Art & Agency


Caption: Le Palais de rideaux III, 1928-1929. La trahison des images, Centre George Pompidou. Paris, December 2016.

‘An agent is defined as one who as the capacity to initiate casual events in his or her vicinity, which cannot be ascribed to the current state of the physical cosmos, but only to a special category of mental stated; that is, intensions.’

Gell, A. (1998, p.19)

The recent exhibition ‘La trahison des images’, showcased at Centre Pompidou seen in Paris, gave me the chance to interpret the Surrealist René Magritte’s captivation as a primordial type of artistic agency.

Theoretically, art production has been identified as a social practice (Gell, A.,1998, p.69), able to influence society and inspire new currents of thoughts. In practice, an example of agency in art could be expressed by the work of Magritte.

Gell’s anthropological theory (1998) holds the belief that agents are persons who trigger casual sequences driven by their own intentions. However, without following any universal legislation; a piece of art can be considered a ‘secondary’ social agent, related to a particular kind of human and functional of this relational context.

Before 1923, the common belief was that the art of painting could be resumed as illustrating a thought by means of images. Yet Magritte’s disruptive vision proved that it was now possible to ‘think through images’ and make the canvas the correspondent of an analysis or an idea.

Through works such as ‘La trahison des images ( Ceci n’est pas une pipe)’ (1929) which shows a pipe but indicate that that is actually not a pipe, the painter translated the idea of words not corresponding to the meaning that we give to them. Yet he translated the idea of the canvas as ‘an open window on the world’, pursuing his reflection on the visible and invisible, affirming:


(Magritte, R. 1965)

Magritte’s breakthrough provided a shift of traditional semantic and aesthetic properties causing a revolution into the world of art. His wish was to protect the intellectual dignity of his art and to make his paintings a consequence of reflection rather than a product of the subconscious.

Positioning himself as an agent of change, he inspired, through his research into word-images, Michael Foucault, who identified in it an echo of its own reflection about the relation between words and their meaning. He is still provoking reactions in the 21st century, as all the spectators of the exhibition witnessed.

Magritte acted as an agent, initiating ‘actions’ moved by his intentions, focusing on what should be painted rather than how painting. This influenced not only the artists and intellectuals around him, but also the posterity, transcending the limits of time and becoming an extemporal agent.



Gell,A. (1998) Art and Agency. New York: Oxford University Press.



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