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By Seth Yoon
In “Not to Be Reproduced,” a painting by René Magritte, we observe a very minimalist exemplification of the human condition and its confusing properties. A man dressed in a suit stares into a mirror only to see the back of his head. This is conceptually very simple, yet this is essentially a photograph in painting form capturing the despairs which loom within the minds of countless individuals across generations of our species’ history. This work may have been released in 1937, but its theme may echo for many more centuries to come, unless of course our species manages to continue to sustain its upwards growth in education, technology and bring back a serious dedication to the Arts.
Not to Be Reproduced is a painting which, in my view, reflects the collective despair of humanity, across generation to generation. We each as individuals constantly strive for clarity of identity in the form of some substantial, materialistic self-reflection validated by the physical world, whether it be through a mirror or the vocal consent of our peers. The reflection is relentless in that it embodies this theme through the purity of a singular image, unbound by the restrictions of language. As the late philosopher Terence McKenna said, it is language which restricts us from properly communicating our internal realities many times, thus making authentic dialogue difficult.
And so, it is perfect what “Not to Be Reproduced” provides here for the Observer, for whoever the Observer may be, he or she is no doubt experiencing that jungle within their mind, aspiring for a concrete harmony with civilization but ultimately stuck in the inner wilds of their psyche as they seek out the truth of who they are. The painting form in and of itself is perhaps, just perhaps, at its very finest and most altruistic when it is able to suggest a pure visual statement about the Human Condition – no pun intended, as another of Magritte’s paintings is called The Human Condition, unsurprisingly. It is through an empathetic lens, this desire to push forward human thought on a gestalt level that the Artist reaches his or her height and most resilient grandeur, for his/her art transcends the boundaries of his/her own individuality. One can find a similar theme in the novel and film “Cloud Atlas.”
The Empathetic Artist has no cares to indulge in any forms of egotistic displays, but perhaps, as if with an Eastern philosophical intention, seeks to be nearly egoless, seeking out objective and clear-headed frontiers of human imagination that can help us from our collective or individual woes.
Maybe in the midst of this essay, one may wonder if this painting makes a statement for the individual or the collective of humanity, and I offer this idea: there is no difference. For if it is a typical aspect of the individual human condition to be lost and always seeking out an obscure identity based on materialistic obsessions, then this despair is replicated across an entire gestalt, and thus many societies consist of individuals who are staring into a mirror glaring at the back of their heads.
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