What did you say? I said: Fantômas. . . . But what is it? Nobody . . . And yet, yes, it is somebody! And what does the somebody do? Spreads terror!
—Allain and Souvestre's Fantômas1(p1)
On February 24, 1912, 40-year-old Regina Magritte, mother of 14-year-old René Magritte (1898-1967), drowned herself in the Sambre river in Châtelet, Belgium.2(p8) She found the key to her locked bedroom in the early morning hours, walked to the bridge over the river near their home, and jumped to her death. Prone to depression, she had made previous suicide attempts, leading her husband to lock her into her bedroom at night with their youngest son Paul sharing the room with her. When Paul found her missing that morning, he alerted the family, who traced her footprints as far as the bridge. Seventeen days later, on March 12, her body was discovered about 1 km down the river from the bridge near a slag heap (reportedly with her nightgown wrapped around her head, concealing her face), and brought to their home overnight prior to burial. Magritte's wife, who first met him the year after his mother's death, confirmed that he rarely, if ever, spoke about his mother's death to others, not even to her.2(p9) Years later, when asked by his biographer about her death, Magritte said that his only remembrance was, “he imagined, a certain pride at being the center of attention in a drama . . . he was the son of the ‘dead woman.’”3(p19) Magritte's earliest surrealistic paintings suggest that the psychological impact of the events surrounding his mother's death were substantially greater than he was willing to acknowledge.
René Magritte (1898-1967), Belgian. The Murderer Threatened (L'assassin Menacé), 1926. Oil on canvas, 59¼ × 76⅞ in (150.4 × 195.2 cm). Kay Sage Tanguy Fund (247.1966). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York. ©2007 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
After the First World War, 19th-century beliefs about human rationality and human progress were widely reexamined. Surrealism, like the Dada art movement before it, was influenced by the traumatic impact of the First World War and emphasized the power of the irrational that war epitomized using imagery that focused consciousness on the inner life. Unlike other surrealists, Magritte showed little interest in dreams and the automatic expression of “subconscious” themes, sources of much of their work. Instead, Magritte challenged convention and illustrated the irrational in his own unique way. For him, his paintings were visually expressed poems or visual ideas often showing everyday objects in an emotionally unsettling context. Giorgio de Chirico's enigmatic painting, Love Song (1914), which juxtaposes a surgical glove with a sculptured classical Roman head rising over a cityscape, was an important early influence. Magritte cried at the poetic quality of this visual poem, finding in it “a new vision through which the spectator might recognize his own isolation and hear the silence of the world.”2(p39) de Chirico's impact is apparent in the enigmatic quality of Magritte's first surrealistic works in the mid 1920s.
In the early 1920s, Magritte's wife, Georgette, was very ill after a miscarriage. Magritte was desperately afraid that she might die, telling her that he could not bear to lose her (the couple remained childless afterwards). His father died in 1928. Grief about these events may have stimulated memories of his mother's death. Several paintings that he completed in the late 1920s are strikingly similar to the events surrounding her death during his adolescence. The Musings of a Solitary Walker (1926-1927) (Figure 1) shows a man in a bowler hat facing a bridge over a river, a setting similar to that of his mother's suicide. A bald, nude, pale, dead body is suspended horizontally in the air behind him. The Invention of Life (1927) shows 2 people: a stout woman with thick eyebrows (like his mother) and an unsettling gaze turns to look at the viewer; the adjacent figure, presumably a woman, stands shrouded with a gray sheet. The Central Story (The Heart of the Matter) (1928) (Figure 2) shows a woman with a cloth wrapped around her head, reminiscent of his mother's nightgown covering her head when her body was found. She is clutching her neck and standing near a tuba and brown suitcase. Magritte is not known to have commented specifically on how these works may reflect traumatic memories about his mother's death, an issue raised by several art historians.2,3 When asked about the impact of her suicide on his work, he said, “It is impossible to say whether my mother's death had any influence or not.”2(p9)
René Magritte (1898-1967), Belgian. The Musings of a Solitary Walker, 1926. Photo credit: Banque d’Images, ADAGP/Art Resource, New York. © 2007 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
René Magritte (1898-1967), Belgian. The Central Story (L’histoire Centrale), 1928. Private collection. Photo credit: Herscovici/Art Resource, New York. © 2007 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Despite the striking similarity of these images to the manner of his mother's death, and other paintings that seem to illustrate his fantasies about it, Magritte fought psychological interpretation of his work. He insisted that his work defied interpretation, once silencing a questioner who asked what lay behind one of his paintings by replying that the canvas was behind it and behind the canvas the wall, that a visible image hides nothing. Magritte was particularly perplexed by reductive psychoanalytic interpretations, feeling that an image may be amplified by personal associations but should not be reduced to a fixed meaning. In 1937, when 2 South American psychoanalysts interpreted 1 painting, The Red Model, which shows bare red feet blending into a pair of leather-laced shoes, as evidence of castration anxiety, his response was to draw a phallic cannon for them. When, despite his playfulness, this drawing too was given a serious reductive interpretation, he complained in a letter to friends about the plight of the artist: “it is terrifying what one is exposed to in making an innocent picture.”4(p80)
Magritte consciously sought to create a sense of poetic mystery in his work. He was influenced, as were other surrealists, by Edgar Allen Poe stories and especially by popular crime novels and films about Fantômas, master criminal and lord of terror. Fantômas made his first literary appearance during Magritte's adolescence in the years 1911 to 1914 in novels by Allain and Souvestre and in popular films directed by Louis Feuillade based on the novels. The image of Fantômas was imbedded in the popular imagination in the first book cover in the series by Gino Starace; it depicts a masked man in formal dress wearing a top hat and holding a long bloody knife. He stands menacingly over the city of Paris; the Eiffel tower and other Paris landmarks are dwarfed by his powerful presence.1 Fantômas was the incarnation of evil; he murdered, robbed, and carried out acts of terrorism, such as bombing ships and releasing plague-infested rats. He could fully assume the identity of a person rather than simply use a disguise to impersonate. Thus, the wary and frightened reader did not know whose identity would be taken or whom to trust.
Magritte closely identified with these mysterious qualities and disguises of Fantômas, painting either the arch villain or themes from the Feuillade films about him that he saw in a local theater in 1913 and 1914. Most dramatically, he assumed the pose of Fantômas in a photograph taken at the London Museum by fellow Belgian artist E. L. T. Mesens (thumbnail). Magritte, wearing a bowler hat, poses next to his painting The Barbarian (1927), which shows the shadowy face of Fantômas emerging from a red brick wall. Ironically, Magritte's The Barbarian was destroyed in a terrorist attack when the building where it was housed was destroyed during the first of the Nazi incendiary bombings in the autumn of 1940.2(p250)
E. L. T. Mesens' photograph of Magritte with Le Barbare (The Barbarian), 1938. Photo credit: Banque d’Images, ADAGP/Art Resource, New York. © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels.
The Murderer Threatened (cover) shows a murderer pausing to listen to a gramophone following his crime. The killer is assumed to be Fantômas because of the striking similarity of the painting to a scene from the third Feuillade film, The Murderous Corpse. In the film, 2 men wearing black hoods secretly wait outside a door to attack a man who is wielding a knife. In the first Fantômas novel, the Marquise de Langruen is killed violently; her throat is cut, nearly decapitating her. Magritte's The Murderer Threatened shows a nude woman with blood trickling from her mouth with a cloth over her neck. The long neck and position of the head are consistent with her throat being cut, as mentioned in a written description of the proposed painting, although there is no blood on the scarf or table. The well-dressed murderer's brown suitcase resembles the suitcase in The Central Story, the gramophone horn is similar to the tuba in that painting, and the hand to the neck might anticipate her death. The similarity of the 2 paintings and the Fantômas story line suggests an imaginative link to Magritte's own life story.
Three identical stone-faced men, automatons, look into the murder scene and out at the viewer. Knowing Magritte's life story, one wonders about him and his 2 brothers viewing his mother's body lying in state after its recovery from the river. Are the 3 viewers in the painting terrorized by what they see? Two men with bowler hats stand outside the door waiting to capture the murderer; one holds a club and the other a net. Magritte's biographer,3 based on contemporary depictions, suggests that they are detectives (identified by their bowler hats), unlike the 2 figures in the Fantômas film hooded in black; however, their weapons are unusual. In the novels, the antihero Fantômas is actively pursued by master detective Juve, but he always escapes. The painting's title, The Murderer Threatened, focuses attention on the killer, not the victim; this provides further suggestive evidence that this is indeed Fantômas. Is the viewing public at that time, familiar with these Fantômas stories, anticipating another escape? When The Murderer Threatened and a companion piece, The Secret Player, were first shown in 1927 at the Brussels gallery Le Centaure, a critic wrote that not only the 2 men in the bowler hats but also the whole assembled viewing public moved forward toward the painting as if to threaten the murderer as well. There is always an underlying fear that once again Fantômas will escape.
Both art historians2 and psychiatrists5,6 have linked these early Magritte paintings to the trauma of his mother's death during his adolescence. Although Magritte would insist that viewers bring their own personal associations to his work, these paintings suggest that, for him, he was working through the trauma of her loss through active imagination in his various portrayals of events. The Murderer Threatened may represent a fantasy about how she died. Who was responsible? In Allain and Souvestre's first Fantômas book, young Charles Rambert, a teenaged visitor staying at the home of the Marquise at the time of her murder, is falsely accused of the crime and told that he is the child of a mother cursed with a terrible and mysterious disease, “a disease before which we are powerless and unarmed—insanity!”1(p43) Was Charles hallucinating when he killed her; was there a moment of uncontrollable behavior? Charles vehemently denies that he is the killer, saying that he is not mad. The accuser is his father, Etienne Rambert, whose identity we learn later has been assumed by Fantômas, the real killer. We do not know what Magritte imagined about his mother's death, but self-blame is common after loss. Magritte was the oldest son and his father had left his 9-year-old younger brother to watch over his mother at night. Did he wonder whether, as the older brother, he should have been more alert to the risk? Did he or his brothers feel blamed by their father? Searching for identity in his adolescence, Magritte in a sad, self-aggrandizing moment told his biographer that he was the boy everyone knew about, the son of the dead woman.
Later Magritte painted 2 hooded lovers, male and female, holding one another and, in one painting, kissing. His wife, Georgette, recovered from her miscarriage and remained with him throughout his life. Are these paintings composite representations of his underlying grief at the loss of his mother and his fear that his wife would die? Do they represent the process of resolving his grief through active imagination? The theme of the hooded woman receded, but throughout his life, Magritte's paintings continued to show the concealed face. In The Great War (1964), the face is concealed, but now by a bouquet of flowers, perhaps a memorial to his loss. In 1943, Magritte completed The Flame Rekindled, his final Fantômas painting. It is an exact replica of the first Fantômas book cover, showing the monstrous Fantômas looming over the city of Paris. But he is no longer holding a bloody knife; Fantômas is disarmed, the knife transformed into a rose!
P Fantômas. New York, NY Penguin Books2006;
S Rene Magritte. Catalogue Raisonne: Oil Paintings, 1916-1930. The Menil Foundation. London, England Philip Wilson Publishers1992;
S Magritte. New York, NY Thames & Hudson Ltd1985;
H Magritte: Ideas and Images. Miller R, trans. New York, NY Harry N. Abrams Inc1977;
LC Childhood trauma and the creative product: a look at the early lives and later works of Poe, Wharton, Magritte, Hitchcock, and Bergman. Psychoanal Study Child
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