When I first looked at René Magritte’s painting Son of Man, my eyes were immediately drawn to the point in space where one would normally expect to see a face on someone, especially someone as typical as is depicted here. Instead of a face, however, I found a ripe, green apple, complete with stem and four little green leaves. I didn’t get it. I’d seen this painting before, but never taken much notice; it didn’t seem like it was a painting worth thinking about, but I kept looking at it, and taking in the details. After my eye was immediately drawn to the apple, lines Magritte painted below drew my eye to the rest of the man whom the apple was obscuring. He is a perfectly stereotypical businessman, wearing a long, dark charcoal-colored overcoat, a white shirt and a bright red tie. On his head is a black bowler hat. Instead of a face, though, he has that ripe, green apple. Directly behind the man, in the middle-ground, is an earth-colored brick wall, about thigh-high. The background is split into sea and sky, with the sea a calm, serene blue, stretching to the horizon, but the sky full of roiling dark storm clouds, seemingly about to envelop our mysteriously faceless businessman.
At first I didn’t understand it. I’d seen this painting before, but never taken much notice of it. However, as I stared at it, and thought about the title, an idea came to me. It was simple, yet elegant: sin. While I was thinking of how the image and the words went together, the symbolism struck me. The apple was a representation of original sin, committed by Adam and Eve when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden. The reason why the apple was covering the man’s face, too, was clear. Magritte wastrying to tell us that we as a people are blinded by sin. It has left us unable to see anything around us… the gathering storm behind, the walls we’ve built up between each other, between God, and even the so-called light at the end of the tunnel, clear skies beyond the storm.
Magritte painted this son of man standing rigidly at attention with his shoulders squared and his hands hanging empty at his sides. He appears lifeless, a cardboard cutout against the backdrop. The man’s tie, a deep, rich red, speaks of power, the kind of tie that upper echelon executives wear. It is very ironic, though, that the man obviously thinks he has power, wearing his sharp suit and his power tie, but he’s blinded by a simple apple: blinded by sin. All the power he thinks he has means nothing at all, because he cannot see a thing around this ripe, green apple.
Behind the businessman lies the sea, a clear blue path to heaven. However, a storm is brewing in the air, moving in on him. The darkest clouds seem to envelop the man’s head, but grow lighter and sparser as they travel to the horizon. The storm is gathering around mankind, and we cannot see it because the sin is clouding our vision, so we are powerless to prepare for it. As the clouds dissipate behind the man, however, Magritte has let us know that there is hope for us. If we can get the apple out from in front of our eyes, then we can see the storm and the light at the end. The water moving off into the distance is the path to heaven. While there are no lines around it, framing it in a sloping triangle, Magritte still painted it in a way that it leads our eye farther to the horizon as we look. He painted it this way to represent the path to heaven, to let us know that we can still get there if we work hard enough for it.
Yet there’s something else in the way. Between the man and the sea is a barrier. A squat wall, built with earth-colored bricks, blocks us from the sea. This barrier we’ve built up between each other, God, and the path to heaven. It was painted in earth tones, a mixture of sand and dirt browns, because Magritte wanted to show us that the barrier is made up of earthly things: material objects, money. If we want to get to heaven, we need to break down the barrier and get rid of our obsession with material objects.
After having examined each element of the painting individually, I mentally zoomed back out to take in the whole image. Each individual symbol and shape paints its own picture. The apple showing how sin blinds us, the suit mocking us for the power we don’t really have, the wall built of material greed and the want for more and blocking our path, the clouds in the sky that tell us of the impending storm, the calm blue sea, showing us the path to heaven, and finally the clear skies just above the horizon, letting us know that there is hope. Each of these gives us separate messages, but when you put them all together, they coalesce into one image. The image is simply that of a lost people. It makes me feel sorry for this man, and for the human race as a whole. However, by informing us of our situation, Magritte is giving us a way out. He is telling us simply that we need to change, or we will be engulfed by the coming storm. Free ourselves from sin, break down the wall, and swim to clear skies.