Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map


Rene Magritte





The Body in Painting


Sitting from left to right: Irène Hamoir, Marthe Beauvoisin, Georgette Magritte.
Standing from left to right: E.L.T. Mesens, René Magritte, Louis Scutenaire, André Souris, Paul Nougé.


The picture The Rape demonstrates all too obviously that painting is also capable of taking hold of the anatomy of the human body, capturing it in pictures and transforming it. The eyes become breasts, the nose - the middle of the face - is now the navel, the mouth the genitals. Nevertheless, the violence done to the face of the woman is not arbitrary in nature. The anatomy of the picture, to take up an expression from Paul Klee and Hans Bellmer, makes the observer aware of his voyeuristic status; he circles the "eyes", the "nose", the "mouth", and appreciates the sex-appeal of this navel display. If a rape indeed takes place here, then it is that of painting itself, which, not content with reproducing the world of visible appearances on the canvas, seeks to transform it, to force it open. Painting wishes to do as it wants with that which is visible by means of a poetic, magical order, an order permitting the observer's gaze to penetrate to the innermost centre, to the body, to the senses. The principal concern here is not so much to copy reality, to glorify the manifestations of objects in the world, but rather to create a picture of the body such as will reveal its deeper, hidden nature, a nature customarily hidden from the observer's gaze yet nonetheless existing inside the head.

The Rape

"Love is approached via the face, and is fulfilled in the body.
Hence the wonderful love which one has of the entire woman, face and body in one whole.
In contrast, however, this superimposing upon the face of the trunk
(the breasts look at you, the nose has atrophied into the navel, the pubis/mouth seems distorted into a tormented grimace),
far from being the spiritualization of the corporeal,
signifies rather the degradation to an object of sexual desire: blinded, deaf and dumb." 
Rene Passeron


The work The White Race presents a surprising vision of the human body and establishes a new hierarchy of values. There is only one eye, one ear; eyes and ears are unique, like the mouth, the organ of speech. The solitary, cyclops-like eye, its dominant central position at the very top evoking a sense of transcendence, is located above the ear, which in turn is borne by the mouth. The eye (organ of pictures), the ear (organ of sounds) and the mouth (organ of the word, of the logos) are supported by two noses, which may be regarded as legs. They effectively constitute all of the remaining body, the entire diversity of the other senses, which are used as a block, as a pedestal. The Rape and The White Race convey the impression of general discord among the sensory organs, the impression of a quite fundamental "disorder". This is the case not only with respect to each individual sensory organ (the mouth eats, drinks, speaks, sucks, kisses; the eye sees, reads, scrutinizes, reflects, can express desire or contempt, rage or tenderness) but also regarding the relation between the different senses (the eye can become the breast, just as the mouth can become the genitals, or the nose the navel, and so forth). Such mobility among the organs of the body - their ability to change function and sense - basically implies a conception of the human body which has nothing in common with the laws of anatomy and legal identity. Magritte is presenting the body as a shattered multiplicity, fragmentary and fragmented, like a puzzle made up of pieces which do not fit together, as a field of possible variations, as the place where forces that are most disparate in nature, sensations that are heterogeneous and changing, encounter - and sometimes ignore - each other. He is aiming not so much at the intimate harmony or the unity of the body as rather at the possibility that art presents of questioning the cohesion of the body.

The White Race

The White Race

A fragile structure consisting of the facial senses. Does the order reflect a hierarchy of the senses?
Or does it emphasize the separation of the senses from the bodily element?


Following the example of Fantomas, who is constantly changing his identity, the painter now gives the body the ability to escape from its sociocultural identity. He allows it to contradict the picture which our civilization would make of it. Western thinkers have been convinced since Sophocles and Plato that sight constitutes a power which - godlike -dominates the other senses, rules over the body, keeping all other sensory perceptions in check. This pre-eminence of Theoria, of sight, has remained completely unchallenged in the history of philosophy, with very few exceptions. It is unquestioned by those authors whom Magritte read with enthusiasm, appearing in Aristotle's "Metaphysics", in Descartes' "Idees claires et distinctes", in Kant - inasmuch as he conceives of sensibility as derived from intuition - and also, finally, in phenomenology, from Husserl to Heidegger. In short, the emphasis upon the visual element has increased considerably in the meantime: we live in a world of pictures, a world of spectacle. The audiovisual arts ought to maintain the balance between the audible and the visible to a greater extent than the others, or establish a harmonious connection between these two areas; even they, however, attach an importance to the visual element that is frankly foolish. The White Race is accordingly characterized quite unambiguously by the selective hierarchy of shades, as also suggested by Magritte himself - in contrast to the native civilization, where sounds predominate. Through this picture, and the sculpture created in the studios of Bonvincini and Berrocal in Italy, Magritte is drawing attention to the imbalance between the senses, indicating the possibility of establishing a form of modifiable, revocable relationship between them.

The White Race thus represents nothing other than a hierarchy of the senses; yet an uncountable number of other possibilities of organization also exist in addition to this one. It is not via one single, self-contained realm that sensory perception takes place, but rather via the entire, open diversity of what can be seen and heard, of what can be felt, tasted, smelt, and so forth. Accordingly, a work of art, inasmuch as it addresses sensory perception, is by no means so isolated and self-contained as people are traditionally prone to maintain. Berrocal understood this precisely, following Picasso, presenting the public with series of sculptures such as enable the owner himself to make literally endless variations upon them. The owners, however, continue to prefer the old custom, whereby they persist in maintaining their respectful distance to the artist's work, regarding it as the finished product, as the result. Yet life and our bodies undergo change; the senses enter into different associations, and the preferential treatment accorded one of them can condemn the others to a kind of shadowy existence, a hidden presence.

Threatening Weather


The Lovers

Magritte's primary concern is always to reveal what is concealed by what we can see. In The Lovers, he points to the blind nature of love by doubling what is obvious and placing a veil over the faces of the lovers, who are thus left to their sweet blindness. Yet the task here is to utilize this game of concealment through that which is visible, to compel the veil to reveal what lies behind the view which is generally presented.

Georgette's piano encompassed by an engagement ring indicates the double power which A Happy Touch has in music and in love, without there being any visible sign in the work of this touch - which is simultaneously a metaphor for silence: one can hear the sound of rushing water in a basin, for example, or a car driving past, children playing or a symphony by Mozart, but never absolutely pure sounds.

The sole sound that is absolutely pure is that of silence. An apple fills the entire pictorial space: The Listening-Room. The observer's gaze is satiated, leaving only the appeal to another wonderful ability, that of hearing. That which is visible covers up and veils, but it can be overcome with its own weapons: by painting it, the invisible can be exposed, can be compelled to reveal the entire secret that is lying concealed within it, that which it ultimately - in a deeper sense -

The Lovers

Magritte was to paint the classic motif of The Lovers in 1928 in several versions.
He transformed the cliche each time in such a way as to fulfil the demands of Surrealist art,
namely to confuse through the apparently familiar - or, better still, to use the apparently familiar to disturb.

La historia central


La invencion de la vida


A Happy Touch

Georgette Magritte's favourite instrument, the piano, is encompassed by a ring in the shape of a bass clef.

 "I was looking at the problem of the grand piano, and the solution showed me that the mysterious object,
the one predestined to form an association with the grand piano, was an engagement ring."
 Rene Magritte

The Listening-Room

"... My pictures, while depicting objects which are so familiar, nonetheless raise questions again and again.
Look at the one with an apple, for example: you no longer understand what is so
mysterious about it, nor what it is illustrating..."
  Rene Magritte

Las bellas realidades


The mystery of what is visible is to be found in the body, in the powers of the body, a discovery conveyed by The Acrobat's Exercises. The suppleness of the acrobat, holding a death-dealing rifle in his right hand, a musical instrument in his left; the head, depicted three times; the sexual organs, totally excluded under these impossible athletic contortions - Magritte makes use of all of these elements to render apparent in a single picture those abilities and aspects of the body that are hidden from the eye. The painting is able to portray the visible aspect in such a refracted manner that the body nonetheless emerges in its true nature, entire, monstrous, and fragmented, despite the completely distorted dimensions. The actual body is not present in the depiction, similar to the manner in which every picture can show merely one section. Likewise, what is visible here may be compared to a piece of clothing that veils, shrouds, protects, but also arouses the desire to "dis-cover" that which is concealed; more, this piece of clothing mutilates the body, in that it detaches it from the part of the body that is visible. The body, whether clothed or painted, is cut up, divided into veiled and unveiled fragments, clothed and naked flesh, in openly displayed nakedness - for example, that of facial skin - and concealed nakedness. Not until it is seen against the backdrop of the theatre of the visible is this interplay itself rendered visible. The mystery of the body, of its variety of powers, is also the mystery of painting, the art of the disloyal, yet not deceitful, mirror: despite the great risk, this art can indeed achieve that which also appears the first task of the visible, namely to conceal, to turn away, to suppress everything lying outside of its own sphere.

The Acrobat's Exercises

An important characteristic of the acrobat is his ability to free himself from the normal conditions offered by the body.
Magritte describes this as the "spirit which - analogous to the bodv - walks, goes away, or remains".


The show has been interrupted.
All those bodily fragments left in the background,
everything living in the wings of visibility, suddenly appears in the foreground.

La astucia simetrica



Painting is thus no passive mirror of reality; rather than doubling the visible manifestation of the object, it changes and transforms it. Accordingly, painting does not reproduce the body of a woman; instead, it does quite the opposite, creating a new manifestation, a picture that is partial, congealed, framed, dead. As far as Magritte's work is concerned, the new painted manifestation of the object would seem to be quite conscious of the contribution made by art. Magritte's painting modifies appearances, rendering them fictitious; at the same time, however, the painter is reflecting upon the sense of such a modification. The nature of his painting must thus be contemplative. The picture Dangerous Liaisons, which has been strikingly interpreted by Max Loreau, depicts a naked woman. The mirror which she is holding in her hands is turned towards the observer. It covers her body from shoulders to thighs; simultaneously, however, it reflects precisely that part of her body which it is covering, seen reduced and from a different perspective. Magritte has thus painted two different views of the female body, one its direct appearance, the other the imaginary one of the reflection. He confronts the observer with two incompatible aspects, compelling him to reflect upon the discrepancy, upon this enigma which is characteristic of this painter's entire work. We see the female body, not as a cohesive whole but fragmented and fractured. Through the painting experience, the body loses its integrity, relinquishing its inner cohesion and taking on a fragmentary appearance. In this particular case, Magritte is further demonstrating that liaisons are always dangerous in painting, since the perspective of the artist, the covetous gaze with which he looks at the body of his model, also plays a role for the work. The woman's body thus develops into the area of conflict between two incompatible manifestations. Where does this conflict come from? This is precisely the point, that it can only stem from the viewpoint and the work of the artist, who has introduced the pulsations of his own body into the work in such a way that it would seem possible to feel them with one's hands. Magritte's art is never passive. On the contrary, it acts, and always with the intention of creating disquiet, of being subversive. There is room between the two views of the female body - their proportions and the positioning of the hands such that they cannot be reconciled with each other (it is impossible for the right hand, holding the frame, to be the same as the one which the woman is holding to her breast) - for the tilted edge of the glass pane and the frame of the mirror. The displacement between the two views of the body would thus seem to have been caused by a further displacement, namely that of painting itself. Magritte is demonstrating that painting fills a space between visible reality and imaginary picture. How should this space come about, if not from the body of the painter?

Dangerous Liaisons

On the basis of the mirror image, perceived certainties are once again called into question.
The relationship between the mirror and that which it reflects,
a relationship commonly regarded as indissoluble, appears broken.
A naked young woman may be seen in altered perspective in the mirror behind which she is standing,
yet the observer, who is located in front of the mirror, would expect to see himself reflected in it.

La gota de agua




Magritte's magic consists in his having ready a stunningly simple and absolutely overwhelming answer to a very classic problem within painting, one occurring in the works of Alberti, Leonardo, Velazquez, Picasso, and many others, namely the question of the faithfulness of the mirror image, or, put another way, the question of the image of the image. Magritte's solution is that what is visible cannot be separated from the body, from sensory perception, whereby sensory perception is regarded here as an active, even voyeuristic desire, rather than one that is passive, merely observing - a desire concentrating more upon detail than upon the whole. The mystery at the source of all contemplation and all painting is the mystery of the body itself, that of perception, which is not only torn between the different senses but also captures a multitude of impressions via each individual sense. A similarly confusing effect is produced by the fundamental difference between the picture and the object it portrays. The body in painting may be seen in the picture The Red Model at the point where the naked toes protrude from the leather of the footwear, indicating a completely different world. They do not resemble the shoes of a farmer, a mountaineer, a salesman, a dancer; what all shoes basically have in common, however - whatever the current fashion might be - is the fact that they cover the feet and come into contact with the ground or the floor on which the body is standing upright or adopting some other position. Thanks to its ability to walk upright, does the body not constantly demand that what is visible be given preference at the expense of the other senses, that it be taken up for the art of painting, that its links with the neglected, missing diversity of the other senses be re-established?

The Well of Truth

A simple trouser leg with a shoe - the rest of the body is absent, outside that which can be seen, outside the work. The never-ending search can begin, comparable with the search for truth.

The Red Model

"The problem of the shoes demonstrates how easily the most frightful things can
be made to appear completely harmless through the power of thoughtlessness.
Thanks to the 'modele rouge' (Red Model), one senses that the union
of the human foot and a shoe is in fact based upon a monstrous custom."



The characteristic feature of the erotic in Magritte's art is the fact that the artist, while getting as far as the body, nonetheless remains a prisoner of distance, a prisoner of the space in which the light is playing, light necessary if the eye is to see at all. Eroticism harbours, for painting, the possibility of duplicating the abilities of the body, as may be seen in The Magician, or of selecting as one thinks fit, as in Eternal Evidence. Such eroticism can be amusing, as in Homage to Mack Sennett, the director of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton: the breasts are apparent through the nightdress hanging in the wardrobe - yet the nightdress's very function is to cover them up. Eroticism is equally capable of manifesting itself in an extremely crude fashion, for example placing the emphasis in an all too obvious manne rupon pubic hair and full, well-rounded breasts. The title of the picture Philosophy in the Bedroom is a reference to Marquis de Sade, who paid a very high pricefor his free imagination and the fantasms of his erotic art.

The Magician

Magritte wrote to a friend in 1953 that The Magician was a self-portrait, adding:
"Anyone crazy about movement or its opposite will not enjoy this picture."
The work, one of Magritte's few self-portraits, shows him in a kind of simultaneous role play in which,
thanks to his four arms and hands, he is able to carry out various actions at one and the same time.



Eternal Evidence

Each picture records only a fragmentary view of the body, each view selected from an endless number of possible visual approaches.
Here we see five sections, which do not completely fit together, demonstrating the problems inherent in the act of painting.

The Six Elements


Homage to Mack Sennett

Mack Sennett, the American director and producer, made over 500 films up to the 1930s,
 the most successful of which were slapstick comedies;
Magritte, the passionate cinemagoer, was ever enthusiastic about them.

Philosophy in the Bedroom

Humour recedes before the intensity of the erotic element.
The nightdress reveals quite undisguisedly that which it is usually its function to conceal.
This portrayal of the look of desire is a homage to de Sade.

Philosophy in the Boudoir


The Harvest


A Courtesan's Palace

The March of Summer


The painting Attempting the Impossible, together with the corresponding photograph, may be regarded as the most beautiful homage paid by Magritte to his wife, who was also his model. The painter's desire to immortalize the object of his desire, to capture it on canvas, to create it for himself once again, is tangible - yet, in so doing, he is attempting the impossible, and his intention is doomed to failure. It is this sobering knowledge of the broken spell, this deep, protective melancholy, which runs through Magritte's entire work whenever body and desire are involved.

Georgette and Rene Magritte
in Perreux-sur-Marne, 1928


Attempting the Impossible

A variation upon the legend of the sculptor Pygmalion, who himself created his dream woman.
Pygmalion required divine assistance to bring his sculpture to life;
here, the artist succeeds simply through his powers of imagination and his belief in the impossible.

The Sea of Flames


The Forbidden Universe


La calma


Les Jours Gigantesques


The Pebble

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