tagReviews & EssaysMagritte: A Transgender Reading

Magritte: A Transgender Reading

byCal Y. Pygia©

Surrealist artist Rene Magritte regarded his paintings as visual poems in which he sought to express the "secret affinities" between objects which seemed otherwise wholly unrelated. He detested Freudian interpretations of his work, regarding such readings as puerile and superficial, if not totally irrelevant. Therefore, he would have been likely to reject psychoanalytical readings of La Philosophie dans le Boudoir (Philosophy in the Boudoir) (which he painted in two versions) and a similar work, In Memoriam Mack Sennett (In Memory of Mack Sennett).

For similar reasons, he would probably have looked askance at the transgender interpretation that I offer in this essay. Nevertheless, once a work of art is submitted for public consideration, it becomes fair game for others to interpret as they will, provided, of course, that their interpretations are grounded in something reasonable. Mine, in this essay, follows the tradition of the so-called new criticism, proponents of which include Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, among others, which proposes that the text (or, in the case of Magritte's work, the imagery) be understood according to a "close reading" of the significance of its rhetorical and poetic, or figurative, meanings.

For those who are unfamiliar with the works I've mentioned, a brief description of them follows.

In Memory of Mack Sennett (1936) is the earlier of the three paintings; both Philosophy in the Boudoir and its variant followed in 1947. Mack Sennett features a free-standing wardrobe, the right door of which is opened to reveal a nightgown suspended from a hanger on a vertical wooden rod. The left door is closed. The wardrobe is of a simple design, so the viewer's attention is directed at the single item of attire inside. Ankle-length, the white nightgown is itself of a simple design, with long sleeves, a high V-neck, and no adornments of any kind. However, a pair of firm, high, round (i. e., young and healthy) breasts, of Caucasian hue, complete with pink nipples, are visible beneath the fabric; in fact, they are not so much visible through the material as they are part of it, as if the nightgown itself sports breasts. A shadow behind the nightgown indicates that the garment is real, despite its fantastic appearance.

Philosophy in the Boudoir features a similar nightgown, suspended, once again, from a hanger on a vertical wooden rod. The view is closer. If the apparel is inside a wardrobe, the wardrobe itself is not shown, except for the herringbone-pattern grain of the wooden panel that comprises the inside of the closet's back. The long, sleeveless nightgown has a ruffled collar and is ruffled around the armholes, but it is otherwise of plain design. Once again, a pair of breasts, high, full, and round, or healthy and youthful, press through, or are part of, the nightgown. Their luminous, pink nipples appear to be erect. Before the nightgown, atop a table or block, a pair of silver high-heeled shoes, the toes of which are of flesh rather than leather and the nails of which are painted white, stand, ready, one presumes, for wear. The articles on view are real, their shadows attest, for rod, nightgown, and shoes all cast shadows of themselves. A variant of the original Philosophy was painted shortly after the first, with pubic hair and vulva but without shoes.

The Freudian interpretation of these works is that they are unconscious reenactments of the childhood trauma that Magritte suffered when his mother drowned. (She had been wearing a simple nightdress at the time, the front of which had ridden up so as to reveal her torso while covering her face.)

The close reading of the new criticism, while it may be mindful of psychoanalytical and other interpretations of artistic works, has its own method, as mentioned above, relying less on speculation than it depends upon an analysis of the rhetorical and figurative elements of the work itself.

In analyzing either of these paintings, one can begin by identifying the images they depict: closet or wardrobe (both); rod and hanger (both); shadows of nightgown and/or other objects (both); breasts and nipples, seen through (or part of) the nightgown (both); high-heeled shoes ending in painted human toes (Philosophy); wood grain (Philosophy); wardrobe, with one door open (In Memory). In the second version of Philosophy, Magritte loses the shoes and adds the pubes.

Obviously, the centerpieces of all three paintings is the nightgown with breasts (or, in the variant of Philosophy, breasts and pubes).

The nightgown's position alone would make it stand out, for, spatially, it occupies roughly the center of attention in all three paintings, and, in In Memory, it is revealed because the door that would conceal it, were it closed, is opened. Likewise, although no door is shown in Philosophy, one assumes that the garment is hung inside a wardrobe or a closet and that, therefore, the door to the cabinet is likewise open. However, the nightgown, whether it is equipped with breasts alone or also sports a hairy vulva, is clearly no ordinary nightgown.

There is something magical, perhaps even supernatural, about the item of clothing. It bears the imprint--indeed, more than the imprint, the reality itself--of its wearer's breasts (or breasts and pubes), just as, in Philosophy, the high-heeled shoes bear the impressions of, or their wearer's actual, toes.

The nightgown and the shoes bear the imprints of the wearer's femininity, for nothing is more feminine than a pair of breasts, a vulva, and high-heeled shoes, especially when the nightgown bears breasts and the shoes end in the actual toes, complete with painted nails, of the woman who wears them. The clothing is feminine, both in its design and in the traces of its wearer's own sex.

The clothing is also associated with the bedroom, for the nightgown is sleepwear, and the high heels, although they would not be worn to bed, might be worn by a woman whose purpose it is to sexually arouse her paramour. Moreover, women's shoes--and high heels, especially--are sadomasochistic in nature, exhibiting patriarchal power and female submissiveness. They not only cramp the feet and make the calf muscles ache, but, according to podiatrists, they also cause severe physical disability after prolonged use.

They are the modern equivalents of Chinese foot binding, as the original story of Cinderella's tiny glass slipper (a vaginal substitute, too, according to psychoanalytical readings) indicates: Cindy's foot fits the slipper because it has been subjected to foot binding, in which the toes and the heel are surgically removed before the remainder of the truncated foot is severely bound during the time that a girl otherwise grows to her adult stature.

High-heeled shoes have a curious effect upon the wearer's anatomy as well, which is another, if not the primary, reason that they are worn. They elevate and tighten the buttocks, thereby drawing men's attention to them. As sexual signals, a pair of high, tight buttocks suggests that the woman who, as it were, models them, is ready, always (or as long as she wears these buttocks-enhancing shoes, at least), for sex.

Since the nightgown and the shoes are associated, both sexually and otherwise, with the bedroom, they are a woman's evening wear--literally, her nightdress. By wearing this costume, she signifies that she is a woman and that she is available, as such, to her male lover. By putting on a sheer nightgown that will reveal, even as it conceals, the accoutrements, as it were, of her femininity (breasts and/or vulva), a woman signifies her womanhood; she both puts on and models her femininity. As Magritte's paintings suggest, clothes not only make the man--or, in this case, the woman--but the woman also makes the clothes. Clothing truly is a second skin, and, when the clothing is worn by a woman, it is more than merely skin deep.

When one wears attire that is set apart for use in a particular time and place and for a particular purpose, such clothing becomes ritualistic and ceremonial. In a word, even if it is so in a secular (or sexual) context, such clothing becomes costume and serves a religious purpose. A nightdress is ceremonial. It celebrates woman as a sexual object, as an offering, as it were, to be displayed upon the altar of the bridal or marital bed, where, after worship (foreplay) has occurred, the sacrifice shall suffer la petite morte, "the little death" of orgasm.

The imprint or presence of breasts and pubic mound in the highly sexualized nightgown (and of the imprint or presence of the fleshly toes and painted nails in the high-heeled shoes) is similar to the imprint of the image of the crucified man in the Shroud of Turin, which may or may not represent the image of Jesus Christ Himself. According to one theory, if the image is that of Christ, the radiation resulting from his resurrection is responsible for the imprint of his face and crucified body. Therefore, the shroud is impregnated with the very essence of Christ, or of God Himself, some claim.

Without intending any irreverence, one might suggest that something similar is true with regard to the impregnated nightgown; it is suffused with the very essence, the flesh, of femininity: breasts (or breasts and vulva). It is a costume partly of flesh, and innately feminine flesh at that.

What is the viewer to make of the last image in these paintings--the image of the wardrobe or closet? Symbolically, a closet represents a place in which secrets are kept--secrets that are embarrassing or that could damage one's reputation were they to be known to others. The secrets themselves are usually represented as skeletons, but, surely, in keeping with the closet metaphor, such secrets should be regarded not as skeletons but as items of clothing. A woman, of course, would have no need to keep secret the fact that she wears women's clothing.

Therefore, if the wearing of women's apparel is being kept secret, it would appear that it is someone who could be embarrassed or have his reputation damaged were it known that he wears such attire. A man, in other words, who wears women's clothing--a cross dresser or transvestite--would be much more likely to keep such a secret than a woman would be.

The closet is not an accidental prop. Magritte could have easily draped his nightgown over the back of a chair or across a bed as to have displayed it hanging in a closet or wardrobe. Therefore, the presence of the closet should be read as an important clue--and, perhaps, as the key itself--to interpreting the meaning of these paintings. The closet is the context. Its presence, and the nightgown's presence within it, is the central image of these paintings, and, as such, it is the image from which the other images must derive their significance.

In this reading of Magritte's paintings, the closet is figurative and literal at the same time, symbolizing the transvestite's lifestyle and his need to hide his penchant for wearing women's clothing from others. The paintings suggest that he has either completed dressing for the evening and has put his things away or that he is taking them out to don his now-gay apparel ("gay" in the sense of gaiety, not--or not necessarily--in the sense of homosexuality).

By wearing women's clothing, especially clothing which is equated with both femininity and sexuality, the cross dresser assumes the feminine role, becoming, for a time, the woman whom he would like to be at all times, sacrificing his own masculinity, if not his dignity, to worship both the female sex and the feminine gender that is normally denied to him. At the same time, however, he also imparts part of himself to the clothing he wears. Just as tribal warriors sought to take upon, or into, themselves the fierce nature of natural predators such as bears or lions by dancing about in the animals' skins during ritualistic religious ceremonies, transvestites take upon, or into, themselves the nature of the women whom they would emulate. At the same time, thereafter, they are known by the name of the creature whose essence they have thus extracted and taken into themselves. (Beowulf's name, for example, means "bear-wolf," [or, possibly, "werewolf"] possibly marking him as a berserker, a feared Norse warrior who waged war dressed in a bearskin).

In dressing as women, cross dressers invest the garments of women with themselves, just as the garments invest them with the femininity that the clothing, as costume, represents. By wearing women's clothing, men become women; however, they also sacrifice their own masculinity, so that the breasts and vulvas that they leave behind, when they hang upon their nightgowns at the break of day, are as much their own as these accoutrements of femininity were theirs merely on loan.

Magritte was a happily married heterosexual artist (despite his homoerotically charged L'ocean [The Ocean], Le Printemps Eternal [Spring Eternal], and Le Premir Jour [The First Day], in which a naked woman or a ballerina in a tutu replaces the erect penis of a nude god or a dressed violinist, respectively). Therefore, it is doubtful that Magritte intended the transgender meaning that this close reading of the "text" of In Memory of Mack Sennett and Philosophy in the Boudoir, variations one and two, suggests. Once again, however, after an artist delivers his or her work into the hands of the public, such work can and does take on meanings far beyond those that the artist him- or herself may have conceived. Thus does the public criticism of art enrich works of art rather than impoverish them.

* * *

Note: It is customary to capitalize only the first letters of the first words of the titles of Magritte's works and, of course, to italicize them, but since Literotica doesn't allow writers to italicize text, I have opted to use title case in identifying these titles.

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