"I start sometimes making a hand, holding a pen and making a drawing. This gives me time to think of what drawing this pen is going to do. I also want these moments to lose the responsibility of the drawing. It's not I who makes this drawing, it's that hand I drew who makes it.... But this way I have a certain freedom, a certain lack of responsibility."
I hadn't seen this 1967 interview with Saul Steinberg by Adrienne Clarkson. Steinberg is a fascinating thinker about how and why art works; his memoir, Reflections and Shadows (written with Aldo Buzzi), is a treasure trove of insights. The section where Steinberg discusses surrealist painter Magritte has stuck with me. "I liked some of his things," Steinberg says in the book, "but in general I thought he worked too hard at painting just to explain a joke" (Steinberg 57).
Deirdre Blair's 2012 biography of Steinberg notes that, "When Sidney Janis owed [Steinberg] $400, Steinberg asked for a Magritte instead." I don't have Blair's book in front of me now, so I can't check her sources, but I bet she got this tidbit from Reflections and Shadows. There, Steinberg says that "I have one of the earlier Magrittes, from 1926, one of his best, I think, and well painted with that famous patience.... I bought it from my dealer, Sidney Janis, who owed me four hundred dollars." He continues:
It's a double portrait of André Breton: two profiles, one saying "Le piano" and the other answering "La violette." The speech balloons coming out of the two mouths are of a dense and opaque salmon-violet color, and are fairly elongated in shape. Maybe in choosing this color, Magritte meant to show a continuation of the two tongues. It's probably a joke on the comic strips. (58)Steinberg's tone implies that he doesn't think Magritte's jokes are very funny, however well painted they are!
But the part of Steinberg's Magritte discussion that I've remembered best is his description of "Empire of Light," a series of three paintings Magritte painted from 1949 to 1954.
Magritte discovered the three sources of light (and maybe a few more). In a painting of which he did several variants, you see the sky illuminated by the last reflections of the sunset, while the other elements of the landscape, a tree, a house, are dark silhouettes against the sky. On the street there's a streetlamp, already on, which illuminates part of the street and part of the house. In the house the electric light is on, illuminating the interior and shining through to the outside: three lights. There's a moon, I think, which is already starting to cast a little light. And I'm almost certain that he also painted a light reflected in a puddle, or maybe one sees a little bit of the sea. (58-59)
|Magritte's "Empire of Light"|
Brutal! Steinberg himself drew jokes, and sometimes was even known to play tricks:
So why do I respond so much more to Steinberg's drawings than to Magritte's paintings? Why do I consider Steinberg an artist of vibrant drawings, while I see his point about the somewhat soulless Magritte? There is something about that "lack of responsibility," the "certain freedom" Steinberg allows himself, that makes his jokes seem very relaxed, very natural, very un-self-regarding. When all is said and done, Magritte's jokes don't want to give up being Art. And while Steinberg's work is given "art status," the drawings themselves couldn't care less. I think it has something to do with a certain freedom - a certain lack of responsibility.