Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Interpreting René Magritte’s The Rape

Mirjana Stojkovic-Ivkovic
Belgrade, Serbia


The Rape. Oil painting by René Magritte, 1934. Menil Collection, Houston, TX, via Wikiart. Fair use.

When exhibited by René Magritte in Brussels in 1930, The Rape was covered with a curtain so as not to cause a scandal. It depicts a woman’s face which, instead of eyes, nose, and lips, has breasts, a navel, and pubic hair. Such was typical of the work of this great in modern art. He began to paint at the age of twelve, and his work was strongly influenced by the trauma of his mother’s suicide when he was fourteen.1,2

Through his paintings, René Magritte pointed out serious problems in society, such as the position of women, wars, pollution, etc. He hinted that our eye absorbs only the visual, not the real world. He teaches that reality depends on the perception of the observer, and that interpretation of the artist’s message depends on education, mental strength, concentration, attention, and love for art. His work is subject to subjective interpretation, as might have been illustrated by the reaction of three hypothetical observers, each of whom might have viewed the painting for half an hour. They then would describe the painting, verbalize their experience, and try to interpret the artist’s message.

The first observer, aged 27, graduated from medical school and is currently an intern. He does not like to read books, has not heard of the painter, and does not visit art galleries:

“This picture is motionless. I see breasts instead of eyes, pubic hair instead of a mouth. The picture is disturbing. It makes me nervous; I feel some anxiety. The message sent by the painter is a sexual act against the woman’s will. Men are physically stronger and some use situations to fulfill their sick fantasies. There is no war where women are not raped. There are plenty of rape victims in marriage, at work, in the family environment. And the fact that the painting resembles a face suggests that the painter wanted to say that there is also psychological violence when men want to change the way women think. So, if we want healthy offspring, we must protect women!”

The second observer, aged 50, is a psychologist/psychoanalyst. He reads books, likes art, has heard about the painter, and knows his oeuvre. He has read how psychoanalysts interpret his paintings, and saw the painting twenty years ago:

“The mother’s suicide influenced the creation of this painting. The painter, when he faced his dead mother’s body, also faced her nakedness. This experience created a polarity, i.e., contradictory desires to see and not see, to want and not want, to hurt and not hurt his mother’s body. René Magritte depicts female breasts and the female genital organ and moves them upwards, to the area of the female face. He says that he was just innocently looking at his mother’s face, but the repressed memories came back at the moment when the eyes became a woman’s breasts, and the mouth became a woman’s sexual organ. The picture causes a feeling of tension when viewed. The message of the painter: I did not manage to not see the mother’s naked body; I was not punished enough for this incestuous intimacy which I can define as rape. Everyone else saw the woman’s naked body against her wish and that is rape.”

The third observer, aged 61, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalytically oriented. He likes art, likes to read, and studies biographies of artists in his spare time:

“The picture shows Baubo—the goddess of obsession or the goddess of the belly—actually it is the goddess of fertility, sexuality. She lived on Olympus. René Magritte studied philosophy and Greek myths. He was educated. The picture is drawn as Baubo was described when she saw Demeter, next to the well, looking for her daughter Persephone. Women see through nipples; they are psychic organs. Nipples react to temperature, fear, anger, and passion. It is not known what Baubo told Demeter, but we know that she understood what was said to her. We realized that René Magritte read the legend of Demeter and Persephone and painted Baubo.”

The meaning attributed by the observers to one picture is filtered through the years of life that the observers have lived, a picture that the observers have looked at long enough, experienced differently and interpreted the artist’s message differently. The world we see outside of ourselves reflects what we experience inside. René Magritte aimed to influence humanity. Industrialization made life easier for man, but it also produced deadly weapons. Many victims of the World Wars initiated the idea that the artist draws the consequences of war in his paintings—after the war, only weapons remain. Every war brings with it rape.



  1. M. Stojkovic-Ivkovic. “Traumatic experience and creativity: René Magritte.” Hektoen International Summer 2022, Volume 14 Issue 3. https://hekint.org/2022/04/04/traumatic-experience-and-creativity-rene-magritte/.
  2. V. Jerotic. Psihoanaliza i kultura (Psychoanalysis and culture). ARS Libri, Zemun, 2006, 211-12, 219, 223.
  3. V. Jerotic. Bolest i stvaranje: patografske studije (Illness and creation: Phatographic studies). Neven 2006, 25.
  4. B.I. Collins. Leonardo, Psychoanalysis, & Art History. Northwestern UP, 1990, 185.



MIRJANA STOJKOVIC-IVKOVIC was born in Vranje, Serbia and received her medical degree in Niš. She specialized in psychiatry and works at the Institute for Healthcare of Railway Workers of Serbia, Belgrade.


Fall 2022  |  Sections  |  Art Flashes

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