Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part IV)

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.


Réné Magritte, La reproduction interdite, 1937,
Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65 cm
©Museum Boymans-van Beuningen).

In his Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, poet and critic André Breton, making extensive use of theories adapted from Sigmund Freud, proposed that the conscious and unconscious artistic impulses be reunited under the artistic banner he termed “surrealism”:

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.

Breton advocated banishing reason from the realm of artistic creation, arguing that a reliance on “automatism” (unconscious, spontaneous behavior) would call forth more authentic images from the dream and supernatural states.

For his masterful La reproduction interdite (Not to be reproduced) Réné Magritte has created a representation of his subject—Edward James, a rich English aristocrat, Surrealist poet, and patron of both Dali and Magritte—that is both rigorously realistic and emotionally detached. A master at posing familiar objects in absurd contexts, Magritte made extensive use of mirror and glass in his work, playing with their ability to hide or mask through reflection. In this painting Magritte presents us with the view of his subject seen from behind. The reflection in the mirror beyond, however, violates the laws of nature, for it reflects that very same backside view back to us.  We gaze over the man’s shoulder expecting to see his face (i.e. his specific identity) and are met instead with the view from our own eyes. The subject’s identity is hidden from us. In the world Magritte has created here we can only ever return to ourselves (i.e. our own reality).

magritte-arnheimRéné Magritte, The Domain of Arnheim, 1938,
Oil on canvas

To confuse us further, Magritte has placed Edgar Allan Poe’s book The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym next to James on the mantel, juxtaposing its “correct” reflection with the alternative reality of the figure’s reflection. Magritte has created a painting with dual realities, alternate fictions, if you like.  The book itself provides a small clue as to Magritte’s intentions.

Magritte was an unabashed admirer of Poe. In particular, he was inspired by the writer’s preoccupation with the mingling of the real and artificial. The Narrative of Arthur Golden PymPoe’s only novel, purports to be a non-fictional tale of the fantastic sea journey of Arthur Pym from Nantucket to the land of Symzonia (somewhere in the South Pacific?). Along the way, the narrative proves to be distorted and unreliable, deceitful even. The various twists of the novel’s plot embody numerous thematic elements, but masquerade, illusion, and even trickery figure prominently in the action. Ultimately, the tale reveals itself as a figment of the protagonist’s imagination—a fiction cloaking a fiction.

Claudia Kay Silverman (American Studies, UVA)  further observes—

The journey enacted in Symzonia, the journey to the interior of the earth, can be construed as a journey of anti-discovery. It is a journey to discover an emptiness. As does all Utopian fiction, the journey of Symzonia contains a tension. A Utopia is both a “good place” and “no place;” the journey to the interior of the earth is the ultimate journey and the impossible journey. It finds, in those imaginatively inclined, a correlative in a journey into the mind itself, whose outcome will be the unveiling of the deepest secret of humanity.

The grip that the notion of a hollow earth might have had on Poe has to do with a fear that the human mind, rather than containing ultimate knowledge, is, at its very core, empty.

This series of paintings was based on a Poe story of the same name. This story underscores Poe’s fascination with idea that the ideal creation was one in which man-made and the natural co-mingle. Arnheim translates loosely from the German as eagle’s nest.

Réné Magritte, The Domain of Arnheim, 1962
Oil on canvas

The themes of search and deceit, which weave in and out of Pym’s tale, must have appealed greatly to Magritte’s well-developed epigrammatic sensibility. La reproduction interdite is a witty commentary on our search for identity. Human beings, to paraphrase Magritte, always want to see what lies behind what they can actually see. We seek to uncover an essential or unconcealed “reality” or “truth,” which in turn will define who we are. Alas, the painter is in charge of this world; he makes that clear by doing exactly what the title forbids, i.e. copying.

La reproduction interdite proffers a world in which we can only view the reality that we already see. The painting seems to be saying that an individual’s own vision is the reality that matters.  As Jung once pointed out, “it all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.”

Hidden Identity—Parts I, II, III

Wider Connections

André Breton—Manifestoes of Surrealism
The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Hughes—“The Poker-Faced Enchanter“(Time Magazine)
Magritte Museum; Magritte in public collections
Magritte—Edward James in Front of On the Threshhold of Liberty (photograph)
Tate—Portraiture & Identity
Contemporary Backs—Phyllis Palmer
Fabricator of Useless Articles’—Back Portraits 1990s


5 Responses to “Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part IV)”

  1. This is such a thoughtful and erudite series of posts that I’m still “digesting” all that you’ve written. But one thing did occur to me – musings on the backside removes any possibility that the model (often female) will gaze back on the artist (usually male). It’s another variation on the male gaze and in this case, the male can gaze without fear of actually engaging with the female, other than as a vehicle for his art. Of course, Berger’s argument is far more complex than this but when I saw Matisse’s back pieces, that is one thought that came to mind.

    • Nancy—thanks for reading and take your time “digesting.” I’m sure that I have not captured all there is to say about Identity and art, so please comment (as I hope others will when they digest).

      You make a really good point about the “male gaze;” after all these years, still fertile ground for rich discussion. For starters I think always of the quintessential “peeping Tom” motif—Suzanna Among the Elders, rendered by many artists throughout history, including most famously Rembrandt, Rubens, Tintoretto, and Thomas Hart Benton (in our own de Young Museum).

      You may be familiar with the story: Suzanna was bathing in her garden when two Elders, who were spying on her, threatened to accuse her of adultery if she did not submit to their lust. She refused and was condemned to death. As she was led to her execution a man called Daniel appealed for the Elders to be questioned again. They were exposed as liars and executed in her place.

      Is the moral here that it’s ok to stare but not to lie?
      Anyway, you may also find this piece by James Elkins (who admittedly has his great and obtuse moments of criticism), especially the chapter on Gender Discourse >


      To be continued!

  2. BTW – where did you discover Phyllis Palmer’s work? Those are wonderful pieces.

    • Nancy
      I started the series by trying to find examples of “backside” art in the contemporary world and stumbled upon Phyllis’ work. However, I quickly realized that she’s the wife of the painter of my husband’s “Matissean” painting. His encaustic work is featured in Joanne Matera’s book. Small world.

  3. Interesting that you bring up “Susanna and the Elders” because most artists have treated the subject as an exercise in voyeurism – slickly painted and coyly alluring women who merely pretend to be unaware of the elders but are obviously enjoying the attention. Gentileschi, having been the victim of the male gaze (and male tyranny and double standards around rape) has quite a different take on the subject. In her painting “Susanna and the Elders, done in 1610 and at the age of 17, Susanna doesn’t look to the heavens as the bible states (“looked up to heaven through her tears, for she trusted in the Lord.”), Instead, she holds up her hands to ward off two lustful elders and looks distressed and uncomfortable with the conspiring men’s sexual harassment. Gentileschi’s Susanna seems to showing us a woman in full ownership of her feelings and motivations. Her furrowed brow, downcast eyes and body language are clues to this. She is naked as the biblical story places her in her private garden where she is about to bathe and her nakedness is not gratuitous. Susanna is not taking her cues from god here as to expected or acceptable female moral behaviur but seems to be expressing her own feelings about the men’s unwanted advances. (Interesting to view Gentileschi’s work against etchings of the same scene created by male artists from around the same era).

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