Surrealism often takes a sinister turn. Just think of Salvador Dalí’s more nightmarish works, full of sexual innuendo and physical violence. Of course, not all of Dali’s works walk on the dark side, but no Surrealist stayed on the sunny side of the street as much as Rene Magritte. Born November 21, 1898, Magritte loved to explore the depths of the unconscious mind with humor and gentleness, yet always with some deeper philosophy lurking beneath. Golconda (above, from 1953) shows Magritte playing with multiplicity, one of his favorite themes. It’s literally raining men in Golconda—all identical men in bowlers and overcoats. Magritte often used the bowler hat as a symbol of the faceless modern male. In the 1950s, the drive to conform after the trauma of World War II spawned a world-wide state of repression that eventually exploded in the release of the 1960s. Magritte may be arguing that this shower of dopplegangers shows how the individual has become as insignificant as a single raindrop in the great flood of humanity. Or, he may be suggesting that this faceless lack of individuality is falling upon the world like the bombs that rained down upon Europe during the war, with the detonation itself delayed by a decade.
Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced (above, from 1937) allegedly shows the back of the head of the poet Edward James, friend and benefactor of Magritte. Identifying the sitter is pure guesswork, however, when all you can see is the back of his head, even in the reflection in the mirror. In Not to Be Reproduced, Magritte questions the ability of art to reproduce reality in any accurate way. Every production is an interpretation in some way, not a true duplication free of bias. The fact that we can see the back of the money sitting on the mantle piece but not the man’s face suggests that it is human nature itself that Magritte finds especially impossible to reproduce convincingly. On one hand, Magritte’s suggestion seems sad—an endless source of frustration for those who would plumb the depths of humanity. On the other hand, putting yourself in Magritte’s place in 1937, as Nazism, fascism, and totalitarianism all threatened to extinguish all human individuality, Magritte may actually be saving humanity by putting it beyond the reach of such powers. In such a situation, arguing that the human individual could never be reproduced, never duplicated as part of some “master race,” would be an act of courage.
In 1966, near the end of his life, Magritte painted The Two Mysteries (above), in which he placed a pipe next to a inset duplicate of his famous 1928 painting, The Treachery of Images, in which he placed a pipe above the inscription “Ceci n'est pas une pipe,” French for “This is not a pipe.” In The Two Mysteries, Magritte connects the beginning and the end of his career like a Mobius strip. Magritte’s puts his playing around with the ideas of representation and duplication into a infinite loop that invites us to join him for the ride. In 1928, Magritte saw such issues as “treachery,” a betrayal of sorts against rationality. By 1966, the kindler, gentler Surrealist no longer felt such betrayal and allowed himself a sense of hopefulness and peace with the “mysteries” of art and existence. Magritte remains one of those trippy artists that college students love to hang on dorm room walls, but behind all the humor rests a restless mind that navigated the events of the twentieth century and their impact on the individual and emerged with his faith intact.