A flesh-coloured room recedes in perspective before opening out onto a landscape view of a waterfall-like curtain of stone, into which a castle on a stone bridge appears to recede.
Various elements of figurative painting are displayed as if they are abandoned stage props. Among these is a backdrop-like board depicting a landscape of trees, shown leaning against one of the walls. It is partially covered by a crimson curtain reminiscent of the theatre, and is perforated with rectangular, cut-out windows. A square picture frame rests against the board. In front of it is a flesh-coloured wooden cube adorned with eyes.
To the right of this room rests a wooden plank in the shape of a human figure. It introduces a strangely inanimate human presence into the enigma of the scene.
Painted in 1926, René Magritte’s Le groupe silencieux (‘The Silent Group’) is an important example of his early Surrealist style. Perspective, pictorial illusion, sculpture, painting, and even the act of looking itself, are all rendered simultaneously as artifices and agents of mystery.
The work is one of the finest of a pioneering series of oil paintings that the artist made between January 1926 and April 1927 in preparation for his first one-man show, Le Centaure, held at the Galerie le Centaure in Brussels in the spring of 1927. The exhibition marked a pivotal moment in Magritte’s career, announcing him as an important new talent on the European avant-garde art scene.
As with many of the pictures on view at the 1927 exhibition, Magritte’s chief preoccupation in Le groupe silencieux is with displaying the lie of all imagery and picture-making, and in exposing the innate mystery that underpins outer appearance.
The structures of painting and representation were subverted and twisted by Magritte into new, strange forms aimed at exposing the deeper mysteries of reality and perception
It is a work that draws directly on the epiphany that Magritte had when he first encountered the works of Giorgio de Chirico. ‘This triumphant poetry supplanted the stereotyped effect of the traditional painting,’ Magritte wrote of his experience.
Magritte embarked on the creation of a completely new type of picture, in which the structures of painting and representation were subverted and twisted into new, strange forms aimed at exposing the deeper mysteries of reality and perception.
In its basic format Le groupe silencieux adopts the same irrational logic of de Chirico and Carlo Carrà’s metaphysical paintings. In these, frequently bizarre collations of seemingly disparate objects were presented in a way that fused still-life and landscape traditions, generating a mysterious expression of melancholy, enigma and silence.
In Le groupe silencieux, there is also a sense that the representation of the human figure has been broken down into strange component parts. With its flesh-coloured walls, the human eyes appearing on the flesh-coloured cube and the standing presence of the cut-out human form, the presence of the human figure exists in a way that only serves to emphasise its absence.
‘Mystery is what enlightens knowledge,’ reflected Magritte nearly 30 years after completing Le groupe silencieux, a painting that lays bare and even ridicules the conventions of traditional picture-making. It established the aesthetic path that Magritte was to follow for the rest of his life.