There is a little mystery novel in this painting. The assassin works on his victim and the heads of three men watch through the rear window, recording his despicable acts. To either side of the door strong, fit men with weapons and means of restraint wait their chance. But what chance? Why wait? Who is really menaced here? Is it the lady on the table or the man walking about the room? Perhaps the lady is the assassin now rendered ineffectual and the men each wait their turn to torture and assault. We cannot know for certain because this is Magritte and he is a master of Ceci n’est pas: this is not…
To the surrealist, as to its near cousin Dada, what is said is never so important as what is evoked, and because people are all of us individual, we can never quite predict what reaction will evolve from the things we say or do. The surrealists were into that whole idea of a dangerous edge, of going too far; it was their bread and butter, almost as important to them as money. They wanted their public image to be radical and mysterious. As the Counting Crows say, “…everybody wants to pass as cats,” and this was more important to the surrealists than to perhaps any other group.
Magritte was a complex man. Psychologists and art historians have speculated at length about his images. The covered faces are supposedly references to his mother who killed herself by drowning. Legend is that her face was covered by her dress when she was found, but of course this is a bunch of romantic baloney. We simply do not know. I prefer to remind myself that this kind of speculation would have pleased Magritte. Ceci n’est pas…
Magritte was a great forger. He supported himself for a while making fake Picassos and de Chiricos (Ceci n’est pas l’art), and he supported himself making fake money (Ceci n’est pas l’argent). He lived in Belgium during the Nazi occupation of World War II, an occupation that would be doubly troubling to Magritte being the kind of artist regarded by the Nazi’s as an intellectual criminal. One of the bad things about the Nazis is they tried to control what people said and thought. They did this in the name of freedom.
Magritte knew that what people said simply did not matter. The world itself is beyond our influence, aside from our more simian activities like digging it up and pushing it around. The world is more than a planet, and it is more than the plane of vision and the diminished spectra of light our eyesight permits us. Reality is more than what we see. Any real examination of any given instant reveals a myriad of head-scratching mysteries that would send any smart ape straight back to the jungle, but since we are the most arrogant of creatures we think it perfectly reasonable to unravel the mind of God and see just exactly what this mystical, omnipotent being wants us to do next Thursday afternoon.
I think the man in the first picture killed this woman. I think the Victrola is there to imply seduction: he seduced her then he killed her. He has taken his time to dress carefully as he listens to music. The men at the window, the men at the doors, they, too, have been there this whole time. They might have intervened, but they chose through their cowardice to wait until it is too late. The picture implies that the assassin will be dealt with, but irks us with the implication that it cannot be that simple. I think this picture predicts that the men at the window, the talking heads, will withdraw to expound at length on all that has gone awry in the world. I think the men at the doors will, at the last possible moment, decide they are not quite enough to meet the challenge, and they will withdraw, allegedly to seek reinforcement. I believe the assassin will turn off the Victrola, don his coat and hat and gloves and exit the scene, whistling the tune he listened to before. And I believe the victim, the woman, will simply be left alone to bleed, no longer important to this story of male power.
Magritte and Orwell would have gotten along great. “Ceci n’est vérité,” Orwell would say, and they both would laugh from their mutual love of a sad and tragic paradox.