The translation of the caption is “This is not a pipe.” (Ceci = this; n’est pas = is not; une pipe = a pipe).
One reading of this painting involves just saying that “It’s not a pipe; it’s a picture of a pipe.” But if that’s where you stop, you haven’t given this painting the attention it deserves.
One aspect to notice is how stereotypical the pipe looks. It’s very clearly a tobacco pipe. It’s not as if this is something that sort of looks like a pipe and sort of looks like something else. This is the classic pipe. You could say it’s the Platonic pipe, i.e. the representation of the ideal pipe. If you’ve ever known anyone who smoked a pipe like this, you recognize this from life. But even if that doesn’t apply to you, if you’ve watched movies or TV for a reasonable length of time, you’ve seen this pipe. For example, Detective Sherlock Holmes is one character that filmmakers often depict smoking a traditional pipe.
Another aspect that is interesting is how much this looks like an elementary lesson. Think back to elementary school. Either your own or that of your children will do. Think of how flashcards and textbooks show images of objects with obvious captions. Here is a flashcard that teaches children the English word for apples:
Notice the similarities between the flashcard and Magritte’s painting. The image is vivid and apparent. They are two apples and cannot be seen as anything other than two apples. The caption below is in simple black lettering. There is plenty of white space in the image. There is nothing to distract you from the single image and caption.
Magritte’s painting is a vivid and apparent image. It is one pipe and cannot be seen as anything other than one pipe. The caption below is in simple black lettering (though cursive). There is plenty of white space. There is nothing to distract you from the image and caption.
But can you see how Magritte’s painting is subversive? It’s subtly saying, “You’ve been told all you life this is a pipe, but now I’m telling you it’s not.” It’s saying you have to unlearn the idea that the image of a thing is the same as the thing itself. They’re very different. First off, the image is flat but a real pipe has three dimensions. An image can be weightless (think of a jpeg file). A weightless pipe cannot exist. An image is virtually indestructible. How could I ever destroy the image of a pipe in your mind? An actual pipe can be broken quite easily.
Also notice the perfect tension between the image and the words. The image is telling you “This is a pipe” while the words are telling you “This is not a pipe.” What should a person do when words and images conflict? Should there be a default rule that words trump images? Should there be a default rule that images trump words? Should we assume that where words and images conflict, the message is meaningless and ought to be ignored? This has ramifications far beyond this one painting by a Belgian Surrealist. Don’t the images on TV often conflict with the words broadcast at the same time? Consider how people interpreted the video footage of the Twin Towers on 9/11. The words of the reporters indicated that a plane flew into a skyscraper, causing a catastrophic collapse. Yet many critics claim that the video suggests explosives were detonated at a set time and the plane was either a hologram or a PhotoShop effect. This is not about who is right. It is merely about recognizing that words and images can conflict. That conflict is inevitably confusing because we look to both words and images for information.