By Anne Seoung Eun Bae
February 12, 2021
There is no way we can have a discourse about the relation between human perception, the eye, and visual art without mentioning René Magritte, who contemplated the way our eyes, mind, heart, and soul perceive everyday subjects through his work. While so many of his paintings play with our perception, La Clairvoyance (1936) encapsulates how Magritte stimulates our thinking and seeing.
La Clairvoyance is a self-portrait of the artist, sitting before a canvas, painting a bird. On a table beside him rests an unhatched egg, his point of reference. The bird he develops on the canvas is an outcome of his perception of this egg, the object he studies as he paints. Magritte’s painting exemplifies how no two people in this world can ever have identical reactions, experiences, or responses to stimuli. People’s interpretation of the same event, or image, is always personal.
Philosopher William James first elucidated this phenomenon, coining the term “stream of consciousness” in 1892. “No state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before,” James wrote, because “my thought belongs with my other thoughts, and your thoughts with your other thoughts.” In La Clairvoyance, Magritte not only suggests that each person’s behavior towards situations or experiences is unique, but also that if we put our efforts into observing a person or thing, we can predict the subject’s next move. If in the thinking process the consciousness flows, can we say that, just possibly, we can foresee beyond the present state to another’s next behavior, next move, next decision?
Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama makes artworks characterized by the repetition of dots. Her obsession with polka dot motifs originated in childhood hallucinations, imprinting on her memory these patterns that she perceived. So even if Kusama and I were both presented with the same pumpkin, for example, I would view it differently than she would because her oracular consciousness works unparalleled to mine. A similar example would be the way a colorblind person perceives a visual, such as a traffic light. The colorblind person will not perceive it in the same way as those who can see a full range of hues. One who is a colorblind will register the colors of the three lights as only grey-, yellow-, or red-scale tones, depending on their type of colorblindness. In this case, for those who can only see limited colors, their consciousness would react unlike that of non-colorblind people. They need to have the order of the traffic lights previously memorized in order to obey them, perceiving the stimulus in a more progressive way than their eyes initially receive it so they may anticipate whether to continue driving, or press the brake. James called this a time-gap, meaning in this example that because they view the world in this manner, the colorblind experience a more conscious gap in processing information.
In the case of Kusama, we could hypothesize that her future works will be compositions of polka dots because it is well known she perceives the world through these patterns. The mechanism of Magritte’s eyes is unknown, so it is impossible to say for certain whether he experienced a time-gap to fill in that brief moment between seeing an egg on a table and his conscious planning to paint a bird on the canvas instead of an egg. But we could imagine the unhatched egg did not appear as an unhatched egg, but rather the eventual outcome of an unhatched egg, in his eyes.
From ocular reception to neurological process, the brain makes a decision that leads to the next action, a process that operates in a psychological sense through our conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. To consider it in reverse, our behaviors, actions, reactions, and responses reflect the flow of our thoughts. This means that by carefully analyzing the behavior of an individual we may hypothesize their next course of action.
This idea is regularly applied by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, which professionally profiles and analyzes the behavior of a criminal suspect in order to predict his or her next move. Agents search for both conscious and subconscious behaviors, and whether heightened circumstances alter a suspect’s emotional and psychological conditions. Even minor details may show changes in or interruptions of their suspect’s flow of thoughts. Similar to how an FBI agent identifies a suspect as a criminal, La Clairvoyance manifests what is happening in Magritte’s own consciousness after his eyes perceive his point of reference. He reads the unhatched egg and sees what it could become in the future, his mind projecting beyond what his eyes see—the egg cracking open and hatching a chick, which will eventually grow up to be a full-sized bird. That is, the passing of time.
With La Clairvoyance, Magritte propels us to expand our own perspectives of the world. He suggests we are all capable of the magic of foretelling or mediumship, but we are blinded by the daily realities and mundane tasks of life. This notion is an obvious truth and yet people still fail to accept it, especially in workplaces, institutions, government, companies, agencies—basically any place or circumstance that is regulated by tradition or hierarchical authority. We feel restricted in how we may act, react, or respond to any number of circumstances, resulting in the expectation that everyone will perceive their experiences in the same way. Magritte challenges us to imagine that all human beings apprehend life in unique ways, even when placed in identical situations. As long as we maintain that belief, the opportunities to project into the future will naturally follow.
 William James, “The Stream of Consciousness William James (1892),” Classics in the History of Psychology (York University, Toronto, Ontario), accessed February 7, 2021, https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/jimmy11.htm.
Anne Bae is a Korean art writer living in Washington, DC. She is currently writing about Korean abstract art, Dansaekhwa, for her MFA Art Writing thesis at the School of Visual Arts.