René Magritte: The Menaced Assassin - 1927
New York, Museum of Modern Art
In a room devoid of comfort the naked corpse of a young woman lies on a chaise longue, blood issuing from her mouth. Within the same space, a smartly dressed man, presumably the eponymous assassin (although no signs of blood besmirch his immaculate suit) interrupts his getaway to listen with insouciant nonchalance to a gramophone record. His hat, coat and case are nearby, awaiting his delayed flight. However, we can see that this course of action will be met with instant interception for in an adjoining vestibule, extending towards the viewer, but hidden from the inner room behind partition walls, await two identically dressed men, armed with hilarious incongruity, one sporting a club more suited to a caveman, the other holding a net of the type used by gladiators.
Also unseen by the murderer (if that is his true status) three heads appear above the ironwork of the window balcony like fairground coconuts. As with the twins in the foreground, their features are identical. Oddly, their attention is not directed at the killer; nor do they seem concerned with the naked body, staring instead directly over the corpse to meet the gaze of the viewer. In this way we are drawn into the drama both as witness to what is happening inside the house and also by the worrying challenge implicit in the blank but direct stare of the triplets just outside the window.
After studying at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Magritte had at first been interested in Futurism but in 1922 he saw a reproduction of Giorgio de Chirico’s Song of Love and, as with so many painters who later espoused Surrealism, his encounter with de Chirico changed everything. He was instrumental in the foundation of the Belgian Surrealist group in 1926 and this painting was finished a year later.
We can see here that Magritte has learned from de Chirico the secrets behind the older artist’s ability to create an atmosphere of foreboding – the feeling that the carefully constructed equilibrium – the stasis – within the painting is about to be broken in a manner which may not be wholly expected and furthermore will probably not be welcome. But the resolution of the narrative will hang forever unresolved. Of course the venue for this picture is shifted from de Chirico’s agoraphobic piazzas to Magritte’s world of northern European bourgeois interiors, albeit stripped down to bare floorboards and plaster walls. However the window gives us a glimpse of an exterior almost as threatening as de Chirico’s – an inhospitable lunar landscape redolent of isolation and hostility.
The cast of characters employed by Magritte owe much to his fascination with detective novels and films, and the twin detectives (if that is what they are), complete with bowler hats and starched collars, became a standard type used by Magritte in many subsequent paintings, but making a debut appearance in this picture.
1927 Fernand Léger: Woman Holding a Vase, New York, Guggenheim Museum
1927 Marc Chagall: The Dream, Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris