“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible,” Rene Magritte once lamented. “Humans hide their secrets too well.” Born on this date in 1898, Magritte created mind-bending, Surrealist images that held up a mirror to humanity and showed it just how many secrets it kept from itself. In The Son of Man (above, from 1964) Magritte’s omnipresent bowler-wearing man in an anonymous dark suit hides behind a green apple. Whether that man’s identity lurks behind the sins symbolized by that Adam’s apple of Original Sin or if identity itself is the “sin” in unclear. Magritte sees identity itself as a state of crisis, something we can never fully grasp or understand yet something continually in peril.
World War II marks a great turning point in the art and life of Magritte. Before the war and his displacement to the United States, Magritte painted in the dark, often violent style of Surrealism. The Menaced Assassin (above, from 1927) evokes a nightmare scenario with the suggestion of a narrative but nothing coherent. Although we see all the faces, we do not know who anyone is or how they relate to one another. In this world, even the assassins fear attack, every hunter is also the hunted. No traces of the gentle Magritte of the postwar images appear in this world, where a woman lays on a bed before three voyeurs looking through the window. Although the bowler-hatted men have faces, they also carry a club and net. We can’t even sympathize with the man at the phonograph, as he may be the assassin of the title.
If the pre-World War II Magritte is violent, razor blade to the eyeball Bunuel, then the post-World War II Magritte is tripping, free for all Fellini. Although Magritte painted The Human Condition (above) in 1935, you can see the lighter side of Magritte that is best known today. Magritte’s mind games play more gently than Dali’s, more of an exploration of the imagination itself than a welcoming into another person’s nightmare. You can almost hear Paul Simon’s lilting "Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War" as you look at these paintings. The Son of Man (top of post) and other similar works from this period show how Magritte redirected his attention from the space outside to the space within—the realm of identity. After witnessing the atrocities of war firsthand, works such as The Menaced Assassin were no longer possible for Magritte. Shaken by that experience, Magritte dove deeper into his art, plumbing the depths of identity in an escape from the world at large. In a way, the faceless bowler-wearing men reproduced ad infinitum in many of these later works comment on the depersonalization of the modern condition. By looking inside, Magritte found the most surreal subject of them all.