Painting the Unseen – Rene Magritte’s La Liberateur

I’ve been a fan of Magritte since I was a kid (see Halloween costume, bottom), so I jumped at the chance to write on Magritte’s La Liberateur for my weekly Comp assignment. The assignment was to first describe the work so that someone who hadn’t seen it could picture it, then to do a formal analysis.  (An aside: Still painting every day, but nothing to share yet)

Magritte-La-Liberateur“The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” – Rene Magritte

René Magritte’s 1947 painting Le Liberateur is a bold depiction of the subconscious mind. The subject of this painting (fig. 1) is a seated figure wearing a straw hat, a bright red shawl, a neatly-tailored pair of trousers, and a pair of black leather shoes. His head and torso have been replaced with a card or parchment with 4 silhouettes on it, similar to the traditional “4 of clubs” design: a key, a goblet, a dove or pigeon in flight, and a tobacco pipe. His left hand rests on the handle of a bamboo cane; his right hand carries a strange object consisting of an elaborate, symmetrical, pearl-inlaid structure which has the eyes and mouth of a beautiful woman, attached to a large grey base similar to the base of a candelabra. The man rests on a rock formation by a dirt path, and a standard brown leather suitcase lies on the ground by his right foot.

Behind the figure is a lush, wooded landscape with a winding river. In the upper half of the painting, the sky is fragmented into numerous blocky arches, which retain the colors and gradient of a daytime sky. Cumulus clouds of various sizes drift through the arches. Behind the arches, a starry night sky is visible, yet the lighting on the other elements in the painting (the background, the figure, etc.) comes from the sunlit sky seen on the arches.

At first glance, the painting might seem completely absurd or nonsensical. The viewer is treated to multiple unexplained images that are at once familiar and unfamiliar. Human figures are combined with inanimate objects, the sky is at once daytime and nighttime, and seemingly unrelated visual signifiers are combined in ways that suggest relationships.

To better understand Le Liberateur, and Magritte’s work in general, it is important to recognize that painting was made at a time when society was increasingly influenced by the neurologist Sigmund Freud’s theories of the subconscious. René Magritte was a member of the Surrealist movement, a group of artists and intellectuals, founded by André Breton, who wished to explore how the mind could be trained into new forms of creativity.

Attempting to represent the workings of the subconscious presents unique challenges, as the subconscious is, by definition, not consciously perceived. Magritte used several visual tactics in order to represent the subconscious. One tactic is the use of recurring imagery. Several of the specific combinations of imagery in Le Liberateur turn up in other Magritte paintings; variations of the central figure are the focus of Magritte’s Le Therapeute series of paintings,[1] [2] while the pearly face is the subject of his Scheherazade series of paintings, [3] [4] and appears in his 1947 painting Les Grands Rendez-vous,[5] which also contains the same four symbols as seen on the “body” of the central figure in Le Liberateur. Other recurring images are less specific, and occur in many different permutations throughout Magritte’s work: doves/pigeons (e.g. Clairvoyance (1936),[6] Le Retour (1940),[7] Night of Love (1947),[8] Man in a Bowler Hat (1964),[9] etc.), tobacco pipes (e.g. La Lampe Philosophique (1936),[10] La Trahison des Images (1948),[11] The Cripple (c. 1948),[12] La Bonne Foi (1965),[13] etc.) and cumulus clouds in blue skies (e.g. Le Faux Miroir (1928),[14] Megalomania (1948),[15] Les Valeurs Personnelles (1952),[16] Decalcomania (1966),[17] etc.). The combinations of the seemingly unrelated familiar objects also evokes the workings of the subconscious mind; it illustrates how it is able to form connections between concepts and events that are not immediately obvious to the conscious mind.

In closing, I feel that Magritte was at least partially successful in conveying how the subconscious mind can affect our understanding of reality. Examining Magritte’s work in detail encouraged me to think about how the subconscious mind can form complex connections between various life experiences. And, in keeping with the original mission of the Surrealists, it made me consider how I can harness my subconscious mind to help fuel my conscious creativity.

[1] Various, “The Therapeutist I,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-therapeutist-1937

[2] Various, “The Therapeutist II,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-therapeutist

[3] Various, “Scheherazade I,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/sheherazade

[4] Various, “Scheherazade II,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/sheherazade-1950

[5] Author unknown, “Les grands rendez-vous: René Magritte Auction,” Artnet, date last    modified unknown, http://www.artnet.com/artists/ren%C3%A9-magritte/les-grands-     rendez-vous-qU09Ypet55WMizD8Rrvn3g2.

[6] Various, “Clairvoyance,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/clairvoyance-self-portrait-1936

[7] Various, “The Return,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-return-1940

[8] Various, “Night of Love,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/not_detected_211392

[9] Various, “Man in a Bowler Hat,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/man-in-a-bowler-hat-1964

[10] Various, “The Philosopher’s Lamp,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/philosopher-s-lamp-1936

[11] Various, “The Treachery of Images,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-treachery-of-images-this-is-not-a-pipe-1948

[12] Various, “The Maimed,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-maimed

[13] Various, “Good Faith,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/good-faith-1965

[14] Various, “The False Mirror,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-false-mirror-1928

[15] Various, “Delusions of Grandeur,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/delusions-of-grandeur-1948

[16] Various, “Personal Values,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/personal-values-1952

[17] Various, “Decalcomania,” WikiArt, February 14, 2015, http://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/decalcomania-1966

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