Where masked lovers can assist the viewer in comprehending a larger political or social construct, hooded lovers convey much starker, psychological circumstances. Draping lovers in hoods can even appear violent, for hoods convey the horror of unimaginable circumstances (e.g., Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib) or the terror of shocking events (e.g., kidnapping, execution). A mask is something behind which you hide, to put on a different face, so to speak, and to convey different emotions (happiness, mystery). At least with a mask you can adopt a new personality. Without a face, even a fake one, your personality is disappeared.
While Shurooq Amin (read part II) has left some mystery in not covering the entire face of her subjects, René Magritte seeks to lock even lovers out of knowing each other. Hoods conceal absolutely, as seen in “The Lovers,” a series of at least four pieces in which Magritte features smothered lovers. Cloth hoods provide a barrier for lips determined to meet. The mouths are locked but the lips and tongues are frustrated from pursuing real pleasure. The lovers cannot see. They cannot touch. The skin-on-skin pleasure is absent. The act is repugnant—kissing through cloth—and yet we cannot take our eyes away. The color palette is subdued. The mood is psychological.
Who are the lovers? What is their circumstance? Why are they so impassioned so as to go through this restrictive intimacy? Or does the shroud reflect the blandness their relationship has since taken on, the kind of lull often discovered years into a marriage?
With masks at least there is a two way engagement—even the masked faces can still see and interact on a psychological level. Magritte’s hooded lovers, though, are at a disadvantage: the subjects cannot see us, and so we are allowed to impress our own interpretation on their situation. The subjects have no recourse. While we can see them and do unto them, they are bound to themselves.
There is one advantage the lovers enjoy behind their drapes. Our voyeuristic pleasures are completely thwarted, so a typically private moment—the kiss—remains private.
In “The Lovers” series, love itself is not completely subverted. A second version of the group shows a couple standing side-by-side, close, as if they are posing for a vacation picture. Unlike Amin’s “Of Wives and Men,” this pair has that gentle closeness of a couple comfortable with each other and happy to pose on request. Like Magritte's sleight-of-hand surrealist motifs, the hooded figures challenge preconceived notions of what being together can look like. The work represents more than what it superficially represents. The hoods only distract from the meaning at hand. This is a pipe, but it’s not. These are lovers, but they are not.
The masked art of Magritte and Amin reveals and obscures love and un-love, and somewhere in this is truth. For Amin and Magritte, and even to an extent for Baldessari, the absence of the common and identifiable reveals truth. More often than not, that truth is to be found not in the work of art or in its concealed subjects, but in the viewer who wears no mask at all.
Identity, Rene Magritte, Shurooq Amin