Vietnamese modern poetry dinh minh hang


Chapter 6 Surrealist Theory in the case of René Magritte, Mina Loy and Surrealism in Vietnam



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Chapter 6

Surrealist Theory in the case of René Magritte, Mina Loy and Surrealism in Vietnam

By making a comparison between a specific painting of René Magritte and Nguyễn Đình Đăng, Mina Loy, Trần Dần and some Vietnamese female poets, I would like to show a possible circumstance of how the East could absorb and respond to Western Surrealist art. This will also involve looking at traditional Eastern literature. Following a masterpiece or a legendary painter might not be very unfamiliar to the West, but could be seen as a brave attitude for Eastern artists. After 1986, ‘Đổi mới’354 initiated a requirement to renew society, including ideology and literature, in Vietnam. Vietnamese artists therefore approached modern works ‘not only in modern art, but also more experimental forms such as installation, performance, pop art, video art, digital art, etc.’355 However, ‘in later years, contemporary art was known for its scandals and events’.356 I suppose that ‘scandal’, as mentioned in this introduction to Vietnamese contemporary art, represented something that was against the mediaeval tradition and against Confucianism (e.g. raising women’s rights, writing about nudity and sexuality, defamiliarising objects and subjects, or trying not to tell understandable stories in poems or novels). In this context, the efforts of artists like Nguyễn Đình Đăng and poets like Vi Thùy Linh were not only explorations of Surrealism for themselves, but also a strong suggestion for Vietnamese artists to escape the limitations of Vietnamese social prejudices and continue to make art ‘scandals’.


The exploration of various kinds of subjects and objects in Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings suggested different directions for Vietnamese poets in terms of changing or avoiding the central symbol; in other words, the protagonist or lyrical character. Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings helped to point out that there was no central subject in their art-works, no need for a subject to be a fully-understood-human and no lyrical emotions which were ‘survival’ requirements in Vietnamese poems. Throughout her poems, Loy indicated a portrait of women without lines, colour, meaning or duty. Throughout his paintings, Magritte talked about men without conceptions (they were described as multi-copies) and woman as a mixture of herself-as-parts-of-bodies and herself-as-animal. These portrayals were not lyrical but Surrealist. Adopting those abnormal ideologies in practice would require Vietnamese poets to think and write differently. Otherwise, images of women would be exhausted if poets only exploited them in aspects of daily and domestic life, with the characteristics of existing conventions.
Mina Loy’s poetry has never been introduced to Vietnamese readers or even researchers. Being a Vietnamese reader, what I have read by Loy seems unfamiliar compared with the traditional thinking and culture of an Eastern person. From my understanding and experience, women poets in Vietnam have generally written from men’s perspective. Instead of being observers, they tend to be judges; instead of considering a poem as a poem, they tend to turn it into moral education for other women. Loy was different, I think. Her poems made me think of women as women, not belonging to anyone else; poems as poems, not being judged by any male or political thoughts, and her creation in words, images and reality could surprise any Vietnamese reader like me. The Lost Lunar Baedeker made me more aware of the possible inter-artistic developments among Vietnamese modern poets and critics if they could have an opportunity to read Loy’s poems. My new understanding has given me different ways of reading and I hope that these sources of movement and change will ‘infect’ Vietnamese poetry.
I have realised that The Lost Lunar Baedeker proposes a modern phenomenon for Vietnamese poets to examine. I also see Loy’s poems through the focus of new spectacles: Loy as a Surrealist poet. Thus, I tend to imagine paintings being generated from what Loy wrote in her poems and in reverse, poems from Magritte’s paintings. That could also mean that Loy and Magritte might have blurred the borders between drawing lines and words, art and anti-art, subjects and objects, reality and unreality. That kind of free artistic attitude would, in my view, be highly encouraging for any Vietnamese modern poet. For example, Vietnamese poets who desired to liberate the imagination could follow the aspects between reality and dream in Loy’s poems; Vietnamese poets who demanded unorthodox writings could find the strength of reforming and transforming words in her poetry; and women poets in Vietnam could read Loy and discover the idea of escaping from their resistant, domestic stream of thoughts. In my view, Loy‘s poems are a struggle to read but on the other hand, possible for Vietnamese poets to approach.
Although Loy declared in the 1950s that she ‘was never a poet’,357 she was praised by other innovative poets as well as critics. Ezra Pound pointed her out as ‘the staple’358 of women poets. Her life as a ‘Futurist, Dadaist, Surrealist, feminist, conceptualist, modernist and post-modernist’ has become a main source of attention for Keith Tuma,359 Carolyn Burke360 and many researchers. Some, for example Thom Gunn, grouped Loy in her ‘crowd’,361 ‘the company of poets’, ‘the canon’, with Gertrude Stein, John Reed, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara, and considered her work as a link ‘to the Americans by her translation into poetry of the techniques and structures of modern European painting, especially Futurism and Cubism’.362 J. Bradley recognised her fascinating personality, which was so ironic and condescending363 among different faces. These different attitudes and judgments, in my view, point out the contemporary character of Loy’s poetry and ideology as a phenomenon. They also help in exploring the artistic complexity that made her count more among ‘modernist figures’364 than the general public. However, considering her from a literary point of view does not seem to be comprehensive enough to understand Loy, who ‘allied herself with her visual art more than her writing’.365
For that reason, this chapter is expected to provide an ideal comparative study between Loy and the other typical Surrealist painter, Magritte; it examines how they regarded the voices of words and of images, which I suppose to derive from the controversial origin of ‘Surrealism’.
Magritte’s ideology was expressed not only throughout his paintings but also his concepts in the statements of letters, which were regrouped in Magritte: The True Art of Painting 366 by Harry Torczyner. Torczyner was primarily interested in the initial ideas of a specific painting process, the relationship between Magritte’s art and Surrealism, as well as other contemporary theories from reality to poetry and mystery. Others (including Breton and Surrealist artists) have tended to analyse the paintings of Magritte from a Surrealist perspective; however, the painter himself tried to place his art marginally on the borders of modern artistic theories. In a similar case to Loy, his works belong to ‘the art of future’.367 In my opinion, Loy and Magritte held in common the design not to become typical of a theory, but to drop themselves into the journey of exploring language in two main ways: subjects and objects. These will be addressed in this chapter.


  1. Subjects

Carolyn Burke’s argument was cogent. She argued that Loy ‘was an early explorer of that uncharted territory, the new psychic geography of women’s poetry’.368 By looking at what Loy called ‘the subconscious development’, Burke insisted that the ‘traditional spaces in which women live their lives’ were created in Loy’s ‘spatiality’. This view led to a conclusion that Loy regularly wondered in her poems about the essence of woman’s existence. However, I consider that instead of merely exploring their feminine emotions and highlighting their spiritual values, Loy seemed to write much more of the feminine in all people, men and women. In my view, Loy’s readers in 2017 need to see the treatment of ‘women’ in the context of specific places, situations and objects; she did not write poems that were political or psychological manifestos. Loy sometimes did seem to speak for women-in-general but in the poems this was always based on particular contexts. Julie Schmid points out the characteristics of Loy’s feminist manifesto, which insisted on her perspective of marriage and family: ‘Loy’s manifesto draws as much on futurism’s view of marriage and the family and women’s relationship to amore as it does on radical feminism’.369


‘Parturition’ features a related subject to which Loy seemed to pay lots of attention in her poems:

The next morning

Each woman-of-the-people

Tip-toeing the red pile of the carpet

Doing hushed service

Each woman-of-the-people

Wearing a halo

A ludicrous little halo

Of which she is sublimely unaware

I have heard in a church

-Man and woman God made them-

Thank God. 370

The above part of this poem describes a parturient woman with the physical experience of labour, in which pain is considered to be the centre as well as motivation of the process:

Locate an irritation without It is within

Within

It is without


The sensitized area
Is identical with the extensity Of intension.371
However, in this last stanza, the poet changes point of view, not from the inside but the outside. Instead of repeating ‘I am’ as a declaration of woman as a different gender who is closely familiar with childbirth, Loy refers to: ‘woman-of-the-people’. This was mentioned by Kouidis: ‘The image of female solicitude and the sisterhood of suffering suggest human affection among women, but imply the relative unimportance of those efforts’.372 The inspiration of parody helps to create ‘a ludicrous little halo’. In my view, Loy is no longer absorbed in cosmic reproductivity. ‘Halo’, a familiar image in Christianity for holy people, could be considered as an early mention of God. From the poem, it could be suggested that God made man and woman, and women do not know about the halo that they wear. This parody was also praised in Rexroth’s writing about Loy’s ‘extreme exceptionalism’: ‘Erotic poetry is usually lyric. Hers is elegiac and satirical. It is usually fast and paced. Hers is slow and deliberately twisting’.373 In my view, this characteristic of parody helps her to build up a juxtaposition of woman.
‘Woman’ in another example of Loy’s poems, has snuggled herself in a passive position. In other words, it is the position of hearing and seeing but refusing to understand:
While listening up I hear my husband

Mumbling Mumbling

Mumbling at the window

Malediction

Incantation 374
The chain of ‘mumbling’, following by the sound of another consonant ‘m’ in ‘malediction’ leads the woman’s mind to the mysterious maze of sound. The word ‘malediction’, moreover, is punned, meaning both magical words and words said by a male.
This directly affects a reader’s mind without needing to imagine the picture of the woman and man’s situation. ‘Directly’ was also what Williams noted about the perspective of Loy in Lunar Baedeker: ‘She sees and she sees everything that goes on about her, directly. Her lines are short. There was no inversion of the phrase for effect or to keep an imposed order’.375 Samuel French Morse, on the other hand, who considered Loy’s poems aside from the textual aspect, explained the origin of Loy’s inspirational abnormalities: ‘The originality of Loy is not merely a matter of typography or syntactical savagery, a relentless attack on the ready-made explanations of human wastefulness’.376 A combination should be derived from these, in my view. Loy's was an effortless-effort of word-surface to transform implicit messages about women and humanity.
A stanza from ‘Three moments in Paris’ could be an apt example:
Beautiful half-hour of being a mere woman

The animal woman

Understanding nothing of man377
Sometimes, ‘woman’ drastically chooses to be herself: ‘a mere woman’. However, the trial seems to be a failure because she recognises the emptiness in ‘understanding nothing of man’. Alternatively, this ‘half-hour of being a mere woman’ could be seen as an exploration, and ‘understanding nothing of man’ is the result of that process. With this way of understanding, it might be that the woman is successful in her trial, which is against normality and the community (‘the animal woman’). It is surreal because of the odd combination of animal and person. It is real because it names the right position of woman in society. The concept of reality and surreality, therefore, was continuously converted in Loy’s poems. She established her position as separate from considering women as subjects of artistic creation or of critical and psychological analysis.
With a few metaphors, Loy supplied another portrait of woman, not with social features, but with herself, by herself and in herself. That was the time for the hurt or pain in her mind to show. This is a poem like that:
Tend

Do not touch

Apparent flowers

Of festering secret

And the fly-by-nights

Such little things



I cannot be your mother378
Loy wrote about woman through the experience of pain and wrote about pain through the tactile sense (‘touch’), which was the most real sense of being human.
Particularly in this poem, I think, realistic depiction is highlighted. Images are in slow motion, the flesh pain that the child suffers is described as if the writer is having the same feeling. In the final stanza, metaphor is used to strengthen the sore of 'festering secret' - a strange combination, but ultimately the guilt is inevitable. Woman in this poem appears in two aspects: the person who was fascinated and the person who confessed.
In my view, it could be said that the women in Loy’s poems have been pushed into the journey of finding their instincts, and with or without Surrealist words, this still requires a Surrealistic spirit to achieve.
In contrast, I also focused on the paradox in Magritte’s aim of creating subjects. The words from Jacquet Meuris, in my view, contributed two opposing faces in Magritte’s works. He wrote at the beginning: ‘Magritte was primarily a painter of ideas, a painter of visible thoughts, rather than of subjects’,379 whereas in the middle of the book, he seemed to deny the idea of the visible-thought focus:
However, there is an all-over, camouflage-like appearance; rather than being simply juxtaposed (…) This is one of the devices by which Magritte, in his second phase of surrealist works in the 1930s, introduces a ‘crisis of the objects’ as a means to contribute finding in everyday subject matter an impulse to explore the paradoxes and enigmas opened up by modern philosophy and science. 380
I consider that Meuris pointed out the nature of creativity in Magritte’s paintings, which was focused neither towards objects nor desired subjects. In the end, Magritte approached visual-thought. However, it was necessary to create subjects as material to contribute, to evoke what Meuris called ‘paradoxes’ and ‘enigmas’. I place an emphasis on the action of ‘creating subjects’, because Magritte’s subjects are not available. The idea of a ‘camouflage-like appearance’ in the above regard approaches the intention of Magritte himself when he distinguished ‘familiarity’ and ‘mystery’: ‘The power of thought is demonstrated by unveiling or evoking the mystery in creatures that seem familiar to us’.381
On the other hand, Magritte painted woman as a form of creating gender. While man, in his paintings, was intuitive and real with specific familiar details like a black hat or a black vest, woman was portrayed as an installation of art with different visualisations. He painted 'The Rape',382 1934, by swapping the positions of body parts (breast, navel and genitals), making them become components of a woman's face. Meuris, in an effort to explain the images in Magritte’s paintings, described them as
…generally flat, without depth (depth is in our imagination, said Magritte), carefully structured, almost always according to abstract schemas. In addition, they contain no more than a few objects so that they are particularly explicit383
Likewise, woman became a focus for Magritte to explore different ways to arrange a familiar subject. However, the portrayal of a naked woman placed in another woman’s face may be seen as something more than a unique image. According to Rene Passeon’s explanation, this was ‘a sexual desire: blinded, deaf and dumb’.384 In my opinion, this could be a perspective from which to analyse this painting. However, because an important strategy of Magritte was repetition, this raises questions about Magritte’s other paintings of the body. For example, in 'Dangerous Liaisons',385 1926, and ‘Eternal Evidence',386 1930, woman was seen as different slices through a mirror. This was definitely not simply a form of reflection. It was similar to the process of Max Ernst when he combined all kinds of material, ‘whatever happened to be within my visual range’.387 These pieces from Magritte, I suggest, did not show a complete image of woman but helped to build up her portrait as an essence of complexity, interaction, dissonance and conflation between different aspects. He seemed to desire to analyse, divide and reassemble them in different spaces and dimensions. He focused on female attributes (such as genitals, the beauty of the hair and curve), but removed the concept of beauty, an approach which seems to have been inspired by the philosophy of Surrealism:
The surrealist conception of a beauty overwhelming and vital destroys any such analysis. In fact, the surrealist idea of the passivity of dictation in automatic writing and the valorization of all phrases received thereby are the negation of the separation between inspiration, which furnishes at most a material for the work, and the methodical and selective toil which according to Boileau must follow it’.388
The concept of beauty, actually, seems to turn on the idea of ‘nature’. Magritte wrote about his ‘Flowers of evil’ in which woman and other poetic characters were painted through the sense of flesh:
A woman made completely of flesh, holding in her hand a rose made of flesh, in front of the sea I have seen between two red curtains.

The title Les fleurs du mal goes with the picture just as a noun corresponds to an object without either illustrating or explaining it.

(…)

It would be just as easy to assert that latent memories of Baudelaire’s poems were, unbeknownst to me, the origin for the painting Les fleurs du mal.389


Therefore, woman in Magritte's paintings could be seen as a miniature visualisation of the world; the mysterious and divided world that Magritte vividly recreated in his paintings. 'Collective Invention',390 1934, was another example of this trend, with the image of a fish-head-woman lying on a beach. In conclusion, Magritte implicitly overturned conventional notions of beauty and desacralised legends in order to actualise them through the methods of Surrealism.
The second group of subjects that showed similarities and contrasts between Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings were relationships between humans and animals. Yvor Winters briefly mentions this relationship when he approaches Loy’s poems in comparison with the poetry of Williams, Moore and Stevens. He argues that ‘one can scarcely help sensing at bottom a strange feeling for the most subterranean of human reactions, of a padding animal resentment, and of a laughter that is curiously physical’.391
In Magritte’s paintings, the relationship between human and animal became a personifying trend (animals bore human traits and spoke for humans’ voice and sentiments). The expressive method in Magritte’s paintings helped to build complex and utopian relationships between human and animal, though such relationships were not a concern for other early Surrealists.392 In Loy's poems, human was associated with animal as a frame of reference. The human saw himself through an animal's instinct and status.
But you who make more noise than anyman in the world when you clear your throat

Deafening woke me

And I caught the thread of the argument

Immediately assuming my personal mental attitude



And ceased to be a woman393
I recognised that it was only through the reflected relationships in which animals were standards that the lyrical characters in Loy's poems found themselves. Animals appeared regularly in her poems. They could be expressed in terms such as ‘animal woman’ (‘Three Moments in Paris’), through animal lovers, or in the shadow and fate of mankind reflected in animals, like Cesire. These relationships suggested that the methods which evaluated the reality of life, and the artistic points of view of Magritte and Loy, manifested certain discrepancies, although in Magritte’s initial ideas he did not aim to create an actual link between animal and human. What he expressed was a new way of discovering strange words, but not in a mysterious way.394 In my view, with this relationship, Magritte created an innovative means of Surrealist expression, rather than making an effort to oppose mysterious creativity. Magritte aimed towards the human and considered the human as the centre of everything. Loy, on the other hand, was orientated towards eternity.
The relationships between human and animal in Magritte's paintings showed an unexplainable trend. The appearance of a man with black wings and a lion on a bridge395 with two different views showed that what we thought to be abnormal already existed. The only way we could act, just like Magritte, would be by placing them in different spaces, in different states on the same plane of a paper. Thus, I think that Magritte did not tell a story, not even about surreality; he only showed the non-existence of reality. The non-existence of reality was also referred to in ‘Le Surrealisme et la Peinture’, 1927, by André Breton: ‘There are also those things which I see differently from every-one else, and those things which I am beginning to see but are not visible. And that is not all’.396
This human-animal relationship also appeared several times in Magritte's paintings, in personified images where animals and objects borrowed the shadow of a human being, showed human expression and contained the values of a human being. Nevertheless, any contact between them could not have been created from familiar cognitive understanding. This also evoked doubts regarding expressions that we felt throughout his paintings, regarding whether they were really human or whether they were animals in reality. This suspicion was similar to the painting in which Magritte drew a man looking in the mirror and seeing rows of copies of his back. Another example could be 'The Companions of Fear', 1942.397 In this painting, it seemed to be impossible to recognise whether the owls were real or virtual, or where they came from. They could have been embodiments of life, fear of the dark, or simply born from the thorny obstacles of life. The images of their faces were portrayed sharply and vividly like there were hidden souls inside. In describing the painting, Meuris was struck by
…every object in monstrous dimensions. This illusionary effect was intended no doubt to impose on the eye of the viewer the objective evidence of the subjects treated thus ‘realistically’ by Magritte.398
Therefore, this was not simply a beast borrowing a human face to express; it was closer to non-expression. In other words, human and animal were intertwined.
2. Objects
In this section, I shall examine the common position of objects in Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings, and show how they used objects to reflect their artistic world.
At first, in my view, objects were the main materials for both artists; however, both normally refused the original appearances of objects by combining them with other objects or placing them in uncommon scenes. As a result, it would appear that objects in this case kept the impression of being ‘something familiar’ but were ‘actually strange’.
I shall then point out the opposite attitudes of Loy and Magritte, in my own perception, when they worked with objects: Magritte used objects as a basis in his visible world, while Loy tended to change her objects. Thus, by changing objects, Loy reflected an imagined, paradoxical, mad world, whereas by retaining the appearance of objects but highlighting contrasting spaces in various object-dimensions, Magritte showed different situations in our normal real life. Therefore, instead of finding a surreal and imagined world like Loy did, Magritte created unreality in this life, at this particular location. The aim of this might not have been to analyse anything from the outer world, or to problematise default objects, but to show a disconnected relationship in evidently matching domestic worlds. After that, I shall suggest the possible results of exploring objects in Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings: while Loy’s objects were unpredictable, Magritte showed that the exploration of objects was an apparent journey. Finally, I shall consider the positions of Loy and Magritte in relation to objects: for Loy, they are familiar while for Magritte, they are strangers.
To begin this discussion, I will use the ideas of Mary Ann Caws to support my own argument that objects were main materials and that, by being placed in various combinations, they evoked an invisible mixture of real entities, spaces and inner monologues.
Being a Surrealist means being in a constant state of receptivity and attentiveness to those chance occurrences in which objects, scenes and mental associations communicate themselves with more intensity than at ordinary moments. 399
Mary Ann Caws suggested here that Surrealism involved the human creative ability to receive and be attentive to the interrelationship between ‘objects’ (which we may assume means individual, identifiable, solid things), ‘places’ (which we may assume means identifiable locations or environments that might exist in the real world), and ‘mental associations’ (which we may assume means personal processes of mental inter-linking) of those objects and places. Caws assumed the existence of surreal mental processes which, she thought, were more intense than normal when outer objects and places communicated with such a perceiver’s inner world. Such communication seems to come from the outside but, as processed in the mind, seems to question and problematise the outer world as if it were being duplicated again and again. Such problematising might be seen as the basis of Surrealism: ‘a question in the inner world that you had not consciously asked’.400
Thus, in my view, Surrealist thought, Surrealist art and poetry may affect the ways in which we talk about inner mental organizing or re-organizing, and how we might subsequently describe what we see ‘out there’ and the characteristics of how we saw it. Multi-directional communication, between objects and places ‘out there’, between them and the perceiver and between the perceiver and the ‘renewed’ outside world, is vital in describing and understanding Surrealism. I suppose that our understanding of the nature and perception of objects in Surrealist art might also affect our view of Magritte’s and Loy’s works, and lead us to see their achievements as fundamentally paradoxical.
I shall analyse a combination of object-space-thinking in a poem by Loy as an example. ‘The effectual marriage or the insipid narrative of Gina and Miovanni’401 suggested that the ‘inner world’ was not simply a metaphorical reflection of the outside in Surrealism. This effect was created by misplaced combinations of words.
Simply, like a fresh breath, it told readers about two people living opposite each other, looking at each other ‘out of their two windows’. The man seemed to adore the woman while she was holding onto her identities, matching with her female world:
Pot and pans

She cooked in them

All sorts of sialagogues402
However, at the end, she was recognised as mad.

Before that, each movement in the stanza of a ‘happy immaterial woman’ belonged to others: she dropped something (sugar? - it might be) through her careful and spiritual fingers, sweetened (saccharine) his cup and did some other sweet, girly, romantic things (flower, basket, cooking, writing a poem). Indeed, crystals and devotional fingers had the same feeling of something fragile and pure, devoted to religion. ‘Crystal-saccharine-his cup’ and even the red flannel flower on the basket helped us to taste the sweetness. The laziness of this woman was also simply sweet:


When she was lazy

She wrote a poem on the milk bill

The first strophe Good morning

The second Good night 403


Suddenly, again, she was found to be mad, and the above entirely lovely words became abnormal, overturning the assumptions and shuffling concepts. In this combination, objects also parodied themselves from well-organised objects to irregular objects. Moreover, in my opinion, the small poem that the mad woman created was also a parody for making art in particular. From narrative, the poem became counter-narrative. This might have grown from the way that Loy had dedicated her feminist manifesto to the ‘demolition’404 of tradition.405
Another example of effectual object combination can be derived from Magritte’s painting, ‘The Two Mysteries’, 1966.406 This could be seen as one of Magritte’s most controversial paintings. Its mystery has led to various interpretations and analyses of the painting’s method. Stoltzfus stated that:
Michel Foucault devotes some fifty pages to proving that the iconic representation of a pipe is not the same thing as smoking it. Indeed, in our time, no informed person believes in the transparency of the sign’.407
Furthermore, Nicholson Baker wrote about an ‘object’s primordial sense of strangeness,408 which seemed to prevent readers from understanding objects as their own realities.
In my search for ideas about the treatment of objects in Magritte’s paintings, I questioned what made it mysterious. At first, nothing seemed to be mysterious in the picture. Most of the objects were easily found in an art studio: the frame, the painting and two pipes, one as a model, one as a reflection. However, it was the combination which created a mystery. Secondly, there were actually ‘two mysteries’ in the title: two different pipes in paintings, and a painting in a painting. Objects assumed to be similar became strange to each other. Therefore, the journey of seeing this painting was a multiple one of stacking up layer by layer. Finally, also in my opinion, besides what has been analysed about the word P-I-P-E, there was a trick here, since nothing could be pointed out as being the original or the copy. Each object, in this collage, proved its position in an independent way.
However, I also considered another angle of seeing this painting, in which I assumed each object was a question, about itself and about its location. Thus, the frame, the pipe, the illustrated pipe and the painting as well raised different ideas about existence. In combination, they showed the mystery of the painting, but each of them, in particular, could evoke a separate discussion. It could be said that, like various other paintings by Magritte, the objects played roles of both separation and association, of both dialogue and monologue, which came far from a singular demonstration of objects.
With regard to the appearance and demonstration of objects, I also made a brief comparison between Magritte and Dalí in painting objects. It could be said that while Magritte used objects to prove the illogical connections of the world, Dalí used explanatory combinations to demonstrate objects. Therefore, the intentions of the three paintings discussed below seem to be different. Secondly, while Dalí tended to present objects in distortion by changing their shapes and materials, Magritte seemed to keep objects in their original forms. As a result, looking at Dalí’s paintings could be assumed to require viewers to guess their subjects, whereas on seeing Magritte’s paintings, questions of abnormal connections were raised. Finally, while the titles of Dalí’s works mostly helped viewers to recognise the surreal image with lots of instruction, Magritte placed viewers in a maze through his paintings’ titles, the titles themselves appearing to mislead in relation to his seeming-to-be-real works.
While examining the object-combination in Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings, I considered a special example of Loy’s art work, ‘Househunting’,409 as an actively provocative piece to compare with Magritte’s paintings or the poems of Loy herself.

‘Househunting’ is a construction or assemblage rather than a painting. Firstly, it could be said that, the main materials in this assemblage are domestic objects, not line or colour. The assemblage would not change much if the lines were blurred and the colour was not the yellowish tone. However, this could be a brand new work if the artist replaced some of the brick-house cardboard with some other advertisement pieces, for instance. The three-dimension-installation makes the work more like a photograph of objects than a painting.


Secondly, Loy painted real objects. The images of domestic things can be seen, e.g. houses with bricks, windows and doors, ladders, clothes and even the chaotic condition of a storehouse or laundry room. The idea of ‘real domestic objects’ is consolidated by the central image of a woman who seems to have a very big brain – thinking about them, living among them. Thirdly, what we see is made surreal by collaging. The objects are intentionally misplaced; they are not in ‘natural’ household settings. It could be said that ‘Househunting’ appears to be the celebration of a mistake or the rejection of normal ideologies. The brick houses do not belong to the wall and the woman should not be fitted with a large head like an image of a light bulb, a bulb that does not illuminate anything except a housework mess.
All of the assembled objects are placed near each other, perhaps from a sense of humour and/or a parody of a female world. Indeed, it could be more than that; it might be a portrait of the whole of real human life. The reason it could be seen to evoke rejection is its use of fragmented objects re-assembled into their own combinations. Finally, this assemblage also reveals a potential comparison between Loy’s and Magritte’s treatment of domestic objects. I would argue that Loy’s are kept far from the concept of the ‘domestic’ itself, and this also shows the way Loy portrayed objects differently from Magritte. She found abnormality in the objects themselves; she did not wait until they were combined abnormally with each other. Those brick-house advertisements for house-hunting in front of the wall raise a playful question about the existence of bricks. They no longer constitute houses themselves. In other words, they are the shadows of what we are hunting, what we are thinking; an ‘inner’ reflection of the outside world which runs throughout a theme of domestic objects. Moreover, in a broader perspective, I assume that this painting might represent an escape from the conventions of a domestic area in which each advertisement for ‘Househunting’ could be a game of shopping.
On the other hand, I shall examine how combinations of objects and spaces in Loy’s poems were framed on shapes represented by houses, windows and cylinders. These were both the source for raising imagination and the tie binding women in domestic space and responsibilities. For example, the space ‘At the door of the house’ was the inspiration for ‘a thousand of women’s eyes’ searching for escape in the world of Tauro cards. However, at the end, all the imaginations turned out to be the ‘little love-tales’ that ‘never come true. At the door of the house’. Therefore, spaces in Loy’s poems contained a song which included both the inside and the outside world. She wrote about the circle of a cylinder:
The human cylinders

Revolving in the enervating dust

That wraps each closer in the mystery

Of singularity

Among the litter of a sunless afternoon

Having eaten without tasting

Talked without communion

And at least two of us

Loved a very little

Without seeking

To know if out two miseries

In the lucid rush-together of automatons

Could form one opulent well-being410
From this first stanza, two different spaces can be seen: the mysterious space and the space where ‘two of us’ were living and seeking. The connection between them is one of human cylinders, which could revolve and rush to make a singularity (in mystery) and hopefully, a form of richness and happiness (in human relations). Inspired by this poem, Danielle Pafunda supposed Loy ‘the pregnant poet’.411 In my view, this is not simply sexuality or pregnancy. It is also the universal and human creation, in which the cylinders both receive and filter dust, litter of a sunless afternoon and miseries, which form and raise a miraculous singularity. The cylinder is supposed to be the space of a human and the origin of the universe. The way Loy has formed them into particular shapes could signify the way she treated poems as an invisible frame of her own words.
To point out the power of Surrealist combination in Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings, I shall study other kind of object that was common in both of their work: the musical instrument.
A musical instrument was another kind of object that did not regularly appear but had a specific position as a transforming object in Loy’s works. The transforming objects, in my opinion, had certain common characteristics. From those similarities, they helped to create a different realm of understanding and imagination through music, in which ‘The Widow’s Jazz’ could be seen as an apt example. In this poem, instruments were described through their function, while on the other hand, the emotional effects that they spread were sometimes kept far from their musical environment. In particular, I think that the existence of music was considered as an obsession of the past in the present. It was the background of ecstasy, the fear of sinking in imagination and the cause of the dissolving condition of minds. There is no music or rhythm from musical instruments in this poem, however, it seems that, like ‘pale snakes’, music appears and disappears along with the ‘white flesh’ which ‘quakes to the negro soul’:
The white flesh quakes to the negro soul

Chicago! Chicago!


An uninterpretable wail

stirs in a tangle of pale snakes


to the lethargic ecstasy of steps

backing in to primeval goal


White man quit his actin' wise

colored folk hab de moon in dere eyes


Haunted by wind instruments

in groves of grace412


This poem announces an environment in a club where jazz is being played by black people as a form of their own culture. This setting is due to the context of the 1920s when it was written (1927). However, there is no ‘I’, no position of a speaker who is in the club; nothing is personal. They are dancing. They seem to know the music well, which can be interpreted by linking it with their particular history of experiences. Moreover, it is jazz, a kind of music which has no relation with previous emotion. As such, no one has to excuse himself. This is the place to let everything go. That might be the reason why they dance informally in the shape of snakes, recording extraordinary jazz music and responding sexually to each other in taboos, a mixture of black and white people. All of them are in a flashing environment while the irregular lights flash in the dark room as well as on black and white flesh. This flashing, in later stanzas, is mentioned as a visual flashing flame in an imaginary suttee, in which the widow is in the flame of a jazz club. Therefore, it could be said that music is no longer just sound but also flame, turning it from reality to unreality, in which the widow is even jealous of death: ‘Husband/ How secretly you cuckold me with death’. The Surrealist imagination is also brought out through a sort of combination of white and black, who are losing their identities and becoming highly charged. Moreover, this poem evokes an association with Pablo Picasso, who drew paintings using African masks and African sculpture as an imaginative Surrealist approach in the early twentieth century.
The fragmentation of musical instruments and ideological shuffles were also what Magritte showed in his paintings. In ‘The Enchanted Realm’, 1953,413 a fire trumpet was placed in unrelated combination with other single paintings. The only thing that was common between them was the position under the blue sky. They implied the variety of objects on earth but the title raised a question about the supernatural nature of this realm. Another painting in which a musical instrument also dissolved following the freedom of the body’s structure was ‘The Acrobat’s Exercises’, 1928, in which, the uncertain flow of mind was the only way to control the fragmented body. The yellow trumpet, like a gun or any other object that might have been here instead, kept its real image but totally lost its features. However, this does not mean that musical instruments only existed uncertainly in Magritte’s work. In ‘A Happy Touch’, 1953, there seemed to be no impression of sound in the painting, but the familiar real objects, a black grand piano and a golden ring, seemed to link with the suggestion in Magritte’s title of a ‘happy touch’. This could be understood as meaning a well-combined structure, evoked from the meaning of a ‘ring’ and the cementing of a relationship. Ultimately, though, it shown harmonisation between objects of whatever size, colour and function. This helped to break all conventions regarding size and characteristics, because those objects seemed totally matched to each other without any concern.
In conclusion, both Mina Loy and René Magritte gave new lives to static objects. As a common method of Surrealism, they kept the form, shape and original image of most objects in their works. However, these objects appeared uniquely in combination and were picked and installed in places that they could not actually be in.
Secondly, with reference to the point that whereas Loy changed objects and placed them in fantasy, Magritte respected their origins and their real situation, I wish to examine my own sense of Magritte’s object as ‘the object in the present’. The objects painted by Magritte were strikingly immediate, as though they were present in the here and now. In effect, it might be asserted that the painter avoided inbuilt comparisons or metaphoric ‘development’ in favour of the notion that these objects really exist.
Nonetheless, it has to be acknowledged that words to describe Magritte and others might not easily be divided into simply (or simplistically) ‘real’ versus dreamlike or fantastical. Perhaps dreams might be both realistic in mode of presentation whilst creating objects that in practice are impossible. Meuris said of Magritte’s objects that ‘They did not come from a dream’.414 That said, Pacque judged that ‘present’ objects’ in Magritte could actually be thoughts rather than a picture of the solid outside world:
Magritte was primarily a painter of ideas, a painter of visible thoughts, rather than of subjects.415
This ambiguity of realities – dependent or not on the mind, dependent or not on solid-looking representations of common real objects – leads to major ‘questioning [of] the basis of representational conventions’.416
In an effort to provide a stronger comparison between Loy and Magritte in terms of their use of objects, I chose the poems and paintings below as apt examples of ‘fantasy’ (from Loy) and ‘surreality’ (from Magritte).
In the collection The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Loy tended to write about the moon. Her poems contained a human journey through different statues derived from the sense of perception of the moon. However her depiction seemed to go beyond ordinary aspects. In my view, Loy was familiar with this space. For example, she wrote about Lucifer in detail, making an imagined character from legend reappear as clearly as if he was in a picture: ‘A silver Lucifer serves cocaine in cornucopia’.417 She also seemed to indicate her ‘inner’ position by not only observing objects from different dimensions but also playing with them through language. These could be seen in the continuous circle of lunar lusts with ‘the eye-white sky-light white-light district’, in the creative combination words like ‘stellectric’ and ‘starway’, and in the overlapped layers of ‘O’ shaped space, such as ‘the shore of oval oceans’, ‘oxidized Orient’, ‘Onyx-eyed Odalisques’, ‘ornithologists observe’ and ‘Eros obsolete’. In the final parts of ’Lunar Baedeker’,418 Loy might have been exploring or celebrating women’s sexuality through her language, in which the ‘O’ could be seen as a symbol of preparation for penetration, a womb. She wrote about it using objects including bodies, her aim perhaps being the idea that woman have to accept change.
Moreover, this poem represented her use of word-invention and application of myth and legend as ways of creating distance between reality and unreality. However, it was a matter of consistency in Loy’s poems that the origins of objects were always respected. Likewise, the same concept applied to objects such as cornucopia, Lethe, Pharaoh’s tombstones, Eros, and Cyclops in terms of how they were traditionally described. Therefore, word by word, sound by sound followed each other to create an endless rotation of Lunar Baedeker, as if consciously leading Loy, who seemed to play a role as participant. Moreover, in other poems, images of ‘the starry sky’ with ‘rocks of human mist’,419 Marble on which ‘Greece has thrown white shadows’,420 and ‘a radium of the word’421 showed us infinite possibilities for expression of language towards imaginary objects. The common idea of these descriptions was that Loy used them with her full of awareness, appreciation and admiration for the value of talent and the intensity of nature.
As a result, while many critics considered Loy’s writings to be about objects as a reflection of the domestic area, I tend to see her work in imaginary spaces. Jacinta Kelly published a journal article about space in Loy’s poems, named ‘Purging the Birdcage: The Dissolution of Space in Loy’s Poetry’,422 which aimed to analyse ‘how space is formulated through her writing and how she dismantles its operations’. She concluded:
The concept of space (…) re-imagines the limits of poetry as that which can secrete beyond its own perceivable edges.423
However, examining space in Loy’s ‘Chapter of a novel’ and her ‘Manifesto’, in my view, narrowed the limit of the research, since this article had just evaluated Loy’s concept of liberating objects and the body out of domestic space using metaphorical images such as a birdcage. In my view, Loy’s concepts of space were not only focused on the ideal area of Feminism, the house, but also included widely different models of spaces which might be appropriate to the ‘unstable’ characteristics in her poetry collection. I tend to infer that domestic spaces (the main spaces focused on in Kelly’s writing) were just one aspect of Loy’s interior spaces, and the effort of escape from ‘Birdcage’ was only the start of another journey, in which woman or man was captured in a bigger, invisible cage, such as universal space and imaginary space.
In contrast, in my opinion, Magritte tended to maintain the characteristics of objects as much as possible; however, as a Surrealist, he re-measured them and placed them in abnormal positions. I shall consider ‘The Tomb of the Wrestlers’, 1961, and ‘The listening-room’, 1958, as examples. In those paintings, Magritte adjusted the dimensions of a rose and an apple, making them appear to be frustrated with the narrowness of houses. Indeed, reality in ‘The Tomb of the Wrestlers’ was made from the rose, the room, the window, the direction of the sun, and even the poetic sentence from Stein by which it was literarily inspired. However, the heterogeneous dimensions between them created an image related to Gulliver's Travels when Gulliver was placed on the voyage to Lilliput and the journey to Brobdingnag. Both were in suspiciously abnormal sizes. To me, it could even be seen as having been inspired by the classic story by Jonathan Swift, a harmonisation in a dissonance.
By comparing objects in Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings, I supposed that the treatment of objects would help to examine the ideal of reality in their art works. Whereas Loy produced her faraway spaces by inventing word sounds and using unfamiliar legends which were different from the domestic area as an effort to escape and refuse reality, Magritte pulled the imagined spaces as close as if they could be touched. For example, he captured a cloud in a glass in ‘The Raw Nerve’ and similarly, in ‘The Cut-Glass Bath’, a giraffe in a glass, which might be analysed by the notion of ‘anti-painting’. Magritte’s work ‘fits all the better into the framework of this definition insofar as it was linked to [whether] an ‘image’ should be an exact reproduction of a thing or a living being’.424 Another example, ‘The Lost Jockey’, 1926, depicted the rider lost in mixed spaces of painting, music and entertainment (chess). In my view, imagined space in Magritte's paintings was like the space in a theatre when it presented art without limitation, but not for the specific purpose of publishing substantive expression. That was different from the space of a stage. It completely escaped the available prejudices of existence, to shape an abnormal image of normality. Imagination, in this case, turned out to be the power of the inside world to oppose conventional realistic art.
I shall argue, then, that unpredictable characteristics made Loy’s domestic objects unique. This happened normally at the end of her poems where she used strong verbs, illogical deductions and opposing images to supply a question regarding the outer world. ‘Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots’ could be seen as an apt example. At first, ‘virgins’ are described quietly and gently behind the curtain using words like seeing, whispering and squeaking. However, at the end, the poet reveals a chance that the virgins might scratch, which can be considered as paradoxical:
Against the virgins who

Might scratch425


Moreover, in my opinion, the point of view in this poem is not that of the virgins but of the person outside the window. This also reveals another paradox: the question of the outer world will be answered from the inner world. Indeed, what could be thought about the life of virgins-without-dowry behind the curtain-without-dots (a pun by Loy) may be different from what is actually going to be. ‘Virgins’, ‘curtains’, ‘weeds’ and ‘home’ could be real, but the drilled eyes, the men passing behind the curtain, the sound of squeaking, the three times repetition of the auxiliary verbs ‘might’ and ‘may’ suggest unreality. As such, questions about domestic space, marriage and women’s lives could be raised inside those terms themselves.
A final idea that I shall examine is a suggestion about the position from which objects were seen by Loy and Magritte. Loy wrote about objects from the perspective of a person who understood and had a close relationship to them; in other words, she explored them from the position of the owner, whereas Magritte saw objects with the eyes of a painter who forgot or lost the familiar vision. Therefore, he saw them from the position of a stranger. I use a common object which appeared in both their writing and painting as a typical example: the curtain.
Loy wrote about it in ‘Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots’:
Houses hold virgins

The door’s on the chain


‘Plumb streets with hearts’

‘Bore curtains with eyes’426


Loy raises a lot of questions in this stanza. She changes the nature of objects and reverses what we have known and thought about them by a series of word-connections overlapping each other. In the third verse, they are: plumb-streets, plumb-with-hearts, plumb-streets-with-hearts, streets-hearts. Therefore, with the action of ‘plumbing’, the streets turn out to have depth, to have a bottom and something secret to find out, as if they are finding the truth. Moreover, it must be something that cannot be found out in any other way except by ‘plumbing’. However, ‘plumb’ is written in combination with ‘hearts’, which evokes another image of life, love or even blood. Similarly, instead of a heavy metal object matching with ‘bore’, she chooses ‘eyes’. This suggests an image of someone trying to drill (or penetrate) the curtain to see what they are not allowed to, like a voyeur. Therefore, curtains-minus-dots in houses seem to be responsible for preventing the other non-domestic objects and subjects telling their mysteries. In the broader context of the whole poem, according to Laura Scuriatti, it ‘prompts us to think beyond the ‘prison-house’ of gender’.427
Unlike Loy’s depiction, ‘curtain’ appeared in Magritte’s paintings, in my opinion, as a suggested border between internal and external, image and language, time and space. The ‘curtain’, as its original meaning, seemed not to exist. In ‘The Palace of Curtains, III’, 1929, Magritte painted two polygons leaning on a wood-panelled wall, the image of sky on one polygon and the word ‘ciel’ meaning ‘sky’ on the other. ‘The Beautiful World’ (Le Beau Monde), 1962, was also the reflection of sky on a curtain. In the same year, Magritte painted ‘High Society’ (Le Beau Monde) with the image of a sky-curtain-man beside a green-leaf-curtain man. Both of them were observed from behind.

Magritte, in my view, tended to keep the imagined ideas of images further from their real meanings. Moreover, although the objects themselves were not different from their normal images, Magritte stood in an ‘outside’ position to make them strange. Again, he looked at them from the viewpoint of a stranger. An apt example would be ‘The Domain of Arnheim’, 1938,428 a picture with the image of an eagle’s mountain in front of a wall’s border with two small eggs. About this, Edgar Allan Poe stated: ‘…no such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce’.429 It could be said that imaginary objects in Magritte were not used to release creativity to infinity. On the contrary, Magritte formed them into frames and gave them the function of combination, which made them surreal. In the above-mentioned painting, the majesty of the mountain under the shape of an eagle was completely compatible with the littleness of the two eggs, and turned them into a perfect pattern of a shield. Apparently, a quite significant arrangement like ‘The Domain of Arnheim’,430 1962, appeared uncommonly in Magritte’s paintings. Some other imaginary objects were untold. The objects silently did their work of illustration, and the paintings did the remaining work by collaging. ‘A well of Truth’, 1967,431 was a painting of this kind, with the image of a pair of half-foot-half-boots on a rocky surface and in front of a wooden wall. Those were covered by a base brown tone. The title of this painting was going to evoke a completely different image from the objects themselves. Although grouped like imaginary objects, the painting did contain real things that could be derived from real life: the shoes, legs and the brownish scene around them including the wooden wall and soil ground. All brought a real feeling of bare feet walking on the rough surface. In literal terms, it seemed that no relationship was more suitable than a natural connection between foot and shoe, shoe and ground. However, what was contained inside was not measurable, not imaginable: two half-and-half foot-shoes. The emptiness of ‘A well’ needed to be filled in by endless receptions. The painter, from familiarity had created a shock of unfamiliarity.


Another example of the view of a stranger in Magritte’s paintings could be his frequent motif of scenes with mirrors. ‘Not to be reproduced’ was a ‘striking portrait’ of Edward James while he ‘is viewed from behind staring into a mirror, but where, paradoxically, his reflection is also seen from behind’.432 The multiplied man in this painting could be seen as a recognition of the man ‘coming from afar’, but instead of travelling towards the outside, he seemed to have had a journey inwards, questioning the inner ego. Similarly, while considering objects in flat view, Magritte tended to erase the identifiable aspects by using flowers, masks, white cloth, light or turning them into a series of copies. ‘Golconde’433 and ‘The Month of the Vintage’434 were apt examples of this trend, in which, the bowler-hatted men did not appear individually but as a multiplied portrait. They were as similar to each other as raindrops. This is reminiscent of the typical matchstick men in L.S Lowry’s paintings,435 which led to his own words: ‘All my people are lonely. Crowds are the most lonely thing of all’.436
Moreover, even though seen through a mirror, it might not have been a real reflection because the outside and inside scenes in the mirror were just imagined images. Therefore, from one particular space (the room with a mirror and a man), it turned into the bareness of space. This links to Magritte’s own thoughts about another painting: ‘Behind the colours in the pictures is the canvas. Behind the canvas there is a wall, behind the wall there is... etc. Visible things always hide other visible things. But a visible image hides nothing’.437 This awareness of nothingness also applied to ‘Le Beau Monde’, 1962,438 in which even though the painting introduced two spaces separated by windows, it could not escape from the only domestic area. Sometimes, this kind of area was explored in a ‘transfixed’439 way; Magritte seemed to consider spaces with the dimension of time. His painting ‘Time Transfixed’ was described as: ‘Alice leaps on to the fireplace and then passes through the mirror into Carroll’s looking-glass domain, the locomotive emerges like a visitor from another realm’.440 The outside space linked to the subject that Walter Benjamin called ‘someone who comes from afar’ – the ‘storyteller’441 – and the interior space could be related to ‘freedom outside objective limits’442 by Blanchot. Therefore, space from faraway and space from conception could hardly be separated because while on the one hand, they were both the product of a human, or storyteller, on the other, they were unable to escape from objectivity. Thus, despite the distractions of objectivity or the efforts of being a ‘trading seaman’, the limitation of the reality of space was still worthy of being accepted and explored. In this painting, the appearance of an imagined locomotive made the domestic space with familiar objects like the fireplace, the mirror and clock suspicious, as if each of them were contained in other spaces. For example, the mirror reflected the clock as well as other domestic objects, and thus, the mirror itself was another space. However, why did Magritte choose the locomotive coming between the living room and the chimney? This might be analysed by suggesting that besides the visible room, there was a different space behind the mirror. The space contained half of the locomotive’s journey. This helped to reveal a space inside the chimney with dirty dust, cruelly black soot and maybe, some poor children cleaning it. All of these were what could actually happen behind the mirror, a contrasting image of poverty and misery. The locomotive, apparently, not only brought a message of a faraway land like the ideal fireplace in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, it also transferred images of human life through layer-spaces.


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