Unraveling the Mystery of René Magritte


A gray overcast sky looms over a misty landscape.

Reveries du Premeneur Solitaire

Les Reveries du Premeneur Solitaire, 1926 (Musings of a Solitary Walker).

A solitary man in a dark coat and bowler hat walks along a river bank. A white-gray floating figure of a woman levitates lifelessly behind him. They are not aware of each other, the man’s back is to the woman whose eyes are deathly closed. This haunting image is the vision of René Magritte, his Les Reveries du Premeneur Solitaire, 1926 (Musings of a Solitary Walker).

 Unexplainable images such as this make up the oeuvre of Magritte. Solving this puzzle, however, takes some deeper probing into the inner recesses of the artists unconscious. Hidden there among his apples and bowler hats are poignant memories of a life shattering event, a childhood trauma which would inevitably affect his life and work. With the help of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, we may be able  to unravel some of Magritte’s themes and images, to observe their generation and discuss his emotional relationship to them. Throughout Magritte’s concept of art as a representation of the “mystery of the world,” we can speculate that art, for Magritte, was not only a viable creative expression but also a cathartic mechanism required for maintaining mental stability.

Sigmund Freud’s theory of repression offers some illumination into the journey of René Magritte’s unconscious. Freud believed that during childhood, particularly traumatic events find rest not in the memories of the preconscious, but in the dark regions of the unconscious. Their powerful nature allows them to slip by the vigilant guard of the frightened ego into the cold embrace of the id, allegedly never again to see the light of day. But their overwhelming strength permeates the mental processes and eventually may lead to neurotic or even psychotic disorders.[1]

However, the mind of the artist is a different beast. Its gift of creativity is its savior in these times of crises. Freud notes: “if a person who is at loggerheads with reality possesses an artistic gift . . . he can transform his phantasies into artistic creations instead of into symptoms.”[2]

And Magritte’s mind needed rescuing. For what happened to the child Magritte would level lesser men. Growing up in Brussels, Magritte’s tortured mother threw herself into the River Sambre when René was twelve. Mary Mathews Gedo relates that “throughout his childhood, [Magritte] lived in the closest intimacy with a woman he perceived as mad: his mother who finally terminated her tortured existence by drowning herself in 1912.”[3] The circumstances surrounding her death seem to be in question as the only two sources are the newspaper account and the solitary version expressed by Magritte once, to his close friend Louis Scutenaire. Undoubtedly, they speak of different visions.

Scutenaire revealed this image to David Sylvester for his book on Magritte. He related that when Madame Magritte was found, her nightdress was covering her face. “It was never known whether she had hidden her eyes with it in order not to see the death which she had chosen, or whether the swirling currents had veiled her thus.”[4] The newspaper account, however, was not as poetic, reporting that her body was recovered seventeen days after her death. Gedo notes that Magritte’s “romantic account of the body’s appearance scarcely tallies with the advanced state of decomposition in which it must have been found.”[5]

Freud explains such distorted reminiscences as screen memories. Like dreams, the unconscious makes use of memory material to disguise and distort a fearful reality. “Out of a number of childhood memories of significant experiences . . . there will be some scenes which, when they are tested . . . turn out to have been falsified.”[6] Thus, the fearful repressed material is replaced by something more comforting.[7] It is in this screen memory where we find the initial validity of Magritte’s repression.

But what of the state of Magritte’s young psyche poised to receive this horror? His behavior was eccentric even before his mother’s suicide. Gedo notes that Magritte was “a childhood mystic, obsessed with guilt, preoccupied with thoughts of ‘Jesus, his mother, his dove and the saints of the stained glass windows.’” This catholic colic also manifested itself in play “saying mass before a little altar he had fashioned.” [8] Undoubtedly, his mental capacities were hardly prepared for this trauma.

After his mother’s suicide, his obsession with death began to grow. As A. M. Hammacher notes “Magritte was fascinated by death throughout his life.” [9] This obsession eventually lead to his discovery of painting. One summer while visiting his grandmother, he discovered an old cemetery and took to exploring it with a special little girl. On one of these expeditions, after exploring an underground vault, they came upon an artist “serenely working at his easel among the broken stone columns and piles of dead leaves.”[10] This impression never left him.

In his article Some Psychological Sequelae of Parental suicide in Surviving Children, Max Warren relates that death obsession is common among children of parental suicide. “The young child’s phase – adequate interest in death, afterlife and the fate of pets tend to change after suicide into an obsessive preoccupation with fantasies of the suicide scene.” [11] So Magritte’s obsession with death was probably grounded in his mother’s suicide.

Now, with the ground work laid, it’s time to turn to the themes and images of René Magritte. In Harry Torczyner’s book, Magritte: Ideas and Images, it is apparent that most of Magritte’s work can be categorized based on recurrent themes. Many of these themes could be creatively linked to the circumstance of his mother’s suicide. [12] However, there are two particular themes that lend themselves easily to such analysis. These are death by drowning and concealed faces. Both of these will be discussed through particular examples.

In discussing the theme of death by drowning, Sylvester notes, “there can be no doubt whatever as to the closeness of the link between the legend of the mother’s death and one of the most recurrent and persistent and significant elements in Magritte’s iconography.” [13] This theme is exemplified in the painting described in the introduction, The Musings of a solitary Walker. The man in the bowler had is an image typically associated with Magritte himself as he produced such an image upon the request of a friend commissioning a self-portrait. [14] The floating image is a young woman whose skin color and shut eyes elude to death. The figures are placed in a landscape Sylvester notes as being similar to the environs surrounding the river Sambre, where Magritte’s mother died. If, in fact, we read the female image as being Magritte’s mother, her youth could be explained by a static representation typical of children of suicide. Warren relates that “feelings the child has toward the dead parent are ‘frozen’ and the image is not subject to reevaluation and change as the child’s ego develops.”[15] As previously noted, the figures are unaware of each other. This could relate to an unconscious wish of not wanting to know how his mother died or perhaps the idea that because of her death, they will never see each other again. As Sylvester observes, “Magritte had perhaps been haunted for years by such images.” [16]

Two similar paintings can also be used to

La Robe de L'aventure

La Robe de L’aventure, 1926 (The Garment of Adventure)

illustrate this concept.  La Robe de L’aventure, 1926 (The Garment of Adventure) and L’invention Collective, 1935 (Collective Invention).  Both show figures “beached” as if the surf had carried them to shore. La Robe de Laventure has a female figure, partially enshrouded in a white cloth, lying on a sandy surface with her eyes closed and her arms reaching toward the sky. A strange form reminiscent of a giant lily bud hangs over her.

L'invention Collective

L’invention Collective, 1935 (Collective Invention). 

L’invention Collective also shows a female form on a distinct beach with waves rolling in behind. Magritte has chosen to morph her upper torso into that of a fish. The positioning of both figures strongly suggests death and the beach imagery implies drowning.

Concealed face offer another theme repeated in Magritte’s work. This idea takes many form: figures with drapery over their heads, portraits with objects hiding their faces, and a sin the above example, figures with their backs to the viewer.

La Production Interdite

La Production Interdite (Portrait of Edward James), 1937 (Not to be Reproduced)

The quintessential representation of this last form is his La Production Interdite (Portrait of Edward James), 1937 (Not to be Reproduced). Here a man with his back to the viewer faces a mirror in which the reflection is also of a man with his back to the viewer. Hammacher notes, “it was a consciously arranged dual defense, or a repression of any confrontation with the face, which made him decide to ignore logic and show us not his face in the mirror but his back.”[17]

Les Amants

Les Amants (the Lovers), 1928

Most intriguing of these forms are the draped figures such as Les Amants (the Lovers), 1928 and L’Invention de la Vie (The Invention of Life), 1927-28. The lovers two heads are draped by a fluid cloth that twists and winds around their necks much the same way a nightdress would carelessly be draped if pulled over the head. L’invention de la Vie is a particularly revealing illustration of these draped figures.

L'invention de la Vie

L’Invention de la Vie (The Invention of Life), 1927-28.

Here a young woman glances tentatively out at the viewer. Next to her is a shrouded figure. The shape of the draped figure indicates that it, too, may be facing outward. It has been speculated that the young woman is a portrait of Magritte’s wife Georgette. If we take the draped figure to represent his mother, the title may reveal the replacement of his mother by his wife who “invented life” again for Magritte through her love and support. [18]

These works examined certainly don’t exhaust these themes and the two themes are merely a representation of a greater body of concepts that could arguably relate to the suicide of Magritte’s mother. But these are the two that best represent his childhood repression. His titles are also revealing. Often they came to him after the work was created, suggesting themselves to him upon reflection of the work. This suggests a process such as Freud’s free association which enables tapping into the unconscious.

These disturbing images certainly allow speculation into the workings of Magritte’s mind. But, more important than the iconography, is the means by which these images came to him. He claimed that these visual reflections appeared whole in a dream-like state of awareness,[19] and stated that “the moment upon waking was significant.” [20] Hammacher relates that Magritte would reflect on his dreams upon waking and search for “hallucinatory or realistic images” which Hammacher referred to as “repressed memories.”[21] So for his images, Magritte sought reflection “which would make it possible for him to conjure them up out of the darkness of his subconscious or unconscious and render them visible through painting.”[22]

Magritte referred to this state as “presence of mind” which “reveals reality in an absolute mystery.”[23] He describes it in a letter of May 8, 1959 where he refers to his painting La Durée Poignardée, (Time Transfixed) 1939.

La Duree Poignardee

Durée Poignardée, (Time Transfixed) 1939

It is the rendering of a small train engine emerging from the center of a fireplace mantel. Magritte states, “presence of mind exerted itself and showed me how the image of a locomotive should be shown so that this presence of mind would be apparent.” He defines “presence of mind” as a “moment of lucidity that no method can bring forth.”[24] Scutenaire quotes Magritte as saying “it was a knowledge which seemed lost in the deepest recesses of my thinking.” [25] Hammacher relates that the power of this moment of illumination was so great that he referred to it as a birth and that it “occasioned a kind of panic in him.” At this moment of insight, he “was gripped by the mystery” though this moment only lasted a short time. [26]

Magritte’s emotional state at the “birth” of these images is understandable if we accept that these images are shadows of his unconscious repression concerning his mother’s death brought to consciousness by means similar to those used in psychoanalysis, i. e. dream interpretation and free association. As difficult as it may be to believe, Magritte may never have consciously recognized the personal nature of the paintings he created, only identifying the emotional content behind them. According to Freud, this is due to the strict nature of the unconscious to not allow this material to flood into conscious awareness. In addition, the ego acts as a protective mechanism and stands guard against any danger leaking out of the id. [27]

There is, however, limited access to certain unconscious information and it is a source Magritte used for his images. This comes through dreams and free association. Freud relates that dreams occur when the ego disengages the control of movement and allows the id some freedom to fulfill its dangerous needs.[28] Here unconscious wishes, either original or repressed in nature, take the dream stage for expression and satisfaction. [29] Free association is a method used by psychoanalysis to tap into the unconscious. The patient offers an unedited stream of conscious thought which reveals repressed information and enables curing the mental disorder.

With this in mind, it is curious to note that Magritte lived a relatively comfortable and certainly successful life apparently unaffected by any serious neurosis or psychosis. [30] Warren relates a similar phenomenon with children of parental suicide. He notes a “disparity between benign apparently well-compensated every day functioning . . .  and the malignancy and bizarreness of the Rorschach or projective psychological tests.” [31]  However, this is only part of the explanation. A key to the answer lies in Magritte’s own behavior: his denial of the past; his relationship to his images; his adamant refusal of any type of analysis of them and his negative views of psychology and, in particular psychoanalysis.

Magritte certainly had reason when he stated, “I despise my own past and that of others.”[32] He rarely spoke of his family and in particular of his mother’s death. His close friend Harry Torczynor remembers, “he did not talk about his family. I never met his two brothers.” [33] His wife Georgette relates that he never spoke to her of his mother’s death and his account of it given to his friend Louis Scutenaire (discussed earlier), is the only public account ever offered by Magritte. Hammacher notes, “Magritte’s unwillingness to talk about the past and his feigned indifference to highly disturbing events in his youth are obviously due to repression.”[34]

As much as he refused to talk about his past, he also refused any analysis of his paintings claiming that they were above interpretation.[35] On an attempted analysis he wrote, “it’s terrifying to see what one is exposed to in making an innocent picture.” [36] But his vehement refusals of any interpretation point to a deep rooted fear that “psychologically informed investigations of his imagery might reveal aspects of his character and experiences that he wished to keep forever submerged – perhaps even from his own awareness.” [37] Hammacher offers that he “provided people with a means which would not lead them back to Magritte” and that he “wanted to prevent any viewer of his work from identifying himself with the artist.” [38] This protective instinct was also noted by his friend Harry Torczynor, “he intended to protect himself from everyone else.”[39] It seems clear that Magritte was afraid that analysis of his images would reveal too much, or more specifically, that his ego would not allow him to recognize the personal nature of the images he created as it was too great a reflection of the dangerous content of the id. This last point is further emphasized by examining the relationship between Magritte and his paintings.

Magritte once noted that “looking at my pictures sometimes gives me a strange feeling.”[40] In fact this strange feeling was at times so strong that, as Torczynor observed in Magritte’s studio, Magritte wouldn’t even look at the works. “These canvases might be casually set on the floor with their faces to the wall like mislaid or forgotten objects.”[41] Torczynor also relates that “Magritte had no desire to retain finished painting for study or for his personal collection.”[42] And yet Magritte took great interest in where his works were to the extent that Torczynor took to calling them his “Magrittian children.”[43] So from their inception of “birth” to the finished painting, these manifestations of Magritte’s unconscious would invoke powerful emotional responses in him without revealing their true meaning which was the dangerous repressed emotions of his mother’s suicide. Once the cathartic process was over, the painting finished, his ego would no longer let him reflect upon the image, so he would turn them around in his studio and sell them all not keeping any around to arouse curiosity in himself. His ego would not allow him to consider any interpretation of the works especially as they related to his mother’s suicide. Again, not wanting to reveal too much of the repressed content in his unconscious. Yet, each of these works has a special “mysterious” meaning and importance to him that he could not express but clearly felt.

When asked once why he paints, Magritte stated, “I am unaware of the real reason why I paint just as I am unaware of the reason for living and dying.”[44] The irony in this statement is that painting was, in a sense, why he was living and not dying. The suicide rate and attempted suicide rate for children of parental suicide is greatly increased over that of the general population.[45] The reason for this is “direct identification with the parent in his suicidal act.” [46]  Magritte’s ability to release his unconscious emotions through painting without them fully entering consciousness allowed him to function through his life without suffering from neurosis which could inflict these desperate moments.

Obviously, Magritte could offer no explanation for the meaning of the images in his works. His only reflection was that they invoked the “mystery of the world” and it was to this end that he pursued painting. “I see to it that I paint only the images that evoke the world’s mystery.”[47] It was a mystery that could not be revealed. Hammacher notes, “He regarded the mystery of life with a sacred awe and considered the essence to be impervious to all interpretations.”[48] Though this mystery could never come to light, Magritte explains that there is an emotional attachment: “we always want to see what is hidden by what we can see . . . this interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is apparent.”[49] This heightened awareness of the real is shown to be common among child survivors of parental suicide. Cain and Fast show that a distrust of reality was typical of the most studied parent-suicide children. “it might be described as a disturbance of the reality-sense – a tendency to find experiences vaguely unreal, to doubt or disbelieve much of what they’re told, and to have a troubling uneasiness about many of our everyday certainties.”[50] This reaction is eerily echoed in Magritte’s vision, “the power of thought is demonstrated by unveiling or evoking the mystery in creatures that seem familiar to us.”[51]

However, Magritte’s mystery seems to go beyond this scope. A distrust in reality certainly could have motivated his imagery, and yet much of his emphasis is on the locked nature of the mystery, “the very nature of the mystery annihilates curiosity.”[52] Perhaps it is Magritte’s own personal mystery which cannot be revealed: the reason his mother purposefully abandoned him through her suicide. Lindemann and Grier, also in Survivors of Suicide offer, “the frequent cry among survivors of a suicide of ‘why did he do it?’ often seems to have the implied dative ’to me’ and seems colored by a feeling of having been repudiated or at least abandoned.”[53] The reason this mystery can never be revealed rests on the intense guilt associated with the suicidal death of a parent.[54] The fear that some pre-suicide behavior by the child in some way caused the parents ultimate self-destruction. If this is Magritte’s mystery then its feared revelation and possible outcome would do untold psychic damage and thus the ego insures its silence. It then becomes “the mystery that which we are forbidden to give a meaning.”[55]

There is certainly much more to René Magritte’s work than simply unconscious musings on his mother’s suicide. However, this investigation has shown that there is a close link between Magritte’s images and the content of his unconscious. His paintings give a glimpse into the workings of the mind and arouse curiosity over the more ambiguous images. Thus, Magritte’s artistic gift was his savior from madness and its expression a gift to mankind.

[1] Horden, Peregrine, ed. Freud and the Humanities. (NY: St. Maritns Press, 1985), 38.

[2] Freud, Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans., ed. James Strachy, (NY: w. W. Norton and co., Inc.) 50.

[3] Gedo, Mary Mathews, Looking at Art from the Inside Out: the Psychoiconographic Approach to Modern Art. (NY: Harry N. Abrams, inc., 1992) 12.

[4] Sylvester, David, Magritte: the Silence of the World. (NY; Harry N. Abrams, Inck, 1992) 12.

[5] Gedo, Looking at Art, 280.

[6] Freud, Sigmund, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. By James Strachey, vol. III (London; Hogarth Press, 1962), 322

[7] Ibid

[8] Gedo, Looking at Art, 181.

[9] Hammacher, A. M. Rene Magritte. trans. by James Brockway (NY: Harry Abrams Inc., 1985), 108.

[10] Gedo, Looking at Art. 182

[11] Warren, Max, Some Psychological Sequelae of Parental Suicide in Surviving children, in Survivors of Suicide. (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1972), 116-117.

[12] As Sylvester observes, “Whatever its formation, Magritte’s fantasy about his mother’s death has many echoes in his paintings. There are several which evoke death by water; there are numerous instances of faces which are somehow concealed or absent.” Silence, 14

[13] Sylvester, Silence, 23.

[14] Ibid, 28

[15] Warren, Psychological Sequelae, 114.

[16] Sylvester, Silence, 19.

[17] Hammacher, 36.

[18] Gedo, Looking at Art, 183.

[19] Referring to the work Time Transfixed,  Magritte notes “The word idea is not the most precise designation for what I thought when I united a locomotive and a fireplace. I didn’t have an idea: I only thought of an image.” Letter from Magritte, May 8, 1959, reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 82.

[20] Hammacher, 17.

[21] Ibid, 15 -16

[22] Ibid, 90.

[23] Rough draft of a response to a questionnaire sent to René Magritte by a journalist of La Lanterne. June 20, 1957. Reproduced in Torczyner, Magritte, 24-25.

[24][24] Letter from Magritte, May 8, 1959, reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 81-83.

[25] Hammacher, Magritte, 90

[26] Ibid, 40.

[27] Freud, Sigmund, An Outline of Psychoanalysis. Trans. By James Strachey, (NY: W.W. Norton and co, Inc. 1949), 43.

[28] Ibid, 47

[29] Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams. (NY: buccaneer books, inc., 1985), 33-43.

[30] However, Torczynor notes that he became a hypochondriac after age sixty. Torczynor, Magritte, 22.

[31] These tests can be used to reveal unconscious impressions. Warren, Psychological Sequelae, 113

[32] René Magritte, Le Savoir Vivre, Burssels, 1946, reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 23.

[33] Troczynor, Magritte, 17

[34] Hammacher, René Magritte, 8.

[35] “To the extent that my pictures have any value, they do not lend themselves to analysis.” Draft of questionnaire reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 24.

[36] Letter from Rene Magritte to Louis Scutenaire and Iréne Hamoir, March 12, 1937. Reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 80.

[37] Gedo, Looking at Art, 180.

[38] Hammacher, Rene Magritte, 18.

[39] Torczynor, Magritte, 19.

[40] Rough draft of questionnaire, reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 25.

[41] Ibid, 10.

[42] Ibid, 19.

[43] Torczynor recalls and example regarding the piece L’art de la Conversation, “he was eager to know how I thought it was getting on in the New Orleans museum that had given it a home.” Torczynor, Magritte, 19.

[44] From an interview by Christian Bussey, August 1966. Reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 28.

[45] Cain, Albert c. and Irene Fast Children’s Disturbed Reactions to Parent Suicide; distortions of Guilt, Communication and Identification, in Survivors of Suicide. (Springfield, Ill.: Charles, C. Thomas, 1972), 105-106.

[46] Ibid

[47] Torczynor, Magritte, 82.

[48] Hammacher, Rene Magritte, 18.

[49] Magritte, qtd. Sylvester, Silence, 24

[50] Cain and Fast, Disturbed Reactions, in Survivors of Suicide, 103.

[51] Torczynor, Magritte, 81.

[52] Ibid, 83.

[53] Lindemann, Erich and Ina May Grier, A study of Grief: Emotional Responses to Suicide, in Survivors of Suicide. (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C.Thomas, 1972), 68.

[54] Warren, Psychological Effect in Survivors of Suicide, 63 – 69.

[55] Torczynor, Magritte, 81.

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~ by fultonm2010 on April 4, 2018.

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