Modernity and the perception of reality: surrealism as utopia

Have you ever had an idea that popped into your head and it felt like something lightened inside you? That is what happened to me in the past few days, after I remembered of these two marvelous namesake paintings “The Human Condition” from René Magritte.

MAGRITTE, René. [The Human Condition]. 1933. Oil on canvas. 100 cm x 81 cm (39 in x 32 in) Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Eager to dive deep into the various possible meanings of the painting, I searched more about Surrealism, the political and intellectual movement which the artworks of René Magritte were part of.

MAGRITTE, René. [The Human Condition]. 1935. Oil on canvas. 100 cm x 81 cm (39 in x 32 in) Location: Simon Spierer Collection, Geneva, Switzerland.

Surrealism had a big influence from the political ideas of Karl Marx and the psychological theory and dream studies of Sigmund Freud, and it had its origins in Dadaism and the metaphysical paint of Giorgio de Chirico. Dating from the beginning of the twentieth century, it was initially characterized by the search of the automatic writing, supposed to free without limits the imagination, to entirely liberate the subconscious into the text written. 

In the year of 1924, in the beautiful and prestigious city of lights, Paris, the Manifesto of Surrealism was published by the French writer and poet André Breton, it focused on the freedom and spontaneity of creativity. Thus, human feelings and instincts would be the starting point of a new artistic language. The psychic impulse was the most important feature since it would be able to open space to release and translate into art what they believed to be the truer expression of the human beings: the images of the subconscious. However, to be capable of doing this, it was necessary that the artist had an introspective perspective of himself and reached a point of spirit equilibrium where the outside and inside reality was perceived equally, without conflict.

It is exactly at the previous sentence that the root of my thoughts starts to get branches. From what I can understand and analyze, “The human condition”, by René Magritte, stimulates us to wonder if what it is behind the painting is really the same landscape represented in it, to question what is hidden from us. Magritte also does this kind of provocation in the following painting.  Is reality just a matter of perception? What is really behind that apple? 

MAGRITTE, René. [The Son of Man] 1964. Oil on canvas. 116cm x 89cm (45.67 in x 35 in). Private collection.

Analyzing the questioning with a contemporary approach, I think our digital and capitalist society – characterized by the immediacy, the non-stop work, the social power and status achieved by showing yourself to the world through several platforms -, slowly make us bury our essence at the bottom of our soul in layers of fake reality. We are bit by bit deprived of connecting with our essence and having introspective moments, from which can come out really great ideas, thoughts, and self-knowledge. With so many distractions and pressure to make visible likable versions of us, we lose ourselves by the eyes of outlooks.

This is also a topic discussed in the short story “O espelho” (in English, The mirror) by the brilliant Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, considered by many critics the greatest name of Brazilian literature. So as not to spoil your reading of the short story, if you get interested, my interpretation that came out of it is the idea that we have an interior soul, that looks from inside to outside, and an exterior soul, that looks from outside to inside, and we are frequently subject to losing our own vision of us and our real essence due to often being seduced by the outside soul and the appearances. 

Therefore, we are also losing the capacity of reaching what the surrealist artists valued the most: our subconscious, our free creativity, and our dreams. We are losing the important power of questioning that Magritte suggests on “The human condition”: our perception of reality. We don’t have time for it anymore, we just accept it as it is, even if it hides so many important facts from us, even if it hides what we really are from us. 

Shocking, isn’t it? I think to overcome this, we should try small changes in our daily lives to be able to reconnect with our essence, like respecting our work schedule and not bringing work to home anymore… but, wait! In the present world context, home is also our working place! And with so much to do, and our phone ringing with work all the time, it is so difficult to not overwork, right? That is why I think this kind of reflection is so important: each one of us should try to be reeducated and instigated to think about the importance of not losing who you really are. 

What about you? Have you questioned your perception of reality today?

Júlia dos Santos Acerbi


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