This Artwork Changed My Life: Magritte’s “Pandora’s Box”

Sophie Haigney
Jun 23, 2020 12:01PM

René Magritte, La boîte de Pandore (Pandora's box), 1951. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Phillipa Snow on Richard Prince’s Spiritual America.

I first saw René Magritte’s painting Pandora’s Box (1951) during a difficult time in my life. I had recently learned, along with the rest of my family, that my father was having an affair—something that seemed extremely obvious in retrospect, but shocking at the time. My parents were beginning to negotiate a tumultuous divorce that actually wouldn’t happen for another few years. I had just turned 18. I had gone off to college and I was trying, not for the first or last time, to negotiate romantic intimacy without attachment.

The boy I was not dating loved the museum. He was studying art history, and he was always making things—big, ambitious art projects that I liked to watch from the sidelines. I knew next to nothing about art. I don’t think I’d ever elected to go to a museum on my own. I told a new friend, who would later become my best friend, that this boy made me see the colors of the world differently. To her credit, she thought this was a pretty ridiculous thing to say, but I suppose it proves that I was unusually porous. One day, he and I got high and went to the museum in the middle of the afternoon.

After we walked into the lobby, stuffed our coats into coin-operated lockers, took the elevator up to the second floor, and entered the ethereally quiet, white space of the gallery, I began to feel self-conscious. Not only about how little I knew about art, but about how little I felt about it. In Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the narrator Adam says, “I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.” This was more or less my sense also: that I never felt like I was supposed to feel about art, and that maybe everyone else was lying about it, or else I was deficient in some way. Also, I felt like I didn’t know what to do with my hands.

I don’t remember what we looked at, or what I remember may be from later visits, mostly not with him. On that floor of the museum, there is—or there was—a Franz Kline painting that reminds me of the latticework of trees’ shadows on the sidewalk. There is a Joseph Stella painting of the Brooklyn Bridge, a gridded jumble of suspension lines and skyscrapers and a red light that looks like a ruby or a portal to hell. There is also another painting by Stella called Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913–14), which I would become obsessed with that spring, after the boy and I had parted ways, and it felt like all the color had drained back out of the world. This painting would become a sort of talisman then, proof that the color was still there: bright whorls of orange, red, yellow, blue, green, purple, gold.


That first day, he told me things about the paintings, which I appreciated. I probably tried to say smart things in return. At some point, we arrived in front of Pandora’s Box. Maybe I was the one who noticed it; maybe he brought me there. It’s a relatively small painting, about the size of a bathroom mirror. It stopped me in my tracks. Looking at it was like a revelation—of what? There was a way in which the painting made no sense, but it was the kind of nonsense of a beautiful dream: the lipstick-colored sky, the stacked roofs in the distance, the translucent lamp post, the floating white rose, the man with the bowler hat. He could have been looking into a brilliant sunset or a sky on fire, which was how I was feeling those days, that danger and beauty were intertwined, basically interchangeable. I probably said something like, “Wow.”

It wasn’t like I was struck by lightning. I wasn’t even really having a profound experience of art. I was just looking at a painting, my gaze parallel with that of a complicated person I was starting to care about quite a lot. I was noticing things with a new kind of attention. That act of looking closely, so that the painting unfolded to me in a series of details, and then re-composed itself as a complete image—this is the basic stuff of an aesthetic encounter, but it felt revelatory. It was making me feel something. It helped, I think, to know nothing about it, not to classify it immediately as “Surrealism,” though much of what I was sensing was its quiet, surreal distortions, the beauty and terror intertwined, the dreaminess of it.

Magritte had nearly given up his Surrealist style several years before Pandora’s Box, horrified by World War II and its aftermath. Painted in 1951, this was an early work in his return to Surrealism, an attempt at beauty after unspeakable disaster. About Pandora’s Box, Magritte wrote, “The presence of the rose next to the stroller signifies that wherever man’s destiny leads him, he is always protected by an element of beauty.” I didn’t know any of that at the time, of course; I read it years later, when I was writing a review of a Magritte exhibition in San Francisco. But I think that is part of what the painting offered me—the possibility of simultaneous beauty and confusion as a kind of refuge. It also showed that some of what I was feeling might be refracted back to me visually, slightly different than before.

I have become a person who goes to museums. It’s part of what I do for a living. There are lots of things I don’t like about them—the bombardment of too much stuff in one place, the implicit expectation of knowledge, the fatigue that sometimes comes with standing and trying and failing to feel or understand something, the wall text. Many museums are experimenting with ways to improve these things, but there is still the reality of the form: they contain a lot of stuff and are asking you to stand there and look at it. But what I like best in museums is the possibility of the random encounter—the revelation around the corner, the sudden rush of seeing an object about which you can say nothing intelligent, which makes you say, “Wow.”

If you are feeling a little lost, like I was then, and am still, this kind of surprise encounter can be a balm. It could be a painting like Pandora’s Box that is, for lack of a more precise word, beautiful. It could also be something completely different, something grotesque or upsetting or even ugly. It could be a 16th-century tapestry of a unicorn in captivity that suddenly has you in tears that really have nothing to do with the unicorn, except that they also do. A painting can make you see the colors of the world just a little differently, which is something. Be porous to that.

Head to Elephant to read the latest story in its series, Phillipa Snow on Richard Prince’s Spiritual America.

Sophie Haigney