“L’Imprudent” and René Magritte’s Use of Doubles and Doppelgängers

“L’Imprudent” and René Magritte’s Use of Doubles and Doppelgängers

Constituting a cornerstone of René Magritte’s Surrealist imagery, the concepts of doubling and repetition at the core of “L’Imprudent” promulgate notions of the uncanny and mediate reality and representation in the artist's oeuvre.
Constituting a cornerstone of René Magritte’s Surrealist imagery, the concepts of doubling and repetition at the core of “L’Imprudent” promulgate notions of the uncanny and mediate reality and representation in the artist's oeuvre.

T he trope of the double is one of the most prevalent methods used by René Magritte to reject traditional expectations and imbue his works with an inherent sense of the uncanny. Although Magritte largely eschewed burgeoning psychoanalytic theories, such as those of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as a lens for his artistic output, they were substantially absorbed into the Surrealist realm in which he associated. In his seminal 1919 essay, “The Uncanny,” Freud characterizes the titular term as the sense of disquiet emerging from something being simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Magritte’s oeuvre is replete with examples of the double used to evoke the uncanny, notably Le Prêtre marié, from 1961, and La Valse hesitation, from 1950. Both compositions feature a pair of green apples donning masks, their doubling and proximity evoking an interpersonal relationship that is unexpectedly anthropomorphizing.

René Magritte, L’Imprudent , 1927. Oil on canvas, 39 ¼ by 28 ½ in. 99.6 by 72.4 cm. Estimate: 4,000,000 – 6,000,000 USD
RENÉ MAGRITTE, LE PRÊTRE MARIÉ, 1961. OIL ON CANVAS. PRIVATE COLLECTION

Freud further invokes the double in “The Uncanny,” stating that “the quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect. The ‘double’ has become a vision of terror” (S. Freud, “The Uncanny,” 1919, accessed online). The “double” aptly describes the dichotomy between the unconscious and conscious self, which have been divorced from each other via the process of repression.

By depicting a man's face bisected to reveal small bells inside, Magritte’s 1927 canvas Le Double secret illustrates this duality. Equally suggestive of this notion is his La Reproduction interdite, from 1937, in which a man, his back turned to the viewer, faces a mirror. Instead of reflecting his face, the viewer sees the image of his back. Compelling the viewer to reconcile the logically inexplicable and impossible, the double here becomes a mode to challenge existing assumptions regarding perceptions of reality. As the subject’s face remains hidden, Magritte here equally alludes to the inaccessibility of the unconscious self.

RENÉ MAGRITTE, LE DOUBLE SECRET, 1927. OIL ON CANVAS. Centre Pompidou, Paris

The concept of the doppelgänger (literally “double goer”), an exact but usually unseen replica of every living creature’s spirit, finds its origins in German folklore, in which it portends imminent death. A prominent motif in nineteenth-century literature, including works like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double (1846), it also manifests in the proto-Surrealist works of American poet and author Edgar Allan Poe, who served as a major source of inspiration for Magritte. The artist’s 1966 painting Decalcomania, illustrating a man accompanied by his negative-space double, bespeaks this invisible presence of the doppelgänger.

LEFT: RENÉ MAGRITTE, LA REPRODUCTION INTERDITE, 1937. OIL ON CANVAS. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. RIGHT: RENÉ MAGRITTE, Decalcomania, 1966. Oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou, Paris

Magritte used evocations of photography in his paintings to equal effect. L’Homme du journal, from 1928, depicts the same interior scene four times, a mimesis reminiscent of a photographic image. However, the man reading a newspaper featured in the upper left panel does not appear in the remaining three, eliciting in the viewer a sense of disquiet from his absence. Further, Magritte makes nearly imperceptible alterations to each interior scene in order to further subvert viewers’ assumptions of a perfectly replicated image. A similar approach is present in his 1928 work Le Silence du sourire, in which a portrait of a seemingly identical man is repeated four times. Upon closer inspection, however, the men possess subtly differing visages.

RENÉ MAGRITTE, L’HOMME DU JOURNAL, 1928. OIL ON CANVAS. TATE MODERN, LONDON

Magritte’s use of repetition and mimesis within his oeuvre is also evocative of his fascination with the photographic image. Photography became an ideal technology for the promulgation of the Surrealist aesthetic, as it provided a means for artists such as Man Ray and Dora Maar to manipulate assumptions regarding the production of an objective image in order to blur dream and reality. As such, photography also served Magritte’s objective to highlight the non-objective nature of art. This is made most apparent in his 1965 photographic collaboration with Duane Michal in 1965, in which the artists used the technique of multiple exposure to depict Magritte multiple times in the same image and thus subvert the traditional artist’s portrait.

RENÉ MAGRITTE, L’Empire des lumières, 1961. OIL ON CANVAS. SOLD: SOTHEBY’S LONDON, 2 MARCH 2022, LOT 114 FOR $79. MILLION, THE ARTIST’S RECORD AT AUCTION

Magritte takes a duplicative approach across his oeuvre that reveals the influence of his initial career producing art for commercial advertising. Such works equally suggest a critique of Modernism’s principle of the singular, unique image. La Condition humane and L’Empire des lumières describe numerous standalone works that possess identical titles yet confoundingly feature different compositions.

RENÉ MAGRITTE, GOLCONDA, 1953. OIL ON CANVAS. MENIL COLLECTION, HOUSTON

Repetition is also integral to Magritte’s most recurrent iconography, the man in the bowler hat. Magritte employed such figures to embody the generic sameness of the everyday bourgeois man. Numerous works feature repetitions of the same man within the same composition. In Golconda, from 1953, men in bowler hats are suspended midair in seemingly endless repetition. In so doing, Magritte reinforces this notion of the quotidian sameness inherent to modern man. As such, the men in bowler hats are a figurative tabula rasa through which Magritte manipulates everyday imagery to challenge the perception of reality.

Impressionist & Modern Art Surrealism

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