The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe) by Rene Magritte 

The Treachery of Images with English Captions

“The Treachery of Images,” or the painting known as “This is Not a Pipe” is an illustration, rather a painting by famous Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte. When you think about surrealistic artwork and paintings, a simple illustration of a painting does not pop into your mind.

So how come this simple illustration became a symbol of surrealism and arguably the most famous painting by René Magritte? The pipe in the painting does not give it as much meaning as the text under it does. Under the image of the pipe, the artist has written something in French;

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Translated in English, it means “This is not a pipe.” That has to be one of the most confusing things ever. It is clearly a pipe. So why did the artist write that it isn’t? Let’s find out. 

It’s Not a Pipe, It’s an Image of a Pipe

The reason why the artist wrote “This is not a pipe” under the image of the pipe was that it was not an actual pipe but just an image of it. At first, it makes no sense at all; no one is saying that it is an actual pipe that people can use. We know that it’s a visual representation of a smoking pipe. 

While it seems obvious that common sense dictates that anyone would be able to say that it is not an actual pipe but just an image of it, there was a massive uproar because of this painting. After all, people felt that Magritte was questioning their common sense. 

What Magritte Meant

Magritte was surprised to see all the negative responses about the painting. About the painting and the response, Magritte said; 

“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written in my picture “This is a pipe”, I’d have been lying!”

René Magritte

So what Magritte wanted to show is that pictures and images are not the real thing. They are just a representation of the thing. That’s why the name of this painting is “The Treachery of Images,” showing how images can fool us. But to that, people would say that they know the difference between images and the real thing. But do they?

The Treachery of Images Painting by Rene Magritte

While for simple images and thoughts, we are very quick to understand that it’s just an image of the actual thing, there are many cases when the difference between the image and the actual thing disappears. While we can go on about how people form opinions and judgment by looking at a mere image of something without thinking about how they are being portrayed to them, we should focus on the metaphysical meaning of this painting. 

Reality Vs Portrayal

Things are different from how they appear. This painting works perfectly in today’s world where the interaction between people in almost every aspect has become mostly digital; through a screen. From buying basic things online to watching, meeting, and talking to people, everything is done through images. 

Instagram is a world of images (videos are also a series of images). Whatever people see online, a scary majority of them seem to believe in them at face value. When you look at something or someone, remember that it is just a visual representation of the thing or the person, and not the actual person or the thing. 

“Reality can often be disappointing,” and that’s because many people have forgotten about the distinction that Magritte is talking about. We can see an image of the pipe, not the pipe. Magritte could have made multiple changes while painting it.

Let’s say that the real pipe was a bit thinner and longer than the one shown in the image, and the color of the pipe was red. So now, can we say that the pipe and the image of the pipe are the same? What happens when the person painting the picture adds additional qualities or changes them? 

This is why Magritte wanted to bring out the subtle but strong difference between the actual thing and the image of that thing. The difference is so subtle that it often gets lost in the webs of linguistics and logic. Magritte has brought the philosophy behind it.

The Painting and Surrealism

“The Treachery of Images” gave a major push to the very new (and very confusing) Surrealism that had just started nine years ago. I think that this painting is a great way for people to understand what surrealism is all about. The confusing and bizarre paintings in the surrealism genre can leave anyone perplexed. 

The movement of Surrealism started as a response to the prevalence of Realism. Surrealists wanted to show that no matter how accurate or realistic the painting you paint, it can never become what the artist was seeing; there will always be a distinction between the scene and the painting of the scene. 

This applies not just to paintings, but words, songs, etc. The experience of a person seeing or hearing something will always be different from what he or she conveys. You can never transfer experience to someone. 

“The Treachery of Images” does a fantastic job at giving the essence of Surrealism in its simplest form; things are not what they seem, and while things may make sense to you, it does not necessarily mean that things are sensible. And the nonsensical things that make no sense to you might connect deeply to some other person. 

“Images Lie” is a phrase you must have heard. They do not lie. Our eyes are easy to deceive. While it is not a big deal to consider the image of a simple smoking pipe as the smoking pipe and people would not care much about the difference, when it comes to the other deeper and impactful things in life, it is important to understand the distinction between what we see and what we actually experience. 

Take a look at another painting by Magritte; The Son of Man