This week, KAZoART’s editorial team decided to take a closer look at a very enigmatic work of art: René Magritte’s iconic piece “The Lovers“! This specific piece is swamped in mystery and has always intrigued casual art lovers and critics alike. Magritte has mercilessly left us with no real objective explanation pertaining to the meaning of this surrealist Masterpiece, with no real way of deciphering its deeper significance! We love a challenge, here at KAZoART and today we’re slipping into the artist’s shoes in order to uncover the secrets that lie beneath the surface of this enigmatic work!

René Magritte in a Few Words

Born in 1898 and deceased in 1967, René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist painter. As a child, Magritte had a passion for comics and cinema. Unfortunately, his innocence and childhood wonder were cut short after his mother committed suicide when he was only 14 years old.

In 1915, Magritte turns his gaze to painting: he leaves his studies to settle in Brussels, near the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He planned on taking courses there, and initially painted in an impressionist style. From the very beginning, Magritte adopted a rather contemptuous and anarchistic temperament.

Photoportrait de René Magritte © Bridgeman Images
Portrait of René Magritte © Bridgeman Images

At the Academy, he discovered a new love for Cubism and Futurism, and then subsequently the Dada movement in the early 1920s. But it was in 1926 that Magritte created The Lost Jockey, a painting considered to be the very first of his Surrealist works!

It was around that time that he joined the newly formed Belgian Surrealist group. However, Magritte eventually took the decision to leave Belgium for Paris. There, in 1927, he met the group of surrealists, with the likes of André Breton, Salvador Dali, Paul Éluard, Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy.

René Magritte, Le Jockey Perdu, 1926 © MoMA
René Magritte, The Lost Jockey, 1926 © MoMA

Of all his surrealist entourage, Magritte is certainly the only one who did not adhere to the concept of psychic automatism advocated by his contemporary André Breton. He was more interested in symbols, enigmatic and metaphorical, sometimes even humorous images. 

These works, often highly enigmatic, highlight our lack of discernment between reality and the mental images generated by our mind. His paintings often require a second level of analysis, and are made up of several layers of images, as if superimposed one on top of each other. 

“The Lovers“ : 3 Details Picked up by KAZoART

1. It’s Actually the First in a Series of Four Paintings

What most people don’t know is that Magritte’s painting The Lovers is actually part of a series of four paintings, each made over the course of one year, the year being 1928. The three paintings have the same name, each followed by a Roman numeral to differentiate them. 

René Magritte, Les Amants, 1928, MoMA NY
René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928, MoMA NY

The one we are talking about today is the first in the series. It is currently being held at the Richard S. Zeisler Collection in New York’s MoMA.

Much like the first in the series, Magritte’s The Lovers II depicts a couple with their faces covered by a white sheet. This time they are not kissing, but merely standing side by side. They seem to be posing as if waiting for their photograph to be taken!

René Magritte, Les Amants II, 1928, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
René Magritte, The Lovers II, 1928, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The Lovers III illustrates the couple once again, but this time Magritte shows us the faces of his two characters. But straight away something is off. The man depicted next to the young woman doesn’t seem to have a body. His head appears to float above the woman’s shoulder! The result is particularly disturbing and quite unsettling…

René Magritte, Les Amants III, 1928, Collection Privée
René Magritte, The Lovers III, 1928, Private Collection

Finally, the last in the series, The Lovers IV, features the same couple: but this time, it is no longer a close-up portrait. This time around, the young woman appears to be sitting quite comfortably on a rock, arms crossed, locked in a passionate embrace with the man who once again, still has no body — only a floating head

René Magritte, Les Amants IV, 1928, Collection Privée
René Magritte, The Lovers IV, 1928, Private Collection

A very enigmatic series, which only adds even more mystique to the original painting itself, which is already steeped in mystery!

2. An Almost Cinematic Style of Framing 

In his painting The Lovers, René Magritte shows a couple locked in a passionate embrace, kissing through white sheets over their heads, covering their features. The gender of each subject is only distinguishable by their clothing. The woman is wearing a red dress, while the man she’s kissing is wearing a black suit.

In this work, Magritte chooses to give us very little information about the setting in which the kiss is taking place. This lack of information is mainly due to the almost cinematographic framing and close-up on the heads of the two subjects.

René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928, MoMA NY

This cinematographic style of framing is undoubtedly influenced by Magritte’s love for cinema, a passion he’s had since he was a child! The couple takes up almost the entirety of the surface of the canvas, very intimate, as if it was a frame straight out of a love scene one would see in a romantic movie!

Only a few architectural hints allow us to speculate about where the scene is taking place. Perhaps in the corner of a sitting room? Maybe an open door with a stormy sky brewing in the distance? In any case, the vagueness of the location combined with the unique framing of the piece, allow Magritte to focus the viewer’s attention on this mysterious couple!

3. The Sheet — Symbol of a Blind, Discreet or Unconscious Love?

René Magritte often uses a lot of metaphorical imagery and symbolism in his work. He changes the meaning of objects and the other, creates word plays and enigmas in each piece to produce mysterious canvases. Here, the most intriguing element is quite obviously the thick white sheets that cover both the subjects faces. 

These white sheets give Magritte’s work all its meaning. Their importance is paramount, because without them the work loses all of its originality and intrigue. It’s these sheets that draw our eyes to the piece, enticing the viewers attention with their innate mystique.

Many art critics over the years have drawn parallels with the veil found on his mother’s face, following her suicide by drowning. But we must put aside this fascination for psychoanalysis, wrongly inseparable from surrealism, to which he was not a fan and did not adhere to at all.

René Magritte, Les Amants, 1928, MoMA NY (détail)
René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928, MoMA NY (a closer look)

It would then perhaps be more apt to interpret his work as a rebus, an enigma, as one can often do with the rest of his emblematic works. Thus, the white sheets that deprive the two lovers of sight and sensual skin-to-skin contact could evoke both a blind and discreet love, but also a totally unconscious and a somewhat senseless desire that brings them even closer together.

Perhaps Magritte is trying to allude to the fact that love is blind, that it is not necessary for two people to physically see each other, to love each other. The sheets could also signify the object of desire that these two lovers have for one another.

These two covered faces can thus give rise to a lot of speculation and many different interpretations. According to Magritte, if he had explained the true meaning behind his work, it would destroy the mystery behind it — taking away the main attraction that draws the viewers interest. The surrealist artist voluntarily cultivates this taste for mystery, and lets us choose the meaning that speaks to us most! 

A word from the artist…

“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist” 

René Magritte

Artists inspired by Magritte on KAZoART