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René Magritte. The False Mirror. Le Perreux-sur-Marne, 1928

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René Magritte (Belgian, 1898–1967)

The False Mirror

Date:
Le Perreux-sur-Marne, 1928
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
21 1/4 x 31 7/8" (54 x 80.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase
MoMA Number:
133.1936
Copyright:
© 2014 C. Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Audio Program excerpt

Curator, Anne Umland: The False Mirror presents us with this enormous lash-less eye. Its iris is very implausibly filled with this luminous, cloud–swept blue sky. And then right at dead center is this matte black opaque disc that doubles as its pupil.

I think it's an interesting title, The False Mirror, in the sense that it raises questions about optical vision and the difference between an eye and a mirror. And one could think about the way, I suppose, that a mirror provides a mechanical reflection but that the eye is always selective and always subjective in what it sees.

The notion of vision, of external sight, was one that the Surrealists problematized. Optical vision was limited, in the view of many of the Surrealists: just because you can see something doesn't make it real. And inner vision, hallucinations, dreams, in a Surrealist’s world, have just as much reality as visible external phenomena.

Now how The False Mirror fits into that is kind of interesting, because in a way, it's an eye that's all-seeing, but at the same time, that dead black opaque dot in the center—it's like the end of sight.

Narrator: After leaving Magritte's studio, The False Mirror was coated with synthetic varnish giving it a very even, shiny surface. Recently, conservators at MoMA removed the discolored varnish, revealing nuances in color and detail.

Conservator, Michael Duffy: Before cleaning, the pupil was very shiny and glossy and reflective. Once the varnish was removed, the black became very soft and deep. So it really does become the focus of the painting. You could also see more details in the clouds and the sky. Also, details, like the highlights in the corner of the eye, became much more apparent and visceral.

Even in a simple graphic image such as this, he's using a variety of painting techniques and methods. The white that forms the highlight on the white of the eye is in zinc. So it’s a cooler white than the lead white used in the clouds, which are softer and warmer. And we can actually distinguish these in x–ray images that we have of the painting, where you can see the different densities of the paints.

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