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
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders