The Man in the Bowler Hat

Menil Collection hosts Magritte retrospective
Story by Elena Ivanova


1927. Oil on canvas. 59 1/4 in. x 6ft 4 7/8 in. (150.4 x 195.2
cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund.
© Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2014

“Painting excites your admiration through the likeness
of things the originals of which you do not admire.” — René Magritte.

“Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” — “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” said Voltaire. Taking a leap from theology to art, I’d say that the same is true of Surrealism. Even those among us who consider themselves indifferent to art are drawn to the sight of the soft melting watch in “The Persistence of Memory” by Dalí.  Often visually provocative, intellectually challenging and emotionally unsettling, Surrealist art simultaneously attracts and repulses us. It seems as if the artist has overheard our unspoken thoughts, fantasies and fears.

Walking into the exhibition “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” at the Menil Collection, viewers are immediately confronted with one of the most haunting images by the famous artist, “The Menaced Assassin.” The painting opens towards us like a theater stage making us spectators of a murder mystery play. A naked dead woman is prostrate on the couch, blood dripping from her mouth. An elegantly dressed man is standing with his back to the couch; apparently, he has recently arrived, judging from his coat and hat, which are tossed carelessly on the chair, and a brown suitcase. Ignoring the corpse in the room, he is gracefully leaning against the table as he listens to the music coming from the gramophone. In the meanwhile, three men are watching him through the open window while two other men, dressed in bowler hats and black coats, are hiding on the left and right sides of the “downstage,” invisible to the assassin. They look like detectives planning an ambush, however, their choice of weapons is bizarre, to say the least: one is holding a fishing net and the other a heavy club shaped like a phallus.

“The Menaced Assassin” was at the center of attention at Magritte’s first solo exhibition, which opened on April 23, 1927, at Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels. “The perfumed crowd literally threatens the murderer, so densely does it swarm around him and admire him,” wrote artist Pierre Flouquet. Eighty-five years later, we are still irresistibly drawn to this macabre and enigmatic image.

The year 1927 was an important landmark in Magritte’s life. He was 29 and he had already achieved a modest recognition as a Cubist artist. Now he became driven by the idea of expressing the subconscious and the imponderable workings of the human mind. In spring of 1927 Magritte joined the group of Surrealist artists, poets and critics and contributed to the first issue of the periodical Correspondence which manifested the advent of Surrealism in Belgium. In September, he moved to Paris and became acquainted with such prominent Surrealists as Jean Arp, Max Ernst and Joan Miró. Later, he met with Dalí, who was just embarking on his career as a Surrealist artist and was a great admirer of Magritte’s art.

The exhibition at the Menil focuses on the most important 12 years of Magritte’s life during which he became the artist that we know today. It strategically opens with “The Menaced Assassin,” the artist’s programmatic work in which he laid out the principles of his new art. His intention was to provide insight into the hidden nature of ordinary things, to challenge conventional knowledge and to look beyond the appearances. During these years, Magritte was extremely experimental in regards to subject matter and technique. In his paintings, shapes are falling from the sky, go through a metamorphosis and form hybrids. The artist also explored the potential of painting and collage.

Later, in his famous lecture, “La Ligne de la vie” (“The Line of Life”), delivered in 1938, the artist summarized diverse approaches he had been employing in order to achieve “a disturbing poetic effect.” Here are some of them: “the creation of new objects, the transformation of new objects; a change of substance in the case of certain objects: a wooden sky, for instance; the use of words in association with images; the misnaming of an object; the development of ideas suggested by friends; the use of certain visions glimpsed between sleeping and waking….”

As we move through the exhibition, we see how these approaches whimsically play out in Magritte’s paintings. Having seen many of his iconic images in books, on posters and note cards, one experiences a mixed reaction of a déjà-vu and a genuine surprise. Looking at the original painting of the familiar locomotive coming at us full-speed from the fire-place in “Time Transfixed” or at the ubiquitous smoking pipe with a caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) in “The Treachery of Images,” we realize how much these images lose in quality when reproduced. Magritte is a delicate colorist, despite the fact that he often limits his palette to a three or four colors. Black, one of his favorites, always has a variety of shades and finishes — for an example, take a closer look at the bowler hats in “The Menaced Assassin.”

Menil Director Josef Helfenstein, who co-curated this exhibition with colleagues from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, commented on the challenges of the installation of the show. Each of Magritte’s paintings, he said, “demands its own space” and, when placed in proximity with other paintings, it “engages in a dialogue” which can become tense and even disturbing. At the same time, this dialogue reveals intrinsic connections and interrelationships between the paintings and, ultimately, leads to a better understanding of Magritte’s legacy.

This “tense and disturbing” dialogue between Magritte’s works can be sensed, for example, in grouping together the following three paintings: “The Titanic Days,” “The Lovers” and “Attempting the Impossible.” Each one provides a commentary on the complexity of intimate relationships between a man and a woman from a different perspective. “The Titanic Days” shows a couple engaged in a violent struggle, with the male figure of the assailant virtually becoming an extension of the female figure that desperately tries to shake him off. In “The Lovers,” a man and a woman are trying to kiss, but are unable to touch each other’s lips because their heads are wrapped in fabric.

“Attempting the Impossible” is Magritte’s interpretation of the Pygmalion myth. It is a portrait of the artist (“Pygmalion”) and his wife Georgette (“Galatea”). Unlike traditional paintings on this popular subject, in which the marble sculpture of an ideally beautiful woman comes to life as a gift from gods to the love-stricken master who created it, Magritte stripped the story of any romantic trappings. His Pygmalion resembles a middle-class accountant; standing in a dull colorless interior of an ordinary apartment and looking as excited as a bank employee going through a spreadsheet, he is finishing the left arm of Galatea. However, he is not painting on canvas: his brush seem to conjure a real flesh-and-blood woman out of thin air.

Oil on canvas Top to bottom: 8 11/16 x 4 3/4; 7 1/2 x 9 7/16; 10 5/8 x 7 1/2; 8 11/16 x 6 5/16; 8 11/16 x 4 3/4. The Menill Collection, Houston

The exhibition also brings together for the first time works which were intended to be seen together, yet got separated over the course of time. One such group is a series of three toiles decoupées, cut and re-assembled paintings, which includes “The Eternally Obvious,” the depiction of a nude consisting of five sections; “Celestial Perfections,” the painting of clouds presented in four sections; and “The Depths of the Earth,” the landscape arranged in four sections. Conservators who examined Magritte’s works prior to the exhibition acknowledge the complexity of the artist’s creative process in regards to these re-assembled paintings. It appears that Magritte carefully considered which parts of the original painting he wanted to preserve in the re-assembled image and then meticulously mapped out their placement, sometimes positioning a horizontal section of the canvas vertically or placing side by side sections which were not in close proximity to each other in the original.

Another example of paintings reunited is the set of decorative panels which was commissioned by eccentric British poet, arts patron and collector of Surrealist art Edward James in 1937-38. It includes three large-scale paintings: “The Red Model,” “Youth Illustrated” and “On the Threshold of Liberty.” Gathered in one gallery, these panels are positioned in the same relation to each other as they were in the ballroom at James’s home. Like other Magritte works, they are perplexing and disquieting in their content, which was exactly the effect that James sought. A month after Magritte completed his work, James wrote to him that his paintings “produced a profound sensation at my ball….  Above all, the human boots [“The Red Model” which portrays a transformation of boots into human feet] struck a chord with the young dancing couples in their capitalist heels.” The same gallery features other paintings by Magritte acquired by James, including the famous “Time Transfixed.”

The exhibition “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938” is complemented by a show of Magritte’s late works from the Menil collection. Titled “Memories of a Voyage: The Late Works of René Magritte,” it features some famous images, such as “The Dominion of Light,” in which day and night coexist in the same space, and “Golconda,” with a myriad of bowler-hatted, suit-dressed men descending from the sky. In addition to paintings, this gallery also showcases sculptures, painted wine bottles (which Magritte reportedly drank first in the company of his friends) and memorabilia, such as a black bowler hat. Throughout his life, Magritte continued to project an image of himself as a “boring” bourgeois. This was a subversive act intended to overturn the romanticized image of an artist as a hero who is led in his work by the divine inspiration. The bowler hat may be seen as a symbol of Magritte’s art: it represents ordinary things that possess secret powers and challenge us to re-think the surrounding world as we know it.

“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938” is on view at the Menil Collection, located at 1533 Sul Ross Street, Houston, through June 1.

For more information about museum hours and programs related to the exhibition, visit


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