The (Broken) Keys to the Splitted Mirrors

In the previous posting, on contemporary Slovenian photographer Robert Hutinski, I declared, rather rashly bravely, that I am going to write more about the ‘future mirrors’, indulging into “mirror futurology” more often.

Instead, in that very posting I venture more often to the past, not to the future; I want to show some references (or may be allusions, most of them most likely autobiographical only). Those “walks to the past” had been mostly in the direction of Magritte (and perhaps surrealism in general). These associations seemed to be self-obvious for me, but then I understood that they may be far from obvious for anyone else. And to explain these references I couldn’t easily refer to any place in this blog, since I never wrote about Magritte and his ‘mirror’ As a way of correction,

The Art-Mirrors of René Magritte

Today I start not from the artist’s bio, but from my own, with some  personal (even phenomenological) foreword.

I think I remember very well when I first saw for himself my first work of Magritte: it was a detail of his Les promenades d’ Euclide (‘Walking with Euclid’ in English), which was used on the cover of one of the books on the psychology of perception in our home. 

I recall that when I saw this image for the first time in my life – was I 12 years old by then? or even 10? – it was quite a mind-blowing experience. Everything seemed to be  ‘realistic’, i.e., ‘correctly rendered’ here, and yet it was completely impossible in reality! The reality seemed to be hacked at different levels. The first level was simply perceptual, with all these optical illusions and tricks, but also on a much deeper ideological level, challenging some basic assumptions about art and its purposes, as if opening new layers of reality.

My imprinting with the art sur-real happened quite positive, therefore (perhaps, partly because it was so much critiqued by the official party (art)line).  Since these times on I’ve seen many artworks of this movement and many its artist as somewhat ‘superior’, compared to the rest: the art of Magritte – and also of Dalí, Delvaux, Tanguy, Ernst, and the lines was seen as “top of the top”.

I still consider this movement a very important part of art history, and of culture in general, although my take became less exalted with time; moreover, I am now even somewhat critical toward some of the artists from this school. Although this ‘criticism’ is better be called ‘regret’:  I feel they could do so much more with this approach, this vision, and yet seemingly fall short, creating this notorious gap between over-promise and under-delivery. It’s if you got all the trumps, yet failed to back; learn to play, idiots!

There are, of course, some exceptions – for example, Duchamp for me is beyond any criticism, he *did* play it perfectly, and to the max. With Magritte, like with many others, I now have this strange feeling of underaccomplishment, thus slight disappointment.

>| However |<

All these feelings of regret are fading, in fact, in this specific case of Magritte and his ‘art mirrors’. Here I can almost speak about over-accomplishment instead – he managed to create so many, and so novel – and so differently novel mirrors! – that I better shut-up and tell their stories! 

In his case I will follow a simple chronological narrative – I will show his different “mirrors-in-art” had been appearing, adding some other works for the context .

Speaking about chronology, it would seem logical to start with ‘the beginning’, from his early years. The problem, of course, is that we know very little of them (a striking comparison to Paul Delvaux, for example, whose childhood was meticulously documented). During few last years the Magritte Museum in Brussels has gathered a lot of interesting data about early years of Magritte, yet this part of his life still remains obscure.

Magritte was in 1898, in a small mining town Lessines, in the western corner of Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. The region has been historically very poor and disadvantaged in many ways (still remains one of those ‘middle of nowhere’ spots, in fact.)

He was the eldest of three three brothers, their family always lived in need, but the true tragedy happened in 1912, when their mother committed a suicide, drowning herself in a river; Rene was only 14 years old then. Apparently, she had some mental issues before, and it wasn’t her first suicide attempt – but again, as I said, we have too little data about this whole story to many any solid conclusions .

For example, it used to be widely believed that Rene was present at the moment when the mother’s body was caught in the river, and that her face was covered by a dress – and that it eventually gave birth to one of the recurring motif in his work, his famous veiled figures; the painting below, L’Invention de la vie (1928) had been often proclaimed a re-enactment of this tragic scene:

However, the recent studies do not confirm this legend, and make it, well, a legend.

We know that he began to draw quite early, while still in school, and that he eventually entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts) in Brussels. There he became acquainted with many young artists and absorbed the major artistic trends of the time. He didn’t finish the courses in the academy, however, considering its approach too conservative (for which he was repeatedly called “half-educated” later on, which is not quite true; in addition to the academic classes he also attended a few courses, for example, in the studio of Constant Montald. Around this time he met his future wife, Georgette Berger (or rather, met again – they encountered each other much earlier in their lives, in 1913);  they married in 1922 and lived together until his death in 1967.

His works of the Brussels period were inevitably very imitative, they could be described as a fusion between Cubism and Fauvism, then the most popular and “avant-garde” movements. I will not be showing any of them here (there were no mirrors in them anyway), except perhaps one example, both to show the style, and also we can suspect a ‘mirror’ (on the background):

The model (1922)

Most likely I am inventing the mirror there, but even it is one, it doesn’t play any role in the composition anyway.

We see no mirrors in many of his ‘commercial’ works either; Magritte always was in need to earn extra money to live on, and he was doing a lot of what we would now call “graphic design”. He was drawing posters, illustrations and other paraphernalia for various magazines and companies. One of his regular customers was the famous avant-garde fashion house Norine.

Poster for Norine (1925)

The house also published the same-name magazine, and Magritte was a regular contributor. Some of the work are clearly singed by his name, but attribution of many remain undefined. I would say, for example, that these figures painted by words are surely by Magritte, but the experts cautiously put “Anonymous” to the attribution:

The first more or less “surreal” work by Magritte has been considered his painting ‘The Lost Jockey.’  We clearly see here some of the ‘elements’ of surrealistic art, but I could also assign it Dada, with his characteristic collage technique, including the semantic collage of otherwise immiscible parts.

René Magritte – The lost jockey (1926)

Worth mentioning that it is in fact a drawing on paper, not a painting (although it’s quite large):

Apparently, Magritte valued it quite high, considering a very important achievement, and was very upset when both art critics and ‘art user’ accepted it rather cold.  But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining: frustrated, Magritte went to Paris, where he met with André Breton, who enticed him, like many others, to join his surrealistic movement.

This period, from late 1926 to 1930, when Magritte lived in Paris, was amazingly productive for Magritte – not only in terms of the number of works he made, but also the sheer amount of themes he explored; in fact, it was during this time he creates the many of the ‘memes’ he will be harvesting during his life. In the majority of his later works one can find, in one way or another, the traces of this “art foundation.”

I will show just a couple of the paintings from this period:

The face of genius (1926)

The musings of the solitary walker (1926)

The polar light (1926)

There are no mirrors here, still, but it is already quite a recognizable Magritte, “Magritte as we know him.”

The following painting, though formally also missing any mirrors, nevertheless demonstrates one of his favorite techniques: creating a gap in an otherwise holistic entity, splitting the whole into separate pieces, and then re-combining them a new way (often by opposed them to each other, similar to an object and its reflection in a mirror); disjointment / dislocation / juxtaposition.

The double secret (1927)

(By the way, I still didn’t make my mind about the origin, the roots of such splits, schisms, in his art; it’s easy to attribute them to the so called schizo/phrenic mind, but they could be also the results  of some sort of neurotic binary oscillations; they could also be a well-calculated strategy of art-provocation. 

Finally, this one is the earliest painting by Magritte I found so far where we can see the mirror:

La naissance de l’idole / The birth of idol (1926)

It is, of course, a very unremarkable mirror; it looks like it was ‘placed’ there without any particular purpose or reason behind. But in some way it also paves the way to all his next mirrors – in fact, there is a chance that we see the very same mirror used in his next mirror-work.

And this next one is truly an art blockbuster! It is one of the most famous paintings of Magritte, and accidentally one of the most interesting ‘games’ played with mirrors in visual art, too.

The mirror here is used (=depicted) in a very original way – on one hand, it acts like a shield, designed to cover up, to conceal the naked woman; but at the same time it does show, reveals almost everything. It displays more than it is supposed to hide!

And of course, this is not a true ‘reflection’ of an object (or a body) by a mirror. Theoretically we can assume that the mirror reflects somebody, another named woman standing at the place occupied by us when we are watching this work. But the real intent here is apparently different – we see the mirror that does not de-flect the image, but captures it, keeps it for a while like a photograph, and then shows it back to us (incidentally it also shows the ‘back’ to us – not sure if this pun was indeed intended by Magritte).

The work is called Dangerous Liaisons (1926), and I in fact found at least two versions of it, the one above and this one:

Dangerous Liaisons (1926) v2

I do not know whether this the second painting is by Magritte himself, or it is one of the remakes aka homages made later.

We know that during this period Magritte painted quite a lot of ‘nu’, but I have found only one of the with the ‘mirror’, these very Dangerous liaisons. But many of his non-mirror nudes are also exploring the problems of re-flection, as in ‘watching yourself watching yourself, and various other recurrences (the themes that Magritte, apparently, loved). Here’s his (self?)portrait on the background of his own self-portrait in which he is (re)creating his Galatea.

This earlier version became his famous Impossible attempt (1928) with time:

Here’s another famous work, so called Eternal Evidence (1930) where we see the splitting technique I was trying to define earlier, but in this case developed to the maximum, to the level of the incision/dissection/fragmentation of the body:

In the original design these fragments had been mounted on a glass sheet – not quite a mirror, but sill triggering a complex games of transparencies and accidental reflections. Currently the pieces just hang on a wall, to my knowledge (in the so called Menil Collection in Texas):

This dissections fragmentations, sawing the whole into pieces, and distributing them into separate ‘boxes’ or ‘shelves’ will become Magritte’s branded features with time:

The six elements (1928)

The ‘boxes’ may even loose any visual content, which is eviscerated to the level of mere words-signs (or maybe elevate to this level, as the conceptual art lovers prefer to define it):

The empty mask (1928)

In one of such (dis)placement paintings we find another mirror of Magritte:

The reckless sleeper (1927)

He will constantly playing these games, mixing visual cocktails of the famous symbols and mundane everyday objects. But these symbols, the signs are not hear to signify anything, on the contrary, they are to to disturb, abrupt a ‘proper’ cultural mechanics, to hack and ridicule it.

I wasn’t aware of that early work, where the Pipe is still the Pile (not yet Not Pipe).

La Pipe / The pipe (1927)

The games I talk about earlier will be played not only visually, but verbally too, moving them to the direction that later will be labelled as ‘conceptual art’. And here, on this road, we find the next mirror of Magritte (or “mirror”?).

The Magic Mirror (1929)

Is this ‘mirror’ a mirror? Does it work as a mirrors, i.e., does it ‘reflect’ what is situated in front of it? In this case, ourselves? It doesn’t, and it does – in some way it shows us in the most abstract form, almost transcending the object into its ‘idea’; Kant should have liked this gadget.

This “mirror” (and its “reflection”) inspired a long series of versions and remakes, and also stimulated art projects during the entire century (still does, in fact)

We can spot a clear impact of Magritte’s work in this piece by Luis Camnitzer made in 1966.

(which, in turn, was reappropriated by me into the userpic of my “mirror series” in Livejournal, and then became the logo of my Art Mirror Art tumblr:

Or the famous “mirror warnings” – this one:

or that one:

each with its own internet cult now.

This one is very Magritte, with ‘the mirror’ basically disappearing, leaving only the message.

One of my favorite:

Anouk De Clercq – You Are Here (2008)

In the early 1930s Magritte returned from Paris to Brussels. He still can not earn enough to live only by his paintings, and had to look for other commissions, as an illustrator and graphic designers, as we would call it today. But his art style is much more established now, he is a mature artist with a distinctive signature. During the pre-war decade he created many of his famous paintings (there is large exhibition about this period of his life opening soon in MOMA – or you can browse through many of the paintings gathered in Wikipaintings.)

He painted few ‘mirrors’ in these years, too. They are all interesting, but a couple of them are really remarkable, not only for Magritte, but in this whole business bsiness of “mirrors in art” in general.

The most famous is, perhaps, his La Reproduction interdite, Reproduction prohibited (1936-7):

In a sense it is a continuation of his earlier Dangerous Liaisons, where the mirror also becomes active and shows what it wants. But here it is not just active, it’s intently dialogical – or better, counter-dialogical, since it shows precisely NOT what we would like to see; it turns back to us, by showing the back, not the face. Interestingly, but capricious behavior in fact makes the mirror more ‘honest’ it does not anymore swap the right and the left. When active, the mirror doesn’t lie.

We know a lot of those “useless facts” about this painting – for example, that it is a portrait (well, a ‘portrait’) of Edward James, an English poet, a friend and patron of Magritte (and of surrealist movement in general). There is another famous portrait of him by Magritte, but we don’t see his face there, either).

On the mantel lies the book by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Adventures of Gordon Pym; Po was one of the Magritte ‘s favorite writers. I don’t know whether it was “just a mistake” or somethings done with an artistic intent, but in relation to this book the mirror ‘lies’ as it always does – it does change right-left (or rather far and near in this case, making the title written in the Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass alphabet.

The painting is now in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, in Rotterdam, where we go relatively often, and so I have accumulated a certain amount of works of this sort:

This very mantelpiece mirror later appeared in another famous ‘mirror painting’ by Magritte:

However, here the mirror ‘behaves’, it does render the reflection, and the ‘surrealistic’ moment is created elsewhere.

And yes, the picture above is not by Magritte himself, it is a modern remake, by some Norman Hollands – Magreetings (1997).

The “real” Magritte looks like this:

Time Transfixed (1938)

In both above artworks the mirror begins to blend in with the interior; in yet another painting the mirror becomes part of furniture:

Homage to Mack Sennett (1934)

And in yet another one it is a window (though broken):

La clef des champs / The key to the fields (1936)

In the latter case, a ‘mirror’ can be called as such with some a stretch, of course. It’s my own interpretation of these glass fragment as mirrors – basically, because they do the same trick as the ‘active mirrors’ in the earlier works of Magritte did before. Here it’s the pieces of glass that capture the image, thus becoming the ‘mirrors’ (although they could be also described as mini-paintings, of course – not everybody sees mirrors everywhere, as I do).

But the most paradoxical work of this period is probably his ‘False Mirror’ (Le faux miroir) (1935). In a way, there is no ‘mirror’ here, it is present only in the title. On the other hand, we can say that the human eye is, perhaps, indeed the very first ‘mirror’ we face in our life, when we see in the eyes of our mother:

There exist two ‘versions’ of this painting, the following one was made a bit later, as I understand; it’s less naturalistic (no eyelashes, for instance) and thus more symbolic. It has been also reproduced more often.

It is known that Magritte was very skeptical toward psychoanalysis, and even ridiculed this theory in his work (and it is very important to keep that in mind when looking at his works, because otherwise they could be seen as the ‘evidences’ and ‘proofs’ of psychoanalysis, while in reality they are actually mocking the approach.)

But in any case, Donald Winnicott didn’t create his version of psychoanalysis yet, and his famous maxim was not yet written – otherwise Magritte could be considered as a mere illustrator of the object related theory, with its True Self/False Self concepts.

In general Magritte did not produce anything dramatically sophisticated in his ‘surreal art’; the majority of his tricks are rather primitive swaps, such as making small large, and large, small, reversing external internal, male and female, and so forth. Today such things are done as a warm-up exercise for any ‘creative workshop’ (and I am talking about conceptual side, leaving visual execution aside):

L’esprit de géométrie / The geometrical mind (1936)

And usually such binary shifters are presented in a ‘one per a painting’ way, to complicate the lives of the art lovers too much. Many contemporary TV series do the same trick: one simple gag – one burst of laughter behind the scenes.

But recently I came across a painting that at least a tiny hair more complex than the average one by Magritte:

Le Mouvement perpetuel / Perpetual motion (1935)

It is interesting already because it has not one, but two areas for a ‘surreal gag’ – and in both of them we see mirror-like thingies. If I’d see such complex (even if it’s only little more complex) works more often, I wouldn’t complain about the underutilized potential of surreal art, as I did in the beginning of this posting.

Here he Magritte himself in the late 1930s – and again, we see signs of an impending ghost pomo – it is a (self?)portrait of himself, drawing a self-portrait; the famous Clairvoyance.

The war years were difficult, of course, but in Brussels, albeit not without problems, Magritte continued to paint even during the occupation (he didn’t leave the city, and because of that Breton then quarreled with him and officially expelled him out of his movement). But by that time Magritte himself was already quite a big name in surrealism, and largely ignored all the swearings of Breton.

This is just one of the work made during the wartime (rarely, but it itself depicts a ‘war’); again, we see a fairly simple binary opposition, and in this case also framed almost as a mirror reflection):

Applied dialectics / Le dialectique appliquee (1945)

The next work shows, on one hand, a new style of after-war Magritte, more volumous and texturized, more 3D, if you wish:

The domain of Arnheim (1944)  – the title, by the way, is a reference to another story by Po.

On the other hand, it is also a pre-text to another of his ‘mirror’ paintings, which uses the same trick with the window /glass /mirror transition as La clef des champs before:

Le domaine d’Arnheim (1949)

One could detect here a dawn of post-modernistic self-citations, but it is also possible to interpret it as a simple replication of own successful (and “successful sold”) techniques; at the end, one has to earn the living.

The pursuit, ‘to earn the living’ was forcing Magritte into quite extravagant corners; for example, for some time after the war he was producing fake Picassos and Chiricos, selling them to rich tourists, together with his brother. Eventually things got better, including the financial side, and Magritte was becoming more and more known and by the end of 1950s has reached the status of maestro.

Many of his postwar works are now regarded as the cultural emblems, of his epoch, but also of the 20th century in general, perhaps – his Green Apple Head or the Falling Men in Bowler Hats are widely recognizable, to the degree of becoming meaningless cliches.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t produce that many “mirror” in this post-war period.

One of them is not just one painting, but a large series of works, created over few years (I don’t even know the exact amount of works in it). These painting are often called The Mirror of Scheherazade (or simply Scheherazade):

(Mirror of) Shéhérazade (1947)

If it were not the title, one might not even guess that this installation/figurine is actually a mirror. But when mentioned, it becomes unmistakably a mirror, and nothing else. And a very interesting mirror indeed, not only “active”, but also “distributed” mirror.

Below I will show all the works l found so far:

In some of them the ‘mirror’ loses its base, and even a handle:


As you see, the majority of these Scheherazades are stand-alone, but in some cases the ‘mirror’ is embedded in more complex compositions:

The liberator (1947)

Or in the branded ‘shelves’:

Un siècle de patience (1947)

Here is the Mirror itself:

Why the series is called Scheherazade is not quite clear (to me, at least) – perhaps it is a reference to another famous story by Po, ‘The One Thousand and Second Story of Scheherazade’ (and indirect proof of this hypothesis is that around the same time Magritte also created some of his ‘stone’ work, the motif which is also mentioned in the story by Po.

What is known is the model which all these Scheherazade had been painted from – some Anne-Marie Gillion-Crowet, the daughter of one of Magritte’s friends, and apparently a great admirer of his talents (and subsequently the owner of a large collection of his works).

Here is her more conventional portrait by Magritte:

La Fee Ignorant / The ignorant fairy (1950)

She is still alive and continues to propagate Magritte’s art (in the background, on a art-novo shelf you can see portrait of her by Magritte):

The Scheherazade series is widely known in Belgium (for example, they even issued a post-stamp dedicated to this work), but I am not sure it’s so well known outside:

The latest ‘mirror work’ of Magritte that I know of is his Personal Values (1951) – which can be understood as “personal belongings” but also as indeed, “personal values “:

My feeling is that in the so-called “public mind” Magritte is not associated with the ‘mirror’ theme, but as we see, he used them very actively, and in an interesting way, and apparently appreciated the role in his work (and in life too, perhaps).

Not surprisingly, many of his photo portraits show Magritte posing with mirrors or otherwise playing with the theme of reflections:

Charles Leirens – Photo of Rene Magritte (1959)

Unknown Author – Photo of Rene Magritte (c.1965)

I know nothing about photographs made by Magritte himself – for example, whether he used them as an important source of inspiration (like Breitner, for example), or whether they informed his understanding of mirrors and their reflections; would be nice to learn more about that side:

René Magritte in Jerusalem 1966

As with many of his other works, the “mirror paintings” also become a popular subject for all sorts of remaking and re-appropriating (usually not very original)

Andrew Matusik brings René Magritte’s surreal Dangerous Liaisons back to reality (2010)

Jake Walters reproduces René Magritte’s La reproduction interdite (2010)

I really love the portraits of Magritte made by Duane Michaels (Duane Michals) – but I ‘really love’ almost all of his works anyway, he’s a true genius; I’d love to write about his own mirrors on day.

One important thing to bear in mind is that these are “photographs.” Of Magritte still alive. That is, they are made almost 60 years ago. When they didn’t have not only Photoshop, but even a computer to run it (and so these are authentically photographic multiple expositions, always unpredictable and alchemic in nature).

Duane Michals – Photo of Rene Magritte (1965)

Duane Michals – Photo of Rene Magritte (1965)

Like many of his own works, this quote by him also borders – if not vulgarity, then kitsch. But like with many of this works, somebody had to make them first, so that later they could be seen ‘simple’ and even ‘primitive’.

Bob Kessel – Rene Magritte (2002)

Ironically, but there are no ‘mirror works’ by Magritte in the Magritte Museum in Brussels (at least I don’t recall any, and it’s not allowed to take pictures there). Perhaps in the effort to somehow compensate the lack, they put a la Magritte mirrors into their windows:


Icon – in fact, I’ve started the posting with a large version of it; but let it be here, too, the more the mirrorier:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s