24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

The Lovers II by Rene Magritte

The Lovers II is one of René Magritte’s most well-known works of art. It is an oil on canvas painting that illustrates two individuals in an embrace. This surrealist work of art was painted in Paris in 1928 and was part of a set of two paintings, both of which illustrated a couple covered in white veils. Magritte was one of the most influential artists of the Surrealist Era and he was well-known for a number of paintings, all of which were thought to be witty and thought-provoking.

At first glance, almost all of Magritte’s paintings appear to be completely normal and ordinary. In this case, The Lovers II was painted in an extremely smooth manner with no obvious brushstrokes. It looks almost like a photograph as he depicted the subjects and their surroundings with such precision, and an absence of ambiguity. This was unusual for a Surrealist painting as the Surrealism Movement was more apt to abstract paintings. This resulted in him also being associated with an art movement called Magical Realism, which was a style that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding mysterious and supernatural elements. Everything about this work, and all his others, was predetermined and fully thought out in advance. By using this realistic style, he succeeds in making his subjects look more human and in term makes this experience more relatable. This may all have been a brilliant plan to grab the public’s attention as this neat, ordinary and almost inexpressive style was greatly appealing to the general public. 

As mentioned previously, The Lovers II was a part of a two-piece set. Both this work and The Lovers I managed to create surprise in viewers by depicting a strange type of intimacy. Nevertheless, these two works differ in many ways. Firstly, The Lovers I depicts a couple as if they’re posing for a family picture while The Lovers II depicts a couple in a more intimate position. This makes their interaction seem more genuine, as if it could be happening in real life. Adding to that, The Lovers I can be seen as more eye-catching to the viewers as it depicts a serene and pastoral background, while The Lovers II has a more abstract background with a dark blue color that resembles the night sky. This abstract background may be implying that this scene is taking place in a more conceptual space than a literal one. 

When taking a better look at the figures in the composition, it can be understood why The Lovers I is considered a Surrealist painting. Their heads are fully covered by some kind of tight, white fabric, concealing their identities and preventing them from making any actual physical contact. The lovers are unable to be fully close and intimate, so this passion cannot be fully ignited. This turns this intimate moment into an extremely eerie and uncomfortable scene for the viewers to look at. The colors of the background and the overall tone of this work make it seem rather dull and gloomy. This adds a mysterious feeling to this work. Magritte was one of the classic Surrealist artists who represented the mode or concept of “Depaysement”.[1] This is a French word which translates to “translocation” or “transposition” and in the context of Surrealism, it means that the artist chooses to put objects in unusual places in order to elicit a psychological shock in the mind of the viewers.  In this case, the white veils are the unusual element that add a somber mood to the whole image.

When analyzing Magritte’s works, critics were divided into two main interpretations. The first of which was in terms of a paradox. This meant that instead of focusing on the unconscious, dreams and illusions, they believed that Magritte chose to concentrate more on the mystery of reality with a clear consciousness of paradox.[2] In this case, Magritte expresses the state of the blindness of this couple who is falling in love with no personality. There’s an erasure of both their identities by the use of the veils.[3] This adds a somber feeling to the image but also emphasizes the fact these people could be anyone. In addition, some people believe that this is a joke playing on the saying that “love is blind”.[4]  Magritte’s gloomy look on love may come from his own relationship problems. Magritte married his childhood sweetheart, Georgette Berger, who was also his muse and model. However, he fell in love and started an affair with an artist named Sheila Legg. In order to keep his wife distracted, he asked one of his friends, Paul Colinet, to distract her. This all backfired when he found out that Paul and his wife were now having an affair. Although Magritte and his wife had a difficult relationship, they stayed together until his death in 1967[5].

Throughout his life, Magritte shunned all attempts to decode the meaning of his work. To him the idea behind his works wasn’t what mattered to him, the image was. He claimed that “only the image counts, the inexplicable and mysterious image, since all is mystery in our life”.[6] He described his images as evoking mystery and concealing nothing, and he believed that an interpretation of his paintings would obscure the poetry of his images. He even stated that “My paintings are visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable."[7] Similar to various modern artists, he wanted to challenge the way viewers look at art and push the boundaries on what qualifies as art. In order to do this, he created an unexpected “moment of panic” but controls it with his use of careful form and absence of movement. On the surface, Magritte’s moody and atmospheric paintings evoke an appealing sense of mystery and encourage an exploration of one’s own psyche. 

History of Surrealism

Surrealism was officially established in 1924, with André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto. It was an artistic and literary movement that claimed that the Enlightenment period actually suppressed all the better and superior qualities of our unconscious minds.[8] Surrealists wanted to put an end to that by freeing humans from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism. This movement was founded by André Breton, a poet, who took it upon himself to recruit a wide group of artists and intellectuals. These included Salvador Dali, Meret Oppenheim, Max Ernst, and of course, René Magritte- among others. Breton and his group were supporters of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic writings and therefore, used his idea that our unconscious minds are the key to our artistic creativity. Paris was the heart of the Surrealism movement and so this led to many artists moving there from their home country, Magritte being one of them. Magritte and his wife, Georgette, moved from Belgium to Paris in 1927. This was a year before The Lovers II was painted. 

Since Freud’s work was popular when was it painted, the second interpretation for this work was using a psychoanalytical perspective. This was done by linking The Lovers II to Magritte’s childhood memories. Magritte grew up with a depressed and suicidal mother who had made several attempts to kill herself. When he was fourteen, she succeeded in ending her own life by drowning herself. Magritte then witnessed her body being fished out of the water with her wet nightgown wrapped around her face.[9]

Clinical studies suggest that the loss of a parent on a child causes extreme emotional problems. The child is developmentally unprepared at that young age so mourning can only be possible after the adolescence stage has passed. In addition, those children who have lost a parent at an earlier age tend to retain their “intense cathexis” of the image of the parent. This converts an irreparable loss into a sorrowful mourning and then also converts the loss into a permanent acquisition.[10] According to Freud, this loss will split the ego and cause two opposing views on the lost parent; in the case of Magritte’s works, this can be seen and may explain the baffling and haunting impact on viewers. The fact that women in his paintings frequently have the aspect of being both alive and dead supports this belief. In the case of The Lovers II, the woman seems to be alive as she’s wearing normal clothes and is in an intimate embrace with the man. However, the fact that her head is wrapped in a white fabric makes her seem dead.[11] This whole analysis gets even more disturbing when we realize that the male figure is perhaps a self-portrait of Magritte as he repetitively appears in his other works, and the veiled female is supposed to symbolize his mother.

In 1929, Magritte moved back to Brussels and passionately started disagreeing with the psychoanalytical analysis for his paintings. He disapproved of the use of the Freudian analysis and dream imagery and he spent the rest of his life refusing to admit that there was any kind of relationship between these events and his works. When asked in 1968 if his mother’s suicide had affected him, Magritte responded by lashing out, “Psychology doesn’t interest me. It claims to reveal the flow of our thoughts and emotions; its efforts are contrary to what I know; it tries to explain mystery. The only mystery is the world. Psychology concerns itself with false mysteries. It is impossible to say whether my mother’s death had any influence or not”.[12] It is believed that due to his fall out with the rest of the Parisian Surrealist group, Magritte wanted to distance himself from them which he did by claiming that they were too irrational and extravagant. According to Freud’s writings, these behaviors are all symptoms of someone who is repressing suffered trauma and who is in denial. This trauma will then manifest itself repetitively in numerous ways and in Magritte’s case, it was his paintings. Therefore, even though Magritte dissociated himself from his mother’s death, we can tell that growing up with a depressed mother and then dealing with her suicide greatly affected his works. This can be seen as The Lovers II wasn’t the only painting that had these startling elements with his mother’s death. His works were a place where his subconscious could roam. Additionally, according to New York psychoanalyst, Milton Viederman, who interviewed Magritte’s wife after his death, Mrs. Magritte confirmed the fact that he was someone who did not speak about the past and the future and someone who refused to make plans even for the immediate future.[13]  According to her, Magritte deliberately threw off his biographical timetables and misdated some of his paintings as he had a problem with “time” due to his childhood trauma.[14] Furthermore, when Georgette experienced a miscarriage, Magritte dealt with the loss of his unborn child and became confronted with the possibility of losing his wife. This could have all triggered his mother’s memories.[15]

Finally, how these works are meant to be interpreted and why Magritte painted such subjects may always remain a mystery. However, I think it’s appropriate to find comfort in this mystery, as Magritte loved the unknown. Additionally, The Lovers II has become a universal icon for different causes and even for revolutions, such as the current Lebanese revolution. This may be due to the fact that it can be interpreted in different ways; hence, people with different perspectives can find comfort in it. Similar to Magritte, these photographers created a sense of mystery by capturing an intimate moment and by covering these figure’s faces. However, this anonymity is important in stressing the fact that these people are supposed to be representing all the people and this in turn creates a sense of unity. At the end of the day, Magritte has succeeded in making The Lovers II an extremely influential work and has inspired millions in the world. 

[1]  Jodi Hauptman & Stephanie O’Rourke, “A Surrealist Fact”, Object: Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909–1949 New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
[2] Laura Cumming. “René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle – Review.” The Guardian. (Guardian News and Media: 2011).
[3] Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014)
[4] Emma Creedon, Sam Shepard and the Aesthetics of Performance. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.)
[5] David Sylvester, “Magritte”, (Thames and Hudson: 2010)
[6] René Magritte, et al. “Magritte Interviewed by Maurice Bots”, René Magritte: Selected Writings. (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)
[7] George Wingfield and Charles F. Gritzner. Belgium (Facts on File Inc., May 2008)
[8] Stefani Schlute, “The Surrealistic Art of Phyllis Hutchinson Montrose: Modern Art, Minor History, and Gender in the American West”. Art History Theses & Dissertations. (2013)
[9] Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008
[10] Wolfenstein, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 433–456.
[11] Martha Wolfenstein,” The Image of the Lost Parent”, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. 28, 1973, pp. 433–456.
[12] Michel Draguet, “Magritte and Contemporary: The Treachery of Images Art.”, (2007), pp 12.
[13] Marcus M. Silverman, “René Magritte and the Denial of Meaning.” Modern Psychoanalysis, Vol. 37, no. 2, July 2012
[14] Lenore Terr. “Too Scared to Cry: Psychic Trauma in Childhood”. (Basic Books: 1992), pp 185-186
[15] Ellen Handler Spitz, Art and Psyche: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Aesthetics. Yale University Press, 1989.

Works Cited
Creedon, Emma. Sam Shepard and the Aesthetics of Performance. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Cumming, Laura. “René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle – Review.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 25, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jun/26/magritte-pleasure-principle-tate-review.
Draguet, Michel. Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2006. 
Schulte, Stefani. "The Surrealistic Art of Phyllis Hutchinson Montrose: Modern Art, Minor History, and Gender in the American West" (2013). Art History Theses & Dissertations.
Santarelli, Cristina, and Christie. W. Peter. “Female Archetypes in Belgian Surrealist Painting.” Music in Art, vol. 36, no. 1/2, 2011, p. 311. URL retrieved https://www.jstor.org/stable/41818692?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Harrington, and Margaret Rose. “Multiple Solutions to the ‘Problem of the Window’: A Historiographic Approach to René Magritte's Paintings-within-Paintings (Thesis).” Archive Home, 1 Jan. 1970, repository.wlu.edu/handle/11021/16345.
Kanyadi, I. (2016). “Symbols in The Paintings of Rene Magritte”. Mens Sana: Rethinking the Role of Emotions 4, 237-243. 
Magritte, René, et al. René Magritte: Selected Writings. University of Minnesota Press, 2016. muse.jhu.edu/book/48049.
O'Rourke, S., & Hauptman, J. (2014). “A Surrealist Fact”. Object: Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection 1909–1949 New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
Silverman, Marcus M. “René Magritte and the Denial of Meaning.” Modern Psychoanalysis, vol. 37, no. 2, July 2012 
Spitz, Ellen Handler. "Snapshots of Childhood Creativity in Science, Music, and Art: Richard Feynman, Clara Schumann, and René Magritte." The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 47 no. 4, 2013, p. 1-13. muse.jhu.edu/article/539032.
Terr, Lenore. Too Scared to Cry: Psychic Trauma in Childhood. Basic Books, 1992.
Wolfenstein, M. (1973) The Image of the Lost Parent, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 28:1, 433-456, DOI: 10.1080/00797308.1973.11822304

Yang, and Chieu-Kyung. “A Study on Surrealistic Expression in Modern Fashion - Focusing on Surrealistic Fashion in the 1990s.” Journal of Fashion Business, The Korean Society of Fashion Business, http://www.koreascience.or.kr/article/JAKO200431559977273.page.

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