‘Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature, I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me. I became uncertain of the depth of the fields, unconvinced of the remoteness of the horizon’
‘the sky is a form of curtain because it hides something from us. We are surrounded by curtains’
René Magritte’s Le palais de rideaux (‘The Palace of Curtains’) was painted in 1928, while the artist was living and working in Paris, a pivotal three-year period which saw him formulate his own, distinctive form of Surrealism. During this extraordinarily productive time, Magritte conceived of a number of new groups of work, including the groundbreaking ‘word paintings’, compositions based on the metamorphosis of materials, as well as the partitioned paintings, all of which offered radical pictorial innovations that contributed to the Surrealist discourse that dominated Paris at this time. As Josef Helfenstein has written, ‘During his time in the French capital, Magritte became one of the most creative artists of the era, systematically challenging representation in painting in ways that no other artist had done before’ (J. Helfenstein, ‘A Lightning Flash is Smouldering Beneath the Bowler Hats, Paris 1927-1930’, in Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, exh. cat., New York, 2013, pp. 71-72).
Against a densely wooded background, in Le palais de rideaux, two anthropomorphically shaped forms serve as both a screen or perhaps portals through to an unexpected and unknown realm beyond. Demarcated by a strange, seemingly metal or rubber tube, the left-hand hollow is filled by a curtain, while its neighbour reveals a glimpse through to Magritte’s characteristic cloud-filled sky. Playing with concepts of collage, surface and the nature of representation, Le palais de rideaux encapsulates the various artistic ideas that Magritte was exploring at this time, adding, with the figure-like forms, a distinctly human element. These shrouded shapes both reveal and conceal further dimensions of the composition: each compartment suggests there is an image behind, leaving the viewer to wonder what they are really looking at and what else is hiding amidst this painted ‘palace of curtains’?
Le palais de rideaux is the second of three closely related works: the first dates from the same year and features the same shrouded figures – this time a group of four – each revealing a different surface or realm beyond (Sylvester, no. 266). A year later, Magritte returned to the same concept, reprising the title once more for a word painting (Sylvester, no. 305; Museum of Modern Art, New York), which features two similar cut outs, one filled by sky and the other, with the French for sky, ‘ciel’. While in this final work Magritte eschewed the anthropomorphic suggestion of the previous two paintings, it explores the same method of compartmentalisation that Magritte was depicting in the present work and its 1928 companion. This concept of a composition made up of compartmentalised images would reach its apogee in works such as Le masque vide of 1929 (Sylvester, no. 285; National Museum, Cardiff) and Au seuil de la liberté of 1930 (Sylvester, no. 326; Museum Boijmans van Beuningen).
In each of the Le palais de rideaux works, Magritte has used a compositional element that he had introduced into his painting a few years earlier while working in Brussels: the cut-out. This pictorial device simultaneously suggests an empty or negative space, yet is at the same time, a palpably distinct and often a seemingly tangible object within the composition. Cut out pieces of sky or wood confound the viewer’s expectation, appearing as recognisable pieces of the world in unexpected and impossible situations: suddenly the sky, a normally infinite realm, has become a solid and segmented object set within a non-sensical context. This method of inserting layers of different materials in a kind of painted collage is a frequent feature in Magritte’s Paris paintings, a reflection also of his acquaintance with Max Ernst, whom he met at this time, and who was a pioneer of this technique. Indeed, in Le palais de rideaux, it is as if Magritte has created an image which is a composite of different sources. Rather than creating a collage of different materials, the artist uses oil paint, mimicking this technique and deliberately creating a new form of unexpected and surprising pictorial juxtapositions.
In creating compositions that were composed of multiple surfaces or screens, Magritte was playing with the fundamental concept of representation, revealing not only the inherent artifice of a painted image, but emphasising to the viewer that the world of appearance itself is in fact a composite of ever-changing possibilities; a combination of the seen and unseen, the banal and the mysterious. As Magritte explained in 1938, ‘Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature, I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me. I became uncertain of the depth of the fields, unconvinced of the remoteness of the horizon’ (Magritte, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London 1992, pp. 13-15). With works such as Le palais de rideaux therefore, Magritte has artfully played with this idea of concealment and revelation. As a result, he not only deconstructed traditional pictorial conventions, such as perspective and mimesis, but showed the viewer the endless potential for mystery and revelation that exists in the world around us. In this way, he removed the blinkers that blind man to the wonder that can exist in the everyday, not only offering a new vision of reality, but a new way of life.