Friday, 15 September 2017

Magritte and eroticism

Master of Eroticism 
[Warning: this posting contains images of an adult nature]

RenĂ© Magritte (1898–1967) is one of the most revered and popular artists of the 20th century. Not only was he a major member of the Surrealist movement but his work and style have endured, profoundly affecting modern aesthetics and sensibilities. 

The Treachery of Images (1928/29)

Renowned for witty (yet often disturbing) images depicting everyday objects such as apples, bowler hats and pipes in unusual settings - Magritte’s art plays with the idea of reality and illusion. In the above painting it is certainly not a pipe; it is a painting of a pipe. 

It is this questioning of images and the placing of familiar objects in unfamiliar contexts that makes his art so subversive.

  Golconda (1953)

Magritte’s work has had an enduring effect on the art world, inspiring artists ranging from John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha to Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol

His impact has also been felt throughout popular culture. Musicians such as Paul Simon, film directors Jean-Luc Goddard and Terry Gilliam, and many writers and advertisers have all been influenced by Magritte’s famous images.

 Magritte by Duane Michals (1965)

His public image - that of a respectable, bowler-hatted Belgium (more like a bank manager than a Surrealist painter) - is wholly deceptive. He is very subversive and capable of shocking his audience at any time. His 'invisibility' behind his 'respectable' public image is part of the 'trick' and an effective way of keeping us 'off guard' so that the inevitable 'shock' of his art is more profound and even less expected.

The Lovers (1928)

His work is not only intellectually provocative but often sexually explicit, pushing the boundaries with each new painting. The female nude features far more in his work than one might at first suppose. In most cases, it is his wife Georgette who models for him.

Magritte met Georgette (Berger) when they were both teenagers. They were married in 1922 and thereafter - during a long an successful marriage - she remained his muse and principal model.


This photograph (above) is a study for a painting (below) in which Magritte finds an original and witty interpretation of the ancient Pygmalion legend of the artist who created a living woman through his art.

 Attempting the Impossible (1928)

However, Magritte's women are often iconic, statuesque and somewhat emotionally remote. They are objects  or  living statues  to be observed from a distance - untouchable, inviolate and emotionally neutral towards us, the observer beyond the frame.

Flowers of Evil (1946)

The figure above is clearly a statue (note the eyes) but the live flower and the way her hand rests on the rock left of frame subverts the notion that she is made of painted stone or plaster. We can see her but she can neither see us nor return our gaze, thereby making her an object of desire.

 Black Magic (1933/34)

This magisterial nude (above) is one of Magritte's masterpieces. The technical skill is extraordinary, not least the beautiful modelling of the head. Here the living, pliant flesh of the contemplative woman is juxtaposed with the immobility and solidness of the rock on which she rests her hand. 

Her susceptibility is represented, perhaps, by the way her upper torso has responded to the sky before which she stands.

Panel from  The Enchanted Realm (1953)

This iconic figure reappears in one of the large murals Magritte made for the walls of the casino in Knokke-le-Zoute in 1953. This work encompasses many of the major images from Magritte's painting career. What is remarkable is that these diverse images sit so well together. 

Thus far we have seen Magritte's depiction of women as iconic, somewhat statuesque figures that are emotionally remote and untouchable - as in the painting below:

 The Mask of Lightning (1967)

However, in a painting called The Giantess (below) Magritte creates a subtle variation on this idea. Here the statuesque woman is only a 'giantess' because the man is diminished in both size and stature. In relation to the room, the woman has the correct dimensions. This is a painting in which the relative, emotional relationship between the man and the woman is actually an issue.

The Giantess (1929/30)

Occasionally Magritte will adopt the role of emotionally involved voyeur - as opposed to remote observer. This emotional engagement with the subject often takes the form of fetishism, whereby a familiar object, such as a woman's nightdress, reveals what it normally conceals - namely the woman's sexual organs.

Philosophy in the Bedroom (1966)

Here the male viewer (and that now includes us!) is projecting his own desires onto a gown that is in itself 'innocent' of such sexual connotations. We have - whether we like it or not - fetishized the nightgown of the woman we desire.

Homage to Max Sennett (1937)

In the above painting this idea is taken even further. The sexual nature of our 'projection' is now wholly explicit. We - the viewer - are now implicit in a process whereby an object (in this case, our lover's nightdress)  is imbued with our desires. The impersonal nature of this transaction - in which the real, living woman has no obvious part - is what really makes this image so shocking.

Intermission (1927/28)

During the late 1920's and early 1930's a number of major Modernist painters were actively deconstructing human forms. In  Magritte's painting (above) called Intermission the action of the play has abruptly stopped, leaving the performers frozen in partial poses - a metaphorical dismemberment.

At exactly the same time as Magritte's experiments were taking place, Pablo Picasso was disguising his new, sexual relationship with Marie-Therese in a series of biomorphic drawings (Cannes, 1927) in which Marie-Therese's curvacious body is metamorphosed into sinuous, sexually implicit 'shapes':

Picasso - Bather at a Beach Cabana (1927)

Since Picasso's drawings were not published until many years later, it is unlikely that Magritte was directly aware of Picasso's new 'experiments' in the human form. This process of deconstruction also involved the 'departmentalizing' of the (largely) female body - as in Magritte's celebrated series of frames called Eternal Evidence (1930) in which a woman.has been chopped up into constituent parts.

The little sketch (above) is undated but it is clearly an early version of Magritte's most iconic (and shocking) painting - the one called The Rape.

 The Rape (1934)

Critics are divided as to the exact meaning of this infamous painting. Rene Passeron, for example, notes that 'far from being the spiritualization of the corporeal, [it] signifies rather the degradation to an object of sexual desire:blinded, deaf and dumb'.

Throughout his career, Magritte explored notions of painterly 'reality'. In my view, the real 'rape' here is one in which art has entirely subverted habitual or conventionally acceptable notions of the human form. 'Not content with reproducing the world of visible appearances on the canvas, [Magritte] seeks to transform it, to force it open.' (Marcel Paquet).

At an exhibition held at The Tate (Liverpool) a series of pornographic images by Magritte were shown for the first time. The exhibition was called Rene Magritte:The Pleasure Principle. It ran from 24th June to 16th October, 2011 and was the largest collection of Magritte's work shown in Britain for twenty years.

These explicit drawings were done to illustrate a book called Madame Edwarda (1946) by Georges Bataille. Founder of several journals and literary groups, Bataille was the author of a large and diverse body of work:  including three novels of an erotic nature, including Madame Edwarda in which a prostitute calls herself God.

Magritte (1960)

Any great artist seeking new ways to interpret 'reality' and to find original modes of expression within that 'reality' needs to explore human sexuality. It is, after all, at the center of our being.

What Magritte has done is not only create new and provocative ways of seeing but has challenged us, in a series of original and at times erotic images, to address our own notions of seuality, voyeurism and desire.

Mike Healey

Illustrations used above are taken from Magritte by Marcel Paquet, published by Taschen in 2012. The views and interpretations expressed in the above article are my own

For direct access to Marcel Paquet's excellent introduction to the art and life of Rene Magritte, click on the link below:

No comments: