Paintings are painted to make the viewers feel emotions. They capture the attention of the viewers. But then there are paintings, such as The Son of Man by French Surrealist painter Rene Magritte, that do more than that.
At first, the viewer is confused, seeing a random green apple in the middle of the subject’s face. But the longer you look at it, the more intense you feel this confusion.
Rene Magritte has placed the apple with a purpose and an understanding of the human mind. The apple is not there to give the painting a shock value, but to elicit a strong emotional response from the viewer.
Let’s look at how and why the painting has become such a massively popular piece of artwork and why you feel agitated once you keep looking at the apple.
The Man in the Painting
Before you dive deeper into the psychological elements of the painting, let’s take a look at the subject of the painting.
From the simple bowler hat to the long coat, there is nothing peculiar about this person. His red tie adds visual excitement and his right hand is glowing due to the golden sunlight
Many people would be shocked to find out that this is a self-portrait; the man standing in the painting is Rene Magritte. But self-portraits are just that; paintings of the painter. Nothing more.
Magritte wanted to bring more. By hiding just his face, he revealed something deeper in our minds. By hiding his face, he shows our desire to see something. Confused? Let us elaborate.
The Human Psychology to Know
For hundreds of thousands of years, the ability of humans to see has been one of the most important senses. It lets you recognize people, see oncoming danger, and in later times, enjoy beautiful pieces of art.
Humans are not just good at seeing, but excellent at pattern-forming. Take a look at this simple picture below and think of what it reminds you.
Even though this image is just two dots and a curved line, your brain cannot help but see a face there, right?
Not just that, humans have the tendency to see anything that resembles two eyes and a mouth and try to fit it in a face that we see hundreds of times every day.
Whenever you see a face, your brain does a scan of all the faces it knows and tries to match it with the one in front of the eyes. This scan is blisteringly fast and you are never aware of it. But The Son of Man brings this tendency into your view.
The Desire To See
Once you take a look at the face, notice how the apple perfectly sits in the middle of the face, and imperfectly covers the face.
You can see the edges of the face, the ears, the chin, and even the left eye and eyebrow. The apple shows very small parts of the face, but not the face.
With this limited information, your brain scurries through your memories, trying to find a similar face. You can feel yourself trying to imagine the face of the subject.
The painter did not cover the entire face for a reason. If the entire face is gone, there is nothing for our brains to pick up. It just becomes a painting of someone whose face is hidden.
But with the apple, things are different. With this, Rene Magritte successfully shows what he wanted to show. Read it in his own words:
At least it hides the face partly well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.– Rene Magritte
With the words of Rene Magritte, let’s move to the message of the poem and see what he was trying to convey with just a man standing in a simple, plain suit and an apple.
The key message of the painting is “everything obstructs the view of something.” In this three-dimensional world that we live in, everything is in something’s way.
Take a look around you; the part of the table is blocking the view of the wall behind it.
Or take a look outside, the large building or the house is blocking the part of the sky behind it. Even the window columns block some parts of the view.
But none of this matters to us in everyday life because we are used to these obstructions. We have some idea of what the thing behind the other thing is going to be like.
We do not really want to see what’s behind the object; the wall behind the table is just a plain wall. Or the sky behind the building will just be the sky.
But when we want to see what’s behind the object, then things start to change. The object between becomes an obstruction.
The Agitation of Not Being Able to See
Let’s say that you want to see the face of someone standing afar, but you cannot due to something in between. Then you feel this urge to know how the face looks. You get bothered by anything that comes in between.
Take another example. Let’s say there is a sign with something written on it. You can see the beginning and the end of it, but not the middle due to some obstruction.
Your mind gets to work by creating all the possibilities; what the sentence would say to make sense, or what the missing words could be. Even though you might be right, you still want to see the words to confirm.
The exact same thing is happening in this painting. With the right amount of information, the painter has teased your curiosity and you want to see how his face looks. Does the actual face match what your mind’s imagination spun?
Rene Magritte understands this desire to see and know someone’s face. The Son of Man is not the only painting where he has played around with the face. There are so many others where he bends the idea of a face to capture our attention.
The longer you try to figure out the face of the person, the more agitated you get. But no one wants to keep looking at something that makes them feel agitated, stressed, or in some cases, angry.
So what is special about this painting that stops such extreme feelings? Why do you want to look at it, and in many ways, find comfort in it?
The Balance and Conflict
The idea behind the painting is not to agitate the viewers but to introduce conflict. The painter wants to show the idea of how things obstruct the view all the time.
But if not done the right way, the painting would lose its effect. If it is too chaotic, it will fail to capture the attention of the viewer. So the painter creates balance.
Apart from the apple, take a look at the other elements of the painting. From the neat and central position of the man standing right in the middle of the painting to the posture, everything is so neat, sharp, and clean.
There is a balance of elements; the sky has clouds but they are very faint to just tell us there are clouds, not look at them. The same goes for the sea. There is nothing happening in the sea; no waves, boats, etc.
Even the gray and monotonous long coat and hat are balanced by the small red tie. The entire painting is harmonious and clean to soothe your eyes. The clean and sharp line of the wall behind divides the landscape perfectly.
So your eyes stay on the painting because it is so balanced and soothing. But there is just one problem; the apple. There is symmetry there as well.
The position of the leaves of the apple suggests that it is falling down. The painting is captivating because it has captured something dynamic. While the man is standing still, the apple is falling; balance.
This balance and conflict are what make the painting so unique. It gives the painting a quality that one cannot really understand without analyzing it. Like an itch that you know is there, but don’t know
The Son of Man, at the expense of not making a sensible comparison, is like a soft and comfortable mattress that feels perfect, but there is just one small obstruction that digs into your body. And it does not go away.
At the conclusion of this article, here’s something we would ask you; if you could, would you remove that apple and reveal the face and the expression of the subject of the painting?