Two monumental fruit appear on a beach, a brooding overcast sky in the background, in René Magritte's poetic Souvenir de voyage, painted in 1963. In this picture, Magritte has conjured a range of unexpected transformations and contrasts: despite the seeming simplicity of the composition, which shows only two objects against a seascape, there are various layers of implication that can be peeled away, each one revealing more about the manner in which we see the world. The positioning of the fruit evoke an almost human relationship; they are the subject of still life, transported to the world of landscape and rendered statuesque; with an incredible economy of means, Magritte has created a multi-layered picture that beguiles as we observe the mysteriousness of this vision while at the same time appreciating the authoritative manner in which it has been presented. This is a glimpse into a new, alien logic, perplexing yet somehow right. The imagistic power of this picture is reflected in its extensive exhibition history; indeed, it was shown at the Galerie Isy Brachot in an important posthumous show held the year after the artist's death which also featured the debut of Magritte's now-famous sculptures.
This picture shows two fruit on a beach. They are far from anthropomorphic and yet somehow in their positioning they evoke a mysterious intimacy. Margaret Krebs, the Brussels art dealer who knew Magritte and through whose hands many of the artist's pictures including Souvenir de voyage passed, told the compilers of the catalogue raisonné of his work that the vision that had inspired Magritte to paint this work came after seeing a couple by the seaside (see D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, op. cit., p. 383). Certainly here there is a companionable atmosphere between this apple and the pear that gives the sense of a married couple: these mismatched fruit seem comfortable with each other, regardless of differences of species. Indeed, even the choice of fruit seem to help the viewer to infer the two genders, to see one fruit as male and the other female, each becoming imbued with a discrete character. Magritte several times used fruit as oblique incarnations of humans to some extent, for instance in Le prêtre marié of two years earlier, where he showed apples wearing masks, giving them a strangely animated sense of personality. Here, without granting them faces, he has nonetheless transposed them into a context where what they are doing appears somehow more human than fruity.
All this takes place, looking at Souvenir de voyage, despite the fact that this couple has been painted as though made entirely of stone. These two monolithic fruit are, one cannot but assume, lifeless and therefore emotionless. Here they sit in companionable silence, as though petrified; at the same time, Magritte introduces the possibility that there is nothing impossible on display in this picture, albeit there is clearly something unusual and indeed unlikely. For could these not be sculptures of fruit, placed on the beach and perhaps whithered by the passing of centuries? Certainly, there is a timeless atmosphere that is wholly Magrittean and which is emphasised by the complete absence of other points of reference. There is nothing modern, nothing except the landscape and these fruit, to tell of the era into which we are peering. Instead, there is only the Stimmung, the heady atmosphere of mystical possibility that was the focus of Giorgio de Chirico's paintings, for instance Le chant d'amour, the 1914 picture now in New York's Museum of Modern Art that had caused Magritte his own epiphany and opened up the possibility of his own unique perspective on the Surreal. It was likewise visible in Tate's 1913 masterpiece by de Chirico, L'incertitude du poète, in which an ancient-seeming torso from a sculpture was shown in one of the artist's Italian piazze, a spilt bunch of bananas by its side, a train trundling across the horizon in the distance. Indeed, in some ways Souvenir de voyage can be seen to have condensed many of those elements into the stony, sculptural apple and pear, revealing the eloquence and concision that was in part a legacy of Magritte's days in advertising during his youth, and which would come to be so important to some of his younger contemporaries now in the early 1960s, at the time of Neo-Dada and Pop. At the same time, the transformation of these soft and edible fruit into stone in Souvenir de voyage would be echoed in the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg.
Magritte painted several pictures in which he rendered the subjects with a stone-like finish, as is the case in Souvenir de voyage. Indeed, several of the paintings, for instance the one incorporating an image of his friend, the poet Marcel Lecomte, and elements from his 1955 picture Le mal du pays, appeared together in the stone-finish cornucopia that is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1950, he had explored this transformation in another work, La légende des siècles, in which a small chair made of wood appeared perched on a vast, henge-like chair made of colossal stones. He turned to more familiar still life formats in two other works entitled Souvenir de voyage and painted in 1950: in one, a stone apple, stem intact, is shown in a rocky landscape; in another, a compotier, bottle and fruit are shown as though made of stone against a stone wall. In 1951, in Journal intime, he also showed two men in hats and overcoats, one clutching a briefcase, hewn from the rock. In 1962, he returned to this trope by creating other works including the image of a candle, with its flame depicted too, petrified. He subsequently returned sometimes to similar themes, for instance in L'idole of 1965, in which a stone bird is shown in flight. This shows how important the visual device was to Magritte; here, he has married it to that of the two fruit shown on a beach, as in Le prêtre marié.
This transformation works in part because of the incredible tension between movement and stillness, or at least between mortality and timelessness. In depicting the two fruit in Souvenir de voyage as though they were made of rock, the perishability of fruit is completely exorcised. In the still life genre, fruit and other foodstuffs have often been used throughout the centuries to give a sense of impending mortality - the still life is indeed often considered a form of memento mori. Yet here stand the defiant apple and pear, which the centuries could barely wither. By rendering the still life statuesque, Magritte has lent what is usually a short-lived consumer item a new immortality, bending the entire genre to his will. Indeed, he is also dovetailing his own deliberate perversion of the still life genre with that of the landscape, as demonstrated by the background. These colossi, shown against the backdrop of the brooding seascape, become monuments, hinting indeed at the idea of a Souvenir de voyage.
Of course, the title becomes all the more ironically apt when one considers the implied motionlessness of the stone fruit. These delicious titans are rooted to the spot, unlikely ever to make the voyage or accumulate the souvenirs that the title implies. They are emphatically immobile. Where, in other works, Magritte granted an unlikely dynamism to forms made of stone, for instance in the floating castle-topped island of Château des Pyrénées of 1959, now in the Israel Museum, in the majority of the Souvenir de voyage, he has deliberately grounded the objects he has selected by depicting them as made of rock. The title, then, is magnificently apt, and all the more so as it was taken from a book by one of Magritte's favourite authors, the Comte de Gobineau's Souvenirs de voyage, which discussed several of his journeys (see H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 203). Magritte had first used the title Souvenir de voyage in a very different 1926 painting showing a thin, skin-like torso in a picture-within-a-picture against a mystical background; that work is now in the Musée d'art moderne et contemporain, Strasbourg. In 1950, he returned to the title, from that point always linking it to his immobile, stony objects, as in the present Souvenir de voyage.
Magritte, a highly literary man and a keen, keen reader, was open about the problematic nature of Gobineau's writings. While Magritte was willing to list him among the vast score of his favourite authors, he was careful to keep a distance from the problematic author, whose ideas regarding race were latched upon by both Wagner and, later, the Nazis in Germany. It is interesting, then, that it was to the less charged Souvenirs de voyage that Magritte looked. Indeed, he himself explained that, 'Gobineau is very good. But I'm afraid you'll be disappointed if you expect anything more than unique reading pleasure. This pleasure is already something - it's even quite rare - but in my opinion Gobineau never wrote an idea that was not self-satisfied' (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 54).
It is perhaps another irony, and a deliberate one at that, that this painting was originally given by Magritte to the architect Raoul Brunswyck. It was in 1963, the year that Souvenir de voyage was painted, that Magritte commissioned Brunswyck to design a new house for him, to be built on a plot of land the artist had acquired in the sought-after Brussels neighbourhood of Uccle. Magritte had in part chosen Brunswyck, a young architect at this point, because he had known his father Isidore and played cards with him. Brunswyck recalled Magritte from his youth as being a figure of fun in the community, as he walked his dog wearing a coat over his pyjamas (see Sylvester (ed.), op. cit., 1993, p. 126). However, Magritte, seeing the name of his acquaintance, employed Brunswyck to lay out the plans for his projected home. Magritte himself was perfectly willing to admit that the designs for his new domicile were conservative, writing to Harry Torczyner: 'The house is in a neo-classical style and would certainly not be to the taste of a jury of architects nominated by the Guggenheim Museum' (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 127). However, the plans ultimately came to naught. Magritte had kept meddling and stalling with the plans submitted, and then balked at the suggested costs; the final change appears to have been when he was able to purchase the home he had hitherto been renting from its owner, ending his requirement of a new house. However, it appears a reflection of the good terms that were between the artist and the architect that, regardless of the tensions that came with the project, Magritte presented Souvenir de voyage to Brunswyck as a gift.