Monday, October 10, 2011

The Cigar in a State of Grace

René François Magritte painted his infamous painting of a pipe, of which we wrote in a prior posting. We ragged the Belgian artist around a bit on his choice of a pipe, rather than cigar, in his La trahison des images, the Treachery of Images. Ceci n'est pas une pipe would have been better rendered Ceci n'est pas un cigare for the reasons given in that posting.

But Magritte was not entirely pro-pipe. In fact, the cigar was featured in another of his famous paintings, one called L'état de grâce, The State of Grace. It is composed of a simple gray bicycle atop a lit cigar (or is it a lit cigar below a bicycle?). (Does it make a difference whether the bicycle is atop the cigar or the cigar below the bicycle?) In doing a little research I found a letter from Magritte that helps answer this specific question. According to a letter to Andre Bosmans dated October 23, 1959, Magritte was not inspired by the bicycle, and it is unclear whether or not the cigar inspired him; what he said is that he was inspired, and from that inspiration he derived the "subject to be painted: a bicycle on a cigar." It is therefore--from the artist's own hand--a bicycle on a cigar, and not a cigar below a bicycle, but it's still unclear whether he was inspired before any cigar, or was inspired by the cigar, and if not the cigar, then what inspired him. Personally, I thought the painting was a marvelous depiction of a cigar below a bicycle, but it is a horrible depiction of a bike above a cigar. But I do not know much about art.

There is, of course, another issue which does not yield a ready answer: there is an obvious disproportion between the bicycle and the cigar, and the question then is: which figure is disproportionate? Is the bike painted small, and the cigar normal size? Or are we to regard the bike as normal, and the cigar overly-inflated? Or--banish the thought--is the bike smaller and the cigar larger simultaneously so that there is nothing here to scale? We only know that they are relatively presented in different scales. Either way the bike and cigar appear to suspend, as if we were looking at a bike on a smoking blimp.

Magritte observed in another letter, this one to Suzi Gablik, that he was contemplating painting a bicycle, and then as if obiter dicta, he mentioned that "a bike sometimes runs over a cigar down in the street." This is an odd thing by which to get inspired. But I will admit it is probably more likely to get inspired by a bike riding over a cigar, then a cigar riding over a bicycle, just because the probabilities of seeing the latter are so low.

Magritte's L'état de grâce

It is hard to tell, but the cigar band has a picture of an owl on it, at least that's what I read somewhere. I don't see the owl. It did do some quick-and-dirty research on cigars with owls in their brand names. There are such things as "White Owl Cigars," but they are very cheap, and not something a Belgian would deign to paint. There area also Buho brand cigars (Buho is "owl" in Spanish), but this brand is not old enough to have been around during Magritte's time. We probably will never know what brand cigar Magritte had in mind.

But there is something a little more ominous about the painting: Why would Magritte have called the painting "The State of Grace"? The state of grace is a theological term, and it seems that whatever "inspiration" Magritte had it was not anything that pertained to the theological concept of "state of grace." Methinks Magritte may have been naturalizing or emotivizing, and certainly deprecating, the notion of sanctifying grace.

Now I can see how a cigar may be a vehicle of actual grace, but that is an entirely different thing that sanctifying grace.


  1. I believe both objects were of standard size. The cigar, floating in mid air is simply closer to the observer and the bike stands (or floats) near the horizon. Perhaps objects tend to defy the law of gravity when they are in a state of grace.

    It is rather interesting to observe most of these painting depict a perfecto vitola with the band placed midway on the cigar. The perfecto shape has been resurrected by the modern cigar industry but I believe there are places where you can still find these older, more rugged looking perfectos. For an example, just do a google search of "toscano cigars".

  2. I never thought of the distance angle, but then would not one object be focused and the other unfocused? Still, the cigar does seem more fuzzy than the bicycle, so your point is arguable!

    Thanks for the "perfecto" angle. That went right passed me.

    I suppose that in a manner grace may defy gravity, but that would contradict St. Thomas's dictum that grace builds upon, and does not contradict nature.

    I wish Magritte were still around, and we could ask him these questions.