there is a world like The Living Mirror's. What's happening here? There seems to be the same incongruity joke: the words don't fit the things. But here the misfit is radical. For one thing, the names don't fit each other at all.

"Person bursting with laughter." "Horizon." "Wardrobe." "Cries of birds." The four rather similar splodges are identified as four very different kinds of things: an action, a visual phenomenon, an object, a sound. What category might embrace those four things?

Which only brings a further puzzle: what kind of beings are these splodges in themselves? They have no certain visible character. All you can say is that they fulfil the basic requirement of being an individual entity: they enclose a space. They put a border round some bit of the universe. They come to an edge, a stop. There's a division between what's them (inside this limit) and what's not (outside it). They are basic blobs.

But even their blob status is unsure. Each of these enclosures is starting to blur at the edges into the black environs. Perhaps they are porous. Perhaps they are dissolving or expanding forms, and their present form is temporary.

Then there's the relationship between the blobs. Are they so separate? They seem to be individuals, linked by connecting channels, but things might be less stable. Junctions might become mergers. Connections might swell to become new blobs. Perhaps we can see this happening now, where three links meet. Or perhaps it is a single system?

Magritte keeps these possibilities open by keeping his hand vague. His forms are neither too definite nor too indefinite. There are things you might think of: wisps of smoke, thought bubbles, waterways, caves, cows' stomachs – but no likeness is affirmed.

The picture simply keeps you thinking about how entities exist in our universe. Its four or maybe more blobs are an exercise in mysterious ontology. It hardly needs its misleading words. It shows a world prior to things and names. It's about the most basic categories of existence: about separation and relation, division and oneness, limit and flux.

About the artist

René Magritte (1898-1967) is of course a paradox. A Belgian surrealist, popular and avant-garde, he's the straight man who painted bizarre scenes in a deadpan manner. But he makes sense. He couldn't paint very well, but his work is a sustained exploration of the language of images. With a vocabulary of brick walls, woodwork, clouds, apples, nudes, eyes, rocks, bowler-hats and handwriting, he's always making a point about how pictures work and how strange they are. He plays with scale, perspective, shadow, illusion. He revels in metamorphosis, in the weightlessness of the pictured world, the way you can never know what's behind something, in the possibility of unidentifiable things. With Magritte, a picture becomes a place where everything is trapped and anything is possible.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture