Though I’m not enamored of Magritte, this is his most spectacular painting and a work which reflects a lot of the aims and obsessions of Surrealism. (See more below).
The Menaced Assassin is a fascinating work in its examination of dream or illusion vs reality, consciousness vs. paranoia, psychopathology. We see a tranquil murderer listening at ease to his gramophone, itself a phallic object. He appears lost in thought, memories, or fantasy. The female victim is not only lifeless but her distended head appears to have been wrenched and possibly separated from her body suggesting severe rage which contrasts the tranquility of his repose. The coat lies lifeless and draped misshapen, echoing the woman’s body. The killer has a suitcase which suggests he might go on the run or is some sort of traveling salesman. Various readings might suggest that the man is surrounded, unbeknownst, by the law (police). However, they do not appear dressed as police, and have a serene, vacant expression, like automatons. They themselves could be incarnations of him, clubbing and binding women. The emotional disconnect between the supposed actions, positions and situations of the figures is surrealism at its best. There are also the heads behind the window to account for. These mysteries make the painting inconclusive. Perhaps the man is surrounded but may somehow escape, or be caught. Or, these men outside might be some part of the man’s thoughts: not that they are there, but if they were there, how he would elude them and for example to escape into the distant mountains. The men behind in the window might represent the man himself as a peeking Tom in earlier stages of sadistic psychopathy. They could also represent his consciousness of people realizing his acts. Or the men in the window could also represent us, those who are looking in on the lurid scene.
The Surrealists – and Magritte in particular – were fascinated by Fantômas, an elusive arch-villain anti-hero and sociopath who murdered with sadistic ruthlessness. Fantomas was made into a film (see below). Many of Magritte’s most famous images can be read as fantasy scenarios that might unfold like film over time. The general sadism and misogyny of the surrealists is apparent upon further examination of works by Man Ray.