Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938
September 28, 2013–January 12, 2014
Le Faux Miroir presents an enormous lashless eye with a luminous cloud-swept blue sky filling the iris and an opaque, dead-black disc for a pupil. The allusive title, provided by the Belgian Surrealist writer Paul Nougé, seems to insinuate limits to the authority of optical vision: a mirror provides a mechanical reflection, but the eye is selective and subjective. Magritte’s single eye functions on multiple enigmatic levels: the viewer both looks through it, as through a window, and is looked at by it, thus seeing and being seen simultaneously. The Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who owned the work from 1933 to 1936, recognized this compelling duality when he memorably described Le Faux Miroir as a painting that “sees as much as it itself is seen.”
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.