'[Les jours gigantesques] represents an attempted rape; the woman is visibly in a state of terror. I have treated this subject, this terror that grips the woman, by means of a subterfuge, a reversal of the laws of space, which serves to produce an effect quite different from what the subject usually affords. It's roughly like this; the man seizes the woman; he is in the foreground; necessarily therefore the man conceals part of the woman, the part where he is in front of her, between her and our vision. But the discovery lies in the fact that the man does not overlap, the outline of the woman' (René Magritte, 'Letter to Marcel Lecomte', quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. I, Oil Paintings, 1916-1930, Antwerp, 1992, p. 227).
Les jours gigantesques (The Titanic Days) is one of the most memorable, powerful, and disturbing images in Magritte's entire oeuvre. Painted in 1928, at the height of Magritte's involvement with the Paris Surrealist group when the artist was living near Paris in le Perreux-sur-Marne, it is one of Magritte's first great pictorial subversions of reality and belongs among a number of highly important paintings from this period when his art was exploring dark and sinister themes connecting eroticism and violence.
Founded on a salacious and cinematic-looking image, Les jours gigantesques transforms the depiction of a clothed man struggling with a naked woman into an impossible but intriguingly androgynous image of apparent inner psychological struggle. One of the most startling and enduring Surrealist images of sexual ambiguity from this key period in the movement's history, Les jours gigantesques, along with other of Magritte's paintings from the period such as L'assassin menacé (The murderer threatened) of 1927, forms part of an outstanding group of works invoking crime and the dark side of man and his erotic drives.
L'assassin menacé for example, with its sensationalist atmosphere of sex, murder and mystery is a work that drew on sources from popular culture such as dime novel illustrations and the Fantômas movies with which Magritte, like much of Paris at this time, was completely enthralled. In the same way, Les jours gigantesques is also a painting that appears to invoke the pictorial language of popular culture in its cinema-poster-like use of an iconic cut-out figure isolated against an otherwise empty background. Only here, in a step that anticipates the later direction of Magritte's painting, Les jours gigantesques plays with an overt collision of realism and artifice. The image of a dramatic encounter between male and female protagonists - so often the stock-in-trade of dime novel illustration and cinematic poster art - is employed here to simultaneously appear to fuse two very different scenarios into an ambiguous unity to shocking effect. Magritte's comparatively simple but brilliantly original combination of two figures in one provides a violent counterpart to an image of the sexual union of two figures and also offers a grim parallel to a sensationalist image of what was often recognized at the time as a 'battle between the sexes'. In its simultaneous suggestion of both violence and union, as well as of an androgynous struggle taking place within a single figure therefore, Les jours gigantesques is an image that both subverts the expectations of the viewer and the pictorial conventions of the imagery of popular culture on which it seems to draw.
As Magritte wrote to his friend and Belgian Surrealist colleague Paul Nougé soon after completing Les jours gigantesques in April 1928, the implicit violence and resonant power of the distortive image he had devised by essentially fusing the two figures of a woman and her attacker into one in this work had even taken himself by surprise. Referring to a drawing of it which he sent to Nougé for inclusion in Distances, Magritte described the work as 'more violent than anything done before', and pointed out also that, like the article he was also sending to Nougé, 'the violence' of it 'is not simply external here' (René Magritte, 'Untitled text dated 2 April 1928' quoted in Sylvester, op. cit., 1992, p. 276). In concluding this letter, Magritte explained how, during the period of Les jours gigantesques' creation, he had been reading the Paris Surrealists' soon-to-be published 'studies on sexuality', criticizing their conclusions as merely 'facile, violent reactions... well-established and familiar'. 'I have a feeling', he suggested, and perhaps with reference to the new surprising direction a work such as Les jours gigantesques pointed to, that 'the discoveries we may make will be on a plane we have yet to discover' (ibid., p. 90).
That Magritte was fascinated by the promising direction he appears to have unlocked with the simply illusionary pictorial play of Les jours gigantesques is indicated by the fact that within a few months of painting the work, he returned to the subject once again, creating, as he was later to do with many of his works, a second version. This work, to which he gave the same title, is now in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf. As David Sylvester has written of both it and the present work, 'suddenly figures appeared which were consumed by violence, a compressed, locked violence. Magritte was fully conscious of the development when, writing to Nougé at the outset of April about the image of assault which was finally to be entitled The Titanic Days, he said it was more violent than anything he had done before. The second version, which was painted three or four months later and pulls out, as it were, from a medium-close-up shot of full-length figures, is even more dramatically violent; indeed, because of that it is perhaps a lesser work, great work though it is, than the first. Between... the two versions came The hunters at the edge of night, where the desperate struggle of the two men to free themselves from the wall is akin to the woman's struggle to free herself in The Titanic Days' (D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 1992, p. 183).
Sylvester has also suggested that a pictorial source for the common pose of the struggling figures in all three of these paintings - the two Les jours gigantesques and Les chasseurs au bord de la nuit was a series of reproductions of the pedimental figures from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia representing the attempted rape by the Centaurs of the Lapthian women and boys. He has also suggested that in his depiction of the female figure in Les jours gigantesques Magritte may have been aping Picasso's neo-classical figures, here disrupting their form with his own unique brand of Cubistic cut-out form.
The original title Magritte gave to Les jours gigantesques was 'La peur de l'amour' (Fear of love) but, as he wrote to Nougé, he was dissatisfied with this and asked for Nougé's assistance in finding a better one. Nougé suggested 'L'aube désarmé' (Dawn disarmed) which Magritte has inscribed on the back of the work only to later delete it in favour of the definitive title which was thought up by another of his Belgian Surrealist friends and colleagues, Louis Scutenaire.