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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials - René Magritte

When asked what his paintings meant, René Magritte responded: “’What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing. It is unknowable.” This statement is in character with Magritte, one of the most famous Surrealists of all time. Like many Surrealists, Magritte was influenced by Freud’s psychology of the unconscious. His dreamlike paintings suggest a reality somehow more “real” than our own yet always inaccessible, unknowable. If you’re feeling suitably unnerved that means you’re ready to check out the surreal world of René Magritte!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on René Magritte.


The Treachery of Images is one of the most enduring Surrealist paintings. The painting features a pipe below which is written, in French, “This is not a pipe.” The Treachery of Images is one of a series of word-image paintings by Magritte. Magritte wrote a text called Words and Images where he articulates the rationale for these word-images. These paintings force the viewer to confront our natural instinct to collapse the distinction between the image of an object and the object itself.


Magritte’s 1933 The Human Condition invokes a sense of discomfort in the viewer. The painting seems simple enough, featuring an easel in front of a window with heavy brown drapes. The painting on the easel blocks the view out of the window yet seems to be an accurate reproduction of the outside landscape. Magritte painted other versions of this painting, including one featuring a seascape and a black ball.


Time Transfixed is another Magritte classic. It combines familiar images in a decidedly unfamiliar way. In this painting, a “Black Five” locomotive emerges from a fireplace into an empty room. The only other details of the room visible to the viewer are a candlestick and a clock on the mantle. Originally painted for Magritte’s patron, Edward James, the painting is now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.


The Son of Man is a self-portrait with a Surrealist twist. The man at the portrait’s center is dressed in an overcoat and bowler hat, with his back to a low wall overlooking the sea. Most notably, a green apple hangs directly in front of the man’s face. This painting represents Magritte’s ongoing preoccupation with the hidden and the way that certain truths cannot be directly accessed.

EMPIRE OF LIGHT Painted between 1953 and 1954, Empire of Light has many different versions which can be found in different museums. However, the central Surrealist paradox of these paintings is consistent. The Empire of Light series displays a nocturnal street scene below a sunny sky. Magritte causes the viewers to question the most fundamental things, even the notion that light clarifies rather than obscures.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • This website compiles almost all of Magritte’s major works for easy viewing.

  • Magritte remained trapped in German-occupied Belgium during WWII, and the experience caused him to dramatically reconsider his art.

  • Check out this article for a quick overview of Surrealism.

  • Want to be the envy of all your friends, or at least confuse them badly? You can purchase one of the best T-shirts ever here in the Qwiz Merch Store, and rep your man Magritte anywhere you go, quizbowl style! (Use code QWIZ5 to save $5!)

  • Although we discussed Magritte’s five most famous works, he made many other notable ones. Take a close look at The Menaced Assassin, one of Magritte’s earliest paintings.


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