In this unsettling image—the first in a series of four variations of Les Amants that Magritte painted in 1928—the artist invokes the cinematic cliché of a close–up kiss but subverts our voyeuristic pleasure by shrouding the faces in cloth. The device of a draped cloth or veil to conceal a figure’s identity corresponds to a larger Surrealist interest in masks, disguises, and what lies beyond or beneath visible surfaces. The melodramatic scene may also relate to the graphic illustrations that accompanied pulp fiction and thriller stories, which Magritte's friend Paul Nougé, in a letter from 1927, encouraged the artist to emulate.
Gallery label from Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 , September 28, 2013–January 12, 2014 .
Frustrated desires are a common theme in René Magritte’s work. Here, a barrier of fabric prevents the intimate embrace between two lovers, transforming an act of passion into one of isolation and frustration. Some have interpreted this work as a depiction of the inability to fully unveil the true nature of even our most intimate companions.
Enshrouded faces were a common motif in Magritte’s art. The artist was 14 when his mother committed suicide by drowning. He witnessed her body being fished from the water, her wet nightgown wrapped around her face. Some have speculated that this trauma inspired a series of works in which Magritte obscured his subjects’ faces. Magritte disagreed with such interpretations, denying any relation between his paintings and his mother’s death. “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing,” he wrote, “they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”