"For me it's not a matter of painting 'reality' as though it were readily accessible to me and to others, but of depicting the most ordinary reality in such a way that this immediate reality loses its tame or terrifying character and presents itself with mystery" (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte, New York, 1977, p. 203.) Fusing two of Magritte's signature motifs into one evocative image, La fin du monde is an elegantly simple presentation of Magritte's complex symbolic vocabulary. By combining the night/day duality of L'empire des lumières series with the protagonist of many of Magritte's canvases, the man with the bowler hat, Magritte presents a complete world--a figure in a landscape--that is both an iteration and summation of his production of the two decades of the 1950s and 1960s.
Magritte explained the origin of L'empire des lumières in a radio interview in 1956, stating: "What is represented in a picture is what is visible to the eye, it is the thing or the things that had to be thought of. Thus, what is represented in the picture [L'empire des lumières] are the things I thought of, to be precise, a nocturnal landscape and a skyscape such as can be seen in broad daylight. The landscape suggests night and the skyscape day. This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power: poetry" (quoted in D. Sylvester, op cit., p. 145). The first painting from this series (Sylvester, no. 709; fig. 1) depicts a somewhat urban street with a couple of houses and an off-center streetlight. This composition was immediately popular with Magritte's collectors, and was purchased by Nelson Rockefeller in January of 1950. Between 1949 and 1964, Magritte executed seventeen oils and ten gouache versions of L'empire des lumières each of which displays some variation on a dimly lit nocturnal street scene with an eerily shuttered house and glowing lamppost below a sunlit blue sky with puffy white clouds. The motif quickly became a favorite of the artist and his admirers, and remains one of his most famous and sought-after themes, to which he would repeatedly return throughout his career. The present work, La fin du monde, is a combination of the L'empire des lumières theme first realized in 1949 and that of a more recent work, A la rencontre du plaisir (Sylvester, no. 946) of 1962. It is also closely related to a gouache, Les signes du soir (Sylvester, no. 1536; fig. 2) painted the same year, in July 1963.
In La fin du monde Magritte inverts the compositional balance that typifies the L'empire des lumières series such that the twilight sky dominates spatially over the silhouetted forest and house. As Magritte once explained to his friend Harry Torczyner, the concept of the night/day duality was one that held particular appeal for him. If I believe this evocation has such poetic power, it is because, among other reasons, I have always felt the greatest interest in night and day, yet without ever having preferred one or the other. This great personal interest in night and day is a feeling of admiration and astonishment" (quoted in ibid., p. 102). The central idea of L'empire des lumières which is manifest in La fin du monde is the impossible beauty of the concept that André Breton expressed when he exclaimed, "If only the sun would come out tonight!" The simplicity of this concept is inflected by the shadow of the man with the bowler hat, depicted at equal scale to the house, which determines that this setting is somehow fantastical, a dreamscape, a product of Magritte's poetic realm of the visual imagination to which he gave the name "Le domaine enchanté" (The Enchanted Domain).
By including day and night, two normally irreconcilable conditions, within a spatially continuous scene, Magritte disrupts the viewer's sense of time. "After I had painted L'empire des lumières," he recalled to a friend in 1966, "I got the idea that night and day exist together, that they are one. This is reasonable, or at the very least it's in keeping with our knowledge: in the world night always exists at the same time as day. (Just as sadness always exists in some people at the same time as happiness in others). But such ideas are not poetic. What is poetic is the visible image of the picture" (quoted in ibid.). Breton also recognized in this work the unconventional reconciliation of opposites that the Surrealists prized, stating: "To [Magritte], inevitably, fell the task of separating the 'subtle' from the 'dense,' without which effort no transmutation is possible. To attack this problem called for all his audacity--to extract simultaneously what is light from the shadow and what is shadow from the light (L'empire des lumières). In this work the violence done to accepted ideas and conventions is such (I have this from Magritte) that most of those who go by quickly think they saw the stars in the daytime sky. In Magritte's entire performance there is present to a high degree what Apollinaire called 'genuine good sense,' which is, of course, that of the great poets" (A. Breton, "The Breadth of Rene Magritte" in Magritte, exh. cat., Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, 1964, n.p.).
The image of the man wearing a black bowler hat and overcoat, which is here nestled into the right hand side of the tree line, first entered Magritte's oeuvre in several paintings of the late 1920s (see Sylvester, nos. 136, 137 and 220). However, it was not until 1951 that the well-known--indeed iconic--version of this subject, in which the part-length figure of the man is seen from behind, appeared in the artist's repertory, in La bôite de Pandore (Sylvester, no. 772; fig. 3). It became the basis of a series of variants in which the artist placed the man in different settings. The man in the bowler hat, his face hidden from the viewer, was not only the artist's private persona and surrogate, but has since become acknowledged as a universal symbol of the anonymous, twentieth-century, bourgeois man-on-the-street. He is the public functionary, the bureaucrat, the capitalist large or small, or the ordinary salary man, who inwardly and discreetly aspires to something beyond himself, or even the visionary potential of the artist or poet. Indeed, Magritte had first tentatively titled the preceding version of this subject, painted in 1952 L'art poétique (Sylvester, no. 778).
Like other members of the Surrealist circle in Brussels, Magritte chose to dress and live in a deliberately staid and bourgeois manner. The bowler hat was a key part of his conservative attire. David Sylvester wrote "Mesens has told me how Magritte made a point of never buying himself a stylish bowler, one that would best suit his face, but always a standardized, indifferent product, allowing no intervention of preference of taste" (D. Sylvester, Magritte, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1969, p. 14). The artist himself explained to an interviewer from Life magazine in 1965, "The bowler is a headdress that is not original: it poses no surprise. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularize myself. I would dress for it. But I don't want to" (R. Magritte, Ecrits complets, Paris, 1979, p. 612).
La fin du monde is therefore an apt study in how Magritte routinely deployed symbols of the normal, ordinary, everyday convention--namely a rural setting at night and the anonymous bowler hatted man--to contradictory ends: to surprise, unsettle and reconfigure the viewer's expectations and experience of the everyday. As the artist himself observed, "Those of my pictures that show very familiar objects, an apple, for example, pose questions. We no longer understand when we look at an apple; its mysterious quality has thus been evoked" (quoted in H. Torczyner, op. cit., 1977, p. 170).
The wide-ranging impact of Magritte's painting on artists working today, as well as on the larger public consciousness, has been showcased in two important and highly regarded exhibitions, most recently in an imaginative installation designed by John Baldessari at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images in 2007, which also included works by thirty post-war artists, as well as René Magritte and Contemporary Art at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Ostende in 1998, which featured the work of sixty contemporary artists from more than twenty countries. In the catalogue for the LACMA show, Stephanie Barron has written: "The art of René Magritte has had an influence far exceeding the confines of the art world. Imagery adapted from his paintings has been widely disseminated for more than half a century through advertising, cartoons, film, book jackets, and popular music... His work has continued to appeal to modern audiences hungry for the puzzling conjunctions of the everyday and the fantastic... The inscrutable nature of Magritte's work--coded, self-referential, and incongruous--has [moreover] intrigued several generations of artists. His refusal to explain, his steadfast dismissal of psychological interpretations, and the enigmatic titles of the paintings themselves have all fueled speculation about the meaning of his art" (exh. cat., op. cit., p. 9).
(fig. 1) René Magritte, L'Empire des lumières, 1949. Private collection, Milan.
(fig. 2) René Magritte, Les signes du soir, 1963. Private collection.
(fig. 3) René Magritte, La boîte de Pandore, 1951. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. John A. Cook.