Time Transfixed Rene Magritte Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Produced in 1938 for his patron Edward James, Time Transfixed is one of Magritte's most well known works, juxtaposing as it does the timeless and the hasty, the private and the industrial and the everyday and the surreal.

The Juxtaposition of Time Transfixed - The picture is simplicity itself. Only a tiny part of the background is shown, which appears as an empty, sterile room.

The view of the room is very limited, dominated as the work is by a mirror over a mantle piece with a surrounding fireplace. On top of the fireplace is a clock (with its time transfixed) and underneath the mantle piece, racing through the fireplace but only partially visible is a steam locomotive.

It goes without saying that without the locomotive the picture would be very ordinary. It is technically brilliant, but its point of interest and the thing that grabs the viewer's attention is the locomotive, racing through the fireplace and destroying the peace of the room.

It is not the biggest feature in the room, but it has the biggest impact. It fits into the style of the piece, whilst at the same time ripping it apart with its incongruousness. As such its presence needs an explanation.

Time Transfixed and Surrealism

Time Transfixed is obviously Surreal as a work. It depicts something that cannot be- steam locomotives do not suddenly appear from fireplaces- but the effect of what is being shown is something deeper and more significant than just simply the impossible or wacky.

One of the ideas behind Surrealism was to explore the psychological and the subconscious (bringing the dream world into reality) in order to expose psychological truth. The juxtaposition of things that (at best) do not belong together is used to engage the interest of and excite a response from their audience.

The painting has a dreamlike quality; its intradiegetic world seems very much at peace with itself, as if this kind of thing happens everyday. It is the viewer's understanding and response that brings discord.

'This is not how things are supposed to be, this is not real life-' and yet that is true of all art; it is at best a time capsule. But it is a subjective time capsule that shows only what the artist wants the world to see.

Magritte's use of Surrealism as a medium has a clear message and purpose as such. Time Transfixed is not simply about making the absurd seem possible, it's about unveiling the unseen. Through the paradoxes in his work he encourages his audience to seek him out and to understand their relationship to him better.

Ongoing Time Stabbed by a Dagger

Quite literally any picture or photo represents time transfixed and the desire to capture and eternalise it. So in this sense Magritte has transfixed time in his work. This just represents another paradox, as Magritte is in fact eternalising a time that never happened. This time is not transfixed because it never was. This incongruity shows two truths: this is not time transfixed because it was never time; this cannot be time transfixed because no one can stop time.

Time Transfixed is a translation of the painting's French name 'La Durée poignardé.' This literally translates as 'ongoing time stabbed by a dagger,' a translation that Magritte much preferred. It is easy to see why. Visually the image is of a still, unchanging room being stabbed through by the absurdity of having a locomotive appearing from the fireplace.

Magritte has described the process for the picture, explaining that the locomotive came first and then was juxtaposed against the fireplace in order to evoke its mystery compared to the mundanity of its surroundings.

Being able to understand the process and the focus of Magritte makes it easier to understand his purpose also. As such the train is now the ongoing time- something immortalised as constantly moving and pushing forwards where in actuality it is going nowhere.

This ongoing time (the train) is contrasted against the still, dull and eternally unending background. The ongoing is moving forwards, the unending is going nowhere. The movement of the train is key - whilst it is ongoing what is stabbing it is the dagger of the banal, ordinary and monotonous.

Magritte had hoped that Edward James would hang Time Transfixed at the bottom of a staircase, so that it could stab into the subconscious of guests to his home. Interestingly James preferred to hang it above his fireplace- where no doubt it caused just as much of a stir.