image: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”  René Magritte

“René François Ghislain Magritte 21 November 1898 – 15 August 1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist, who became well known for creating a number of witty and thought-provoking images. Often depicting ordinary objects in an unusual context, his work is known for challenging observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality. His imagery has influenced pop art, minimalist art, and conceptual art.” Wikipedia

René Magritte is one of my favourite artists. I had the opportunity to revisit his work during a recent visit to the Modern Art Museum’s renovated and reimagined spaces/installations.

I was familiar with his “False Mirror,” but “The Menaced Assassin” was an amazing new exposure. I observed it as a painting/image, but also as a “writing prompt,” full of imagery/allegory. The “audience,” the “victim,” the “detective,” the “assassin” (though not all was so clear without the following MoMA online description:

The Menaced Assassin

“The Menaced Assassin is one of Magritte’s largest and most theatrical compositions. Magritte was an avid fan of the pre-World War I popular crime fiction series Fantômas; he borrowed the placement of the two detectives’ figures flanking the door frame from the Le Mort Qui Tue (The Murderous Corpse), a film from the series first released in 1913. It was Magritte’s ambition to create a similarly immersive and fantastical world on the canvas, here made manifest in the unsolvable narrative of this enduringly mysterious painting.”

Two years before his death, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition. The accompanying catalogue, written by James Solby, quotes another art critic, George Melly: “”He is a secret agent, his object is to bring into disrepute the whole apparatus of bourgeois reality. Like all saboteurs, he avoids detection by dressing and behaving like everyone else.”

I like the idea of Magritte as saboteur; his images have always struck me as deviant, somehow subverting my sense of what is real and was is dream/nightmare. And Magritte had his nightmares.

His mother, Régina, had mental health issues; when Magritte was 14, she drowned herself in a nearby river. She had tried before; Magritte’s father, Léopold, locked her in the bedroom to prevent her. On this occasion, she escaped; her body was found several days later down river from her home. There is speculation that many of his images are tinged by his childhood with an unstable parent.


My initial memory of Magritte’s art is “Golconda” which I remember as album cover art. While this memory is “off,” there are strong connections between Magritte’s imagery and music. Musicians, from Jeff Beck through Jackson Browne and Pink Floyd and beyond, have recorded albums whose covers are riffs on Magritte paintings.

René Magritte Album Covers

Magritte and Hipgnosis

On Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones album, the song “Rene and Brigette Magritte and Their Dog After the War” makes reference to a photograph of Magritte and his wife. I found several references to a music video produced at the same time featuring Simon and his then wife, Carrie Fisher, as Rene and Bridgette. (Couldn’t find the actual video).

This video contains the sound and Magritte images

.The same riffing off Magritte is also in this clip from the movie Toys.