Borges, Magritte, & Escher

By Ralph Dumain

René Magritte

There is no surprise that one would find Jorges Luis Borges and René Magritte mentioned together. There are endless examples. What matters here though is: based on what commonalities they would be grouped together, and what would distinguish the both of them from other figures with whom they might be compared?  Borges has been brought into relationship with such a wide variety of figures in various genres, where is the limit? But even within the realm of the visual arts, why not juxtapose Borges and any number of surrealists?

I believe that there is an affinity between how Borges and Magritte operate, their perspectives and goals, that make them a worthy pair in a way that Borges does not match up with Dalí, Ernst, or any other surrealist painter. This is also consistent with Magritte’s known disdain for Dalí (to take one example) and his known divergence from the general ideology of surrealist practice.

Neither Borges nor Magritte is interested in the unbridled release of the unconscious (automatic writing or painting), wild dream-like imagery, arbitrary juxtapositions, avant-gardism for its own sake, or a preoccupation with style over content.

Both focus their imaginative resources on conceptual relationships, both address or portray logical conundrums or paradoxes using realistic techniques, evoking a sense of metaphysical dislocation and thereby the “mystery” of the world. Both reject the arbitrary combinatorial and psychologistic pyrotechnics of surrealism and comparable avant-gardes.

There is no surprise that a certain intellectual temperament would respond to both of them. Michel Foucault is the most famous example. More important is an exact specification of what characteristics bind Borges and Magritte together. Here are some examples of how connections are made.

Mariana Borges Veras does not mention Borges (“René Magritte and Realist Surrealism,” Matteson Art, April 16, 2009). She describes how Magritte, unlike other surrealist artrists, preserves realism in his actual depictions of objects while subverting our perception of reality in other ways.

Lois Parkinson Zamora mentions Magritte and treats Borges at length in “Trompe l’oeil Tricks: Borges’ Baroque Illusionism,” at one point making a direct comparison:

Trompe l’oeil paintings were known long before the Baroque period, and long after, for that matter—René Magritte is our greatest twentieth-century practitioner and, indeed, an artist to whom Jorge Luis Borges has occasionally been compared.

Artist Mati Klarwein (“The Story Behind: Mati Klarwein’s Bitches Brew Album Art,” by Nora Ritchie) is quoted as referring to Borges as “Jorge Luis Borges, the Magritte of literature”.

References to Borges and Magritte are pervasive for artist Luis Camnitzer, interviewed by Alejandro Cesarco (Bomb). He remarks:

... I see both Borges and Magritte more as creators of methods than as presenters of interesting topics; their methods influenced me.

In “The quoted ‘wor(l)d’ of Liliana Porter” by Fernando Castro R. (Zone/Zero) we learn that:

Two important critics, Gerardo Mosquera and Luis Camnitzer, have interpreted Liliana Porter’s recent photographic work by alluding to the literary work of Jorge Luis Borges and the painterly work of René Magritte. Porter's interest in Magritte is no secret; she has quoted him in works like “Magritte’s 16th of September” (1975), “The Great War” (1975), “La Luna” (1977) and more recently, in “La Clairvoyance” (1999). Given that Borges’ works are not visual, their relationship to Porter’s oeuvre must be, therefore, necessarily conceptual. Although in 1983 she produced the work “Fragments with Borges’ Book,” representing a sample of a book is not tantamount to representing the literary work in the book, whereas representing a painting is representing the painterly work. In spite of the clues in Porter’s works that sustain the interpretations of Mosquera and Camnitzer, it seems counterintuitive that her photographs of kitschy porcelain figurines could fit in the aesthetic horizon of one of the most cerebral writers of all times, or even of Magritte’s brand of surrealism.

The author goes on to elaborate the connections in great detail.

Filmmaker Johan Grimonprez, interviewed by Mark Peranson (“You Meet Your Double, You Should Kill Him: Johan Grimonprez on Double Take,” cinema scope), classifies Borges and Magritte as magical realists or symbolists. He finds it significant that Borges, Magritte, and Hitchcock were born around the same time.

It is well known that Foucault was inspired by both Borges and Magritte, but Michael Lafferty (“Heterotopias and Painting: Foucault, Magritte and Borges,” SEP & FEP Annual Conference 2011, 2-9-2011) claims that Magritte too was inspired by Borges:

Both Foucault and Magritte were inspired by a passage in Borges (from his short story The Analytical Language of John Wilkins); they both developed a critique of painting and language from Borges’ unfamiliar and disturbing classification of animals in a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia”.

This simple recent video—“Magritte and Borges” by Chapman Caddell—concisely captures similarities between the two as well as anything else one will find on the Internet.

M. C. Escher

The other relevant artist that comes to my mind is M. C. Escher. Escher was not part of surrealism or any other art movement of which I am aware. Escher’s art was conceptual, involving inventive geometrical and topological creations, notably tessellations, perspectival novelties, and impossible objects. Escher is much beloved by mathematicians. The same sort of people are likely to be captivated by both Escher and Borges (and Magritte as well).

Garrett Rowlan (“Architectural traits of the immortals,” (ir)eal reviews) finds tight correspondences connecting Borges with both Magritte and Escher! Ema Lapidot (“Borges y Escher: Artistas Contemporaneos”—in Spanish) details the perceived parallels between Borges and Escher. Lapidot even quotes a conversation between Richard Burgin and Borges—in English—in which Burgin mentions Escher. Borges has never heard of him, and Burgin elaborates:

He’s a contemporary of yours, born around the same time, and strangely his work in visual terms alludes to some of your favorite themes and subjects. I mean he has pictures about infinity and alternative realities, and so forth.

(Escher does not show up in the names index of Magritte’s Écrits Complets. Borges does, but there may be additional remarks in subsequently publicized correspondence. See Magritte’s Missives reporting a late discovered cache of letters addressed to poet Paul Colinet that includes some strong remarks about Borges.)

Escher is not particularly relevant to the question of ars combinatoria, nor does he deal in juxtapositions of disparate objects or dramatically alter their customary properties. He does evoke a sense of wonder and mystery in his compositions, in a very precise manner, particularly in his depiction of infinities, paradoxes, and impossible objects. I think Magritte creates a broader overall effect and thus seems to me more thoroughly quasi-Borgesian in his approach to the world.

Additional References

Picart, Caroline Joan (“Kay”) S. “Memory, Pictoriality, and Mystery: (Re)viewing Husserl via Magritte and Escher,” Philosophy Today, vol. 41: Supplement: “Remembrance and Responsibility,” 1997, pp. 118-126.

Explanation Explained by René Magritte

René Magritte on the Revolutionary Artist vs. Folk Art & Stalinism

René Magritte to Harry Torczyner on Painting

Magritte, la Pataphysique et son Collège

Écrits Complets par René Magritte

Borges’s Monsters & Ars Combinatoria
by Lois Parkinson Zamora

“On the Dialectics of Metamathematics” (Excerpts)
by Peter Várdy

Surrationally Yours
by R. Dumain

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes:
Selected Bibliography

ars combinatoria @ Studies in a Dying Culture


ars combinatoria @ Ĝirafo

René Magritte @ Ĝirafo

’Pataphysics @ Ĝirafo (blog)

Martin Gardner Dead at 95
by R. Dumain

Borges’s Monsters: Unnatural Wholes and the Transformation of Genre
by Lois Parkinson Zamora

M.C. Escher - The Official Website

M. C. Escher - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Uploaded 16 November 2014
Reference added 28 November 2014

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