The Darker Side of Magritte, the Kinder, Gentler Surrealist

Is any artist linked inseparably with an article of clothing as René Magritte and the bowler hat? Whether raining down from the sky or with faces obscured by apples, Magritte’s bowler-hatted men have found a home in mainstream visual culture even if Magritte’s own name always hasn’t. Over the years, Magritte’s become the kinder, gentler Surrealist—the anti-Dali who doesn’t roam nightmare landscapes of the psyche full of sex and madness. We know and almost want to know a Magritte as gentle as the Paul Simon song about him, but the reality (like the reality of the song, if you listen closely) is much stranger and darker. The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, goes back to the beginning of Magritte’s career, before widespread acceptance and Magritte’s own public image making smoothed the rough edges of his Surrealism, which was just as sharp and disturbing as that of Dali, but less obvious for looking so ordinary.


The MoMA picked that particular dozen years in Magritte’s career because they start in 1926 with the paintings and collages he created for the solo show that launched him into the Surrealist spotlight as the greatest (and only) Belgian Surrealist and end in 1938 with his autobiographical “Lifeline” lecture that looked back on his Surrealist career so far and, perhaps unconsciously, looked ahead to a life of exile from Europe as World War II loomed largely. That lecture cast a “lifeline” back to the past, in which Magritte acknowledged how childhood experiences, experiments with other styles before Surrealism (Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, etc.), and fellow artists such as Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst all shaped his particular brand of Surrealism. It also set the stage for all future impressions of Magritte by not acknowledging certain things (particularly his early work as a commercial artist, several examples of which the MoMA show includes) and by “explaining” several key works from this oeuvre so far and thus influencing everyone who’s tried to explain them ever since.

Magritte’s fellow Surrealists knew just how important he was to their movement. When the intellectual leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, wrote what he hoped would be their coming out party, What Is Surrealism?, he chose Magritte’s 1934 painting The Rape for the cover. In The Rape, Magritte replaces a woman’s face with her body—breasts become eyes, the navel becomes the nose, and the vagina becomes a mouth. Seeing The Rape and reading its title might shock the bowler hat crowd coming across it at the MoMA show, but The Rape is the true “face” that Magritte and Breton chose to show to the public at the time, regardless of whether Magritte changed his mind (and that face) later on.

The exhibition brings together 80 paintings, collages, objects, and (most interesting for the post-1938 Magritte) photographs of Magritte and his circle beside and sometimes mimicking the paintings. But among the most interesting works are three multipart “toiles découpés” or “cut-up paintings” Magritte created in 1930. Reunited for the first time since 1931, The Eternally Obvious, The Depths of the Earth, and Celestial Perfections deconstruct, respectively, the classic painting subjects of the female nude, the pastoral landscape, and the brilliant blue sky with clouds. Magritte asked that these multipart paintings (each with multiple divided parts that comprise the more recognizable whole) be referred to as “objects”—not painting, not sculpture, but somehow both.

It’s Magritte’s approach to the female nude that may really shock those who know the kinder, gentler Surrealist. The Rape’s just the start. In the early 1927 painting, Discovery, a female nude appears with wood grain on her flesh, as if the artist just discovered the unreal, perhaps wooden quality of the painted nude next to the real deal. Magritte seems to say something similar in 1928’s Attempting the Impossible, in which the artist shows himself making a “real” nude woman appear out of thin air. Several photographs of Magritte and models with this painting, including one titled simply Love, suggest that this attempt at the impossible nude was something Magritte acknowledged but still could not resist. His love affair with the female nude continues in the 1934 painting titled Black Magic, in which the nude female blends into the blue sky behind her—either appearing from thin air or disappearing into it. Magritte’s classic philosophical conundrum painting The Treachery of Images, with

its pronouncement “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” ("This is not a pipe") challenging us to see and not see the pipe present but not present in the picture, appears in the MoMA show, but it’s these female nudes that, added together, really make the viewer question what—and, more importantly, who—we’re really seeing here.

More of Magritte’s greatest hits appear in the show, too, but freshened by the exhibit’s context. The Menaced Assassin from 1927 loses some of its banality and wins back some of its menace beside these edgier Magrittes as the nude murdered woman takes her place among Magritte’s other deconstructed ladies. The Human Condition, the 1933 painting within a painting as the skyscape on canvas merges with that outside the window, looks less than a cutesy joke than another philosophical statement about the nature of seeing. The Lovers (shown above, from 1928) hints at this lack of connection between person and picture and, perhaps, person and person by masking the lovers’ faces. Family legend holds that 13-year-old Magritte watched his mother’s body recovered from the river she had drowned herself in and that her soaked dress covered her face, similar to the masking in The Lovers and other paintings. But even if The Lovers isn’t a harking back to a disturbing childhood memory—masking over that image at the same time it reveals it—it is at the very least emblematic of Magritte’s double-sided edginess, comfortably familiar yet uncomfortably traumatic.

“Everyday objects shriek aloud,” Magritte once said. In his ability to take the ordinary and make it extraordinarily shocking, similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s talent for turning even a shower curtain into something cringe-worthy, Magritte executed the Surrealist ideal to its fullest, even if Dali and others stole the show through more striking self-promotion. Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, which runs through January 12, 2014, reminds us of the quieter self-promotion the post-war Magritte engaged in. Once you begin to unravel Magritte’s mystery of the ordinary and hear those everyday objects start shrieking, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 might become the ultimate Halloween experience, the fright that doesn’t just send you under the covers, but lingers in your mind long after.

[Image: René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967). Les amants (The Lovers). 1928. Oil on canvas. 21 3/8 x 28 7/8″ (54 x 73.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Richard S. Zeisler. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013.]

[Many thanks to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, which runs through January 12, 2014.]

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.