As one of the leading figures of the surrealist movement of the early 20th century, Rene Magritte has lent his talents and artistic genius towards a movement that has forced us to consider things in a new light and question our presuppositions of what art should be. From his compelling meditations on humanity, such as The Son of Man or his cheeky observations on art itself, such as The Treachery of Images, Magritte’s vision has captivated our imaginations and surrealist love for almost a hundred years.
An interesting element of his work is the utter humanity of his subjects – from what interests us on a primal level (forcing us to pay attention and consider the visceral scenario and narrative of The Menaced Assassin, for instance) to the loneliness and distance implied by works such as A Friend of Order. Magritte constantly begs us to question not only individual experience but a collective human narrative.
This cannot be more obvious than in his two works, The Lovers, and The Lovers II. With these two beautiful (and haunting) images, Magritte offers us a shocking commentary on a surrealist love and romance while still somehow offering a strange type of intimacy and even romance. By using his surrealism as a vehicle, we are able to consider something that should be warm and comforting from a different, defiant angle, enabling us a more profound view of love itself.
The Birth of a Surrealist love
Inspired by the impressionists that came before him, Magritte had studied for a time at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he played a rather rebellious role: being uninspired and bored with the instruction he received and desiring a change. His life would change significantly in 1922, when he finished his mandatory military service and met his future wife and surrealist love Georgette Berger. Soon after, in 1927, he would live in Paris and establish a working relationship with the leading figures of the surrealist movement – including Dali, among others. With this collaboration, Magritte’s art blossomed into his idiosyncratic style we know and love to this day.
The Lovers (1928)
Housed in the illustrious Australian National Gallery, this painting depicts a man and a woman close together and fashionably dressed – as if they’re posing for a family portrait. The background is a lovely pastoral, featuring rolling, grassy hills and an abundance of trees. The sky is blue and the clouds are thin, giving us a very obvious feeling of comfort and beauty. This is the perfect day for two lovers to be captured in an image.
Most obviously, however, is the stark white hoods covering their heads, completely obscuring their faces and giving their features a surrealist love image. They almost look like ghostly silhouettes. This juxtaposition of a serene, lovely setting and framing combined with the almost torturous imagery of the hoods immediately concerns and shocks – it’s not every day we see people, apparently happily and willingly, choosing to cover their entire head with what looks like a sack used by a kidnapper.
The apparent inspiration for this piece, and the partner piece, The Lovers II, was from the story ‘Fantomas,’ which is a series of pulp thrillers that initially appeared in 1912. In this work, the lead character – The Phantom – is continually disguised with a black hood covering his head, with eye-holes cut out. The visual imagery is indeed similar and the connections to the series is appropriate.
Not only does the piece visually resemble the thriller series, but the idea of a masked hero, something that both inspires and bolsters us, but also distances and unsettles us, is very apparent in the final work. We see the happy couple leaning into each other on a beautiful day, yet with the crippling drawback of their hoods. Why are they wearing them? What can it mean? Magritte was famous for not lending his own interpretations to his work, so we can only draw upon our own ideas and feelings for an answer.
The Lovers II (1928)
The companion piece is much the same, but more intimate and more interesting and disturbing than its partner – in this version of the ‘story,’ the man and woman, identically garbed to the original, lean in for a loving embrace – a kiss, albeit, through the same hoods as before. Unlike the pastoral scene of the previous painting, a much more abstract background is given. The blue background seemingly over top of a ‘frame,’ suggesting that this piece is inhabiting a more conceptual space than a literal one. Instead of a scene in what could be real life, this piece depicts a scene that looks more akin to a family photo inside a picture frame; once again giving us an intimate glimpse of a couple in surrealist love, but still providing the stark contrast with the hoods. As if we’re not supposed to be looking at this private picture. As if we’ve picked up a portrait on someone’s mantelpiece and are shocked at what we see.
Both pictures inhabit the same liminal space of intimacy and publicity, encouraging us to both be interested and inquire about the people in the painting, but just be off-putting enough to make us rethink ourselves.
An unorthodox blend of ideas
So what then do these paintings tell us? What do they convey and what should we be asking of them? By taking an intimate act – involving a couple that truly seems to love each other, acting as if they are not restricted by their unfortunate coverings – and placing a barrier in front of it, we can consider these paintings to be a kind of commentary on romance itself. Perhaps the paintings, by covering their subjects, are implying that no matter how much you pose, no matter how much you actually love each other, no matter how picturesque the setting is, there will always be a distance between you and the one you love. There is always a distance, no matter how intimate you are, and that is one of the tragedies of being human.
It could also be a commentary on how we, the audience, view voyeuristic subject matter such as this. Perhaps, for instance, that the hoods are there merely for our personal detriment – saying, in effect, that the surrealist love of these two individuals is not for us to see or even for us to understand. That love, viewed from the outside, is inherently distant and, at times, bizarre. That surrealist love is ultimately an extremely private thing, no matter how much we gussy it up with beautiful scenery and lovely wooden frames and will always remain something out of the subjective grasp of those viewers not included.
Perhaps even the companion pieces could be seen in a more grim light, signifying the dark and the hidden aspects of relationships that the participants themselves are blind to. When the two individuals in the pieces embrace or kiss, they cannot see the other in a literal sense: both of their heads are fully covered by a (presumably) opaque hood. We always have troubles deciphering the true intentions, feelings, and secret fantasies of those in our lives and this is made readily apparent by the inclusion of a literal blinder. After all, we can only truly know ourselves and never our partners (or anyone else). Love, enigmatic Rene Magritte‘s interpretation, becomes an almost labyrinthine trap, with these paintings serving to illustrate how we blind ourselves willingly to its true nature.
The Surrealist Love
Whatever Magritte’s intent, and whatever the interpretation of the viewer for The Lovers I & II, it is easy to recognize the power that the surrealist frame lends to Magritte’s amazing portraits. Without the elements of the surrealist movement backing his artistic vision, the paintings themselves would be much less striking and thought-provoking.
By simply being shocking initially, we are immediately caught off-guard and must ask ourselves questions. Why do they have hoods covering their heads? Why do they seem completely comfortable with it? Why do they look like everyday portraits? Surrealism blends the everyday with the bizarre, and this is very apparent with Magritte’s entire oeuvre, let alone these specific pieces.
At the end of the day, The Lovers I & II, provide their own contexts and ask us to make sense of them. By offering a downright disturbing twist on an otherwise classic and beautiful set of scenes, we are confronted with our own doubts and insecurities. It is important to confront these images and make sense of them to ourselves – the essence of interpretation in a nutshell. Magritte, with these masterpieces, takes one of the most primal human urges, surrealist love, and companionship, and purposefully mars their beauty with obfuscation and irreverence. It is up to us to determine what is meant (or not meant!) by the pieces themselves, and this onus is one of the loveliest, challenging, and interesting aspects of the surrealist movement as a whole. After all, what better way to ponder the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of surrealist love than with a hood over your head?