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Private Parts: The Son of Man by René Magritte

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Private Parts is a series exposing the raw, gritty, and true stories behind artworks in private collections. Every week, you’ll find the untold tales of the back stabbings, thefts, and $100 million deals that move these works to secret lairs and impregnable vaults around the world. We’ll always be crazy in love with museums and galleries, but we also believe in giving the people what they want: All the art.


This week, behold René Magritte’s The Son of Man.

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But he was such a good boy…

The painting’s owner? Your guess is as good as ours. How much is it worth? If you buy it, let us know. Where can you see it? Somewhere between nowhere and at the mountains of madness. The only thing we know for sure is that everyone from The Simpsons to James Bond seems drawn to Magritte’s apple-bodied self-portrait.

Maybe you couldn’t call up this painting’s name off the top of your head, but guaranteed you’ll see Miley Cyrus’ dance partner and at least think something like, “Oh that. I am aware of that.”

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Something about the composition just down-right (t)werks.

The Son of Man has been an icon basically since it was finished in 1964. The painting’s life has been a little tall, dark, and mysterious. After entering the clutches of a stingy, secret private collector, the real thing has been almost impossible to see in person.

The last time it was available for viewing was in 2011 at Montreal’s super-swanky LHotel lounge. Because nothing says fine art like drinking $15 Grey Goose martinis in a building that looks like a rejected design for the orgy palace in Eyes Wide Shut.

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Just one more drink and you won’t even remember there’s nothing fun to do in Montreal.

Most likely you’ve been introduced to The Son of Man through its dozens of movie appearances. Current Academy Award nominee Tom Hardy dressed an imprisoned prison guard as the figure in 2009’s Bronson (9:00 minute mark, NSFW). Perennially quirky Zooey Deschanal’s quirky character in 2005’s quirky love story (500) Days of Summer uses the painting as a quirky way to infer her quirky inability to love Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character. And then, of course, there’s the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, which uses The Son of Man as an outright plot point.

Norman Rockwell was so moved by Magritte’s self-portrait that he made his own version of it called Mr. Apple. This time, the apple is the head. And, get this, it’s red! It’s the painting equivalent of your friend who always bungles a joke’s punchline.

So, in the face of never really being able to see it in real life, why does this painting give so many people a case of the feels? There’s no denying it gets under people’s skin. Like the man behind the apple has walked with you through all of life’s journey, explaining a little bit of the great mystery about the core of creation.

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You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.

Son of Man is one of those paintings that has the it factor. If you tried merely describing the idea to someone, they’d probably ask for your dealer’s number. Seriously, backwards-armed fancy-man with face covered by apple before seascape doesn’t exactly scream compelling. It hardly yells compelling. More so grunts confusedly with an outside-voice for more Doritos.

But when all those elements come together… BAM! Instant classic.

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Sure, the name implies something religious. Christ was the Son of Man. And apples (by some traditions) are the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which lead to humanity getting bounced out of God’s kickass open-air club. Oceans can mean the subconscious, walls keep us out of things, and cloudy skies mean trouble’s brewing.

So is there some kind of message we can take from all this? According to Magritte, “It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either. It is unknowable.”

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Magritte just wants to see the world burn.


By: Clayton Schuster

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Clayton Schuster

Sr. Contributor

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