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

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?