The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964)

So many questions… Why the apple? How is it staying there? Is he biting the apple? Who is the man? Why the conservative attire? Or even, is this a reference to the apple of knowledge?…. This is a painting of mystery, just as its creator intended. Rene Magritte sought to challenge the realism that requires rational explanation. Instead, he endevoured to create the surreal, challenging his viewers to freely interpret the simple chaos that defines his outstanding work. Here we will look at one of Magritte’s most iconic images  –  ‘The Son of Man’.

The image itself is rather simple – a tall figure stands before us wearing a grey overcoat and a bowler hat. Obviously out of place however is the apple, hiding the subjects face from our view. The subject of the painting stands in front of a wall with an agitated sky and calm blue sea. Although simplistic in style, this is a work of immense ambiguity. Indeed, Magritte’s goal in ‘The Son of Man’ was to provoke his viewer to think without assistance. He does this by placing a mundane object, like an apple, in a completely bizarre context. He wanted to create a painting so ambiguous that the viewer is forced to comment, rather than interpret.

 In an interview about ‘The Son of Man’ Magritte said:

Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well ….There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

These comments seem to affirm Magritte’s believe in the fundamental mystery of identity. That is to say, ‘the visible’ will always be a deficient representation. Instead, we are encouraged by the artist to look beyond the visible, in recognition of the truth that there is always much more than meets the eye. Although what we see may be able to provide some honest clues (hence why the apple only partially obscures the face), truth in its totality is obscure. The irritating randomness of the apple can therefore be equated to this ‘conflict’ between material falsity, and inner truth.

Grotesquely, this intense conflict is probaby the result of Magritte’s childhood experience of seeing his mother picked out of the River Sambre having committed suicide. An experience reflected in all of his works, it must surely have played some impact in the artist’s distrust of appearances..

Ultimately therefore, Magritte suggests in ‘The Son of Man’ that truth lies beyond the visible. In this way, it is merely in vain to attempt to understand this particular work through questioning and analysis. Rather, we must accept that ‘to question’ is to miss Magritte’s point; that we cannot ever fully comprehend what we see. Rather, we, the viewer, must make our own story up about this ambiguous man.

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