René Magritte to Harry Torczyner

On Ideas, Imagination, Originality, Style, & Expression
in Painting



I am pleased to hear about the welcome you have given “Le Tombeau des Lutteurs” [The Tomb of the Wrestlers]. The 1944 date attests to the fact that at that time the kind of painting I was doing—trying to bring it into harmony with the spirit of Impressionism—was not always (in 1954) in tune with that spirit. “My habitual manner” was, sometimes, on the contrary, always, there to attest to the fact that I would ultimately come back to it. Indeed, the 1944 pictures, like “Le Tombeau des Lutteurs,” were painted in “my habitual manner” what has since reverted to being the one and only manner I find I truly need in order to paint, free of both fantasy and originality, ideas sufficiently “sublime” to require nothing more than precise description. I firmly believe that a beautiful idea is ill served by being expressed in an “interesting” way: the interest is in the idea. Those that need something to “get across,” eloquence for example, are unable to stand on their own.

That is all part of my convictions, which are usually being sorely tested by interpreters of every ilk and kidney who try to express “themselves” by reciting poetry, painting pictures, etc.

(19 August 1960)


“An erroneous and widespread notion attributes to painting the power of expressing feelings, whereas it is assuredly incapable of doing any such thing. It sometimes happens that one is moved when looking at a picture, but to deduce from that that the picture is expressing an emotion is like deducing, for example, that a cake ‘expresses’ the feelings of the pastry cook or the pleasure we take in tasting it.”

[Quote is a revision for the Liège catalogue]

(3 November 1960)


Psychoanalysis allows us to interpret only those things that are susceptible to interpretation. Fantastic art and symbolic art provide psychoanalysis with many opportunities to perform: they offer many examples of more or less obvious delirium.

Art as I conceive of it is resistant to psychoanalysis: it evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist, namely, the mystery that must not be mistaken for some kind of problem, difficult as that problem may be.

I take care to paint only images that evoke the world’s mystery. In order to be able to do so, I have to be very wide awake, which means that I must totally cease identifying myself with ideas, emotions, sensations. (Dream and madness, on the other hand, are propitious to absolute identification.)

No sensible person believes that psychoanalysis can elucidate the mystery of the world. The very nature of mystery obviates curiosity. Nor does psychoanalysis have anything to say about works of art that evoke the mystery of the world. Perhaps psychoanalysis is the best subject for psychoanalytic treatment.

(This text was written by RM for the exhibition The Vision of René Magritte at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 16 September - 14 October 1962. The text was reproduced in the catalogue with a translation by HT.)

(Brussels, 21 May 1962)


I know the Eluard books [Répétitions and Les Malheurs des immortels, with illustrations by Max Ernst] in question, but they are not illustrations in the usual sense of the word, nor as Soby seems to think. The Max Ernst collages in those books could have been printed with any of Eluard’s work and their harmony with the texts would have been the same. The collages were made before or after the poems were written. The collages and the poems are very well “matched,” through fellow feeling, a similar freedom, the same poetic state of mind.

Example: there is an edition of Les Chants de Maldoror with an “illustration” of mine that was done before there was any idea of such an edition. It is a drawing of “Le Viol” [The Rape, ca. 1935], a painting that was done several years prior to publication of the Chants de Maldoror and without my having any notion of Lautreamont’s book.

Obviously an “exception that proves the rule,” since I produced illustrations during the war, an error on my part owing to circumstances that will not, I hope, recur.

*     *     *

Returning to illustrations, I’ve only been able to “see them clearly” in recent years. Before that, I used to do them from time to time, but never with great interest. I “felt” that I had better things to do—without knowing precisely why. De facto, I have always (since 1926) sought what to paint rather than concerning myself, like almost all painters, with some way or manner of painting. Of late, I know that this, de jure, is the proper way, notwithstanding the importance imputed to the originality of the various ways or manners of painting. As for me, I couldn’t care less about some other kind, more or less, nor about any “interpretation” of a familiar subject by some painter more or less bent on deluding himself and others.

I don’t think it is possible to make people understand that authentic imagination has nothing to do with the imaginary. Imagination is actually the inspiration that enables us to utter or to paint (without originality) what must be uttered or painted. So there can thus be no question of one’s interpreting, however brilliantly, some “subject” selected from a lengthy and long-established list.

(11 September 1965)

SOURCE: Magritte, René. Letters to Harry Torczyner, 19 August 1960, 3 November 1960, 21 May 1962, 11 September 1965; in Magritte / Torczyner: Letters Between Friends, translated from the French by Richard Miller, introduction by Sam Hunter (New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1994), excerpts, pp. 57-58, 62, 73-74, 110-111.

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