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Art Through Time: A Global View

Dreams and Visions Art: The False Mirror

» René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967)

The False Mirror

The False Mirror
Artist / Origin: René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967)
Region: Europe
Date: 1928
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 21 ¼ in. (54 cm.), W: 31 7/8 in. (80.5 cm.)
Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Credit: © 2009 C. Herscovici, London/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Digital Image

In Magritte’s painting, The False Mirror, a huge human eye completely covers the canvas.

The image jolts the viewer by removing the eye from its usual context, presenting it without the face to which it belongs. It further disrupts expectation by placing a circular sky inside the otherwise ordinary oculus. Sometimes called “magical realism,” such juxtaposition of normally unrelated objects within a seemingly incongruous context is characteristic of much of Magritte’s oeuvre. For Magritte and Surrealists working in a similar mode, these surprising, even bizarre combinations were considered the products of their unconscious minds. By visualizing them, the artists believed, they might also touch the unconscious minds of their viewers.

Many of Magritte’s Surrealist colleagues, including Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst, made use of eyes as a motif in their art. In their works, as in Magritte’s, eyes undermine our basic assumptions—they are recontextualized, multiplied, and assaulted; on occasion, they cry glass tears. The Surrealists meant these kinds of images to make viewers uneasy, to unsettle complacent attitudes about art and life. By replacing the eye’s iris with a blue, cloud-filled sky in False Mirror, Magritte challenges us to question what we see and what we think we know. Is the sky a reflection of what the eye is seeing? Is the eye in fact an opening into another reality? Are we looking at an inner vision, or something else entirely? One thing is certain: Magritte’s False Mirror is an invitation to look at the world differently.

Expert Perspective:
Mary Ann Caws, Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature, Graduate Center of the City University of New York

“The whole history of the way the eye is represented, all the way through Surrealism, you see these eyes projected as both windows and mirrors. And looking at it through the window and looking into the interior soul of the artist seems to me one of the most interesting things possibly that the artist, any artist, can project upon the canvas, and upon the world. And in Surrealism, as in Magritte, there’s a, there’s an interconnection between the dream and the real, between night and day. And that is perfectly illustrated, I think, by The False Mirror—this kind of transparent, inner penetration of outside and inside. So it’s both the dream and the real world, and it’s the way that the painter—all painters—project upon the world their own vision and their own dreams.”

Additional Resources

Allmer, Patricia, and Hilde Van Gelder. Collective Inventions: Surrealism in Belgium. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2007.

Barron, Stephanie, Michel Draguet, and Dickran Tashjian. Magritte and Contemporary Art. Antwerp: Ludion in association with Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2006.

Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism. London: Phaidon, 2004.

Garrels, Gary. Magritte. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.

Gohr, Siegfried, and Rene Magritte. Magritte: Attempting the Impossible.New York D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2009.

Paquet, Marcel. Rene Magritte 1898–1967: Thoughts Rendered Visible, rev. ed. Cologne: Taschen, 2000.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2