The man in a bowler hat is a familiar icon of Magritte’s art. A totemic figure, often seen from the back and therefore faceless and mysterious, he functions in Magritte’s painting as a pictorial cipher: an apparently banal, metropolitan image of the norm or the everyday. He is the epitome of the generic and the commonplace. His smart, uniform and typically bourgeois attire is indicative of an ordinary, mundane humanity; what Magritte once called, ‘the unity of man’. In Magritte’s paintings of the 1950s and 60s, the bowler-hatted-man, first painted by the artist in 1926, becomes an increasingly frequent presence. Wandering like a suburban flâneur through the often strange landscapes of these pictures, he serves as a kind of reassuring counterpoint to the surprising and sometimes even shocking revelations of Magritte’s world and the way in which they unpick the conventions we use to perceive and to represent so-called ‘reality’.
Le lieu commun (The Commonplace) is one of the largest and finest of all these famous paintings of bowler-hatted men. It is also a work that offers a unique vision of this wandering icon. It shows him both full-face and hidden behind a column in an ambiguous landscape of either impossible or multiple reality. Magritte has deliberately left it unclear as to whether this picture depicts two identical bowler-hatted men or just one solitary wanderer seen simultaneously from two different points of view. The title of the painting (also translatable as ‘The Common Place’) is one that also reflects and plays upon this ambiguity, for in a typical subversion of a traditional portrait, Magritte has here presented the portrait of a figure who is simultaneously both appearing and disappearing, revealed and hidden. The space in which this generic, commonplace figure stands is also equally ambiguous. A subversion of the equally traditional genre of landscape painting, the bowler-hatted man in this work stands in a distinctly uncommon place that is simultaneously both town and forest, foreground and background all at once. Like Magritte himself, the man in the bowler hat here wanders through an uncanny landscape of mysterious possibility.
Le lieu commun was formerly owned by Magritte’s friend and patron Gustav Nellens and then by the Fuji Museum in Tokyo and is one of four major pictures featuring the bowler-hatted man made in 1964 that mark the culmination of this theme in Magritte’s work. The other paintings in this group are Le fils de l’homme, (made for Harry Torczyner) La grande guerre and L’homme au chapeau melon. Each of these other three paintings featured a simpler image of a single bowler-hatted man standing in front of a more-or-less empty background and facing the viewer. In each of these works the face of the man has been obscured by an object: either an apple or a white dove. Magritte considered these paintings to be his solution to the idea of painting a self-portrait, which had been proposed to him earlier in 1964 by his friend and patron Harry Torczyner.
As a result of this, and because Magritte himself often used to pose for photographers with a bowler hat that he had bought especially for such occasions, the bowler-hatted figure in his paintings has often mistakenly been thought to be some kind of self-portrait. With its rare exposure of the full face of this enigmatic figure in Magritte’s art, Le lieu commun is a work that reveals the fallacy of such thinking. The features that Magritte depicts are not his own, but that of the Everyman figure whom he had previously painted in the 1950s in the three great bowler-hat man paintings of the 1950s Golconda (Menil Foundation Houston), Le mois des vendanges and La presence d’esprit (Ludwig Museum, Cologne). In these paintings Magritte’s bowler hatted man is a generic figure indicative of mankind as a whole. Like the silhouetted figure of the man in the bowler hat, this more open, unhidden figure functions in Magritte’s paintings as a kind of cipher. He is both participant and witness, and in this, he serves also as a kind of intermediary or meeting point between Magritte and the viewer.
In Le lieu commun Magritte has intertwined this unhidden, front-facing image of his bowler-hatted man with that of a similarly bland and generic background landscape in a wholly new and original way. For the first time, Magritte makes use of a strip-like play with perspective and a forest view, employing a technique that anticipates one of his most famous paintings of his very last years – Le blanc-seing of 1965. In this painting, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, it is, by contrast, the image of a lady riding a horse that is ambiguously intertwined with a forest background.
Similar to this later painting and also to the other images of the bowler-hatted man that Magritte painted in 1964, the central theme of the picture is a play between what is hidden and what is revealed. This ‘play’ between the visible and the hidden was something that had run like a thread through much of Magritte’s work since the early 1930s and was to form the central concern of his work throughout 1964. More than a ‘play’ between the seen and the unseen, however, Magritte described it as a ‘struggle’ or a ‘war between what is visible and what is hidden’. It was for this reason, he said, that he had entitled one of his 1964 pictures of a bowler-hatted man with his face hidden by an apple, ‘The Great War’. ‘As regards the invisible,’ Magritte wrote to his friend André Bosmans in September that year, ‘I take it in the sense of that which is not visible, for instance, heat, gravity, pleasure, etc. There is the visible that can be seen: the apple on the face in ‘the great war’ and the hidden visible: the face behind the visible apple.’ (René Magritte, Letter to André Bosmans, 25 September 1964, in David Sylvester and Sarah Whitfield (eds.) René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. III, Oil Paintings 1949-67, London, 1993, p. 401). What he painted, Magritte insisted, was ‘only the visible’. It would be wrong, he said ‘to look for the invisible’ in his work. He ‘deals only with the eternal struggle between the gaze and objects…however, there comes a time when one visible prevents you seeing another visible.’ (René Magritte, Letter to Otto Hahn, November, 1964, in ibid, p. 401). It is this dichotomy that Magritte explores in Le lieu commun to great, and mysterious effect.
In Le lieu commun what is visible and what is hidden is, in fact, seamlessly brought together around a landscape that also integrates a simultaneous sense of the city and the landscape by establishing a visual play of form between strips of stone masonry and a view of the green trees of the forest. The origins of this picture perhaps lie in one of the first paintings of the man in the bowler hat that Magritte painted after a twenty-year break in 1950 entitled A la recontre du plaisir (Towards Pleasure). In this painting, Magritte’s enigmatic, bowler-hatted man appears standing beside another similar figure (here wearing a trilby) before a twilight landscape. Like a bizarre version of a Caspar David Friedrich painting or of Millet’s Angelus perhaps, the strange relationship (or lack thereof) between these two figures, bestows the landscape with an aura of mystery. It is a conjunction that Magritte was to further articulate in subsequent pictures throughout the 1950s, such as in his painting Le chant de la violette (The song of the violet) for example.
In Le lieu commun Magritte has fused this strange conjunction between two different figures into an apparent expression of one figure seen in two places at the same time, or, alternatively, perhaps, seen from two angles at the same time. That it is likely to be one figure rather than two separate ones is suggested not only by the identical nature of his dress but also by the fact that each is a partial figure. And indeed, what is lacking in one figure appears to be exactly the same part shown in the other. In this way, an idea of some kind of mirroring, or even perhaps a humorous play in the aesthetics of Cubism which always sought to simultaneously depict an object from multiple viewpoints is also set into the structure of the picture.
In reality, however, the part revealed by the figure of the bowler-hatted man passing behind the stone column to the right of the painting is not the part hidden by the strip of forest covering the figure facing the viewer to the left of the painting. Furthermore, this figure is shown standing in front of the stone column and not behind it. There is therefore, a correlation between these two figures and the views provided of them but they are only complimentary to one another within the strange alogical space of the picture.
The deliberately ambiguous, strip-like disruption of normal, single-point perspective that takes place in this picture, and which was later used to equal effect in Magritte’s 1965 painting of a woman riding through the forest in Le blanc-seing, derives originally from a drawing of hunters in the forest that Magritte made in June 1963. In this work the figures of three hunters are shown standing amongst the trees of the forest. One is wholly visible; one partially hidden behind a tree, and a third, impossibly, has become a painted part of the tree. Magritte’s traditional play between something visible and something hidden has here been added to by something that is visible, but impossible outside the pictorial logic of painting. Le lieu commun is a painting founded upon this impossible third option.
Here, this pictorial sense of ambiguity is also further enhanced by the fact that the mysterious, repeated figure is that of the man in a bowler hat. This familiar figure of the Magrittian universe is one that functions regularly in Magritte’s work as a kind of talisman of the strange and the mysterious. An icon of normality, the ordinary and the everyday, he is frequently used to serve as a kind of pictorial pivot around which the ‘surreal’ and the bizarre in Magritte’s world is orientated. Here, represented as either two figures or as one appearing in two places at the same time, his image powerfully suggests a sense of passage and of wandering through an otherwise very ordinary scene.
Alongside Le lieu commun, Magritte also made further experiments with the silhouette of the bowler-hatted man in 1964 that were to lead to the eventual disappearance of the figure into the landscape surrounding it. In the painting L’ami de l’ordre (The upholder of the law) for example, and a number of gouaches made during this year, a transparent silhouette of the man in the bowler also makes its first appearance in Magritte’s work. As in Le lieu commun, at root here, in this idea of a transparent figure, was Magritte’s ongoing search to find a successful means of integrating figure and landscape. But the development of a transparent silhouette of the man whose invisible body allows a view of the landscape to be seen within its outline was a technique that marked the beginning of what ultimately became an increasing tendency in Magritte’s painting, during the last years of his life, towards the eventual disintegration and disappearance of the figure. It was a tendency that the artist was to pursue, with particular concentration on the motif of the man in the bowler-hat, right up until his death in 1969.
By contrast, Le lieu commun marks a different and completely new interpretation of the bowler-hatted man motif in Magritte’s work. An alternate working of the hidden-and-seen paradox that ran like a constant throughout Magritte’s work from the early 1930s onwards, and which particularly distinguishes the great paintings of 1964, Le lieu commun is a unique work in Magritte’s oeuvre. It marks the simultaneous appearance and disappearance of the bowler-hatted man in a landscape that is like the man in the bowler in this painting itself simultaneously two things at once, being an image of both town and forest. In this way, the painting, along with the other great paintings of the bowler-hatted man of 1964, is one that essentially marks both the culmination of this motif in Magritte’s work and a turning point. After these pictures, (perhaps with the one exception of La porte ouverte of 1965) Magritte’s paintings of the man in the bowler hat are all concerned with either the absence or gradual disappearance of the figure. What was at first obscured in 1964, in works such as Le fils de l’homme and La grande guerre of 1964 and has been deliberately left ambiguous in Le lieu commun, now dissolves. From this point onwards, the man in the bowler is always presented as either an absent, invisible or transparent figure in Magritte’s painting. He has now become either an empty suit, a transparent silhouette or, most bizarrely, an invisible figure whose features comprise solely of a Mr Potato-Head-style assemblage of eyes, nose and mouth. The paintings on this theme made during the last two years of Magritte’s life, appear to catalogue the gradual dissolution of the man-in-the-bowler motif almost as if he was, like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, slowly disappearing into the landscape against which he had so often appeared.