Episode 32: René Magritte's The Son of Man (1964)
TAMAR: So how would you describe this painting?
VOICE 1: Oh gosh. Um. Honestly? I would say to somebody, “have you seen the Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan? It’s that one.” [laughs]
VOICE 1: Yeah, it’s just a man who’s wearing a bowler hat and a black suit. Looks like a very official kind of businessman. And he has a green apple on leaves in front of his face. So that’s hiding who he is. But you can just sort of see a little bit of his eyes. So he can see around the apple, and he can see you, but you can’t see what he looks like.
VOICE 2: His shirt is perfectly pressed, and he looks realistic, but that damn apple is fully in front of his head [laughs], I feel bad for him.
TAMAR: Does it surprise you that there’s an apple in front of his face?
VOICE 3: Yes. Because that seems like a very silly thing. To put an apple! On a painting. Or, like, paint an apple on somebody’s face.
VOICE 1: It’s the worst disguise of all time. It almost feels like that Monty Python “How Not To Be Seen”? Where the guy’s hiding behind a bush and the voiceover says “stand up, please,” and he stands up and then they blow him up? [laughs]
VOICE 1: Mostly it makes me want to know more, it makes me want to imagine the story of this man’s life and who he might be.
VOICE 2: He looks like a Gestapo guy, I don’t know, I have this image from a movie of someone from the Gestapo being very… or like an FBI agent, where you’re very tucked in, your coat is perfect, you have a white shirt, a red tie. You’re clean-shaven, your hat fits perfectly, so you’re very much in a uniform.
VOICE 1: He looks like a hit man with an apple in front of his face. He’s the fruit mafia. [laughs] The produce policy, everybody. Stand back.
VOICE 4: You just want to swipe away the apple. Like, it’s one of those, like it’s impossible to see the face, and there’s just enough of a hint with the eye that makes it even more maddening.
VOICE 2: While the rest of the picture is realistic, the apple is almost a fake green color, and a perfect sphere.
VOICE 4: The color of it kind of makes it sit even more in front of the face, but it’s mostly solid green, and it just, it is so present. It is very deliberate. But every other signifier in here is matted, muted, and neutral. You have a gray sky, a slightly bluer gray sea, a gray suit, a gray bowler hat, gray hair at the temples, and a non-flashy tie. There is nothing signifying this man in this piece. Like, the face is the only thing that could. It’s like the apple is more of an apple than the man is a man.
It all started when I was on a road trip with my husband, and I went off on a righteous diatribe about how much I hate the breaklights on Jeeps these days. There are exes over their eyes, I said. They might as well have a tongue sticking out the rear bumper and little bubbles popping over the roof rack. A drunk car, I concluded, is just a terrible design choice. And my husband looked at me, delighted that he could still find out something new about after ten years. Do you see faces in everything, he asked? And I thought back to all the cars I liked or disliked based on their expressions, all the street lights that felt like eyes peering into my bedroom windows, all the outlets I’d violated with plugs. It seemed so obvious that I never even stopped to question my brain. Of course I see faces everywhere. Doesn’t everyone?
So it turns out, no. When I googled “seeing faces everywhere,” the first hit was an article that diagnosed me simply as neurotic, which I admit was unsatisfying. So a deeper google pointed me towards pareidolia, the phenomenon where the brain responds to an image by creating patterns where none objectively exist. It’s the same psychic condition that makes you see the man in the moon, or the Virgin Mary in a tortilla, or a drunk octopus on a bathroom coat hook. And the funny thing is, the internet seems to think this is an ailment, using language like suffering from it, or “here’s what’s wrong with you,” when, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with me. I think it’s great. It gives the world an added layer of personality. And though it’s not as universal a phenomenon as I originally assumed, it’s actually still pretty common. And artists in particular are lousy with it.
I was reminded of my whimsical little affliction when I came face to face, quote unquote, with this painting – this famous, important, iconic painting by the mid-20th century Surrealist Rene Magritte – and felt inescapably agitated. Here I am, searching in vain for a face where I would be perfectly within my rights to expect one, only to find myself utterly – and rudely, I feel – cockblocked by an apple. A smooth, green, luscious apple that’s not actually connected to anything. It’s not growing out of the hat. It’s not hanging down from a tree. It’s just there, hovering in space. And its job is not to be appetizing, but to obscure his face, like the weirdly-placed lamp that we’re supposed to pretend isn’t blocking a pregnant actress’s belly. And as such, we have permission to laugh at the absurdity of it. It is in fact as ridiculous as it seems. Like, dude, we see you. And the absurdity of this apple only further reinforces the seriousness with which we imagine this man conducting himself, so neatly-trimmed and well-pressed, like a 1960s G man, standing completely on his own. The incongruity between the two is comedy 101, like pieing a wealthy dowager in the face. And yet, this suspended apple isn’t just a one-off joke. Far from it, actually. Because throughout his entire career, Magritte played with the idea of an object obfuscating, and even this little apple itself, over many, many canvases. It was as if he was trying to pinpoint the exact moment when absurdity becomes significant.
But put a pin in this apple for now. Let’s first take a step back and situate ourselves in Brussels in the late 1920s. Who was Rene Magritte? You might remember him from episode 22, when our entry point into mid-century Neo-Dadaist Jasper Johns was care of Magritte’s pipe. Well, actually, as we’ll recall, it was a painting of a pipe, with a written description underneath the pipe that says that it isn’t a pipe, titled “The Treachery of Images.” In other words, the painting is saying, don’t trust paintings. Because we expect our art to tell us that the image of the thing is the thing, and not simply pigment on canvas made to look like the thing. This is, of course, obvious, but if you consider that Western art since the Renaissance prided itself on replicating exactness, a “window onto the world,” it’s actually pretty revolutionary. It’s like he’s saying, once we own up to the fact that art is a question of representation, rather than reality, we can abandon reality altogether. And maybe from there, we can probe the most experimental boundaries of how an artist can express subjective human experience, the unique perception of the world that we all share. And no artistic movement up to this point took this to heart more than Surrealism.
Magritte didn’t start out as a Surrealist, and, as we’ll discuss in a future episode, Surrealism didn’t stay one thing over the course of the century. And “The Treachery of Images” wouldn’t necessarily be described as classically Surreal – Magritte actually argued that it was actually pretty darn real, calling out a pipe for being exactly what it wasn’t. But “The Treachery of Images” was painted in 1927, when he was 30 years old, and the painting we’re focusing on today, “Son of Man” was painted in 1964, almost 40 years later, and three years before he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 68. In the intervening years, Magritte firmly planted his flag on the Surrealist hilltop, witnessing and shaping its permutations alongside his fellow friends and artists Salvador Dali, Jean Arp, Andre Breton, and others. He left Brussels for Paris in 1928, and spent the rest of his career playing with the wit, visual puns, evocative dreamscapes, and bizarre imagery that all tried, in one way or another, to articulate the free-association of our uniquely irrational, emotional unconscious minds, and maybe even allow this tender self-exploration to deepen our empathy towards one another. “If you like Love,” founder Andre Breton wrote in their manifesto, “then you’ll love Surrealism.”
We haven’t explicitly talked about Surrealism before, but we have talked about its origins. Surrealism germinated from the same art historical apple seeds as late 19th century Expressionism, and as 18th century Romanticism before that – this idea that we process the world not by intellectualizing it, but by experiencing it, by emotionalizing it, and by sacrificing the rational logic of a picture plane or a naturalistic color palette to get there. Emotions, after all, don’t have to make sense. We talked about this in episode 18. While the 18th century Neo-Classicists were making sense of the world through clear, organized symmetry and rationalism, their Romantic counterparts were wrestling with and succumbing to nature, both Mother Nature and our own subconscious interiors, like we saw in Turner’s “Slave Ship.” And we can see this struggle even more literally in the works of other Romantics like Francisco Goya and Henry Fuseli. Take, for example, Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” from 1781, a sexualized, paranormal vision of a nightmare that depicts a woman asleep and a-swoon, with an incubus sitting on her chest and a literal mare looking in. Romantic painters wanted to make visible what you could only feel – the weight of a nightmare sitting on your chest, or the bats of anxiety that flap violently around your brain, like we see in Goya’s famous etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” from around 1797. Surrealism borrowed Romanticism’s literal articulation of the unconscious, making visible what is otherwise only inwardly experienced. Reality is transcended into sur-reality, both exposing the psychological interiors of the artist and the viewer, and empathically bonding them together.
But Surrealism also found its roots in Dada. We explored Dada in episode 17, and neo-Dada in episode 22, Magritte’s first appearance with that non-pipe. Dada, if you’ll recall, had a particular fondness for taking the every day and changing its meaning. Take a urinal off the wall and place in a museum and suddenly it becomes an art object. You can imagine how much the Surrealists loved this idea, this bending of the ordinary into new and surreal shapes. And Magritte in particular possessed an uncanny ability to take something realistic and turn it on its head, to capture the world with the same almost photorealistic precision as we see with that pipe, and bend it towards the surreal. He makes us feel at home only to misdirect us, to question our own understanding, like he does with the pipe. He takes the most commonplace objects, and, in the words of his contemporary critics, makes them “shriek aloud.” To wit: an apple on its own is just an apple. An apple blocking someone’s face is absurd.
So let’s get back to this apple. Why the apple motif was so compelling to Magritte is a bit of a mystery – he’s talked about seeing it appear in his dreams, smooth and unblemished, and wrestled with it, its everyday-ness, over a series of canvases that can be seen as both playful and profound, depending on your perspective, or the time of day. But this green apple itself has less actual artistic significance than massive pop-culture-shaping influence, and forgive me while I blow your mind right now. Because in the 1960s, Magritte painted a series of apples, including, incidentally, one with the caption, “This is Not an Apple,” a riff on the infamous pipe, and one of these apple paintings was purchased in 1966 by a 24-year-old Paul McCartney, who was consequently inspired to name the Beatles record company Apple Corp and use that green apple as their logo. And if that’s not enough, along comes Steve Jobs, spurred by his hero McCartney’s love of this very same apple, and decides that it should name his entire empire. You know, the one that gave birth to that iPhone that I assume, statistically speaking, you’re using to listen to this right now. I think even Christians would agree that it’s in the running for the most famous apple in history.
But despite the parenthetical fame of Magritte’s little apple, its job, to obscure this man’s face – or his face, as Magritte had repeatedly claimed this painting was a self-portrait – is really the point here. And over the course of all the canvases that Magritte painted that experimented with faces, and things blocking them, he came to realize that not all objects obscure equally. One painting in particular, “Man in a Bowler Hat,” also from 1964, is an almost identical image of the well-groomed man in a bowler hat facing us head-on, but with a bird in front of his face instead of an apple. And despite the similarities, there’s clearly a different narrative being told here. You could make the argument that the bird was just flying by, photobombing the canvas, just caught in the snap of the shot. And it makes that apple feel all the more deliberate, all the more inconvenient. Its randomness reinforces the point that it exists solely to block his face from us, and therefore, with it anything that we could possibly read, relate to, or identify with. And we are left completely at a loss as to who this man is. It’s utterly disconcerting. My pareidolia has already proven that a face can give even an inanimate object a personality, yet put that same object in front of someone’s face, and we lose all sense of who they are.
Magritte was consumed with the idea of obfuscation throughout his career, and the more you know about him, the less it all feels like a joke. His early painting, “The Lovers,” from 1928, depicts a man and woman kissing, but with both of their heads fully covered in fabric, again taking us the other way as this moment of connection becomes one of isolation. He painted a series of figures with enshrouded faces, which art historians have not indelicately attributed to Magritte’s own experience, when, at age 14, his mother committed suicide by drowning, and was found with her face wrapped up in her wet nightgown. He personally denied the direct connection, but wrote at length about the contrast between what we see and what remains hidden in our human interactions. “It’s something that happens constantly,” Magritte writes. “Everything we see hides another thing – we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” In other words, we’re always reading one another, trying to make sense of each other’s implicit and explicit signals, those hints and allegations, as noted Magritte-lover Paul Simon sings, and it’s no different than us wanting Magritte’s fascination with shrouds to explain his childhood trauma, or – and you psych majors out there will love this – to attribute Magritte’s bowler hat, his ever-present sartorial trademark, to the fact that his mother was a milliner. To delve into human psychology is to want to make connections where maybe there are none, but maybe there are, and the observer is no more certain of where the truth lies than the experiencer. It’s an admirable impulse, this desire to completely understand each other, but it doesn’t account for the mystery of simply being human, of everything we don’t even know about ourselves. And Magritte plays with this. We look at “Son of Man,” the self-portrait of an artist who presents himself as unknowable, who peers back at us with half an eye, as if daring us to try. And yet, it’s only this his unknowability, his apple-blocked unknowability, that we fully appreciate the distinction between, as Magritte writes, “the visible that is present and the visible that is hidden.” It’s like he’s saying, if you really want to get to the root of me, allow me my mystery. At the end of the day, all you really know for sure about me is that there are large parts you don’t know.
And this brings us to one final point: the title. When you google Son of Man, you get way more Jesus-related hits than Surrealist art. Between the title and, of course, that apple, you have to wonder: how could there not be at least some religious connotation here? After all, aren’t we all descendants from the original man and an apple-related snafu? Furthermore, Jesus in his earthly form was the son of man; in his divine form he was the son of God. And we could easily make the argument here that we’re looking at the story of transfiguration told through the absurd eyes of a Surrealist: the apple covering the face is like the veil of the material body covering the true substance of holiness beneath it. In other words, the visible that is present and the visible that is hidden. Everything we see hides another thing. And honestly, I’d buy that analysis. It’s a profound, delightfully modern twist on something so sacred. But we need to also consider that it’s entirely possible that we’re reading too much into it. Surrealism, as you might imagine, has a difficult time standing up to too much rational scrutiny, and even Magritte countered questions about the meaning behind his paintings with the response that “it does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”
A response like this, of course, can be maddening. It’s frustrating to really commit to looking, to search for meaning in a painting, and be, well, cockblocked by the artist. But maybe we can choose to see it another way. Maybe this is just Magritte giving us permission to be satisfied with a less surreal interpretation. Because ultimately, I think the reason this painting is so iconic is because it’s synonymous with anonymity. If The Thomas Crown Affair taught us anything, it’s that the minute you don a bowler hat, you assume a shroud of concealment. This man no man, and therefore every man, simply just the son of man, and, really, putting aside all the religious connotation and forgiving the gendered language…aren’t we all? And maybe this universal anonymity has its own value. It allows us all our mystery. We all move through the world, plainly visible, yet containing unseen depths. And this is something we all share, something that connects us, in all of our unique and irrational ways. Even if we might seem, on the face of it, to be on our own.
The exhibition, Rene Magritte: The Fifth Season, is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until October 28, 2018. Go if you can, because after this, Son of Man goes right back to the private collection from which it came. Special thanks to Ryan Stever, Erin Fleming, Ian Fox at the PRX Podcast Garage, and especially Heather Cocks and her son Liam. Heather is the co-founded of a website I’ve loved for years, Go Fug Yourself, who I serendipitously ran into in the gallery, and who was generous enough to be interviewed for the show. Check out her site at www.gofugyourself.com, and bookmark that link immediately.
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