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New Left Review 1, January-February 2000


Why did Magritte populate his surrealist images with bowler hats? Peter Wollen takes us from the oneirics of the Belgian painter to the antics of Tintin and Chaplin, the purism of Le Corbusier, memories of Beckett, fantasies of Bond and Kundera. Emblem of working men and city toffs, cabaret girls and Orange parades—what icons have matched it for multiple meanings?

PETER WOLLEN

MAGRITTE AND THE BOWLER HAT

Visiting Brussels three years ago, to see the centennial exhibition of Magritte, I was amused to find the city festooned with images of bowler hats, on banners, posters; old placards. There were even real bowler hats in window displays. Magritte had become, so to speak, the patron saint of Brussels and the bowler hat had been chosen as his emblem. It was an apt choice. Magritte painted several dozen images of bowler hats, as well as a large sheaf of drawings and a quantity of recycled versions of the paintings as gouaches. Moreover, Magritte himself was frequently photographed, and filmed, wearing a bowler hat. It seems quite plausible to consider many of these paintings as self-portraits, as his dealer, Alexandre Iolas, did. In that sense, Magritte chose his own emblematic attribute, his own trademark headgear. He consciously became ‘The Master of the Bowler Hat’. Why? And what did it mean? Most accounts stress the ordinariness of the man in the bowler hat, his unindividuated character as Everyman, his classlessness or perhaps, more precisely, his petit-bourgeois character, neither cloth-capped nor top-hatted, nor even trilbied or homburged or boatered. I would like to approach the meaning of the bowler hat in a different way, stressing its rich semantic complexity rather than its banality or its blankness.

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