'Well, it must be morning once again, with the quivering of things in the white light of awakening. Sleep has been too brief, too agitated, interrupted by incessant breaks... I have a vague recollection of coming home late at night, or even at dawn, when the sky is already bright, when the windows nonetheless light up the silhouettes of the rare buildings that remain standing in this wasteland of work yards and ruins, their four or five disproportionate stories looming like scattered rocks against the seashore. Formerly opulent apartments of bourgeois residents, they trace with their harmoniously aligned façades the avenues, side streets, and intersections that used to be here...'
'It looks as though morning might be sunny, and I'll be sitting without my cane and moustache on the terrace of the Rudolphe café, facing the sea, having exchanged the dark overcoat and bowler hat for a light-weight suit more in keeping with this place and the time of year. It will enable me all the better to pass unnoticed among the strollers' (A. Robbe-Grillet, La belle captive: A Novel, trans. B. Stoltzfus, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995, pp. 141-42).
René Magritte painted the atmospheric and important A la rencontre du plaisir in 1950. In this picture, the bowler-hatted man who has featured in so many of his works and which even during his own career was to become an icon associated with him is shown striding from a desolate landscape scene against the backdrop of a curtain while another man looks across the wasteland towards some houses and what may be the dawn, his back to the viewer. A la rencontre du plaisir was included by the celebrated author Alain Robbe-Grillet in his anti-novel La belle captive, which weaved a plot through 77 of Magritte's pictures. The image of one man with his back to the viewer and the other striding off would, the year after A la rencontre du plaisir was painted, become the central motif of Magritte's picture, Le chant de la violette, in which the pair were shown as petrified characters, made entirely of stone. This was a composition that clearly affected Magritte; the main figure would later reappear, with the curtain on the left, under a bright sky in a 1962 painting also called A la rencontre du plaisir.
In A la rencontre du plaisir, there is little that is overtly Surreal about the composition: on the ground stands a grelot, a carriage-bell. Meanwhile, the curtain, so reminiscent of Old Master paintings where such items were often included as a display of trompe-l'oeil adds a sense of mystery, ensuring that the space shown appears both interior and exterior. Indeed, this recalls Sigmund Freud's notion of the 'Uncanny', or in German, Unheimlich. Freud himself explored the concept that the words heimlich, which means homely or familiar, and unheimlich in fact overlap in their meanings. Certainly in Magritte's A la rencontre du plaisir, the homely interiority of the curtain is shown in direct tension both to the barren scene beyond and the activities of the striding, bowler-hatted man as he spirits away an object that appears vase-like yet barely unidentifiable (in Le chant de la violette, the man carries a stone; Harry Torczyner believed the object in this picture to be a briefcase; see letter below).
With his back turned to us and the crepuscular sky, bruised with the pinks and oranges of the rising or setting sun, A la rencontre du plaisir appears to evoke the works of Caspar David Friedrich, for instance his image of brothers now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. There is a sense of projection, as the viewer places him- or herself in the position of the main protagonist, who becomes a shell, an everyman as well as an anchor plunging us into the world of this landscape. That everyman status is all the more intriguing as it appears to continue the practice of oblique self-portraiture in which Magritte revelled throughout his career. The identification of the main figure - the one not wearing a bowler hat - with Magritte appears confirmed by comparison with a photograph taken in 1934 showing the artist himself with his back turned to the camera against a similar, sparsely-built backdrop. That photograph, which has also been sold and exhibited as a work of Magritte's own under the title La vertu récompensée, appears to have inspired A la rencontre du plaisir. This factor was underlined when the two pictures were juxtaposed in the chapter, Toward Pleasure in Magritte: Ideas and Images, the book published by Magritte's friend Harry Torczyner, who acquired A la rencontre du plaisir from the artist (see H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 199).
To the modern viewer, it may appear ironic that the figure based on Magritte in A la rencontre du plaisir is the one not wearing a bowler hat. However, Magritte himself explained that he had selected the bowler hat as a motif in part because it was so endemic: at the time that he started painting them in the 1930s, they were worn by many people. This is why they were also adopted by his compatriot Paul Delvaux. For Magritte, they were a disguise that allowed him to blend into the world: 'The bowler... poses no surprise. It is a headdress that is not original. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularise myself' (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. III, London, 1993, p. 206). It was only later that his use of this headwear in his paintings would become so specifically associated with his own image, a notion underscored by its recurrence in modern popular culture, for instance in the 1999 movie The Thomas Crown Affair.
A la rencontre du plaisir was painted in the Summer of 1950, and Magritte discussed it in several letters. In an undated letter to Irène Hamoir and Louis Scutenaire he even included a rough diagram of the composition, showing the two figures, one striding away clutching a mass of some sort under his arm, as though after some mysterious transaction. This sketch implies that the curtain, which adds so much enigma to the composition, was added at some subsequent point in time (see Sylvester, ibid., p. 158). In the catalogue raisonné, the authors explain that they were informed by Marcel Mariën that the title had been created by Magritte's friend Paul Nougé - often they were given by his friends and then adopted by the artist himself. A la rencontre du plaisir was then included in an exhibition held early in 1951 at the Hugo Gallery, which was run by Alexandre Iolas, who would, despite a rocky relationship, become one of Magritte's most important dealers. This was still a sensitive time during their relationship, made all the more so by the delays that had occurred to the show.
A la rencontre du plaisir was subsequently returned to Magritte who sold it in 1958 to Torczyner, who would become one of the most important collectors of his work, having met him the previous year. Torczyner was an American lawyer who had originally been born in Antwerp; he appears to have struck up an immediate rapport with the artist - based partially on the fact that they were both Scorpios (see Torczyner, op. cit., 1977, pp. 9-10). Torczyner would subsequently become a frequent visitor to Magritte's studio on his travels, an important sounding board, and also an 'ambassador' - one able to observe and comment upon the artist's market in the United States and indeed the activities of his dealer. This privileged position within his favourite artist's circle allowed Torczyner to build up a formidable and discerning collection of Magritte's works, including A la rencontre du plaisir. Torczyner himself, five years after he had acquired A la rencontre du plaisir, wrote to Magritte about an episode when two 'Soviet' visitors to his office, there on business of some form, were affronted by the works they saw on the wall. When looking at A la rencontre du plaisir, 'which you will recall shows two figures outlined against a twilit sky, their reaction was fairly typical. "Ah," they said, "it's a couple of spies meeting to pass on information." True, one of the figures is holding a briefcase under his arm, and the Soviet mind might very well mistake the object in the middle of the picture, the bell, for an abandoned sputnik. It's really a pity you couldn't have been present for this conversation' (Torczyner, letter to Magritte, 14 January 1963, in Magritte Torczyner: Letters Between Friends, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1994, p. 79).