Magritte’s room of illusions
Curators Gary Garrels and Sarah Roberts discuss René Magritte’s painting, Personal Values.
He originally painted it to go to his gallery in New York, and his dealer rejected it, saying it made him feel depressed, made him feel ill, made him feel sick. And Magritte said, “Well, that’s what a good painting should do.” And we’ve become so accustomed to it that you sometimes have to step back and look at it in a fresh way, and realize that the walls have been erased and you’re in a room perhaps hovering way up in the sky. I mean, we’ve gotten used now to plane travel and we look out the window and see a sky like this, you know, on a regular basis. But in 1952, this would’ve been a very unsettling perspective.
The comb is propped up against that sky, so it implies that there is something solid there. So is it a wallpaper? Is it a painting, a mural inside a room? So that illusion of suspension begins to be thrown into doubt. And of course, then the issue of scale. You’ve got a huge goblet, a very small bed, an enormous comb. All the relationships are off kilter.
When I stand and look at this painting for a while, I always come down to that match. There’s this shocking pink, chalky-looking match with this kind of lurid yellow tip on it, lying in the middle of this gorgeously painted room around it. The match could go off at any minute and all—[chuckles]. You know, the room might go up in flames; you never know.
The more time you spend with it, the more complicated, mysterious and unsettling it really does become.
This is René Magritte’s painting Personal Values from 1952. The painting, 32 inches high by 40 inches wide, shows a bedroom with the front wall taken away, as if in a dollhouse. Two things are immediately striking. First, the walls are painted as a pale blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Secondly, all the objects in the room are painted at different scales. The bedroom furniture—a bed at the left side, a mirrored armoire at the right, and two Persian rugs on the floor—are sized according to the room’s dimensions. But everything else is oversized. Beginning on the left side of the painting, a giant tortoise-shell comb is balanced vertically on the bed. It is so tall, it almost reaches the molded ceiling. On the rug below the bed lies a pink, oversized wooden match, nearly half as long as the bed. The yellow match tip points to the right, to the center of the painting, where a green goblet stands like a sentinel. The goblet is twice the height of the bed but smaller than the comb. To the right of the goblet is the armoire, with mirrored glass doors showing the reflection of a window with white curtains. On top of the armoire, a bristled shaving brush spills out over the edge. Below the armoire, filling the lower right corner of the painting is a gigantic bar of soap, oval-shaped and brown in color. Its reflection is seen in the mirrored glass of the armoire behind it. Every element is painted with a photographic realism.
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