A spectacularly dramatic vision of a tuba engulfed in flames, La découverte du feu of 1936 is the final, most fully realised iteration of René Magritte’s celebrated series of works depicting burning objects. The incongruous combination of everyday objects set ablaze had first appeared in Magritte’s iconography in 1934 in a gouache entitled L’échelle du feu (Sylvester, no. 1108). Here the artist depicted a trio of quotidian items – a piece of paper, an egg and a key – each of which is alight with flames. The creation of this powerful visual motif was revelatory for Magritte; as he later described, it was akin to ‘the feeling experienced by the first men who produced a flame by rubbing together two pieces of stone. In my turn, from a piece of paper, an egg and a key, I caused fire to spring forth’ (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. 12).
That an inanimate object made of metal could automatically combust seemed to capture the very essence of Surrealism, the contrast between dream and reality, and so began Magritte's exploration of the subject and broadening of the theme. Magritte continued to explore the aesthetic potential of this subject. ‘You know the drawing in “Documents 34” [no. 1108] with burning objects made of different materials,’ he wrote to André Breton in July 1934. ‘A slightly different solution would be to present a single burning object provided it was made of iron, a key, a sewing-machine or a trumpet, for instance’ (quoted in Sylvester, ibid., vol. II, 1994, p. 190). After an oil composition of 1934, also titled L’échelle du feu, which depicts a piece of paper, a chair, and a tuba, all of which have similarly erupted into violent flames (Sylvester, no. 358), Magritte realised his ‘solution’ in La découverte du feu (1934-1935; Sylvester, no. 359), in which the instrument now stands alone, the contrast between flame and metal made all the more dramatic. The present work, painted in 1936, is the ‘more “precise”,’ in Sylvester’s words, most fully resolved visualization of Magritte’s initial idea (ibid., p. 191).
Magritte later explained this distillation of the flaming trumpet motif in a letter to André Bosmans in 1959: ‘I would remark further that Dalí is superfluous: the burning giraffe, for instance, is a caricature of an animal, an unintelligent exaggeration – since it is facile and unnecessary – of the image I painted showing a flaming piece of paper and a flaming key, an image that I later made more precise by showing only a single object in flames: a trumpet’ (ibid., p. 191).
When the present 1936 oil was exhibited by Magritte in his seminal one-man show held in the spring of the same year at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, he listed it as one of only two ‘tableaux-objets’ (‘picture-objects’), a category he had invented for an image that could either be hung like a picture upon the wall or placed on a flat surface like an object. There were also ‘objets’, which included Ceci est un morceau de fromage (Sylvester, no. 681). The other ‘tableau-objet’, La malédiction (Sylvester, no. 394), was, like the present work, an oil on panel, painted the same year.
By contrast to the dramatic flame that lights up La découverte du feu however, La malédiction presents a serene square segment of a cloud-filled sky, literally a ‘piece of sky,’ as Jacques Wergifosse described (quoted in ibid., p. 215). Taking these two natural elements – air and fire – Magritte not only rendered these two essentially immaterial forces tangible, but furthered this contrast by blurring the boundaries between a two-dimensional image and a three-dimensional object. Using heavy and careful impasto to depict the flames enveloping the musical instrument, Magritte made the scene almost three-dimensional. It appears as a real object, rather than simply a painted representation of one. Additionally, Magritte’s inclusion of this pictorial type was extremely prescient. A month after the Palais des Beaux-Arts exhibition in Brussels opened, the show, Exposition surréaliste d’objets, dedicated to Surrealist objects organised by Breton, opened in Paris.
Magritte’s continuous quest for pictorial ‘solutions’ to various ‘problems’ enabled him to constantly challenge and reconfigure the most ubiquitous and commonplace elements of everyday life. Since 1932, when, awaking from sleep he mistakenly glimpsed an egg instead of a bird in a bird cage, Magritte had sought to reveal the undiscovered yet indissoluble connections – ‘elective affinities’ – between hitherto seemingly unrelated objects. ‘I became certain that the element to be discovered, the unique feature residing obscurely in each object, was always known to me in advance, but that my knowledge of it was, so to speak, hidden in the depths of my thought… my investigation took the form of trying to find the solution of a problem with three points of reference: the object, the something linked to it in the obscurity of my consciousness and the light into which this something had to be brought’ (‘La Ligne de vie,’ 1938, in G. Ollinger-Zinque and F. Leen, eds., René Magritte 1898-1967, exh. cat., Brussels, 1998, p. 47).
To achieve this, the artist explored affinities between objects: thus the ‘problem’ of the bird was solved by depicting an egg in a cage; the ‘problem’ of the door with a shapeless hole cut through it; the tree, with a leaf-tree. The ‘problem’ of fire was therefore answered, as Magritte visualised in La découverte du feu, by showing an inanimate, supposedly incombustible metal object incongruously set ablaze and miraculously unscathed by the flames. In combining the banal with the extraordinary, Magritte created a vision at once conceivable and yet impossible. In addition to this, the presence of fire – a primal, natural force of destruction, the image of which indicates danger, while at the same time also symbolizing creation and renewal – adds a further layer of meaning to this composition, arousing powerful human instincts in the viewer. As Suzi Gablik has written, ‘Fire in Magritte's work is always an element of transcendence, the transition between the inanimate and the animate, one of the cosmic mysteries. The tuba seen out of its normal context has a disquieting presence; on fire it is even more disturbing, because of the deviation from its normal behaviour’ (Magritte, London, 1971, p. 93).