“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see…This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”
– René Magritte, Painter
Even for a relatively unsentimental person like myself, a person who refuses – outwardly – to be moved by Kate Hudson movies and songs by Adele, there are moments where the potency of sentiment can swell to such proportions that it becomes unstoppably, emotionally devastating. It may be in the sub-basement of the self that my heart or soul or whatever that ticking thing is, is so easily swayed, but it is impacted most intensely when I see an image that somehow correlates to the things I think I should be, possess or desire – rationalizations aside.
Concerned primarily with the sway of the subconscious, a new revolutionary style arose after World War I following the dissipation of the Dada movement. Popularized by Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, Surrealism sought to unveil the subconscious through works that were full of contrast and appeared like strange dreams, illuminating the dark parts of the mind and aiming to question the difference between how reality appeared and what it might actually be.
Of all the Surrealists, Rene Magritte was the most obviously preoccupied with the image of the thing and the actual object. In paintings like The Treachery of Images (above) and This Is Not An Apple, we see an object and we are told that it is not, in fact, the object. Like he said of his famous pipe, “The painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. It does not satisfy emotionally.” Magritte’s art illuminated the way an image of an object could be perceived, and in this way, it was different from how a simple image is utilized in the media today.
Images, as they are used in advertising, pervade every aspect of our lives, from their presence on city streets to their appearance on almost every website on the Internet. Ever-present and wholly powerful, sleek and surface-perfect, a singular image can create a world unto itself, one that was once derived from words and slogans but in recent years has come to be encompassed only by a logo. As one of the most recognizable brands in the world, the Starbucks name no longer appears on their cups – instead, there is only The Siren, a logo that is instantly synonymous with their entire identity as a brand.
Whereas a word or slogan can engage our critical faculties, and we can choose to reject or dispute them rationally, an image and now a logo – whether it’s of a tree, a man or the ocean – is inextricably linked to our subconscious. Seamless and powerful, a logo can seduce us without engaging us, entering the iconography of our deepest instincts and feelings, affecting us intensely without ever addressing our reasoning ability.
Magritte wrote that, “Sometimes the name of an object replaces an image…An image can replace a word in proposition.” In this way, the modern logo and the associations it is loaded with are propositions that can exploit our deepest ideals without our consent, insidious in a way that words cannot be because the subconscious is so irrefutable. Logos can douse us in a sentimentality that is completely separate from the real thing they represent whether it happens to be coffee or computers. So, when a brand is only its logo, loaded with representation, when does it become the image we’ve created for it instead of an actual thing?
In Magritte’s pipe, there is a responsibility that exists nowhere else in the images that are thrust upon us today. As a mere painting, Magritte’s pipe tells us that it is not a pipe, it is only a picture of a pipe – it cannot be stuffed with tobacco and it cannot be smoked. Without diving into the morass of what a logo really represents, it remains linked to the idealizations created from our subconscious, an illusion that will not tell us it is not actually real.