PRINT March 1979

Magritte’s Inaccessible Woman

IN HIS APPEARANCE AND life style, René Magritte chose to resemble a typical petit bourgeois domiciled in a quiet suburb of Brussels. He was devoted to his wife, whom he married when young and from whom he was never parted. He walked a small dog and was a chess enthusiast. He also limited himself to a small circle of close friends. But much in Magritte’s painting belies his uneventful, aloof existence. The anxiety or frustration evidenced in such works as Femme introuvable (The Unattainable Woman), 1927, or L’Histoire centrale (The Heart of the Matter), 1927–28, calls for the understanding of an underlying drama, however much the artist himself always insisted that no sentiments (or symbolism) were to be read into his work. The former painting depicts hands searching blindly but avidly along a wall in a fruitless attempt to reach a nude woman “attached” to the wall, in full view of the beholder. The Heart of the Matter is one of Magritte’s shrouded heads. Here a woman, her head covered with a cloth, stands with a tuba and a small suitcase as if just returning or about to depart. In the context of this picture, the incongruous tuba (trompête), I believe, spells out, “déloger sans trompête,” the equivalent of “depart without fanfare.” The tuba was to become an almost invariable attribute in a series of Magritte’s women.

Most writers concerned with Magritte’s work have either mentioned the most traumatic event of his early life or have quoted Louis Scutenaire, who gave the account in Magritte’s own words many years after its occurrence. The event in question was the suicide by drowning of his mother, Regina, when the boy was thirteen. As recorded by Scutenaire the tragedy of that night went thus:

She shared her last-born’s bedroom, who, waking in the middle of the night to find himself alone, roused the rest of the family. A thorough search of the house proved fruitless; then, noticing foot-prints outside the front door and on the sidewalk, they followed them to where they ended on the bridge over the Sambre, the river that flows by the town. The mother of the painter had thrown herself into the water and when her body was recovered, the face was hidden inside the nightgown she had been wearing. There was never any way of knowing whether she had covered over her eyes with it so as not to see the death she had chosen, or whether the swirling water had caused her so to be veiled.1

Patrick Waldberg, as well as Suzi Gablik, attributes the boy’s reaction to his inability to cope with realizing the enormity of his sudden deprivation, striving unconsciously to deny the hurt at all cost by burying it deeply within himself. The child psychoanalyst and writer Martha Wolfenstein provides an additional insight in her discussion of the event: “The impact on the young Magritte of his mother’s death was complicated by the circumstances of that strange and terrible night scene: his mother’s body, her nightgown having been washed up over her head, was exposed naked to his guilty and avid gaze.”2

Magritte’s famous transpositions of the personages of Manet’s Balcony in 1949 and of David’s Mme Recamier in 1951 into their respective elegant coffins, assuming the required postures, need no further comment, especially as the stiff poses of the original protagonists almost invite the take-off. But Les Cornes du désir (The Horns of Desire), 1961, strikes one as more personal in sentiment if not in representation: it depicts two identical stiff dresses of the period of Magritte’s youth, bodiless but posed formally, as for a photograph, on a terrace against a lowering sky. The title may well reflect the opposite of the concept “horns of plenty,” for nothing is contained in the now empty vessels, forsaken chrysalides from which body and soul have departed. Rigidity—as well as morbidity—is strangely absent in Magritte’s later versions of the subject: in Par une belle fin d’après-midi (On a Lovely Late Afternoon) and La Belle Heretique (The Lovely Heretic), both of 1964, coffins are placed on terraces in almost cheerful poses; the two coffins of the former painting, seated side by side, might be engaged in a pleasant leisurely chat on a fine late afternoon. In The Lovely Heretic, a single coffin is seated on the balustrade of a terrace, but again there is no sense of doom. Deeply antireligious all his adult life, Magritte may be exonerating here—as the title of the work suggests—the way his Mother chose to die in disregard of the Catholic dogma that suicide is a mortal sin that precludes burial in consecrated cemetery grounds.

Magritte affirmed that he remembered practically nothing of his childhood. Exceptionally, in a lecture given in 1938 (which Scutenaire transcribed), he recalled one happy summer that he spent as a child of six or seven at the home of relatives in a small provincial town where he went to visit with a playmate in a pleasant sunlit old cemetery: “In my childhood, I used to play with a little girl in an old abandoned cemetery. We were exploring those of the burial vaults whose heavy iron doors we were able to open and when we came back up, there in the light was an artist from the capital, painting a very picturesque view with its broken columns strewn over by dead leaves.” Patrick Waldberg, in his translation of the above passage, goes on to remark that this was the first painter that the child had ever seen, and that the magical aura with which he immediately endowed the process of painting came on top of the excitement generated by clandestine games in dark vaults with their ranged coffins, leaving an indelible impression upon him. While the little girl disappeared from his life, he continued to daydream of her for years to come, and his coffin series is evidence enough of that mystery-endowed summer day.3

Magritte’s aversion to talking of his youth was well known. So was his attitude toward psychoanalysis. He referred to analysts as passeophagos, that is, eaters of the past. According to Magritte’s widow, Georgette, he never spoke of death; in particular, he never mentioned his mother’s death to her. A number of authors have recently connected the early trauma with certain themes in Magritte’s work. The ever-bleeding wound of the mother’s loss is most apparent in the series which might be headed “The Open Scars of Memory,” including two paintings of plaster casts—heads with blood trickling from wounds at the temples. Henri Michaux was the first to link the bleeding-temple images, both titled Memoire (Memory), of 1938 and 1948 with “the remembrance of a tragic event of old.”4 The rejected memory is also present, I think, in Les Eaux profondes (Deep Waters), of 1942, where a white plaster head surmounts a woman’s body clad in the black of mourning, black gloves included, alongside a raven (Poe’s “Nevermore”?). Perhaps even more convincing is the evidence provided by the word-sign numbered 10 in the page “Words and Images” (Les Mots et les images), from 1925–1926, which combines in a single figure the words: personnage perdant la memoire and corps de femme (“personage losing memory” and “woman’s body”).5 Certainly the idea of suicide as such could hardly have been absent from the artist’s mind when Magritte painted Les Reveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Stroller) in 1926. His usual bowler-hatted, tightly coated man—presumably Magritte’s alter-ego—is shown walking in a dark and empty countryside along the bank of a river, toward a not-too-distant bridge. Behind the man, who is seen from the back, a nude corpse levitates. A different approach is provided by Le Principe d’ incertitude (The Principle of Incertitude), 1944, in which a nude woman projects her shadow on the wall in the form of a bird with its wings spread open as if ready for flight. (Had the mother the wings of a bird, might she not have saved herself in the crucial last moment?) While Magritte shared Max Ernst’s fascination with birds, and had been much impressed by Ernst’s early collages, he did not follow his fellow artist’s course of endowing humans with wings—apart from the atypical figure Le Mal du pays (Homesickness), 1941, where a black-robed young man with long black wings, neatly folded, leans on a parapet over railway tracks, apparently in deep and joyless meditation in a misty cityscape.

More recently, René Passeron6 chose to dwell extensively on the intimate link between the mother’s desertion of her son by suicide and certain of Magritte’s themes that are not as explicitly influenced by the event. Among those themes is that of “la maison morte” (the dead house), i.e. empty uninhabited houses, with blank facades and closed windows. In his earliest Surrealist works, when Magritte avowedly aimed at shocking the beholder, he produced Grands Voyages (The Great Voyages), 1926, in which he transformed the upper part of a horizontally levitated woman’s body into the gnarled, dead branches of a tree and cracked open her belly and thighs to display the semblance of a town crammed with tiny buildings. The reproduction of this early painting in Paul Nougé’s Rene Magritte ou les images defendues (Forbidden Images), undoubtedly accounts for Nougé’s statement in the accompanying text: “L’on passe ici à la fusion la plus intime . . . un arbre se combine à une pieuvre, à un corps de femme, à un village . . . pour faire les ‘grands voyages’” (One arrives here at the most intimate fusion . . . a tree combines with an octopus, a woman’s body, a village . . . to engage in ‘great voyages’").7 (We might add that already beginning in the early 1930s, Magritte was to concentrate on seeking subtle but logical affinities between objects depicted and their surrogates.)8 In the much later Regard mental (Mental View),9 a mental attitude is imaginatively portrayed through an odd, unstable structure composed of hollow houses precariously placed, one upon the other, with a dizzying lack of balance. The whole structure does tumble down if one is to judge by a heap of empty dwellings massed together on the ground, in the shape of a woman’s prominent breast, in a painting titled Poitrine (Breast), 1960.

Although woman occupies a central position in Magritte’s oeuvre, his attitude toward her remains ambiguous. Contrary to Breton’s dictum that “beauty shall be convulsive,” Magritte’s women are immobilized, as it were, by his very gaze. The most beautiful and mysterious of his series of women-statues, titled Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), from 1946, has been described as a painting of “the statue of flesh of a young naked woman, a rose of flesh in one hand; the other hand rests on a stone. Curtains open on a seascape and a summer sky.”10 However conspicuous the flesh color, the eyes facing the beholder are lidless empty sockets. In front of the paintings of this series, we remain perplexed: is this the portrayal of a living being, one already petrified or calcified, or one in the process of being metamorphosed before our very eyes? The setting against which the nudes appear carries no emotional overtones; and they are posed almost identically, standing full length with the right hand resting on all but an identical boulder, with a curtain or column or jagged wall partition balancing the unhewn stone on which the hand rests. The title L’Aimant (Magnet) given to two of the paintings may well explain the rock, standing as it does for lodestone, i.e., in French, “roche magnessienne” or “pierre d’aimant”—the latter word punning with “loving.” The two other paintings are both titled Magie noire (Black Magic) with its connotation of transformation, metamorphosis.11

An early pictorial version of the above theme, likewise entitled Black Magic, 1934, provides a clearer indication of the artist’s intention. There a statuesque nude, her downcast eyelids hiding tell-tale eyes, is ringed in by shrubs bearing horse bells instead of blooms. The incongruous horse bells (which will proliferate through the years)12 bring to mind the still earlier Flowers of the Abyss, 1928, in which Magritte had already substituted cold hollow metal for the flowering of the vegetable domain. In the context of Black Magic this suggests that the nude, like the blossoms, has been transformed into alien substance. When viewing the original, we readily perceive that a small portion of the body—at the waist line just above the bell-bearing shrubs—still retains flesh coloration. It might be added that, in the case of Magritte’s bird leaves, it is not always easy to distinguish plants being metamorphosed into live birds from birds in the process of being reduced to vegetation.

Magritte’s partial transformations and fragmentations of female anatomy assume many forms. In L’Innondation (Flood), 1931, the lower half of a nude, whose build is exceptionally solid and whose pubic hair is prominently displayed, stands before a body of water; she rests one hand on a tuba at her side on the floor. Her invisible upper half is lost in the blue of the sky, which amounts to a simple reversal of the very idea of flood with rising water engulfing the lower part of one’s body. Other torsos and heads by Margritte take on the sky-blue, against which they are portrayed, but retain their blue-tinted features intact. In Temps menaçant (Threatening Weather), 1928, a headless torso levitates ghostlike alongside a ghostlike chair and tuba above a body of water in an otherwise cloudless sky. Cruel irony is not lacking in the title Statue volante (Flying Statue: versions of 1929 and 1958) when applied to a headless, armless figure hemmed in, moreover, by a double set of shutters: the quandary is solved by the pun “volets-volante,” the French for “flying shutters.” An off-color pun is masked in Masque de foudre, 1961; the pun is untranslatable into English as Mask of Lightning. The picture contains a rosy (rosé) nude figurine under a rosy cloud and a rosy (rosé) pipe placed horizontally across the lower part of the belly of the nude: in French the words rosé-osé (the latter meaning daring, risqué,) point to the possibility of another transposition, that of “foudre” into the rude slang term “foutre” (shove in).13 Mutilation is secreted in Le Genre nocturne (Nocturnal Air), 1929, for the casual viewer might be unaware that the woman is headless (an echo of Max Ernst’s Femme sans—100—têtes?) behind the hands with which she is supposedly shielding her face from view, alongside a cracked blank egg-shaped object. Both object and woman are heavily shadowed, suggesting depth: cracked or breached objects, among many other possible interpretations, signify heresy, schism (from the Greek word for breach).14

In the view of Passeron, Magritte reduced the living to an object, and the object to its fragment in “glacial petrification.” He contrasts Breton’s concept that Surrealism must follow an ascending line with one that he interprets as the “descending vertical” evident in so much of Magritte’s work. However, the most notable example of fragmentation is to be seen in Evidence eternelle (Eternal Evidence), 1930, where a standing nude is divided into five separate framed sections. The fragmentation here is motivated by something very different from mutilation, for there has never been any doubt about Magritte’s lifelong undivided devotion to his wife, Georgette, whose portrait this is. The critic David Sylvester wrote of the same work: “The partition of this body conveys no sense whatever of dismemberment of a body; on the contrary, it heightens the cool tenderness of the painting. . . . L’Evidence eternelle seems to objectify the effort to reconstruct from memory a body known too well to be visualized as a whole.”15 In passing, we note a strange detail: the lowest framed section of Georgette’s feet does not square (ne cadre pas) with her upright standing pose; also, her toes hardly touch the ground, so at best she is on tiptoe. In a broader context, it should be recalled that the bringing together of fragmented sections is already in evidence in such early works as Au seuil de la liberté (On the Threshold of Liberty), 1929, which can hardly be seen in terms of either derision or familiarity.

Hybridization at its most explicit is personified in Invention collective (Collective Invention), 1934, by a mermaid washed up onto a beach and stretched out on the sand, alive. Again, there is reversal: the hybrid’s head and torso are those of a fish, while the lower half is that of a woman. The fabled siren with the golden tresses, human face and bewitching voice have been reduced in Magritte’s version to a numb fish-head with but human legs and thighs, and pubic hair suggesting sexual lure. In a playful mood Magritte transposes the female form into its approximation as a man-made object. The title of one such work, Objet peint-bouteille (Object Painted Bottle), 1930, and the similar La Dame (The Lady), 1932, equate woman and bottle. Ninepins, balusters, chess pawns and such are assimilated to woman. Thus the witty Rencontre (The Encounter), 1929, presents a gathering of chess pieces amiably clustered in small ladylike groups.

It is not possible to regard in the same vein the nightmarish, eroticized metamorphoses portrayed in Le Viol (Rape), versions of 1934 and 1945, and La Philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom), 1947. As the latter title makes clear, we are here in the domain of de Sade: a semitransparent peignoir reveals magnified breasts with nipples vividly red and thrusting forth, with cruel desire, against the soft voile of a garment ever so neatly arranged on a hanger. A pair of high-heeled pumps with toes thrust out takes up the motif of the contained merging with the container—the animate with the inanimate, the absent woman with the presence of her attributes. In The Rape we are confronted with a nude torso face with the facial features transposed onto the body. The nipples substitute for eyes, the navel is in the semblance of a sunken nose, and pubic hair is formed into a grimacing mouth. The impression is one of obscene farce. Soby has remarked: “Magritte also reassorted a nude woman’s body in a widely reproduced picture, The Rape, in which he converts to pictorial terms Percy Bysshe Shelley’s traumatic vision of Mary Shelley’s breasts turning into eyes, a vision which sent Shelley screaming from their room.”16 Patrick Walberg writes: “It is to panic laughter one is moved before this last painting, that laughter in which Georges Bataille saw the trembling of a soul in its highest distress.”17 We turn again to Dr. Wolfenstein’s text: “In relation to Magritte’s life, his last view of his mother was one in which he should have seen her face but it was covered; he should not have seen her body but it was bared. His painting of the torso-face seems to present a grimly humorous alibi: ‘Was that her body? It looked like a face to me.’”18

Is it glorification of woman in a vision such as the one in Pain quotidien (Daily Bread), 1942, in which a tiny nude is raised to nebulous heights, on layer upon layer of clouds, as an embodiment of an ideal as necessary to man as is his daily bread? Nue (the feminine of nu, naked) puns with nue (cloud) and with nu, the French spelling of “N,” the thirteenth letter of the Greek alphabet (as Magritte would have known from the household dictionary Petit Larousse illustré in which those words are all closely listed). Furthermore, in the Tarot, card XIII represents death: a nude raised to the clouds, elevée jusqu’ aux nues, is glorified in death.

Elena Calas



The present article first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Colóquio artes; revista periódica de artes visuais, música e bailado (Lisbon), December 1976.

1. From Louis Scutenaire’s account in La Terre n’est pas une vallée des larmes, Brussels, 1945. pp. 35–47, qu. Patrick Waldberg, René Magritte, Brussels, 1965, p. 41. Waldberg notes, “When Magritte recounted the event to Scutenaire, the one remembrance seeming to link him to it was of a feeling of proud self-importance prompted by the pity and concern that everybody suddenly showered upon him because of what had happened” (ibid.),

2. Martha Wolfenstein, “Death of a Parent,” forthcoming in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child.

3. Waldberg, op. cit., p. 43. From Magritte’s “Ligne de vie” (Lifeline), first published in English in View (New York), December 1946.

4. Henry, Michaux, Mercure de France, December 1964, p.186.

5. E.L.T. Mesens, “Les Mots et les images,” From Magritte’s text in La Revolution surrealiste, V/12 (December 15, 1929). The word-sign under discussion bears the legend “The words which serve to indicate two different objects do not show what may divide those objects one from another.”

6. René Passeron, René Magritte, Paris 1970, interview with Georgette Magritte, pp.12–13.

7. Paul Nougé, René Magritte ou les images defendues (pamphlet), Brussels, 1943, text p. 23, reproduction p. 8.

8. Magritte has claimed that his new approach dates from a 1933 vision in which he saw, on barely waking, an egg replacing the bird in the cage in his room. According to the artist, “There exists a secret affinity between certain images. This is equally true for objects represented by these images . . . Everyone knows a bird in a cage. Interest is heightened if the bird is replaced by a fish or a shoe” (Magritte text from “Notes for an Illustrated Lecture at the London Gallery in February 1973, in the Marlborough Fine Arts catalogue Magritte, London, 1973). Among his early ”elective affinities," we are presented with transpositions involving bird-sky, bird-foliage, leaf-tree. Might not such secret affinities be of a hermetic order?—this is the question Nicolas Calas poses.

9. The date of Regard mental is uncertain: it is from the late 1950s.

10. This description is included in a catalogue pamphlet Dix Tableaux de Magritte from Le Miroir infidéle, Brussels, 1946.

11. Magie noire of 1933 and of 1934.

12. Elena Calas, “Magritte: Variations on the Theme of the Bell,” Arts Magazine, May 1967.

13. Paul Nougé, Histoire de ne pas rire, Brussels, 1956, p.135; the author, an intimate friend of Magritte, advocates the use of slang (argot) terms which pertain to sex, including the above-mentioned “foutre.”

14. Elena Calas, “Bosch’s Garden of Delights: A Theological Rebus,” Art Journal, Winter 1969–1970 (chapter entitled “The Fountain of Heresy”).

15. David Sylvester, René Magritte, New York, 1969.

16. James Thrall Soby, René Magritte, Garden City, N.Y., 1965, p. 14 n. 14.

17. Waldberg, p. 180.

18. Martha Wolfenstein, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. XXVIII, New York, 1973.