The original was created using oil on canvas.
Belgian artist René Magritte was a leading figure in the Surrealist art movement. Led by French writer and poet, André Breton, the Surrealist rejected a rational vision of life for one that focused on the unconscious and dreams. They found inspiration in the unexpected and peculiar, the overlooked and the unconventional.
In his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), Breton defined Surrealism as:
"Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation."
To achieve the absence of control over reason, some Surrealist artist used automatic drawing or writing, also called automatism, to reveal the contents of their subconscious, while others created images that revealed a hyper-realistic dream world and emotional unease. Together, the Surrealists were focused on interpreting dreams as conduits for unspoken feelings and desires.
Surrealism can be divided into two main artistic groups. The first offshoot of surrealism included automatic writing and painting in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the creative process, allowing the unconscious mind to take over. Joan Miró and Andre Masson are leading examples of the automatism movement. Psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud used a variety of techniques to bring the subconscious thoughts of their patients to the surface. The Surrealists borrowed many of the same techniques to stimulate their writing and artwork, with the belief that the creativity that came from deep within a person’s subconscious could be more powerful and authentic than any product of conscious thought.
Magritte was part of the second branch of Surrealism called Veristic Surrealism. This group used meticulous realism to portray the imagery of the subconscious mind and included artists like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Together, these artists shared the ability to paint ordinary objects in unusual contexts giving new meaning to familiar objects.
Magritte’s The Son of Man is a highly recognized depiction of a man wearing an overcoat and bowler hat standing in front of a short stone brick wall, beyond which is a seascape and a cloudy sky. The man’s face is largely obscured by a hovering green apple, with his eyes just barely peering out between the apple and its leaves. Another subtle feature is that the man’s left arm appears to bend backwards at the elbow. When you first look at Magritte’s painting it seems fairly straightforward, but once you look closely a few peculiarities stand out that may make you a little unsettled – that is the power of Magritte’s work!
Today The Son of Man is considered a self-portrait of the artist, but that was not the artist’s original intent. Magritte’s longtime dealer, Alexander Iolas was likely the first person to associate the bowler hatted men of Magritte’s paintings with self-portraiture. In 1966, Magritte wrote,
"The bowler ... poses no surprise. It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularize myself."
Caitlin Haskell, the Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA perfectly unraveled Magritte’s unintentional association to the man in a bowler hat at the recent SFMOMA Magritte exhibit writing, “He fashioned himself an anonymous artist in the studio, and then, reversing the mirror, he made himself a model of anonymity.” So, while Magritte may not have set out to create a self-portrait, he seemingly accepted it and today it is difficult to even look at a bowler hat without automatically thinking of Magritte!
Though the image of a modern man and a floating apple near the sea does not immediately suggest religious iconography, the title Son of Man does. In the Christian faith, the phrase “Son of Man” refers to Jesus so some Art Historians view Magritte’s painting as a surrealist depiction of the transfiguration of Christ.
Magritte explanation of the painting, however, was more artful:
At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. 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 present.
Like most modern art then, Son of Man is open to interpretation. In his desire to explore what is hidden, Magritte leaves the viewer to consider whether what we are seeing is shrouding something else.
To give you an idea of how iconic this painting is, if you type “Magritte Son of Man” into Google, there are 1,860,000 links to explore! It has also become a part of mainstream culture in movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, Stranger Than Fiction and Bronson; in books like Lev Grossman’s, The Magicians and Jimmy Liao’s, The Starry Night; in TV shows like The Simpsons and The Voice; and even music videos like Michael Jackson’s Scream and Yes’s, Astral Traveller. If you then click the shopping filter on your Google search, you will find reproductions and prints, cross-stitching patterns, skateboards, t-shirts, and even a $2,000 Disney Auctions Masterpiece Series pin featuring Mickey Mouse behind an Apple!
We would love to see your interpretation of Son of Man. Be creative, you never know where you might find inspiration! Send a picture of your masterpiece to The Emergency Art Museum and it may be featured on our website: email@example.com
For more information on the painting: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/rene-magritte-1898-1967-le-fils-de-1404203-details.aspx
*automatism – In art, automatism refers to creating art without conscious thought, accessing material from the unconscious mind as part of the creative process. Surrealist artists used the technique of automatism to explore fear, desire, fantasy, eroticism and symbolism. They often expressed and pondered images and ideas through writing and making art. Artists who employed automatism investigated the true abstraction of their subconscious, and relied heavily on chance.
*iconography – The visual images and symbols used in a work of art or the study or interpretation of these. As a branch of art history, iconography studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images: the subjects depicted, the particular compositions and details used to do so, and other elements that are distinct from artistic style.
*surrealism – The word ‘surrealist’ (suggesting ‘beyond reality’) was coined by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in a play written in 1903 and performed in 1917. Surrealism is an artistic and literary, philosophical and artistic movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. Surrealists explored the workings of the mind, championing the irrational, the poetic and the revolutionary. In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects. While ‘surreal’ is often used loosely to mean simply ‘strange’ or ‘dreamlike’, it is not to be confused with ‘surrealist’ which describes a substantial connection with the philosophy and manifestations of the surrealist movement.
*veristic surrealism – Best defined as “representational” surrealism, this style was designed to portray the dream world in rich detail. Veristic surrealism stresses the importance of depicting the unconscious as concretely as possible. Artists stayed true to their visions, portraying them with academic realism, photographic precision, and clarity.
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-Johnny DePalma, Owner / Curator
-Janelle Graves, Art Historian / Museum Educator