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Copying an enigma by Robert Genn

Copying an enigma
by Robert Genn

Yesterday Paul Austin of West Drayton, England, wrote, "I've recently been given a commission to paint an exact replica of Magritte's The Son of Man. The original canvas, now in private hands, measures 89cm x 116cm. I've been given a reproduction 20.9cm x 29.5cm to work from. There's a discrepancy between the two. I can't clearly see my way to reproducing the picture to give an image in the same size and form in which Magritte painted it. Is there any way of copying an exact image of this work?"

Thanks, Paul. For those not familiar with this 1964 painting, it's of a bowler-hatted man with an apple obscuring his face. Rene Magritte (1898-1964) was a Belgian surrealist who often worked with this sort of idea. "Everything we see hides another thing," he said. If you're interested, we've put an image of the controversial work at the top of the current clickback.

Critics and others can only speculate that we are looking at a faceless businessman, a depiction of the fall of man through "original sin," or a self-portrait teasing us in hide-and-seek. Only Magritte knew the answer, and as his explanations were less than clear, maybe even he didn't know. "There's a conflict," he said, "between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present." As movies, books, music and other art have referenced the painting, the enigmatic image has become a well-trodden icon. Even Norman Rockwell took a crack at it.

Paul, if I was asked to do this commission, I'd turn it down. But I'm not you, so I'm going to tell you how I would do it if I was lashed to the easel. I'd digitally photograph the original or the best reproduction I could find. I'd project the photo image by digital projector to the desired size of canvas and trace it with a soft pencil. I'd examine the painting or print closely and try to figure out Magritte's palette. Then I'd try to figure out in what order things were painted. Perhaps, for example, the face of the man was painted before the apple. Then, knowing that an exact copy is impossible, I'd jump right onto it.

All the time I'd be mumbling "why bother." Like most of us, I'm happiest when I'm doing my own thing. This is Magritte's thing. It should remain his thing.

Best regards,


PS: "It is human nature that we want to see what is hidden by what we see." (Rene Magritte)

Esoterica: A hundred years ago you might have used a pantograph, a scissor-like mechanical device used to copy things bigger or smaller. A squared-off grid system, much in use by 19th Century students of the Classics, would have been another choice. The legitimate value of this sort of copying is to try to learn a master's technique. Magritte's technique and surfaces were less than masterful and might lead a person to a few bad habits. His pictorial ideas, however, are loaded with curiosity, and good for interminable discussions.


Robert Genn has given ARTAZINE permission to post from his twice-weekly newsletter. For more of his artistic insights, visit his blog at www.painterspost.com.

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