Monday, 24 January 2011

Bite 44: René Magritte - Portrait of Edward James, 1937

Portrait of Edward James, 1937, oil on canvas
In Magritte's characteristic style of realist-surrealism he presents a portrait - or rather a non-portrait - as both banal and sinister. Cleverly playing on the Freudian concept of the doppelgänger - the uncanny existence of a double, often a ghostly double, who haunts its fleshly counterpart - the subject of the work seems to almost turn in on itself creating a claustophobic, haunted space even as Edward James seems to sit calmly upright for his 'portrait'.

An 'identity splitting' is represented in the work by a mirror - a symbol used throughout art history to connote vanity or an alternate state or world.  Here it creates a visual contradiction, exemplifying a kind of losing of face, with the back of James' head repeated, his face present by implication yet, impossibly, invisible.

It can be seen as a further annunciation of the paradox of representation present in much of Magritte's work (most famously in Ceci n'est pas une pipe, 1928-29). The surface of the painting presents both 'heads' as equally tangible and yet ephemeral, existing yet merely represented, living while dead.

The concept represented here is seen throughout the film Black Swan (2010).