Magritte Flirting with Semantics

…or to be more precise “Rene Magritte flirting with semiotics”. I spent my lazy Sunday (according to my sense of the word) at the new Rene Magritte Museum in Brussels (not to be confused with his birthplace house which is also a smaller museum about his life).

Magritte Museum (src:

Magritte went through various phases of “his” interpretation of surrealism expressing what he calls the inexpressible. The common thread was the study of the function between words (or signs) and images (syntax), scientifically called semiotics. One masterpiece (see below; produced in the context of a NYC exposition) performs a methodological exploration of the construction of a semiotic tetrahedron.

A semiotic tetrahedron is a quadrangular commutative diagram that is constructed when an actor perceives a physical object (say a cat) in the domain, consequently renders a mental conception of this perceived object, and finally chooses a representation for his conception (say the string “yojo”). Semantics is de
fined by the relationship between an object and the object that represents it.  An actor’s ontology is a representation of all conceptions the actor believes are observable, hence exist, in the domain plus their inter-relationships (which are also conceptions). Representations (either orally uttered or in written form) are essential for actors to socialize their observations and so, by learning from others’, to refine their interpretation of the world.
To facilitate this process, although they share the same physical world, actors have to align their representations of the domain. In other words they must reconcile (parts of) their ontologies to build a common language. E.g., they plausibly do not speak the same language hence not share the same word for referring to a cat. As computer systems need to communicate though formal languages, solving this ontology construction problem is one of the most important routes of research in information and Web sciences. It is the core of business semantics management and Collibra.

The masterpiece (translated from the original in French) is depicted below (originally published in La Revolution Surrealiste in 1929. Found in Conceptual Art by Tony Godfrey, Phaidons). In 18 combinations of semiotic tetrahedrons, he prescribes a methodology for interpreting his paintings being complex semiotic puzzles. E.g., the first one illustrates synonymy. Check the second row: the first one is not about the boot or the sea, but about the inexpressible emotion that emerges when conceiving the objects and their relationships altogether.  The second on the third row makes the remarkable observation that not everything can be represented. Indeed, wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen. Finally, the third on the second row shows a perfect example of a semiotic tetrahedron.

Another famous example is La Trahison des Images (1929). This painting that represents a pipe, and states “ceci n’est pas une pipe”: indeed its is merely Magritte’s personal representation for a pipe. Moreover, this very particular representation is contingent on its state of being at the moment of painting. This state includes signs like his mood, the room he was in, the absence of his wife… Any small phenomenon in his state of being influences the very colour tone or shape of the pipe painting. This is illustrated by the many pipes he painted. Many of them also have arbitrary signs (words or images) surrounding the “pipe”, by which he wants to show us that these signs (as part of the painting process also forming part of the actual state of being), have influenced the representation. Ironically this is one of his most realistic paintings :-)

From Horta and Hergé to Knopff and Delvaux, Brussels has many hidden secrets to discover. But the top of surrealism is found in the Magritte Museum. If you have a couple of hours do not hesitate to visit all three stores. We booked out visit in advance on-line, which is highly recommended.

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