Surrealist artists of the 1920s-1950s period mainly focused on the relationship between the unconscious and reality, in order to go deeper into the mysteries of the mind. Their work might seem quite serious and a little disturbing, and surrealist paintings can be just that, but it was not devoid of humor. The ironic kind, of course, especially in Magritte’s case.
Here is a portrait in neoclassical style by Jacques-Louis David, a figure of great authority in late-18th-early-19th-century French painting:
Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Madame Récamier (1800), the Louvre, Paris
Here is Magritte’s 1951 version of that portrait:
René Magritte, Perspective: Madame Récamier (1951), National Gallery of Canada
Magritte had already given the same treatment to a portrait by another major French artist, Edouard Manet:
Edouard Manet, Le Balcon (1868), Musée d’Orsay, Paris
René Magritte, Perspective: Le Balcon (1950), Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent
Magritte’s portraits inevitably raise significant questions. Do they refer to the death of styles, or of neoclassical and realist painting? Do they mean that painting does not have the power to transcend time? Do they suggest that portrait painting is meaningless?
At the same time, they are so playful and irreverent that satire just might be the point. Nothing is sacred or fixed, and every painting is made to participate in a great conversation with every other painting, producing new meaning and, as Magritte’s titles suggest, new perspectives.
Ironic, cheeky, thought-provoking. That’s surrealist humor.