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.

Magritte’s first major work to feature a bowler hat was The Musings of A Solitary Walker which dates from 1926, when the artist was in his late twenties. It is dusk. A bowler-hatted man stands with his back to the viewer, silhouetted against a cloudy greeny-blue sky, looking out across the gloomy landscape towards the horizon. To his (and our) left runs a river, the same colour and tone as the sky, with light glinting off its surface. Some distance down, there is a simple wooden bridge, just where a clear view is broken by some trees, illuminated by some hidden source of light. In the foreground, at the level where the bowler-hatted man’s hands have delved into his pockets, floats the naked torso of an androgynous man, rigidly horizontal, his ribs clearly marked and his long neck leading to a shaven head. He has no hair. His eyes are closed and only the lips show any colour. He appears to be floating or levitating, with no visible means of support. His pallid form appears top-lit by some unknown source of illumination, possibly even from within, since it does not affect the ground beneath him, which remains dark. Some commentators have wondered whether this painting might not be related to Magritte’s memory of the night his mother committed suicide by jumping from a bridge into the river Sambre and drowning; but he himself always denied any reference of this sort. This is the first appearance of the man in a bowler hat, the characteristic figure, back turned, face invisible, eyes gazing into the distance.

His next appearance is in The Meaning of Night, painted the following year. This time there are two figures, one facing away, the other towards us, standing with exactly the same posture, as though they were twins or doubles. Again it is dark. They are standing on a cliff, a few yards from the edge, overlooking the sea, whose white-crested waves are catching the light, like the surface of the river in the previous painting. Fluffy clouds litter the ground, which is illuminated from a light source high up to the left, casting shadows diagonally to the right—towards the sea. In the foreground is what I can only describe as an erotic apparition, floating at knee height above the ground, all fur and lace, feminine, with a single white glove, fingers outstretched, reaching towards the top of two pale silk-stockinged thighs, pulling back the fur to reveal the lace. The silhouette turned away from us, gazing away, is more or less the same as the one in the previous painting. The double, the one turned towards us, is more or less as we might have expected, almost like a fashion plate: hands in pockets, overcoat with five buttons fastened, stiff white collar with neatly knotted dark tie. It is the face which is striking—mask-like, white with no trace of colour, completely symmetrical; a long narrow nose, eyes shut tight beneath arching eyebrows. It is the figure of a dreamer or a somnambulist. If his eyes are closed, we might presume, so are those of his double. He is not gazing out over the cliff and the waves towards the horizon. He is dreaming.

We will never see this face again. It is the only image we have. In this painting, we have been privileged to see the dreamer and the dream. In all the many that follow, we shall have to imagine the dream for ourselves. The next painting with bowler-hatted men is very different. In The Threatened Assassin, painted the same year, 1927, we see a murder scene. This time, it is an interior. A woman’s body lies stretched out on a couch, naked, blood streaming from her mouth. A man, presumably her murderer, is standing idly, at his ease, one hand in his pocket, listening to a record being played on a phonograph with a horn. His overcoat and hat (not a bowler) are draped over a chair. In the distance, through an open frame, we can see a mountainous landscape and three identical faces, witnesses, peering over a balcony into the room. In the foreground there is a similar proscenium frame opening onto the room, somehow as if it were a stage-set. Lurking, pressed up against the wall on either side, are two bowler-hatted men, dressed exactly like the somnambulist, but with eyes open, looking at an angle in our direction, unable to see the murder scene. One is carrying a cudgel, the other a heavy net. It is often remarked that these two men are detectives of some kind, waiting to apprehend the killer, positioned as if they already knew he had committed the crime, although he still remains hidden from their eyes.

Also in 1927, or possibly the next year, 1928, Magritte painted The Reckless Sleeper, another painting with a bowler hat, related to those I have described but different in that the bowler hat is depicted as an isolated object, enclosed in a bowler-hat-shaped hollow in what is generally described as a lead tablet, with an irregular curved shape of a kind Magritte often favoured. There are a number of other objects enclosed in hollows in a similar way—a bird, a lit candle, an apple and so on. The lead tablet takes up about two thirds of the picture. Above it, in the remaining third, separated by a clean horizontal line is a wooden box, rather like a coffin, marked in whorls and stripes by dark wood-graining. Inside the box, a man with a bald head is lying asleep under a blanket, his head resting on a pillow. Most viewers have assumed that the objects beneath are somehow elements of his dream or, at least, objects we might imagine as such. In fact, a bowler hat soon reappears in an oneiric context in the 1930 painting, The Key To Dreams, a reprise of a 1927 painting with the same title and structure, but no hat. This time, the canvas is divided into six equal rectangular spaces, two across by three down, in which six objects are represented—an egg, labeled ‘the Acacia’; a woman’s high-heeled shoe, labeled ‘the Moon’; a bowler hat, labeled ‘the Snow’; a lit candle, labeled ‘the Ceiling’; a glass, labeled ‘the Storm’; and a mallet, labeled ‘the Desert’.

Magritte did not paint another bowler hat for eight years—a work in which the hat is worn by a horseman, followed by one in his ‘Renoir’ or ‘Plein Soleil’ period, another horseman and then three, I think, in his ‘Vache’ period. All the rest, the overwhelming majority, were painted in the fifties and sixties. The foundations, however, were laid in the works I have just described, all executed between 1926 and 1930. In my view, the bowler hats in these crucial early paintings can already be interpreted within five different frames of cultural meaning. In using the phrase, ‘cultural meaning’, I am talking not about reference or denotation—obviously an image of a bowler hat refers to the everyday object we call a ‘bowler hat’, even if it is labeled, disjunctively, as ‘the Snow’. Nor am I talking about ‘connotation’, in Roland Barthes’s sense, of the way in which an image can support a rhetorical or mythological construction. I am more sympathetic to Carlo Ginzburg’s controversial idea, outlined in his account of the hat worn by the Emperor Constantine in Piero Della Francesca’s fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, in Arezzo, that we should look for a trail of clues in the historical and social context which will enable us to establish a specific interpretation, rather than treating it as an abstract emblem. It is a happy coincidence, of course, that Ginzburg’s iconographic analysis concerns a hat.

In his essay on the Arezzo cycle, Ginzburg seeks to explain the significance of the Emperor’s ‘white hat coming to a point in front’ by relating it to the very similar hat worn by Pope John VIII Paleologus as depicted on two commemorative medals designed by Pisanello. This connection, in turn, serves as a clue that enables Ginzburg to develop a train of argument leading to an overall re-interpretation, via the hat, of the meaning of the cycle. Rather than seeking a single, precise signification for Magritte’s use of the image of the bowler hat, I want to suggest that he drew on a variety of different sources from different discourses—discourses which we could see as being compressed, like the rabbit fur and shellac which are the raw materials of a bowler hat, in order to make the dense amalgam which we know as felt. This amalgam carries a polyvalent cultural meaning, not so much a delimited ‘signified’ in Saussure’s or Barthes’s sense, as a complex field of signification. There are five quite different discursive sources that I want to discuss, each of which, I believe, fed into Magritte’s iconography of the bowler hat. These are the discourse of detective fiction; the discourse of the performing arts; the discourse of Purism; the discourse of fashion; and the discourse of patriarchy. The relevance of these particular sources should come as no surprise when we consider Magritte’s own valuation of ‘mystery’; his abiding interest in film, both as a viewer and as a performer; the importance of his family background; his origins as a modernist artist; and the impact of his commercial work as an illustrator.