René Magritte – A Favorite Artist

René François Ghislain Magritte (21 November 1898 – 15 August 1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist. He became well known for a number of witty and thought-provoking images that fell under the umbrella of surrealism. His work challenges observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.

Some of his works include:

The Menaced Assassin

(French: L’Assassin menacé)


1927
Oil on canvas
Museum of Modern Art, New York

(The main subject of the painting, a blood-smeared nude woman, is seen lying on a couch. The assassin of the painting’s title, a well-dressed man, stands ready to leave, his coat and hat on a chair next to his bag. He is however delayed by the sound of music, and in an unhurriedly relaxed manner, listens to a gramophone. In the meantime, two men armed with club and net wait in the foyer to ensnare him, while three more men also watch from over the balcony.

The Empty Mask

1928
Oil on Canvas
National Museum, Cardiff

In his essay Words and Images, published in 1929, Magritte observed that each image “suggests that there are others behind it”. Viewed through a freestanding frame of irregular shape, these images are a sky, a lead curtain festooned with sleigh bells, a house façade, a sheet of paper cut-outs, a forest and a fire.

The title evokes the fear of the invisible which pervades the artist’s work and reflects the surrealists’ fascination with the subconscious. The painting was purchased in 1973 and is usually on display in the National Museum of Wales.

Elective Affinities

1933
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

The title is taken from the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe book Elective Affinities.

Magritte had the following to say about this work:

One night, I woke up in a room in which a cage with a bird sleeping in it had been placed. A magnificent error caused me to see an egg in the cage, instead of the vanished bird. I then grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, for the shock which I experienced had been provoked precisely by the affinity of two objects — the cage and the egg — to each other, whereas previously this shock had been caused by my bringing together two objects that were unrelated.

The Human Condition

(La condition humaine)

1933
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The Human Condition (La condition humaine) generally refers to two similar oil on canvas paintings by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. One was completed in 1933 and is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The other was completed in 1935 and is part of the Simon Spierer Collection in Geneva, Switzerland. A number of drawings of the same name exist as well, including one at the Cleveland Museum of Art

1935
Oil on canvas
Simon Spierier Collection, Geneva, Switzerland

Time Transfixed

La Durée poignardée

1938
Oil on canvas
Art Institute of Chicago

The painting depicts a “Black Five” locomotive jutting out of a fireplace, at full speed, in an empty room. Only the clock and left candlestick are reflected in the mirror on the mantle, suggesting that there are neither people nor furniture in the room. Notably, the candlestick on the right has no reflection.

Not To Be Reproduced

The painting was one of many done for surrealist patron and Magritte supporter Edward James. This was the second painting delivered to James for his London ballroom. The first was the portrait of James, Not to be Reproduced. Time Transfixed was purchased by the Art Institute from James in 1970 when he was raising capital to build his surrealist sculpture garden Las Pozas.

The title of the painting translates to English literally as “Ongoing Time Stabbed by a Dagger” and Magritte was reportedly unhappy with the generally accepted translation of “Time Transfixed”. Magritte hoped that James would hang the painting at the base of his staircase so that the train would “stab” guests on their way up to the ballroom. James instead chose to hang the painting above his own fireplace.

Magritte described his motivation for this painting:

“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 Son of Man

Le fils de l’homme

1964
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

Magritte painted The Son of Man as a self-portrait. The painting consists of a man in an overcoat and a bowler hat standing in front of a short wall, beyond which is the sea and a cloudy sky. The man’s face is largely obscured by a hovering green apple. However, the man’s eyes can be seen peeking over the edge of the apple. Another subtle feature is that the man’s left arm appears to bend backwards at the elbow.

About the painting, Magritte said:

At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

The Great War on Façades
Man in the Bowler Hat

The Son of Man resembles The Great War on Façades (La Grande Guerre Façades), another Magritte painting featuring similar imagery. Both feature a person standing in front of a wall overlooking the sea. The Great War on Façades, however, features a woman holding an umbrella, her face covered by a flower. There is also Man in the Bowler Hat, a similar painting where the man’s face is obscured by a bird rather than an apple.

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