“Freeze!”: René Magritte and the Visual Oxymoron
In conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, artcritical is honored to publish an extract from Ellen Handler Spitz’s 1994 publication, Museums of the Mind: Magritte`s Labyrinth and Other Essays in the Arts, by kind permission of Yale University Press. In Museums of the Mind, which was shortlisted for the 1996 Gravida Award offered by the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, Dr. Spitz (author of Art and Psyche: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Aesthetics and of Image and Insight: Essays in Psychoanalysis and the Arts) proposed that, when Magritte’s images work well, they go beyond cognitive conundra to strike viewers in a deeper register.
Imagine silence and a cold indigo sky with pregnant clouds that lower over a landscape of uncanny imagery. Unpredictably, the clouds burst. Air and space teem with discordant sound; words couple unintelligibly with pictures; static objects erupt in perpetual motion that takes them nowhere. A toy train, suspended mid-air in a permanently dysfunctional hearth, puffs smoke. A well-dressed man’s head explodes. Blood befouls the lace collar of a little girl who calmly eats a live bird. Slit bells and torso-shaped vapors bedevil the sky. Severed replicated dismembered body parts confront our gaze; a woman turns into the wood of her own coffin. On a nearby wall, groaning bleeding birds fall from above; paper cut-out sentinels keep dubious guard. Boots morph into feet, a mother into a baby, a woman’s face into her own sexually exposed body, a carrot into a glass bottle or the other way round. Even these many decades after Surrealism erupted on the horizon and then faded, we are stumped.
To meander through Magritte’s labyrinth of reiterated, defamiliarized commonplace forms induces vertigo. Moving from canvas to canvas, beholders are swept into a pictorial swirl so that a kind of panic or manic laughter or nausea resembling seasickness takes hold– a sense of being awash in an undecidable flow of image, idea, fantasy, memory, percept, concept, and event. Gazing at these surreal pictures prompts wishes for something stable to catch on to lest we drown – a feeling the artist at once provokes and defends against by clinging to what is external and recognizable. Yet, to each inert well-known object or an animal-vegetable-mineral compound, something untoward has happened, something violent and surprising.
René Magritte (1898-1967), the witty, staggeringly prolific but uneven Surrealist painter, about 80 of whose works from his most telling decade (1926-38) are now on display at MoMA, grew up with a depressed, suicidal mother, Regina Bertinchamp, who, after making attempts on her life, was confined by her husband at night for safety. In late February 1912, when the artist was thirteen, she managed to escape, and her youngest son Raymond, who shared her bedroom, awoke to find her missing. He alerted the rest of the family – his older brothers Paul and René and their father – who followed her footprints on a path leading to the local river Sambre near Charleroi in Belgium, where they lived. She had thrown herself from a bridge into the cold water and drowned. Magritte, who long kept silent with regard to this trauma, reported the events as such to his friend, Louis Scutenaire, who published them in 1947. Magritte added wryly that he acquired some local notoriety among the village children as the “son of the drowned woman.” Yet suicide, a mortal sin in Catholic Belgium, carries an abiding shame and a fearful stigma.
Accepted as true and not to my knowledge corroborated or denied by the artist’s brothers, Magritte’s account was challenged in a newspaper article unearthed years after the artist’s death (see David Sylvester 1992), which reports that the mother’s corpse was recovered a fortnight later, which, if true, would invalidate Magritte’s version. Fact or fantasy, Magritte’s story bears psychic truth. The sudden loss itself seems to have spurred endless anxiety, curiosity, and yearning in the artist, and his narrative gives details that recur in his paintings, foremost being that the dead mother’s white nightgown had washed up over her face, thus exposing to his forbidden view her naked body. Studying his art, we find remarkable elaborations of this vision, whatever its origin. Blocked looking is a constant theme. And the dangers of looking. Unclothed women’s bodies and body parts eerily inhabit unwalled tombs; unnamed aggression pervades them. And suicide, we recall, may be felt as aggression by its survivior, especially when that survivor is a child. Confusions abound as to how living things differ yet do not differ from dead or inert things (shoes and feet, cloth and skin, wood and flesh); what is inside and what outside; what is solid (trustworthy?) and what transparent (liable to vanish?) Other wrenching questions are visually posed: How can someone be with you in the evening and gone by morning, absent and present simultaneously (I saw my mother but she was not there)? Can time be reversible and terrible things undone? What about resurrection (what sorts of objects are found in the sky)?
Remarkable for devising strategies – visual oxymorons, we might call them – for exploring such aching unanswerable questions, Magritte ingeniously recycles the philosophical preoccupations of his era. And while commentators on his oeuvre have emphasized historical and philosophical coordinates, I would argue that these merely subtend, in his most compelling imagery, the cris de coeur: they allow his images both to cry out and simultaneously to numb their cries.
A gray sense of the sinister pervades The Menaced Assassin, owned by MoMA, and painted when Magritte was twenty-nine. This is undoubtedly a star of the current show. We behold a scene that hints of mysterious crime. A woman, her head and neck severed from her body, is stretched on a chaise longue, a prop of which the artist is fond. She bleeds from the mouth, a matter not unrelated to his girl eating a bird, where oral cruelty perpetrated against a woman morphs by reversal into cruelty enacted by a girl. With her head and body separated by a swath of white cloth, as in Magritte’s fantasy, she has been deprived of any mental capacity and is thus humiliated, as in another painting of 1935 (L’invention collective), in which, by means of transformation into a reversed mermaid, a woman has been given the brain of a fish. (Magritte, apropos, called that picture his “solution to the problem of la mer [mer/mere = mother/sea].) Furthermore, the woman’s eyes are closed so that, although we may observe her at our leisure, she cannot return our gaze. She is thoroughly disempowered. Through a window, reminiscent of another painting called Le mois des vendanges, three intense male faces stare into the room, reminding us that Magritte and his two young brothers all lived at home and all suffered maternal abandonment at the time of the drowning. Their faces gaze fixedly at the scene before them, which is also before us. Mirroring our gaze, they propel us willy-nilly into the scene with them as similarly mesmerized voyeurs.
Spatially, The Menaced Assassin harks back to earlier Netherlandish works by Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer, where one partially enclosed area gives out on another, which leads to a third, and so on. A deep cultural metaphor, perhaps, for inner and outer space, and one that is related to Magritte’s famous window painting La condition humaine of 1933. Its single-point perspective, however, may also provoke haunting associations to religious art of the Italian Renaissance and its many Madonnas, reversed by Magritte in a chilling painting called L’esprit de la géometrie, where the mother holding her baby boy wears his head and he wears hers . Cold, lifelessly colored, angular, each compartment of The Menaced Assassin marks out its own discrete, hyperrational, but unintelligible component as in a dream sequence: a nightmare. The disorienting juxtaposition of simple objects with inexplicable actions and figures who occupy separate spaces devoid of eye contact either with one another or with us spells malevolence. Claustrophobia. Stasis. Under the calm, carefully painted grays of this great canvas steams a cauldron ready to explode. We face a stage set where the director has suddenly bellowed, “Freeze!” or find ourselves caught up in the game children sometimes play called “statues,” where, at the height of exuberant activity, everything suddenly stops dead. Forever.