‘I have nothing to express I simply search for images and invent and invent… only the image counts, the inexplicable and mysterious image, since all is mystery in our life.’ – René Magritte
Questioning the fundamental laws of perception and perspective, La tapisserie de Pénélope is a powerful example of the lyrical, yet logical, subversion of reality proposed by René Magritte’s Surrealist paintings. A unique image within the artist’s oeuvre, the gouache presents a simple landscape view of quaint houses and verdant trees dotted across a non-descript, grassy plain, while the calm flowing waters of a small brook draws the eye to the centre of the scene. The view is rendered uncanny, however, by Magritte’s playful inversion of the familiar rules of both linear and atmospheric perspective. Through this deceptively simple reversal, the artist upends one of the central pillars of human perception, and in so doing, draws attention to the fallibility of how we see the world.
Rooted in the unconscious processes of human vision, atmospheric or aerial perspective relies on a variety of subtle visual cues to generate a sense of depth or recession in a scene, from the gradation of colour to the blurring of contours as objects move further into the distance. In La tapisserie de Pénélope, Magritte allows the colours to appear highly saturated in the distant background, only to grow gradually fainter and less concrete in the objects nearer the viewer. This playful, yet disconcerting, concept appears to have first occurred to Magritte in the summer of 1942, though it took several months for the idea to fully solidify in his imagination, finally emerging in the 1943 gouache Le traité du paysage (Sylvester, no. 1183). Magritte discussed the evolution of this composition with the poet Paul Nougé in a number of letters, at one point admitting ‘the fruit is doubtless not ripe enough, I have still to find the flicker of illumination which will show me the way’ (quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés 1918-1967, London, 1994, p. 55).
In Le traité du paysage, the principles of linear perspective are maintained throughout the composition, the diagonal lines of the pathway receding into the distance, making the other distortions in colour and tone all the more strange and unexpected to the viewer. It was this subtle reversal of the natural, expected order of things that inspired Nougé to write: ‘There could be no stronger or more discreet attack on the substance of the visible world. No monsters or chimeras need appear in this peaceful countryside. All is in keeping with everyday orderliness – while the charm operates with the primary certainty of a mirror, in the absence of the aerial perspective’ (Nougé, quoted in ibid, p. 56). With La tapisserie de Pénélope, Magritte pushes these investigations even further by inverting the perspectival lines within the landscape – rather than allowing them to converge into a single vanishing point in the distance, the artist instead leads the eye through the scene along two different pathways, beginning with the central tree in the foreground and then travelling outwards towards the clusters of small, red-roofed houses on the horizon. In this way, Magritte places the viewer in the unexpected position within the landscape, suggesting that they are standing in the exact position of the vanishing point, as seen from the houses in the distance.
Magritte’s choice of title meanwhile, adds another layer of surprising contradiction to the composition, invoking the mythological tale of Odysseus’s patient and loyal wife Penelope, and her simple, yet ingenious plan to stall the suitors awaiting her hand in marriage. Penelope had promised to choose a new husband on the completion of a shroud for her father-in-law, which she wove during the day, only to secretly unpick at night, a deception that successfully held the men at bay until the return of Odysseus. While Magritte maintained that his poetic titles were independent of the compositions they were attached to, most often proposed after their completion by his intellectual friends at his weekly gatherings on a Saturday evening, it is possible that the reference to such a well-known mythological subject in the present gouache was a subtle allusion to the historical painting traditions of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this period landscape was considered a lesser pursuit within the hierarchy of artistic genres, and was valued below the grand traditions of historical painting and portraiture. As a result, painters such as Claude Lorrain would include characters from historical legends and mythology in their sublime visions of the landscape in order to imbue their compositions with a greater sense of gravitas. Here, Magritte’s conjuring of the story of Penelope and Odysseus within the context of this rather banal landscape, creates an unexpected disjunction that prompts the viewer to question their understanding of the emphatically unremarkable, everyday country scene before them.