[TEXT FOR FIRST PAGE WITH CATALOGUING:]
'Valentine Paridant who came here one evening has found a title for the picture of the woman with the curtain: "MIRAGE", but I have found something a little better, I think, and it is almost definitive that I am going to call it "L'AIMANT". What do you think?' (Magritte, letter to Paul Scutenaire, November 1941, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, op. cit., p. 291).
L'aimant plunges the viewer into the enigmatic and mysterious universe of René Magritte. This painting, which dates from 1941, shows a woman standing by a curtain and a rock with an expansive seascape behind her. The woman is naked, and her form is perfectly echoed in the folds of the plush curtain against which she is standing, her eyes seemingly closed in contemplation. This is an image filled with beauty, and that beauty is underscored by the woman's repeated form. L'aimant - the title means 'The Magnet' yet has an overtone that refers to the French word aimer, to love - joins the canon of pictures such as La magie noire of 1945 in which the Belgian Surrealist explored and celebrated female beauty, female mystery and the female form.
While the presence of that silhouette within the hanging material in L'aimant is on the one hand surreal, it also hints at a dimension of reason, a realm with rules that add to the harmony of existence. Even the presence of this beautiful woman above the stretching seascape, in some undefined, wood-floored space, hints at an almost Mediterranean world of sensuality and beauty, Magritte introducing us to a place of harmony - albeit harmonies to which we are not entirely accustomed.
L'aimant was painted during an intriguing period in Magritte's life and career. In January of the same year that it was painted, he wrote to his friend and patron Claude Spaak saying,
'All my latest pictures are leading me toward the simplified painting that I have long wanted to achieve, it is in short the ever more rigorous search for what, in my view, is the essential element in art; purity and precision in the image of mystery which becomes decisive through being shorn of everything incidental or accidental' (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, Vol.II, London, 1993, p. 288).
Certainly that restraint is evident in the pared-back composition of L'aimant, which contains only a few elements, resulting in an incredible clarity. The juxtapositions of the various textures - flesh, stone, wood, water, textile - are thrust to the foreground, as too is the echo in the curtains of the woman's body. Meanwhile, the fact that the woman is leaning on a rough pedestal of stone implies that she may be some form of Galatea, a simulacrum of womanhood carved from stone within the Magrittean vision, just as Pygmalion had managed two millennia earlier. This introduces an intriguing interplay of fictive levels of representation that involves the viewer in a deliberately unsolvable intellectual riddle.
There is an iconic simplicity in the composition of L'aimant, with its deliberately restrained number of elements, that would be retained in many of Magritte's greatest pictures for the rest of his life. It is intriguing, considering this clarity, that Magritte painted L'aimant during the early years of the Occupation, when Belgium was under the control of the National Socialists during the Second World War. During that time, Magritte, perhaps counter-intuitively, began to create pictures that often sang with beauty and with humour, culminating in his pastiches of Renoir and the Impressionists two years later. In this way, his works can be seen as an echo of Claude Monet during the First World War and Henri Matisse in the South of France during the Second, keeping a beacon of hope alive during a period of despair, rather than expressing the torments of the age as so many of their contemporaries did. However, in a letter that Magritte wrote to the poet Paul Eluard in December 1941, in which he discussed L'aimant, he appears to imply that he was creating this clear beauty in his paintings not in order to bring hope, but rather to highlight the deficiencies of the prosaic world of conflict that surrounded him. The difference between the air of mysterious order and logic in the magical realm of L'aimant, where a body is mimicked in the material of a plush curtain, and the world of rations and bombings that surrounded it was all the greater, a fact that perhaps would open the minds of the viewers to the infinite poetic possibilities of existence:
'My fit of exhaustion is almost over (it will never completely go, I think) and for some time I have been working with interest. Doubtless I had to find a way of producing what was bothering me: pictures in which "the bright side" of life would be the area to be exploited. By this I mean the whole traditional range of charming things, women, flowers, birds, trees, the atmosphere of happiness, etc. And if I have managed to bring fresh air into my painting, it is through the fairly powerful charm which is now substituted in my paintings for the disturbing poetry that I once struggled to achieve.
'Generally speaking, pleasure cancels out a whole series of worries that I want increasingly to disregard...
'"The magnet" is a female nude with long, blonde hair leaning against a rock, next to a curtain. The folds of the curtain beside the woman faithfully copy the shape of her body.
'If these things must have an additional justification, although their charm is enough to render it unnecessary, I would say that the power of these pictures is that they make us sharply aware of all the imperfections of everyday life' (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, op. cit., pp. 290-91).
Magritte had clearly been influenced by the prospect of war before its outbreak, and this is often considered to have been reflected in the tone of some of his paintings, especially Le drapeau noir, now in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. In that work, dark, various pieces of menacing apparatus were pictured over a darkened landscape, hinting at the aerial bombardment which was to come to afflict so much of the world and which had already been witnessed in Spain during its Civil War. Similarly, Magritte began Le mal du pays ('Homesickness'), showing a winged man looking forlornly across a fog-bound cityscape from a bridge, a lion sitting behind him, in 1939 at the outbreak of war; it was completed the same year that he painted L'aimant.
Magritte had conceived of Le mal du pays two days before German forces invaded Poland, giving a vivid hint at the atmosphere of foreboding which had cast such a shadow across Europe and which forms such a contrast with the bright, light and sensual atmosphere of L'aimant. Magritte himself would come to be affected by the War. On the eve of the Occupation, he had fled Belgium, heading instead to Carcassonne, where a number of his colleagues and contemporaries also stayed or at least passed through on their way to exile farther afield. This may have been part of Magritte's intentions: certainly at the beginning he was concerned about the attitude the occupying forces in Germany would take to some of his earlier political proclamations. Edward James, the legendary British patron of the Surrealists who was responsible for the creation of so many of Magritte's and also Salvador Dalí's masterpieces, even offered the Belgian artist funds in order to allow him to reach Lisbon and fly from there to London. There, he would have been able to live in relative comfort and freedom in one of James' houses. However, in part because of his concern for his wife Georgette, who remained in Belgium, and in part because of the unexpectedly fast fall and capitulation of France, Magritte decided to return home (in fact at one point he was so desperate to go that he even left on a bicycle with a dozen boiled eggs, hoping to carry out the journey under his own steam; he returned exhausted later the same day).
On his return, Magritte appears not to have found the troubles with the authorities that he had feared, and managed to work in relative tranquillity during the Occupation, continuing to create his idiosyncratic images and to explore new aspects of the mysterious dimension from which they emerge. Several exhibitions of his works took place during the Occupation, and he was also able to assist in the creation of the first monographs dedicated to his work, which also allowed their greater dissemination. Ultimately, Magritte's desire to create works that brought joy, rather than underscoring the woeful deficiencies of the present, led the already warm beauty of L'aimant to blossom into the positive (though by many of his supporters, who felt it was a betrayal, reviled) ecstasy of his Renoir period.