We have added “The Son of Man” by Magritte to our art wall. We received a damaged version initially; I have posted the damaged version in NOC. “The Son of Man” is a surrealist work painted by Rene Magritte in 1964. It portrays a faceless business man in a bowler hat; the face is obscured by a green apple, over which the man’s eyes are just barely glimpsed.
In a radio interview in 1965, Magritte commented concerning the painting:
At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the 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.
The painting is often remembered for its place in the 1999 “The Thomas Crown Affair” remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.
The piece conveys for me the disparity between the professional and social elements of our lives and the genuine and authentic person behind the veneer. This veneer seems to be something we are unable to remove ourselves. C. S. Lewis wrote about this struggle poignantly in his novel Till We Have Faces.
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is the 1956 novel by C. S. Lewis that retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. It culminates in the protagonist’s realization as she stands before the gods ready to bring her accusation against the gods:
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
The green apple covering the face of the man in the bowler hat represents for me the fall and the resulting obfuscation of our true selves. Language itself was later muddled and what words can we find to clarify our own muddled thoughts about, not just the world around us, but about ourselves, especially if words themselves are muddled? It suggests to me the need for redemption from muddled language, from the distant social connections we smile and greet our way through, from our own disconnection with ourselves and our purpose, skills and gifts. We regain our faces through redemption. The apple is removed from before our faces, not just so that we may see but that we may be seen. By losing ourselves in the redemptive process, we find we have uncovered our faces and then have the opportunity to meet face to face.
The fall is represented by the apple, obscuring our view of the person before us. Then taking our place as the son of man, trying to peer around the apple, our vision is obscured, however much we tire of it.