'This is how we see the world. We see it outside ourselves, and at the same time we only have a representation of it in ourselves. In the same way, we sometimes situate in the past that which is happening in the present. Time and space thus lose the vulgar meaning that only daily experience takes into account' (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 156).
Dated to circa 1961 in David Sylvester's catalogue raisonné of René Magritte's paintings, Le monde des images shows the Belgian Surrealist tackling one of his favourite themes: the way we see the world. In this picture, what appears to be a sunset - assuming that in Magritte's mind the view is from Belgium's West-facing coast - is bathing the sea in red. Scattered on the ground, by the wall under the window, are brittle shards of broken glass. And upon that glass, frozen upon its surface, is the view that is still seen through the window...
In Le monde des images, there is a clear disjoint between the way that we see the world and the way in which it is being presented. Magritte has carried out a discreet transformation of the rules of life - rules such as: glass is transparent - in order to make us view the world afresh. The activity of many of Magritte's pictures takes place in the ambiguous territory of our visual experience of the world; Magritte encourages us to liberate ourselves from taking that for granted. Here, then, the window is shown in a new light, failing dismally in its purported purpose and reflecting an impossible simultaneity between the seascape visible through the glass and that shown on the glass. As Magritte explained about this motif, 'The pane breaks and with it the landscape that was visible behind it and through it. If what is at least possible should truly happen one day, I would hope that a poet or philosopher... would explain to me what these shards of reality are supposed to mean' (Magritte, quoted in S. Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, trans. J. Gabriel & D. Pistolesi, New York, 2009, p. 175).
Magritte had first begun to explore similar themes of duplicated, simultaneous realities as early as 1931, in his picture La belle captive. That work, which may have been based on the illustrations on the workings of perspective in a textbook that Magritte could have seen as a student, showed a canvas on an easel in a verdant landscape; the scene on the canvas was an exact continuation of that behind it. Two years later, Magritte used a similar image as a 'solution' to the problem of the window during the period when he had begun to explore affinities, rather than incongruous juxtapositions, in his works:
'The problem of the window gave rise to La condition humaine. In front of a window seen from inside a room, I placed a painting representing exactly that portion of the landscape covered by the painting. Thus, the tree in the picture hid the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room within the painting and outside in the real landscape. This simultaneous existence in two different spaces is like living simultaneously in the past and in the present, as in cases of déjà vu' (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 216).
Three years later, in La clef des champs, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Magritte shattered the glass, rather than showing a painting before the window. Claude Spaak was cited by the catalogue raisonné of Magritte's works as saying that this new variation had been inspired by a cartoon which he himself had shown the artist, depicting a lorry that had 'smashed through the French windows into a drawing room occupied by a lordly Englishman whose phlegmatic response is the caption, which Spaak could not recall' (D. Sylvester & S. Whitfield, René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil paintings and objects, 1931-1948, Antwerp, 1993, p. 225).
It is a tribute to the power of these images of windows that the themes would recur several times in Magritte's career, remaining a clear source of fascination and inspiration. The Menil Collection, Houston, for example, holds a picture entitled Le soir qui tombe, painted in 1964, showing a sunset over a hilly landscape through the shattered glass of a window. Meanwhile, he had spliced this trope with that of the eagle-mountain in a 1949 work entitled Le domaine d'Arnheim. It is a tribute to the power of Le monde des images that Magritte submitted it to an exhibition commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, when his work was shown alongside those of an impressive array of other artists, old and new.
Magritte's explorations of the gap between illustration and reality had been launched by La trahison des images, the iconic image of a pipe underneath which was emblazoned a caption explaining succinctly and clearly that, 'Ceci n'est pas un pipe', an incontrovertible truth. In this, he was expanding upon theories regarding language that had been inspired by Fernand de Saussure. Magritte's dialectic of vision expanded in various ways, and is clear in Le monde des images, with the view of the sunset uncannily crystallised within the fabric of the glass, an impossible spectre of a frozen moment that is occurring at that very moment.
The idea of the window as an object of passage, be it of light or of more, had been explored in 1920 by Marcel Duchamp, who had created his Fresh Widow. This was a French window - titled with panache by that great master of the jeu de mots - in which the panels of glass had been covered with leather. The gleam appeared to remain, giving the sense of a view into a dark, seemingly infinite night, yet in fact revealing only the leather itself, a flat unyielding surface. In Le monde des images, Magritte plays with a similar concept of the flatness of the view. For in addition to playing with the idea of a moment that has somehow found an echo within the fabric of the shattered glass, Magritte is playing with the concept of perspective - which may have inspired this theme in the first place in the form of the illustrations of Armand Cassagne's 1873 Traité pratique de perspective. In Le monde des images, the plunging view towards the distant horizon, reminiscent of the Romantic views of Caspar David Friedrich, is disrupted by the presence of the glass, which plays on the notion of illusion. This is, Magritte emphasises, a two-dimensional surface, a flat simulation, as is the glass that lies propped against the wall, still showing the view in dumb show.
Le monde des images is believed to have been painted around 1961, although it was signed with - and therefore possibly dates from - the year 1950. Both of these dates fall within the era of dominance of the Abstract Expressionists espoused by the critic Clement Greenberg, who had come to their primacy in the art world in the United States, where Magritte's own work would also become so popular. The Abstract Expressionists may have had an impact in the restrained view that Magritte has chosen to depict in Le monde des images. After all, there is a crisp, near-abstract and highly eloquent simplicity to the bands of sky and sea, punctuated by the circle of the sun. While that fiery orb resembles the dot that was exhibited to such derision by Claude Monet in his 1872 landscape, Impression, soleil levant, the striations of blue and red that mark out the seascape in fact bear greater resemblance to the abstract pictures of Mark Rothko, and may reveal Magritte deliberately making a reference to his contemporary. Certainly, the emphasis that the Abstract Expressionists placed on the picture plane is shared by Magritte, but where they disregarded and discarded illusionism, Magritte has embraced it while managing also to parody it.