Magritte cover image blog

Standing Next to Myself, with Questions

I’ve had, for years, the strangest surrealist moments sparked by catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror or reflection in a shop window. It can be startling, this dissociative, out-of-body experience, wherein the image before me does not correlate with the image in my mind’s eye.

Plainly put: I don’t know what I look like.

Rene Magritte "son of man" surrealist painting
Rene Magritte, "Son of Man" 1964

It’s as if I’ve been blocked out, like Rene Magritte’s (1898-1967) figure behind the apple in “Son of Man,” and only know my face as the apple. Then, on occasion and for reasons unbeknownst to me, the apple disappears, revealing a face I hadn’t expected.

Magritte’s explanation of this painting may shed some light:

“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.”

When Art Imitates Life

Studies indicate that both men and women spend nearly an hour a day looking at themselves in a mirror. I’ve never timed myself but suspect I’m not all that different. So why, I’ve often wondered, is my reality so skewed from my internal knowing?

From the website, ReneMagritte.org, here’s an interesting bit of insight into the artist’s train of thought:

“…what is concealed is more important than what is open to view: this was true both of his own fears and of his manner of depicting the mysterious. [His paintings were] not so much to hide as to achieve an effect of alienation.” 

Right. So, according to Magritte, I’m actually being startled by “the visible that is hidden”?

Dang. Those surrealists were deep. 

Rene Magritte No to Be Reproduced surreal art
Rene Magritte, "Not to Be Reproduced" 1937

Alienation

During WWII, Magritte lived in German-occupied Belgium, apart from his fellow surrealists who remained in Paris. Feeling alienated and abandoned, Magritte supported himself by painting fake van Goghs, Picassos, Cezannes, and others. 

I wonder about this choice, to be a forger as means of survival. Was it simply an obvious way of making money? Or was it part of Magritte’s journey deeper into his own vision? Would his own post-war works have been as poignant had he not forged paintings in the manner of these artists? Did the act of creating forgeries help him understand something essential about each person he emulated, thereby unearthing elements of his own personality? 

Or maybe he just kicked ass mimicking others and didn’t want to starve to death. 

Oh! OK, fun fact: Magritte got so good at forgeries that he was able to create fake bank notes during the occupation, which he and his family lived on. And, apparently, the forgery biz was so lucrative that Magritte’s brother, Paul, took over when Rene went back to making an honest living. Who knew?

The war undoubtedly affected Magritte, but not his form of expression. Surrealism was the visual dialogue introduced to him in Paris by Andre Breton, the founder of the movement, years before the war, and the style Magritte rarely if ever strayed from. Magritte insisted that his work was meant to push viewers to question their sense of reality and become hypersensitive to the world around them.

I would add that his paintings force the viewer to become hypersensitive to the world within, as well.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Magritte The Lovers surrealism
Rene Magritte "The Lovers" 1928

As straightforward as Magritte’s comments about each work are, there are still layers to peel back. 

Like the shrouded figures. Some suggest that these stem from memories of seeing his drowned mother, who had committed suicide, pulled from the river near their home, her dress covering her face, like a shroud. Magritte was 13 when he witnessed this. 

I’m not a scholar on Magritte but I do wonder how much of his work, if any, is about something other than his past and this loss. 

Learning to See

Viewing art is not a passive act. The viewer may be standing quietly, absorbing images, but inside neurons are firing, electrical impulses are kicking in, surging through the body, in particular when memories are triggered, reminding the viewer of something personal. Here’s an interesting article about all the amazing things happening in the body when viewing art: Art Enhances Brain Function and Well-being.

For me, Magritte’s work triggers an internal recognition, a jolt from a kindred spirit in pursuit of the real within the obscured or shrouded, a connection to the floating parts of ourselves, light signals from the transfigured imagination. 

Baggage Is Part of the Experience

I’ve lived with this sense of not knowing what I look like or, worse, believing that I’m sitting in an important meeting, not as the middle-aged professional curator I am, but as a pudgy child with stringy hair and bad skin. 

I see, in my head, the frumpy, naive girl my mother always told me I was. (Still, to this day, given the opportunity, she never misses the chance to land a blow with an abusive jab.)

For much of my life, the surprise was looking in a mirror and not seeing that girl.  

This personal dogma is what I’ve bought to the mirror and carried throughout my life. When told anything counter to this belief, I rejected it out of hand, certain that these flatterers were idiots and scammers. 

Magritte The Therapist surrealism
Rene Magritte "The Therapist" 1937

And then, for some reason, the world shifted during Covid; disassembled “me” began to pull together. 

The True Gift of Art

I tossed out the word, “dissociative,” not to be hyperbolic but to express this weirdly surreal aspect of my nature, this not knowing my own image in a mirror. It’s a strange thing to believe what others say about you to the point of losing yourself, and yet I know so many people experience this. It’s how we lose our way in this life.

Art, artists, and therapy have helped nudge me toward a rethinking of my beliefs, so that the most tender spots in my psyche can be examined and healed.

Rene Magritte, "The Pilgrim" 1966

And, as strange as it may sound, when I work with artists on marketing, we always start by excavating their “why.”

On the surface, this is because I can’t help a person market what they themselves cannot recognize. Yes, every artist can talk about materials and technique, but that’s not what collectors are buying. Collectors are buying an idea. They are buying a piece of the artist.

It’s an amazing gift to be present with creative people as they take on the task of self-interrogation. The process can be messy and emotional and confounding (much as my own self-innterogation has been), but always the journey back to center–back to the reason one became an artist in the first place–is such a glorious awakening.

Freeing the Artist Within

I have come to believe, thanks to many candid conversations with artists, that the act of making art, in its purest sense, is self-interrogation. If the artist is being true to his or her nature, every painting, photograph, or sculpture is a self-portrait. Sometimes these self-portraits are so revealing they are terrifying. And yet, the artist persists.

Art is also a kind of panacea, a prescription for a drug that pulls one closer to his or her core being. No artist can predict who will take what message or cue from a work of art; that’s not the point of it, really. 

The point is to expose the artist’s self, and through that act, the viewer can finally set down her baggage, look in the mirror and see the person who was there all along. 

If you’d like to continue this conversation, please leave a comment below. And feel free to share my blog with friends.

If you are interested in looking into marketing for artists, please reach out and contact me to discuss further.

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

14 thoughts on “Standing Next to Myself, with Questions

  1. Hi Rose! This blog was interesting to me as I just finished a lesson on self portraits with my adult drawing students in a class at ASLD called “Drawing for Those Who Think They Can’t.” I’ve honed a very successful strategy for teaching portraiture and the beginning artists are always amazed at how well they do! I’ve been watching myself age via portraiture for over 30 years but hadn’t drawn a self portrait for a while, so I decided to do two with my class as a homework assignment. The first one was rendered rather quickly in the mirror without measuring anything;, the second was more labor intensive as I measured every single part comparing what I saw in the mirror to what I was drawing on the paper. While #2 was more realistic, my husband said the first one looked most like me.

    I would suggest you try a self portrait. The scrutiny one does in this type of study puts you into a very unique relationship with your face. As you say, we look at ourselves in the mirror every single day (not sure if it is really for an hour…) but what we see really has no bearing on what we actually look like, or even what we think we look like. Most facial features are NOT symmetrical and our greatest differences from one another take place between the nose and chin. The first time I did a self portrait where I actually recognized myself was a transformational moment. I literally saw myself looking back at me. Worth a try, but you might need some instruction….

    • Interesting, Deb. Sounds like a terrific class. I love when artists create self-portraits. I suspect it’s a fascinating journey. For me, well, I gave up painting years ago and haven’t missed it. I believe I have discovered myself through writing. I think it’s how my mind works but the self-interrogation through the written word is transformative. In fact, a few weeks back, I was invited to a painting group and went with my laptop. I wrote while everyone else painted; it was kind of magical.

      Anyway, what I got from Magritte in a flash one afternoon was a sense of kinship. I thought the trauma he experienced in his life manifest in his surreal works and his line of questioning. It felt like I was experiencing painting in a completely different way–that I was seeing myself through his lens vs. seeing a work of art through my lens.

  2. Hi Rose,
    Your blog reminded me of how much I don’t look like what I think I look like. I have a picture in my mind that is quite different. I feel like I’m still in my 30’s, but when I see myself in a photo or mirror (maybe 15 minutes a day) I’m shocked at how old I am. And have you noticed that when you hear a recording of your voice, it doesn’t sound at all what you think you sound like? What is the mind doing with all of this — our aspirations and self-awareness — to fool us?

    I wonder if there are any Magritte Picassos in some collections and museums! In a weird way, maybe they’d be doubly valuable.

    Your blog also reminded me of Paul Simon’s song: René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War. Beautiful song.

    Thanks,
    Ron

    • Oh my goodness! I love that Paul Simon song. I haven’t heard it in years but am about to put it on to listen in the car. Thanks for the reminder!!

      I too wondered if there were any Magritte “Picassos” in museums. I bet there are and think you’re right: they might be more valuable…

      And yes, how strange to be confronted by the slow shock of change. It beats the alternative but still it always has the sense–aging–that you went to bed as a 30 year old and woke in another body. Sometimes I think of aging as a display of my battle scars, a sign of a life well-lived. So far, it’s not lifted any wrinkles, but it does make me smile–NOT too much smiling, because that causes more wrinkles! 🙂

  3. Rose, thanks for this, a very insightful post. First let me say that when I see you, I see a very attractive, poised woman who is thoughtful, smart, and accomplished. And I don’t even know you that well. But I can certainly connect with what you are saying about our inner sense of what we look like. Long ago when I was very socially active out in San Diego, I had a friend who was very tall for women at that time, overweight, and not exceptionally attractive in the traditional sense of the times. But when she walked into a room, it was like a light was turned on. I asked her how she did that and she said just before she stepped into a meeting or gathering, she envisioned herself in a very positive way. Ever since then, I’ve adopted that same technique when walking into a new situation or one where I might not feel completely welcome or at ease. It really works. Just walkin’ the talk I guess.

    • See, Rosemary, this is why you’re such a good writer. You’re observant and then ask great questions. Wonderful advice; that woman sounds like a great person to have known. Thanks, as always, for reading!

  4. Thank you for your vulnerability, Rose. You’ve given me so much to think about…how we shape our view of ourselves and of the world around us, what we obscure and what we seek out. Such a deep well.

    By the way, whenever I see Magritte’s painting with the apple I think of the movie, Stranger Than Fiction. The film references the painting several times and is a quirky delve into those lines between reality and invention.

  5. It’s funny… I’ve placed you on a pedestal for so long. My thoughts of you much similar to Rosemary Carstens comment above. Over the years, can’t believe it’s been years, our conversations have gotten a bit more personal. You’re amazing at eeking out the personal raw stuff in those that you work with, like me.

    Your thoughts above, for me, speak to the idea of feeling like a fake or impersonator of my life. I feel trapped by the “mirror.” In my case, the mirror is my inability to trust that what I have to say, literally and aesthetically, are valuable, and not just part of the noise out there.

    You are still very much on that important seat, there are a few others that sit beside you. You are on that seat as a guide, not as an idol, as a like-hearted soul, not as one who sits in judgement. I see you.

    It’s time I start taking bites out of my own apple….

    • Thank you, my dear friend. And thank you for trusting me; your trust along with several other artists whose work I greatly admire, have given me the notion that maybe I could go deeper. I love our conversations, Kim. You are such a real and vulnerable human, which makes your art breathe. Maybe life is about learning to trust. I’m glad you are in my circle.

  6. Anita Mosher Solich

    Rose, this is powerful, relatable writing. I have been sitting on my comments for the last few days trying to decide what to write because of all the thoughts running thru my head.
    I never felt like I lived up to my mother’s expectations of me and it brought up many feelings that have given me some crazy dreams these last few nights!
    As a mother of adult twin daughters I hope that my girls have a positive view of themselves when they look in the mirror.
    That is a conversation I will have with them soon, thanks to you. 🙂
    Rosemary stated so eloquently above how I see you as well, a “very attractive, poised woman who is thoughtful, smart, and accomplished.”
    That is how the world sees you.
    Thank you for this vulnerable and thoughtful post, I will look at the surrealists and Magritte’s work with new appreciation!

    • Anita, thank you for your comments. My sister and I talk about our lives growing up and how we both learned what not to do as mothers. I have twin boys who don’t seem to have the same issue with identity, thankfully, so maybe that’s some kind of benefit I can take from the past. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful conversation with your grown daughters about this, especially if they have children of their own. My kids know a little about my childhood but mostly I’ve kept it to myself–until now. It does feel good to speak (or write) it in a pubic way. Kind of cathartic. Anyway, thanks for reading!

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