You will have seen a few surrealist posts on the blog recently, it was only right I should write one about one of the great contributors to this artistic movement. René Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian born artist whose work was primarily in the genre of surrealism. Many will know the famous Son of Man, the portrait of the man with the bowler hat and an apple in front of his face. This post will focus on less famed works of his which I find personally thought provoking.
When I first re-discovered Magritte, I looked at the totality of his career and picked a few pieces that stuck out. The Lovers was one such piece. The theme of frustrated desires is common in Magrite’s work and even more common in our current COVID situation. Don’t worry, the viral references stop there. This piece has rather struck me and I’ll tell you because why. Above the frustrated desire reading, one can interpret this as an exploration of the idea that we can seldom reveal the true extent of who we are, even to those most close to us.
The fabric is done beautifully, the shading is impressive and the background is sufficiently simple that we can focus our attention on the lovers themselves. On a factual level, Matthew has pointed out to me that the skulls depicted are not anatomically correct. People’s skulls are not as shapely and spherical as depicted. It is more of a rounded triangle with a bulbous bottom from the profile. In addition, the rest of the painting is crudely rendered. The tie and collars look as wilted as the kimchi we have just made. The lady lover’s arm looks like unfired clay and their outfits are almost an afterthought. But in spite of this I am quite taken by it.
Enshrouded faces were a common motif in Magritte’s art. The artist was 14 when his mother committed suicide by drowning. He witnessed her body being fished from the water, her wet nightgown wrapped around her face. Some have speculated that this trauma inspired a series of works in which Magritte obscured his subjects’ faces. Magritte disagreed with such interpretations, denying any relation between his paintings and his mother’s death. “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing,” he wrote, “they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” MOMA
Time Transfixed is another oil on canvas painting. This was originally a commission by Edward James, art collector, to be displayed in the ballroom of his London home. Magritte has transformed the coal burning stove into a churning LMS Black 5 4-6-0 Locomotive headed straight for the viewer. Its original title, La durée poignardé, actually translates as Time Stabbed rather than Time Transfixed. Magritte wanted this painting installed at the bottom of James’ staircase so it would ‘stab’ the feet of his guests on their way up to the ballroom.
The combination of a train and a fireplace puts the two in sharp contrast and allow us to consider both individually. Magritte wanted to ‘evoke the mystery’ of both aspects of the painting. I should say he succeeded in this respect. On an aesthetic level, the train is quite beautifully rendered too.
The artist later explained this picture: “I decided to paint the image of a locomotive… . In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined.” The surprising juxtaposition and scale of unrelated elements, heightened by Magritte’s precise realism, gives the picture its perplexity and allure. Artic
The next piece we will consider, below, is Perspective: Madame Recamier. This is the one which took me most by surprise. Hitherto Magritte has consistently succeeded in making me think about certain things in completely different ways but this one made a lasting impression. Madame Juliette Recamier was a Parisian socialite whose salon was frequented by many important, and doubtless a few self-important, French people. There is a famed painting of her by Jean Louis David, below, which Magritte seems to parody here.
If you compare the above to the original below, you will see that there is a noticeable difference. To me both are phenomenal in their own right. The original is a beautiful and flattering depiction of a young socialite at the height of her social powers. Each element is delicately portrait and adequately spaced to give its central figure an even more elevated status.
One can surmise the addition Magritte has chosen. I am impressed by the way the his piece has sharpened elements of Jean Louis David’s work and made everything clearer. I am interested to know why he chose to leave Mme Recamier’s dress visible. But most of all the addition of the coffin says something fairly startling. It is in effect saying that when we admire commissioned portraits of figures, we are essentially looking at cadavers. This thought will follow me now as I look at new pieces of art in the future.
Overall I know Magritte will become a favourite artist for me. His perspective is as enlightening as it is jarring. I do not think I will look at art the same way. I hope these pieces have evoked some joy in you. I look forward to reviewing the next Magritte paintings which strike me.