How to Polish and Embellish the Face of Wood?


Rene Magritte, “The Conqueror”, 1926

The signs of the prestige of battles and wars, of destruction, of murdering, bragging about torturing and killing, feeling proud and great for being stronger/tougher/fiercer – can be already discerned in the life of chimpanzees. For decades chimpanzees were idealized until in the annals of studies about them and amidst our sentimental identification with their playfulness and “good nature”, the growing evidence started to accumulate that these our smaller but elder brothers are ferocious and murderous fighters, and not only with each other for domination, but with other groups of chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are much more genuine and honest than humans – they know very well what they want and what they are doing when they prepare their “paramilitary” campaigns on other areas, often several days and nights away from their own inhabitance (they don’t try to persuade themselves that the reason for their adventure is to bring democracy to other forests). They want to kill even without the necessity to do so. They want to feast on killing and robbing. They want to have a feeling that they are bigger than they are. And after returning “with victory” they continue to live their usual life, without any torments of moral consciousness, just like the conqueror in Magritte’s painting, who looks at us, the viewers, with a naiveté and, may be, even openness of a piece of wood. The attentive viewer can even discern his positive, quite a peaceful facial expression (the war is over, the conquest is achieved, it is the time to celebrate, to party and to relax with Rolex and Rolling Stones). Looking at him we almost want to say: What a good guy the conqueror is, what an honest/straight face he has and his eyes are quite pretty, if not to be prejudicial.

The mountains behind the conqueror look like used bed sheets, and he, after all the battles, looks fresh after a good night of sleep in a bed of the size of the mountains he has conquered. Is this Iraqi, Afghan or Pakistani mountains? To transform mountains into bed sheets is Magritte’s metaphor for the conqueror’s “great and glorious deeds” (in the eyes of the worshippers of power, fighters and conquerors), for his capability and competence to crash the mountain-like resistance of the enemies into crumpled bed sheets!

The bloody background behind the conqueror’s back suggests not only human blood but the enormous areas of devastation of nature when blood of the earth is mixed with burned life. But what is an uprooted tree doing suspended in the sky? It is another conqueror’s glorious act – after he wrenched it out with one super-athletic jerk the tree didn’t have enough time yet to fall to the tortured ground (so high he was capable to throw it up!).

But our hero is dressed for a party looking clean and well. And people applaud him and look with gratitude at his square face. Creatures with wooden souls are good fighters. But Magritte, it seems, tried here very hard to prevent the identification of the viewers with the cheerful war-loving and victory-craving crowds. The contrast between the wooden head with the fashionable party suit and the backdrop of destruction with the ticklish sensation of victory should be able to prevent the joy and gloat which feed on blood. But, as we see again in the beginning of 21st century, even the greatest artists are never able to position the masses against wars. Here human history with great artists as participants is not different from the life of chimpanzees (through eons) that doesn’t include great art.