Saturday 24 February 2018

The Son of Man

Niall MacMonagle

When Adam and Eve ate of the apple, they hadn't a stitch on them. That was a long time ago. In the meantime the fashion industry has produced endless variations and permutations – doublet and hose, bustles, corsets, drainpipe trousers, elephant flares, mini- and maxi-skirts, and now those lazy trousers showing off what designer underwear's underneath...

All those different ways to cover up. Here's Mr Buttoned-Up himself, in bowler hat, collar and tie, overcoat. Upright, middle-aged, clean-shaven, he's standing prim and proper, hands by his side. Rene Magritte's title, The Son of Man, traces the human story back to Adam and that apple. He's not the son of God. He's a regular, dull kind of guy.

It's the most conventional of images except for the face. Or rather not the face. Improbably the fruit is suspended there between him and us, so we never get a good look. That's what makes the image surreal.

The background sea and sky are pleasant, almost bland; the chiselled, brick wall is solid and stylish. This son of man stands tall and the apple, complete with leaves, looks as if it's just dropped straight from the tree.

Born in Lessines, Belgium, Magritte became a wallpaper designer and commercial artist and for years he ran his own advertising agency, which he hated, but it earned him a living.

His letterhead read 'Stands-Counters-Publicity Objects-Posters-Drawings-Photocollages-Advertising Copy'. He never had a studio and even when he achieved success, he continued to paint in his dining room.

The images he made there in an ordinary room were never ordinary. They not only questioned the artistic act, but echoed Freudian theory and symbols. Though this "magician of the imaginary" died during the Swinging Sixties, he influenced advertising big time and inspired the Pop Art movement. The cover of the Rolling Stones 1973 hit single Angie is indebted to Magritte's 1934 painting Rape.

Many of the paintings will delight a child; others intrigue and disturb and will make grown-ups pause and consider the complexities of adulthood. Man has come a long way since Eden, but Magritte's man is staring at that apple. Temptation hasn't gone away, you know.

Sunday Independent

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