Painting of the Day

12 Dec



The Menaced Assasin. by Rene Magritte (1898-1967). Oil on canvas, 1927. Currently not on view but within the collection of MoMA, NYC.

Notes from

The title of this work, The Menaced Assassin, provides one enigmatic clue into the possible meaning or meanings of this monumental work executed by the Belgian surrealist, René Magritte.

You see a space that is, in fact, comprised of three distinct parts. A sort of perspective from a voyeur outside, within which two bowler-hatted impassive men lurk, one with a cudgel in his hand on the left, and the other with a net. These figures, in fact, closely resemble photographs of Magritte himself this marks the first appearance of figures like this in Magritte’s work. But they would go on to become stock personas in his art.

And then as you enter into this deep space with its peculiarly tilting floor, your eye drawn into the center, you encounter the figure on the right of another suited man, apparently listening to music on an old-fashioned phonograph, oblivious, so it seems, to what lies behind him. This nude female corpse, with what looks to be a severed head, blood pouring from her mouth.

Magritte was known to be fascinated with the popular cinema, and with detective thrillers. And so it’s another way of thinking about Magritte’s ambition to create an immersive world akin in some way to cinema, and to thinking of the canvas as a projection screen for these fantastical narratives and mysterious scenes.

What he presents us with is this mystery that will never be solved, and that has fascinated generations of people now from the moment of its first appearance in 1927.

My comments:

These notes are kind of funny, considering that they say at the beginning that the painting provides a clue to its meaning, then basically describes what is in the painting, then ends with saying the painting is an unsolvable mystery.

I think that one can’t simply use iconography and details about the artist’s life to interpret surrealist art as one can with other types of art. Since surrealist art is supposed to come from the artist’s subconscious, theoretically it should be completely impossible to understand unless we believe in the Jungian and/or Freudian archetypes. So how do we go about even studying Surrealism from an art historical perspective? How do we answer any questions about Surrealist art?

Surrealism is actually one of my favorite art historical movements/periods, and I think that there is or should be a lot of freedom in the interpretation of Surrealist art, a degree of freedom that we may not have with other kinds of art. In this Magritte painting, it would require seeing it in person and looking at it for a very long time before I could decide what I thought it meant. Which is why I was extremely excited to learn that starting September 22nd, 2013, MoMA will run an exhibition on Magritte’s work titled “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938” which I will certainly attend and am thrilled about.

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