La parole donnée is part of a series of twenty paintings depicting organic objects turned to stone that Magritte started in 1950. Sometimes referred to as his "stone age pictures," these works celebrate Magritte's love of paradox; the first of these images (Sylvester, no. 737; Private collection, Brussels), for example, depicts a monumental stone chair whose aura of primeval significance is undercut by the miniscule wooden chair that is perched delicately upon its enormous seat. This punning yet eerie transformation of mundane objects through alterations in scale and material also occurs with living things such as a large petrified fish that would undoubtedly sink if plunged into water (fig. 1; Sylvester, no. 1022) and the giant stone apple seen here, whose leafy stem underscores both its arrested growth and its incongruous presence amongst forebodingly angular outcroppings of mottled grey stone. Indeed, Magritte regarded the state of petrification as a visual expression of disaster and death. As Abraham Hammacher has stated, "One can trace this preoccupation with a petrified world in all. Magritte's works Magritte did not regard petrification as a process, but as a kind of catastrophe, like that at Pompeii, when lava transfixed the world and brought all movement to a halt" (in Magritte, London, 1974, p.140). The theme of objects transformed or transforming into stone also reprises the inherent violence of Magritte's earlier series of paintings in which figures in famous works such as Manet's Le Balcon or David's Portrait de Mme Récamier are replaced by coffins (fig. 2; Sylvester, nos. 710 and 742), or the metamorphic paintings of 1927 in which landscapes, and figures are changed into wood (Sylvester, nos. 184- 187).
The present painting is the second of four images of solitary fossilized apples that share the title La parole donnée, which translates as "the pledge." The first of these (Sylvester, no. 747) is a preliminary version of the present scene that was also painted in the second half of 1950, yet it lacks the more elaborate setting seen here, with its looming cliffs, open sky, and rocky foreground. The other two both stem from is set within a bleak landscape and has a blue yet cloud-filled sky visible in the background. The following two both stem from the early to mid 1960s, and display more massively-scaled apples similar to his concomitant series of petrified apples entitled Souvenir de voyage (Sylvester, nos. 735, 736, and 964) and La grande table (Sylvester, no. 964). In the painting from 1963 (Sylvester, no. 971), the apple has reached epic proportions, dominating the canvas and dwarfing the seemingly miniscule mountain range behind it. Although the uneven topography of the canvases from 1950 has been transformed in this variation into a flat valley with a bisecting river, the jutting boulders reappear in the last adaptation of this theme (Sylvester, no. 1009), where the petrified apple appears on a nest-like accumulation of jagged stones on the shore of a mirror-smooth lake. A setting red sun hangs low in the sky over this barren moonscape. As David Sylvester notes, the preternatural calm displayed by these four images possesses an eerie quality, and he has commented that "La parole donnée has the violence of an earthquake at the start of time" (in Magritte, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1969, p.12).
The apple is one of the most frequent and recognizable of Magritte's motifs, appearing in various guises such as a floating orb in the sky, a masked entity, and perhaps most famously hiding the face of a man wearing a bowler hat (fig. 3). The ambiguity of its role in the present scene invites the viewer to contemplate possible interpretations without ever offering a definitive meaning, sustaining a sense of enigma that the painter prized above all else. For Magritte, the apple came to symbolize this perpetual tension between the hidden and visible, and he even used it to obscure his own visage in some of his self-portraits. The painter stated: "Those of my pictures that show very familiar objects, an apple, for example, pose questions. We no longer understand when we look at an apple; its mysterious quality has thus been evoked. In a recent painting, I have shown an apple in front of a person's face At least it partially hides the face. Well then, here we have the apparent visible, the apple, hiding the hidden visible, the person's face. This process occurs endlessly. Each thing we see hides another, we always want to see what is being hidden by what we see. There is an interest in what is hidden and what the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a fairly intense feeling, a kind of contest, I could say, between the hidden visible and apparent visible" (quoted in H. Torczyner, op. cit., 1997, p.170). Suzi Gablik suggests that "Magritte's paintings are a systematic attempt to disrupt any dogmatic view of the physical world. By means of the interference of conceptual paradox, he causes ordinary phenomena to inherit extraordinary and improbably conclusions. What happens in Magritte's paintings is, roughly speaking, the opposite of what the trained mind is accustomed to expect. His pictures disturb the elaborate compromise that exists between the mind and life. In Magritte's paintings, the world's haphazard state of consciousness is transformed into a single will" (in Magritte, New York, 1985, pp.112 and 114).
Magritte's transformation of a humble apple into an impressive boulder also reflects the enduring impact of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico's pittura metafisica on his oeuvre. De Chirico's images such as Le Chant d'amour, 1914 (fig. 4), which was a seminal discovery for Magritte during the early years of his career, portrays inconsequential objects such as a ball or a glove as monumental symbols with mysterious and ultimately indeterminate import. Similarly, Magritte confers the qualities associated with rocks, such as heaviness and immobility, to the apple, creating a seemingly permanent monument to what is ordinarily a highly perishable foodstuff.
(fig. 1) René Magritte, Connivance, 1965, Private collection. BARCODE 25995183
(fig. 2) René Magritte, Perspective: Madame Récamier de David, 1950. BARCODE 25995169
(fig. 3) René Magritte, La Grande Guerre, 1964, Private collection. BARCODE 25595176
(fig. 4) Giorgio de Chirico, Le Chant d'amour, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25238662