René François Ghislain Magritte (21 November 1898 – 15 August 1967) more commonly known as René Magritte, a Belgian artist was famous for his surrealistic approach to art. He earned fame as a groundbreaking Surrealist and was known for merging wits and illusions, thus producing thought provoking images which in particular fell under the umbrella of surrealism. Followers of Magritte’s work would agree that his paintings allow the observer to ponder, challenging their predetermined beliefs or perception of reality. As noted by followers of Magritte’s work, he places ordinary objects in unexpected contexts and connotations as his signature style. Many of his paintings show blocked faces, or floating objects, in unfamiliar spaces, thus forcing the observer to think, challenging their preconceived notions and perceptions. In fact, his paintings are poetic in a fashion, and each work tests the observer to contemplate and establish new conceptual notions.
“Magritte often flaunts reality by giving it its most acceptable guise and then denying it by the old disclaimer, ‘I never said such a thing.” – wrote James Thrall Soby, perfectly summing up the kind of work that Magritte painted.
Magritte initiated his career by designing wallpapers, posters and ads till 1926 and upon receiving a gallery contract started painting as a full time artist. After a few initial career failures where critics stacked objections on his work, the artist moved to Paris eventually where he joined the group of surrealist artists, thus establishing the grounds for all his future art work which was conceptual and stimulating in nature. Magritte’s work became more famous amongst the general public in the 1960s as his art began appearing on album covers; provocative and influential as ever.
Magritte set himself apart with and made his work unique by maintaining a Realist quality in his paintings, something that did not interest most Surrealist artists. By this principle, instead of applying the Surrealist notions of distorting reality to the actual physical appearance of familiar objects in his work, Magritte chose to give these objects the familiar physical permanence they have in real life, and tampered with other factors we often take for granted: gravity, scale, and the relationships of inside and outside. The hazy line Magritte created between reality and fantasy created a vague relationship between reality and fantasy, which led to observers reviewing the paintings from a completely different level of understanding (Gödel, et al. 08).
As quoted by the artist himself; "My painting is visible images, which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question 'What does that mean? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable".
The following two works by René Magritte will be reviewed:
The Menaced Assassin
- The Menaced Assassin (1927)
- The Human Condition (1933, 1935)
Like any artist, events in Magritte’s life have seemed to have an impact on his art work. The Menaced Assassin
, oil on canvas work, painted in 1927, opened eyes and raised questions about the suppressed emotions, anxiety and traces of disturbed sufferings from the artist’s life events found within his work.
The Menaced Assassin
was subjected upon a blood-smeared nude woman, with her assassin found nearby, dressed in formal attire who is found perhaps in the middle of evasion, pulled back and delayed by distractions around him, specifically the sound of a gramophone playing in the same room. Meanwhile, two armed men are found, ready to entangle the assassin while three more unknown men are seen in the balcony as witnesses of the entire picture. The painting perhaps introduces the sad and inhibited world of silence as part of Magritte’s life and is exemplified in his painting with the use of deep blues, shadowy blacks and gleaming shades of grey. The colors are a true visual picture of his inner self and the psychological reality.
The curbed inner self of disturbance and unrest could perhaps be traced back to tragic events from his childhood, in specific, memory of the death of his mother. At the age of 13, Magritte awoke in the middle of the night to find his mentally ill mother missing. After weeks of a long search, the family found the mother’s dead body at a local river bridge, with her dress covering her face, leaving her remaining body bare.
Though the impact of this tragic event on his paintings was always denied by the artist, however, painted pictures of bare female bodies, female corpses, missing faces, water waves and suicidal images have occurred repeatedly as significant elements in many of his art pieces.
In a further analysis, the surreal conceptual work of Magritte can be interpreted in the form of a constant struggle between reality and illusion. This struggle can be further analyzed and traced back as a reflection of the early death of his mother with the constant fight in his mind between reality and the wishful illusion of his mother being dead and his mother being alive.
Another significant factor in this painting is perhaps the immobility of all the figures thus symbolizing the desperation and helplessness to bring ease or alleviate the misery behind the story, perhaps of a suicide victim. Once again, the use of color is important, thus white, signifying innocence and purity has been specifically used to shade the drape covering the woman’s partial upper body. The painting being a surrealist piece of art can be interpreted depending upon the mindset of the particular observer. Another point of view of the painting could be that the three men imply three different stages of the same person depicting his crime and his guilt in the same picture. The interpretation of the art piece could thus depend on the observer, and perhaps the painting directs the mental condition of a potential suicide victim.
The Human Condition
In another artwork, The Human Condition
reference to a series of paintings, demonstrates a painting within a painting. The Human Condition refers to two oil canvas paintings; one that was completed in 1933 and is part of the collection of the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC and the other that was completed in 1935 and is part of the Simon Spierer Collection in Geneva, Switzerland.
A painted landscape on a canvas frame is shown in front of a window adjacent to a landscape identical to the one in the canvas. Therefore, for anyone observing the painting inside the room will see the same image of the tree in the painting as is outside of the window in the real landscape. The interpretation of this piece of art is once again dependent on an individual’s own connotation. The picture can be interpreted as an inner representation of what we view in the outside world. Similarly, the image could also be a representation of the images in our memory, which we picture as if they are a part of our present, but are in fact, traces of our memory. As, a further surreal interpretation, the image could also be a raised question to the need for humans to behold and attempt to possess nature by trying to alter it and buy it in a humanly fashion. In a further interpretation, the image could be a question raised as to the reliability of how we perceive visual art and theatre. Just like the interpretation of theatre is a reflection of our own life, art, in specific, Magritte’s art is a reflection of our outside life too (the curtains pose the scene of a theatre). What we see in a painting is infact a depiction of our inner feelings and cannot be established as a theory, since it would vary from each person to the other. Therefore, its provision of protection in case of need of help can be questioned, and in a way, the representation of art can be questioned through this famous work. Various opinions, interpretations and critique have been raised over this specific art work over the years, and that in itself is an establishment of the unique and provocative nature of surreal work of Magritte.
However, all of Rene’ Magritte’s work can be summed up by the following quote by the artist himself: “When one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself, ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable”.