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Posts Tagged ‘Magritte

“Everything we see hides another thing”*…

Son of Man

No artist more perfectly anticipated the banal strangeness of life in the twenty-first century than Rene Magritte…

René François Ghislain Magritte: born 1898, died 1967; noted fan of bowler hats and pipes; creator of some 1,100 oil paintings and another 850 works on paper, many of which now seem kitschy or lazily repetitive; and yet, I suspect, the twentieth-century artist whose work best anticipated the texture and tenor of life in the twenty-first. The texture: smooth as an iPhone screen, unscathed by contact with the physical world. The tenor: a low rumble, almost silent, somewhere between a growl and a chuckle.

A century ago, the only people who called the world “surreal” were capital-S Surrealists: poets and painters, many of them rooted in Paris, who sought to dig up the buried treasures of the unconscious and convert them into words and images. Today, nobody seriously doubts that the world is a lowercase-s surreal place. Advertising is surreal. Politics is surreal. Dating is surreal. Half of television and all of the Internet is surreal. The art world would be surreal even if Surrealism didn’t sell so well (last week someone picked up a Magritte for the GDP of a small country). At some point between the 1920s and the 2020s, between capital and lowercase, the surreal has been hidden all over again, banalized to the point where everybody acknowledges it but nobody stops to notice it.

Studying Magritte’s life and work forces you to stop and notice. Contemporary U.S. life is surreal, but, at least to me, it doesn’t look like a Salvador Dalí painting or even the work of latter-day descendants such as David Lynch and Haruki Murakami. It looks like Magritte, with its weightless, endlessly reproduced photographs and logos that make everywhere feel like everywhere else (i.e., nowhere). It puzzles in the same placid, teasing way that Magritte puzzles; it seems utterly random and utterly repetitive, at once too obscure and too obvious, creating the illusion that everything will make sense if only you stay and puzzle a little longer. Contemporary U.S. life—like an apple in a café, like many of the figures in Magritte’s paintings, like Magritte himself—is hiding in plain sight…

Jackson Arn on “Magritte’s Prophetic Surrealism.”

* Rene Magritte


As we investigate the invisible, we might recall that it was on this date (April Fool’s Day) in 1965 that the BBC put one over on its television viewers:

BBC TV interviewed a professor from London University who had perfected a technology he called “smellovision.” It allowed viewers to smell aromas produced in the television studio in their homes. The professor explained that his machine broke scents down into their component molecules which could then be transmitted through the screen.

The professor offered a demonstration by placing first some coffee beans and then onions into the smellovision machine. He asked viewers to report by noon whether they were able to smell anything, instructing them that “for best results stand six feet away from your set and sniff.” Viewers called in from across the country to confirm that they distinctly experienced these scents as if they were there in the studio with him. Some claimed the onions made their eyes water.

The Smellovision experiment was repeated on June 12, 1977 by Bristol University psychology lecturer Michael O’Mahony, who was interested in exploring the effect of the power of suggestion on smell. O’Mahony told viewers of Reports Extra, a late-night news show that aired in the Manchester region, that a new technology called Ramen spectroscopy would allow the station to transmit smells over the airwaves. He told them he was going to transmit “a pleasant country smell, not manure” over their TV sets, and he asked people to report what they smelled. Within the next 24 hours the station received 172 responses. The highest number came from people who reported smelling hay or grass. Others reported their living rooms filling with the scent of flowers, lavender, apple blossom, fruits, potatoes, and even homemade bread. Two people complained that the transmission brought on a severe bout of hay fever.

Museum of Hoaxes

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 1, 2022 at 1:00 am

Preparing a meal that C.P. Snow would have enjoyed…



John Lanchester writes:

When Ferran Adrià, the Spanish maestro who is undisputedly the most influential chef of the last two decades, gave up cooking at his restaurant El Bulli, he announced that he was going to be starting a number of projects. One of them is intended to be a foundation dedicated to the study of himself. Another was a collaboration on the subject of food and science with Harvard. I think quite a few people, on first hearing about that, scratched their heads and wondered what a joint venture between the two might be like. On the one hand, seawater sorbet and ampoules of reduced prawn head bouillon (two Adrià signature dishes). On the other, Helen Vendler. Outcome not obvious…

What we outsiders didn’t know is that all undergraduates at Harvard are required to take at least one class in science. As a result, the university offers some courses designed to be appealing to the kinds of student who wouldn’t be studying science unless they had to. Once that’s known, it makes a lot of sense to involve Adrià, who is rock-star famous in the world of food, in a course designed to appeal to the clever and curious and artily-minded young. So here it is: SPU27, an acronym standing for Science of the Physical Universe 27. Spelled out in English, the name of the course is Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science…

Once upon a time, to take a course like SPU27, you had to be young enough and lucky enough in all the relevant ways to get to Harvard. Today, all you need is to be lucky enough to have access to a computer with an internet connection. SPU27 is part of a remarkable experiment in open access university education called EdX, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT, which gives away entire courses, online, for free…

I registered for EdX and sat down in front of SPU27x (which started on 8 October; you can still sign up and do the course in time to get a certificate). My intention was to ‘audit’ it, i.e. do as much of it as I felt like without subjecting myself to anything too obviously worky. Also, the science of cooking is one of my interests, and I was quietly confident that I knew most of it already. That turned out not to be the case. Looking at the review materials before starting the course, I found myself trying to remember how to calculate the volume of a sphere – it’s (4/3)πr3, in case you too have forgotten – and crunching logarithms in an attempt to answer e3.5=x (answer, x=33.12, obv).

The lectures are broken up into segments of about ten minutes, followed by multiple choice questions which you can do at your leisure, or not, and submit your answers towards a certificate of completion, or not. (Certificates you have to pay for. Everything else is free.) In the first lecture Adrià showed off a few culinary tricks; the second quickly had us working with Avogadro’s constant to determine the number of molecules in a given amount of matter. Homework involves an experiment to calibrate the accuracy of your oven, and some calculations to ascertain the number of various molecules in a recipe for aubergine with buttermilk sauce. Then there’s a test: ‘Estimate the concentration in mol/L of protein using the fact that the average protein is 300 amino acids long and the average amino acid has a mass of 110 amu.’  Er … I think I’ll phone a friend on that one. All this was by way of working with ‘the equation of the week’, which is how SPU27 is structured: it teaches, both by lecture and by hands-on demonstration, the profound and endlessly satisfying mystery of how mathematics penetrates into matter.

In summary, the course is more rigorous, and more educational, than I’d thought it would be… MOOC’s [Massive Open Online Courses] like this one offer something simpler, and in its way purer: education for its own sake. They are purely educational, in the way that so much education increasingly isn’t, as it goes further and further in the direction of box-ticking and teaching to the test. Although it’s already possible to extract a great deal of use from MOOCs, as in the comp sci example I mentioned, I suspect a lot of the good they bring to the world won’t be in the form of anything useful. Instead they offer anyone who can be bothered the chance to learn things just for the sake of learning. As lifetimes get longer, there’s less need for people to stop learning, and less need for the experience of education to be something confined to ghettos of the young. Avogadro’s constant, which is used to tell you the number of molecules in a given amount of matter, is 6.022 x 1023. Isn’t that cool? And now I’m off to calibrate my oven by observing the melting point of sugar. I see in the course notes that the full protocol for doing that comes from a book called Cooking for Geeks.

Read the whole piece at the London Review of Books.  And learn to cook in a way that bridges C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”— sign up for the course here.


As we wear our lab coats into the kitchen, we might send surprising birthday greetings to Rene Magritte; he was born on this date in 1898.  Magritte made a living as a draftsman and an advertising artist before putting together the paintings (largely impressionist and futurist in style) for his first show in his native Belgium… at which critics heaped abuse on his work.  Disheartened, Magritte moved to Paris, and fell in with Andre Breton, who helped him become the integral part of the Surrealist Movement that he became.

“The Son of Man”




Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 21, 2013 at 1:01 am

“The map is not the territory”…

The Treachery of Images,” René Magritte, 1928-9

Alfred Korzybski reminds one (in the title-line quote, above), as does Surrealist wit like Magritte’s, that representations are not the things they represent.

Still, they fascinate us– precisely because of their power to evoke the thing that they aren’t.  And when the things that maps evoke aren’t real things at all?  Even niftier!

Consider, for example, two kinds of maps of fictional territories…

For nine years, from 1943 to 1952, Dell published 557 mystery novels with “map backs.”  Some charted fictional action on “real” terrain, for instance…

But most located the imagined plot in an imaginary setting, for example…


In a different imaginary arena (not to say “a parallel universe”), the world of comics, comic books, and graphic novels, maps also play an important role…

Sometimes they are used to elaborate on a conceit in a way that adds narrative credibility through detail, e.g…

Nick Fury’s Tunnel, Strange Tales #141

…and sometimes, simply for dramatic effect, e.g…

Superman throws out the first pitch

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: A hypperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is never the less the map that proceeds the territory – pressesion of simulacra- that engenders the territory.
– Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra & Simulation, 1994

Or, as someone who isn’t a French Post-Structuralist might say, way cool!

Readers can find more Bantam map-backs at Marble River’s Ephemera (from whence, the examples above) and at Mystery Scene.  Readers can get more graphic guidance at Comic Book Cartography (the source of those examples).  Grateful TotH to reader MH-H for the lead to CBC.

As we endeavor (but not too hard) to avoid the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1987 (44 years to the day after “Bicycle Day,” the day that  Dr. Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, deliberately took the hallucinogen for the first time) that The Simpsons debuted, as a short within The Tracey Ullman Show.

The Simpsons, as they first appeared

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