Despite his belief in the “ascendancy of poetry over painting,” thus, Magritte’s subversive enterprise falls well within the anti linguistic program of modernism. From Klee and Kandinsky forward, modern art declares that a painting is nothing other than itself, autonomous from the language that lies buried in representational realism. But while the predominant mode for modernism’s declaration of independence has been abstraction, Magritte uses literalism to undermine itself. In view of its striking bearing here, consider the following passage from Les Mots et les choses — elicited by another work by another artist, but equally germane for Magritte:
the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. And it is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying; the space where they achieve their splendor is not that deployed by our eyes but that defined by the sequential elements of syntax. And the proper name, in this context, is merely an artifice: it gives us a finger to point with, in other words, to pass surreptitiously from the space where one speaks to the space where one looks; in other worlds, to fold one over the other as if they were equivalents.
Translator’s Introduction to This is Not a Pipe by Michel Foucault