Golconda is an oil on canvas painting realized by Surrealist artist René Magritte in 1953. It is currently preserved in the Menil Collection of Houston (Texas, U.S.). It represents a series of almost identical men with bowler hats suspended in mid-air.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
René Magritte (1898-1967) paints Golconda in 1953 in the mature stage of his career. It is a typically Surrealist scene in which imagination and reality blur and play with the viewer’s perception.
The painting depicts a group of men dressed in black coats with bowler hats floating in the air. Behind them are a background of azure sky and the façade of buildings with typically Belgian architecture.
The artist paints men as rigid and standardized, alter egos of the artist or the typically bourgeois 20th-century man. The figures are two-dimensional and immobile, yet they seem to float, rain down from the sky, or levitate upward. They are equidistant from each other and seem all identical. However, they differ in their faces and gaze: some turn to the right, others to the left. Their size varies according to the distance from the observer.
Magritte’s surrealistic approach takes everyday images out of their contexts, playing with reality and abstraction.
Magritte commissioned the title of the painting to his poet friend Louis Scutenaire, who decided to title it Golconda. The friend is portrayed in the face of one of the characters on the right of the painting, next to the chimney of the house.The title Golconda comes from the name of an ancient, ruined town in India, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The city was known to be the nerve center of a legendary diamond industry. According to legend, it turned from a place of wealth into a city in ruins and total abandonment.
René Magritte’s works are distinguished by a sense of mystery. They are images that break with the traditional representation of reality, introducing irrational and dreamlike elements to be grasped intuitively. Magritte himself emphasized several times that it is not necessary to question the precise meaning of his works, which are often intended to create visual suggestions and give voice to the inexplicable, rather than to expressly communicate something. For this reason, he never provided a univocal explanation of Golconda, leaving the viewer free to develop his one.
One possible interpretation in Golconda may relate, for example, to the standardization of the bowler hat-wearing characters, a metaphor for the conformism of modern society.
The men, all dressed alike, are replicated as raindrops and project their image through shadows. The individuality and peculiarities of each person disappear. Magritte seems to comment on the alienating condition of life in modern metropolises and the mass society that tends to anonymize people. It symbolizes how people can lose individuality to become part of mass consumerism culture, thus becoming isolated.
Moreover, Golconda is a work made in 1953, shortly after the end of World War II, when Europe had been shaken by totalitarianism. The relationship between the individual and the collectivity is, therefore, a relevant theme.
René Magritte painted numerous works that have the bowler hat man as their subject. In Golconda, the artist makes the faces visible; in other famous works, however, they are covered by other elements: an apple (The Son of a Man, 1964), a dove (L’homme au chapeau melon, 1964), or they are often not in any case visible because the men are depicted from behind (Decalcomania, 1966; The Great Century, 1954). The man with the bowler hat whose true identity cannot be known evokes the mystery, the enigma behind what is familiar and habitual and immediately recognizable, a typically Surrealist theme.