Nature, beauty and mystery are united in Le plagiat, painted by René Magritte in 1940. This work shows the elective affinities which underpinned the greatest of his paintings: here, a bunch of cut flowers has been shown in a vase, yet instead of the flowers themselves, the viewer sees a related subject, a blooming landscape in a cut-out silhouette. Next to the white vase is a nest with three eggs, an enigmatic presence in the interior view which again allows the outdoors to invade an indoor space. First exhibited in a Salon in Liège in 1940, the year it was painted, Le plagiat was acquired from that exhibition by Ernest van Zuylen, a member of a wealthy family which dealt with tobacco ad coffee who was both a keen supporter of the arts and a prolific photographer. This is an incredibly rare work: while many of Magritte's motifs were revisited in a string of pictures, in this case, he created only two other pictures titled Le plagiat, one in 1942 in a vertical format and another in 1960 as a gouache; this latter picture was in the collection of the artist's friend, Harry Torczyner. In addition, Magritte created a variation of the theme called La leçon d'anatomie in 1943; this was painted in a pseudo-Impressionist manner and did not feature the eggs in the nest shown in the three pictures called Le plagiat.
The fact that Magritte painted most of these variations during the first half of the 1940s reveals an important factor in his output during that period. Magritte is known to have painted this original, first version of Le plagiat in January 1940, shortly before the invasion of Belgium but after the beginning of the Second World War. This was a moment of incredible international tension, not least for an artist associated with a subversive view of the world and with political statements that one could imagine would not sit well with any occupying forces. While some artists, especially among the Surrealists, sought to channel, express or address this tension, Magritte sought another path that was more in keeping with the legacies of Claude Monet, who continued painting his water lilies in the First World War, and Henri Matisse, who would continue to envision a world of the senses later in the Second: instead of dwelling in darkness, Magritte attempted to create a slender ray of light, a beacon of hope.
In Le plagiat, this takes the form of a meditation on beauty, as Magritte has shown a room filled with a bunch of flowers which itself becomes a form of window or portal opening up to a lyrically idyllic landscape. Combining the beauty of the floral still life with a verdant, fertile, flower-flecked meadow, Magritte has managed to produce a form of beauty squared; in this context, it is unsurprising, considering Magritte's defiant refusal to paint dark pictures in those dark days, that he would return twice to this motif during the years of the War. David Sylvester would refer to the pictures of this period as sometimes revealing 'a disquiet in which any violence was subdued' or, in the case of Le plagiat, 'a feeling of positive reassurance' (D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 319). Magritte would continue to channel positive feelings in his work throughout the Occupation, regardless of his own situation. Initially, after the invasion, which occurred mere months after Le plagiat was painted, he would flee to France, where he spent some time in Carcassonne, before struggling to return to Belgium and to his wife, Georgette. From that point onwards, he continued to work, introducing new subjects and techniques which often focussed on various aspects of beauty from the Western artistic canon such as the nude, the landscape and flowers. As well as exploring this arsenal of subject matter, Magritte would also, as demonstrated by La leçon d'anatomie, develop 'new' styles of painting which allowed him to add a new spin to his various themes. This would be most evident in his mock-Fauve and mock-Impressionist styles, both of which revealing the constant presence of humour as well as subversive intelligence at play in his reconfigurations of visual reality. In this way, he demonstrated his own unique perspective on the role of the artist during that time of conflict. At the same time, he showed his incredible versatility and ability to innovate constantly, both of which are clearly in evidence in Le plagiat.
Already in 1937, Magritte had written what appears to have been the seed for the idea behind Le plagiat: 'This bouquet is transparent' (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 276). In Le plagiat, the bouquet itself opens up to a sprawling, flower-strewn landscape with a tree richly laden in blossom, making the associative connection between nature within and nature without. When people place a vase of flowers within a domestic context, they are essentially introducing a sliver of nature, of landscape, of colour and of scent from the meadows. A bouquet is a small, concentrated embassy for the outdoors, infiltrating our homes and bringing both beauty and associations with it. In Le plagiat, Magritte has made this connection explicit, all the more so as the silhouette of the bouquet loosely echoes the shape of the tree in the background. In this context, it may be telling that, two years later - the same year that he painted a vertical work similar to Le plagiat - as part of a game, Magritte would write a definition of a garden as 'a space set between a landscape and a bunch of flowers', a reference which appears particularly apt in this fusion of the two (Magritte, quoted in Ibid., p. 276).
In the catalogue raisonné of Magritte's works, it is pointed out that the title, Le plagiat, is one that Magritte himself cherished. It had been suggested by his friend Marcel Mariën for another work in 1938, which subsequently became known as La chaîne sans fin. Magritte wrote to him: 'The title Plagiary is very strong and fine. I am appropriating it' (Magritte, quoted in Ibid., p. 276). Later, he would tell Mariën that the title could apply to all his works. However, it was only two years later that he found a proper picture upon which to bestow this precious treasure of a title.
That title, with its sense of copying and fraud, introduces an intriguing subtext to Le plagiat that works on several levels. For a start, there is the implication that the bouquet is itself a form of plagiarism, a reference to the countryside taken out of context and infiltrating the domestic interior implied by the curtain in the background. The eggs in their nest are a more explicit example of the outside world invading the indoors, creating a mysterious tension between the man-made quotation of nature of the bouquet and their more original status. But of course, the concept of plagiarism pierces deeper into the picture and its contents. Indeed, what is representation except a form of plagiarism? For the artist who had painted La trahison des images, a picture of a pipe with a written slogan underneath declaring that 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe', such a reference is all the more relevant. Magritte is playing with the ideas of representation all the more through the use of the silhouette of the flowers as a portal to a stretching landscape, playing with the two-dimensionality of the picture surface and subverting it. Like his pictures of paintings on easels showing the continuation of the world behind them, or windows with shattered glass still showing the motif that lies beyond its former situation, these flowers have become an aperture through which one perceives another realm. In Le plagiat, though, that realm is linked through conceptual affinities between the plants that have been bunched in the vase and those which adorn the green prairie depicted in the silhouetted beyond.
Magritte has played with the concept of figuration in Le plagiat, which depicts an impossible view that nonetheless has a poetic foundation that relies on the connection between the foliage in the landscape and the foliage in the vase. At the same time, he is revelling in the opportunity to subvert tropes within the history of art. Here, he has combined the traditional floral still life, sometimes used as a type of memento mori showing the fleeting beauty of the world, with the landscape genre, creating another form of plagiarism. In this way, he has conflated two of the great Flemish picture traditions, adopting them, colliding them and retasking them to his own surreal purposes.