- René Magritte
- LA MISÉRICORDE
- signed Magritte (upper left); titled on the reverse and on the stretcher
- oil on canvas
- 45 by 55cm.
- 17 3/4 by 21 5/8 in.
Harold Diamond, New York
J. B. Hudson Cy, Detroit
Galerie Agora, Paris
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner in 1974
Art News, New York, May 1974, illustrated p. 17
David Sylvester (ed.), Sarah Whitfield & Michael Raeburn, René Magritte. Catalogue Raisonné, Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes 1949-1967, London, 1993, vol. III, no. 1055, illustrated p. 440
La Miséricorde is a witty and enigmatic variation on the theme of an unidentified man in a grey suit, one of the most iconic images of Magritte's oeuvre. The best-known element of Magritte's iconography - the bowler-hatted man - has here been transformed into a mysterious figure of a man with the oversized eye replacing his head. In the 1960s, Magritte executed several works using the image of a large eye, which is either replacing the head of a man, as in the present work, or the top part of a baluster, or 'bilboquet'. The first mention of this subject is found in a letter Magritte wrote to André Bosmans in October 1963: 'In the near future I'll paint a picture not unconnected with this power of the gaze (in the sense of the power of thought)' (quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), op. cit., vol. III, p. 389). The sketch (fig. 1) that accompanied the letter appears to be a preliminary idea for the oil La Traversée difficile (fig. 2) of 1963, which is closely related to the present work.
Used in a number of paintings and gouaches throughout the artist's career, the suited man appears in various guises. He is sometimes depicted from the back, sometimes from the front, his face obscured by an object placed in front of it, as a dark contour faintly visible against the night sky, or fossilised into a block of stone. Often he is no more than a silhouette, providing a frame in which another subject is depicted. What is common to all of them is the fact that the man remains impersonal, an individual transformed into a universal object, as his facial features are never visible. In La Miséricorde Magritte introduces an additional element of irony: while the man's head becomes a huge, all-seeing eye, at the same time it stops the viewer from seeing the man and disguises his identity. Rather than being scrutinised by the viewer, the man with his large eye returns his gaze.
The fragmentation of the human body and depiction of isolated body parts is not only an important theme in the works of René Magritte, but also one that expresses the essence of Surrealism in general. It contains two ideas central to Surrealist art: that of desire and fetishism, as explored in the works of, amongst others, Dalí and Miró, and that of threat and violence, such as in the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti. While the replacement of the man's head by the enlarged eyeball appears funny as well as disturbing, Magritte's use of similar imagery and body parts is rarely violent. Rather than evoking a mutilation of a human body, he uses its segments in the same way he would isolate a segment of a landscape and place it in a different, unexpected environment.
By changing the context in which we are used to seeing these objects, the artist challenges our ideas of the visible world and of the nature of art itself. A similar juxtaposition of body parts appears most famously in Le Viol, in which Magritte superimposed a woman's facial features onto her torso. It was the image of the eye, however, that particularly fascinated Magritte (fig. 4) as well as many other Surrealist artists: Man Ray famously used a photograph of Lee Miller's eye in his Indestructible Object; Picabia often depicted figures with multiple pairs of eyes in his 'Monster' paintings, and Luis Buñuel used it in the celebrated sequence in the film Un Chien Andalou. They all find their precursor in the sinister, mysterious works of Odilon Redon, such as his L'OEil (fig. 3), depicting an isolated eye.
The image of the man is set against a landscape, unidentifiable except for the image of the burning house towards the horizon, surrounded by scattered rocks. The imagery of the fire and stones, which Magritte used throughout his career, evokes a prehistoric age and a sense of timelessness, which stand in contrast with the modern-looking wall that frames the composition to the right. It is by combining the subject of a faceless modern man with the timeless and the unknowable, that Magritte questions our perception of reality and unveils the mystery hidden in everyday images.