When a Piece of Art Won’t Let You Go

Rene Magritte - The Therapist

Rene Magritte – The Therapist

It wasn’t Magritte’s paintings of bowler-hatted men, the pipe that isn’t a pipe, or the steam locomotive puffing smoke, suspended in air, emerging from the walled-in fireplace that pinned my feet to the exhibit floor like a butterfly in an entomologist’s collection; it was “The Therapist”.

Magritte’s 1937 painting portrays a man sporting a walkabout tan hat seated on a sand dune with beach grass sprouting from the ridge. He is seated with his back to the calm water that extends to the horizon and from side to side. His right hand covers the knobby head of a brown walking stick, and his left clasps the top of a roughly sewn cloth bag on the sand by his left foot. From underneath the hat, a dark maroon traveling cape drapes like a theatrical curtain over his arms, down his back, and onto the sand.

Then comes the Magritte twist–the man has no head. His torso isn’t constructed of ribs of bone, it’s the black metal ribs of the birdcage balanced on his lap that give him shape. In the cage, one white dove anxiously leans forward from a perch at the back toward a second dove calmly roosting on the wooden platform that extends forward from the door. The raised birdcage door hangs over the opening like a guillotine.

Initially I wanted to shout to the birds, “Claim your freedom! Fly away!” The cage door yawns open, why don’t they fly away to explore the sand dunes, catch the winds birthed over the water, and peck for bugs in the beach grass? Why are they still in the cage?

Then I thought perhaps the birds had found Cage Man (my name, not Magritte’s) and joined him. Maybe curiosity about the dashing cape, the prospect of shelter and the perch in the treeless landscape attracted them. Maybe they’re already free.

Then there’s Magritte’s title–“The Therapist.” Perhaps the outside bird is like a patient therapist waiting for her client, the inside bird, to interact with her. Perhaps the therapist has done all she can and waits with the man for the perched bird to venture outside.

What is Magritte’s message? Maybe he’s saying we are both therapist and patient. That we are both the calm and anxious birds, the adventurous and the cautious, the wounded and the healer. That within ourselves, we can find healing if we take the time to get away from away from the world and sit. Yet Cage Man’s hands are not relaxed; he holds tightly to his visible worldly possessions. He seems ready to move on, but still he sits. Why?

His paintings stir the psychoanalyst within, but in response to such attempts Magritte said, “If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but of thinking of the question that is raised.”  Instead of analysis, Magritte wants his viewers to see the visible details in his works and accept that “they evoke mystery”, a mystery he claims is “unknowable.”

Magritte’s perspective paralleled my seminary experience with the study of God, theology, and the subject of study, God. I could ponder the subject of general revelation– how God reveals himself through nature, humanity and history–and miss the crimson sunset, a child’s unguarded smile, and the magnificence of a medieval cathedral. I could ponder special revelation—God’s path to salvation revealed in the incarnation and the Bible—and miss the blessings of the spiritual riches (Ephesians 1:3; 3:16-19). I could debate about the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture and miss the poetic qualities of a Psalm, and the wonder of 40 different authors co-writing the greatest story.

Not to say that inquiry is wasted, but the subject of analysis needs to shine more brightly than the analysis. When analysis overshadows, Magritte would tell us it’s time to turn off the questions and let the eyes feast.



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