There’s something very special about firsts. The fact that something can be newly experienced only once makes it a finite resource. Whilst we may continue to like that artist or read that book the first time we encounter it will always be special, simply because it was the first. Experiences are like riding a bike in that they never really leave you – you can never ‘unlearn’ them or ‘unremember’ how they first felt.
We mark our lives by our firsts, as small or little as they may be. First kisses, first heartbreak, first Nandos: all the same thing really. The first painting I fell in love with is by Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte. The title is Not to Be Reproduced. I think paintings, and on a wider scale Art in general can often be witnessed and consumed without its audiences really having to engage with it – we take in the surface, but we do not look any deeper. Before Not To Be Reproduced I had of course seen paintings, lots of them, and I’d enjoyed looking at them: but there was never one that I’d ever looked at and felt that I couldn’t look away from. I’m not even sure if love is the right word to use in this context – I think what I felt towards it was much more complex than the admiration the word ‘love’ connotes. I felt drawn to it, for sure. But I also felt unsettled by it, suspicious of it, and on some level, disgusted by it. So perhaps love isn’t the word, but I struggle to think of a better one. Not to be Reproduced was the first painting that I had a reaction to that I couldn’t quantify, and perhaps these are the best moments in art – the ones where words fail the viewer.
I came across Not To Be Reproduced completely by chance. To cut a long story short there’s an app called DailyArt which, as the title suggests, shows you a different piece of art every day, as well as a little paragraph about the work. It’s a really great app and I really recommend it if you want to see a broad range of art; everything and anything comes up on there! And so I was scrolling through the art and suddenly this painting comes up, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. To give a brief description of it, the painting shows a male figure with his back to the viewer, standing in front of a mirror in this anonymous-looking space. It’s actually in Magritte’s house, but the setting comes across as quite neutral – the mirror is fairly unremarkable, it seems to be of a normal size and style with a simple wooden frame. The walls are a creamy brown colour, and from what we can see, the fireplace is marble. On the ledge of the fireplace lies a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordan Pimm of Nantucket. This setup all seems perfectly normal, in fact it borders on the mundane. But Magritte has a way of inverting the norm and taking the mundane to absurd places.
Instead of the male figure’s face being reflected back as we would expect, the mirror shows a repeated image of the back of the figure’s head. More confusingly, the book is reflected back in the mirror correctly. Magritte creates a logic in his painting which on one hand corresponds to our perception of the world, but through the incomplete reflection of the male figure, disregards it. At the very least, looking at this picture will make you double-take. But this painting is more than an optical illusion. Looking at it makes me feel uneasy – the reality I know has been so easily upturned and disregarded, but to what end? I take this picture as a warning, a kind of fable: don’t take anything for granted, and don’t assume anything. We assume what the mirror will reflect, but we are denied the answer we expect.
If you’ll allow me a diversion, I once had a teacher who taught me a subject called Critical Thinking (it was an optional AS Level and I was super keen, of course), which basically taught rhetoric skills. Mr Shepherd had been teaching at my school for 50 years, and now he only came in for this lesson. He was a man of about 75 and had a habit of dropping major truth bombs and wise words every lesson – when you’ve lived that long, you know what’s up. I remember at the end of the very last lesson, he said ‘I hope this has taught you not to believe everything you see or read in the news. Whatever you do in your life, never take anything at face value – always question and interrogate things, because they have a habit of not being what they seem’ (or something to that equivalent). So deviation aside, what I’m trying to say is that this painting reminds me of that. What we perceive to be the truth may not always be the case: I think the fact that the figure is reflected ‘wrongly’ is also poignant in terms of identity. A person’s identity is performative – we regulate how we behave and how we interact with people. But because of this subjectivity and the inconstancy of behaviour, can we ever truly know a person, or do we just get the surface impression?
What this painting makes me question is how well we will ever know a person if we only see one side of them, and Magritte shows this through a visual metaphor by presenting one side of a person in an object, the mirror, which is supposed to reflect reality. The book is reflected correctly because it is a constant, objective, and fixed entity – the words in a book cannot change after it is printed. In many of his paintings Magritte plays with obscuring or hiding a person’s face – this technique can also be seen in The Son of Man, The Lovers, and The Great War. I think the main emotions the technique evokes are unease, confusion, and curiosity. The face is a focal part of the body; we know people through how they use their face. So when this mirror to the soul is hidden this is a cause for anxiety. We want to know why the face is being hidden from us – why are we not allowed to see it? Who has hidden their face? Is there something there that we shouldn’t see? Magritte never answers these questions. I think he’s as much a philosopher as an artist – he poses questions through his paintings and offers them up for the world to consider.
Not to Be Reproduced makes me think. When I first saw it, it was the first time I’d really engaged with an artwork in that kind of way. The denial of the norm is a provocation to the viewer – we have to first acknowledge our perception of reality to consider this new one. When I first saw this painting I must have been 16 or 17 – since then I’ve changed a lot, and like the painting itself, my perception of it alters. As I change, it changes. Without this painting, I don’t think I would think the same way I do today – it (and discovering Magritte) made me see the world in a more playful, more fluid way. It taught me to accept that things are never quite as they seem, and that this is good: if things were always straight-forward, where would the fun be in that? Without this first encounter, I wouldn’t have had any of the subsequent encounters with Magritte’s work and his way of thinking. And that’s the beautiful thing about firsts: they are not an isolated encounter, but a beautiful unfolding. We remember how they felt at first to feel, but over time they grow into something new. You change and you move, and you transform together.
The first is not a closed thing, not an end, but a beginning.