‘Mystery is not one of the possibilities of the real. Mystery is that which is necessary, absolutely, for there to be such a thing as the real.’ – René Magritte
Painted in 1946, La grande marée plunges the viewer in to the mysterious world of René Magritte, presenting the viewer with an enigmatic scene conjured through an elegantly restrained assortment of objects. A female torso stands in front of a rippling curtain, its smooth contours simultaneously suggesting human flesh and inanimate wood, while a box of cigars sits alongside, apparently abandoned, with one resting on the edge of the container, lit and gently emitting smoke. Filled with flickering, rippling brushwork that dances across the page, this brightly coloured gouache was offered to the collector Pierre Andrieu in Toulouse in December 1947, along with seven other recently completed paintings. Describing the works in a letter to Andrieu dated 20 December 1947, Magritte enclosed a small summary sketch of the painting, listing its contents: ‘cigare allumé sortant d’une caisse de cigares torse de femme moitié chair et moitié bois’ / ‘lit cigar protruding from a cigar box female torso half flesh half wood’ (D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. IV, Gouaches, Temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collés 1918-1967, London, 1994, p. 324).
The gouache was included in Magritte’s solo exhibition at the Galerie Dietrich that opened on 30 November 1946, where it was titled in the catalogue Le grand monde (High Society). Magritte retitled the gouache after the catalogue had gone to press, or perhaps while the exhibition was still in progress, as La grande mareé (The Spring Tide), the name he called it in a letter dated 2 January 1947 to Alex Salkin mentioning the contents of the Dietrich show. The artist described the painting and its revised title in his Titres, 1946: ‘The image was originally called “High Society,” but the title has been changed because there was a possibility of it being interpreted as a satire on high society through the presence of a box of cigars. It is not a question of satire but of a poetic effect. “Spring tide” is the flooding into our field of vision of unknown objects such as a female torso, half flesh, half wood, and the cigar emerging lit from its box’ (ibid.).
Either title is teasingly evocative; it is nevertheless curious that Magritte felt the need to change it. The initial title Le grand monde does indeed suggest a none-too-subtle interpretation of the imagery. This scenario is surrealistically Freudian; the lit and smoking cigar may be interpreted as aroused, libidinous male sexuality, but still confined within its wooden box. The soft sunlit flesh that comprises one side of the female torso is the object of this male desire, which has been thwarted by the hard, impenetrable wooden half that she has presented to such advances. In Magritte’s earlier use of a faux-bois surface for a woman’s body, the wood grain suggests animal fur, implying as well on her part an excited state of female sexuality.
The revised title is also telling, and in a more general way. La grande marée clearly alludes to the incoming, cresting oceanic wave, which – in a typically Magrittian reversal – places the flood-tide of the sea above, the billowing clouds of the sky below. As Magritte related in his Titres, the onrush of these ambiguously related, even contradictory objects, is the larger story – the ‘poetic effect’ – he aimed to express in this gouache, in keeping with the method he typically practiced in his combination of images, as he outlined in his 1938 lecture La ligne de vie. ‘The basic device was the placing of objects out of context,’ Magritte explained. ‘The objects chosen had to be of the most everyday kind so as to give the maximum effect of displacement... Such in general were the means devised to force objects of the ordinary to become sensational, and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world... This is how we see the world, we see it outside ourselves and yet the only representation we have of it is inside us’ (quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. V, Supplement, London, 1997, pp. 20-21).