After Magritte #5: Hegel at the Beach
Hegel, more than most, would surely have needed a long holiday in the sun. White houses, freshly painted windows, glistening doors, and the smooth blue lacquer of the sea, all reflected in the ascent of the deep blue sky rising toward the darkness of infinity. The beauty of a seaside town and the birth of philosophy from that steady brightness of the light of the beneficent sun.
The philosopher had long suffered through those interminably gray and gloomy Prussian skies, those wet November evenings when the sodden leaves mat into the wet earth and the frigid winter dusk fills with the melancholy wings of owls. He would have been anxious about Zerrissenheit—who’s not?—and about that undifferentiated moment when all the somnolent cows sleep motionlessly on the moonless alpine mountainsides, if not on the streets of Berlin. Gray-on-Gray; Black-on-Black.
Hegel badly needed blue and white and a day in the sun with his pants rolled up and his toes full of wet sand. A time when time slows down into the more relaxed rhythm of a vacation slowly takes on its own pace. Dozing, off and on, with a cold drink beaded with water dripping down the sides of the glass. The sun in Elba, Capri, or Aegina, or, perhaps, even in the moment offered by the pristine heights of Sils Maria. Reflections and snowshine. Les grandes vacances!
Perhaps, though, the great thinker disdained the very concept of a holiday, convincing himself that the leaden skies of the State—emerging from the broken shards of what had been and laden with what was to come—were those blue skies in the process-of-becoming. One, two, three: gray, hazy powder blue, azure.
His wife, Marie, his overly devoted sister Christiane, and the other woman whose child he fathered may all have tried, in vain, to get Hegel into a carriage headed south. Who knows? But railroads were yet to come and Hegel had more writing to accomplish. Encyclopedias! Prefaces! He kept putting off the vacation until it was too late, so in the next century it would take, at long last, a painter to take him on holiday.
“Dear Mademoiselle Suzi,” René Magritte wrote in May of 1958 to Suzi Gablik,
“My latest picture began with the question—how to show a glass of water in a picture in some way that would not be insignificant? Neither whimsical, nor arbitrary, nor feeble—but let’s say it: with genius? (false modesty apart)—I began by drawing lots of glasses of water: each with a mark on the glass: after the 100th or 150th drawing this mark broadened out: and took the form of an umbrella: then the umbrella was placed in the glass: and finally below the glass. This is the exact solution of the initial question—How to paint a glass of water with genius? Then I thought that Hegel (another genius) would have greatly appreciated this object, which has two opposite functions—at one and the same time not wanting water (rejecting it) and wanting it (containing water). He would have been charmed, I think, or amused (as if on holiday) and I call the picture: ‘Hegel’s Holiday’.”
Magritte started with a multiplicity of sketches of glasses of water, all with a mark of singularity and then kept at it until the mark changed into something unexpected and unpredictable.
The mark becomes an umbrella, but the painter must continue experimenting with the positionality of the glass in relation to the umbrella in relation to the canvas in relation to his own sense of, all modesty aside, genius. Magritte invites Hegel to go on holiday, to stop, if only for the instant of a view, the laborious work of speculative dialectics and head for the sunny shores of the paradox of the visible.
Painting, after all, has only an exact solution to the questions it asks and this precision is the painting itself. This precision, turning, generates swarms of (an)exact questions and responses. There are always questions of translatability, the movement of metaphor, and supplements that hover around the work of art like a host of angels or a pack of demons, but those, for the moment, are tangential detours and beside the point.
Rex Butler has entered into the spirit of the painter working out the workings of the painting via the conceptual machinery of the famous gaze:
“For what we can see Magritte doing there is trying to catch up with a knowledge that already sees the line as something else. It is as though each drawing was done by another, which Magritte then attempts to make over in his own terms, only to discover that once again it has gone beyond him, contains something he has not seen before. And the pauses and hesitations in Magritte’s method – the 100 to 150 sketches he took to get it right – arise because at the same time the line is both. It is both an attempt to copy that line which appears before him and what moves him beyond himself, forcing him to make another copy” (1999, 3).
The simple line is always a multiplying line, a mark on paper and a catalyst for an uncountable number of virtual possibilities. Where will the hand move next? What worlds does the line open up and sketchily organize as a diagram?
What might it mean for Hegel to go on a vacation, to vacate that dialectical place called “Hegel”? That was not, of course, Magritte’s question, which was simply how to show—and what does this majestic word indicate?—a glass of water in a “not insignificant” manner. How to paint a glass of water in a significant manner, one capable of provoking thought and thus charming two geniuses in different genres of fabulation?
A cup of water, an umbrella, Hegel putting his manuscripts to one side, carefully stacked, and packing his bag to go on a long vacation. This is the force of art, its surprise, its power.
Butler, Rex. (1999). “Sovereign Stain: On René Magritte’s ‘Hegel’s Holiday,'” Globe E Journal of Contemporary Art 3.