‘Other pictures are interesting or charming enough, but at the moment [Le mois des vendanges] is the one which best reminds us how strange reality can be, if one has a “sense of reality”.’ – René Magritte
One of the largest and most important works in Magritte’s entire oeuvre, Le mois des vendanges (The month of the grape harvest) is a painting that both encapsulates and exploits the innate and uncomfortable sense of strangeness that Magritte so often discerned existing within the supposed normality of everyday reality. Painted in 1959, it is one of the finest of all Magritte’s many famous depictions of the mysterious figure of the man in the bowler hat, here seen unnervingly multiplied into a banal and disquieting collective, in the form of a crowd of such figures, blankly confronting the viewer through an open window.
The man in the bowler hat is one of the most familiar icons of Magritte’s art. A totemic figure, usually seen from the back and therefore somewhat faceless and enigmatic, he functions in the artist’s work as a pictorial cipher: an apparently banal image of everyday, metropolitan ordinariness. He is essentially anonymous: the epitome of the generic and the commonplace. His smart uniform and typically bourgeois attire appears to indicate a mundane humanity, what Magritte once referred to as ‘the unity of man.’ In the artist’s paintings of the 1950s and ‘60s, this bowler-hatted-figure (first painted by him in 1926), became an increasingly frequent and even familiar presence. Wandering like a suburban flâneur through the often strange landscapes of his pictures, he came to serve as a kind of reassuring counterpoint to the surprising and sometimes even shocking revelations of Magritte’s paintings and the way in which they unpick the conventions we use to both perceive and represent the illusory surfaces of what we call ‘reality.’
Of all these paintings Le mois des vendanges is among the most ambitious of all his works on this theme. It is also almost unique in Magritte’s oeuvre by being a work in which, here, it is actually the appearance of this ordinary figure that provides the disturbing element of the painting. In this composition, for the first and perhaps only time, it is the normally reassuring presence of the bowler-hatted man himself who activates the shock and unsettling sense of mystery within the picture. Executed on an unusually large-scale canvas (measuring 127.6 x 160 cm), the painting confronts the viewer with a somewhat sombre, existentialist image of a dark and empty room with a simple, grey window opening out onto a daylight scene that is comprised entirely of an apparent infinity of near-identical bowler-hatted men staring, expressionlessly straight back at them. In this way, the viewer’s inquisitive gaze appears to be countered, thrown back on itself and perhaps also questioned by the equally intense, almost mechanical stares of the multiple everyman-like figures gathered in the window.
Until Magritte painted this work in 1959, the man in the bowler hat had been predominantly an anonymous and faceless individual in his work: a figure usually viewed from behind who almost always appeared alone. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, however, Magritte began to reinvestigate this figure and Le mois des vendanges is the second in a sequence of three masterpieces on this theme in which the artist began to reinvent the function and purpose of the bowler-hatted man and, for the first time, to depict this previously enigmatic figure as seen from the front. These three, now famous, images are Golconde (The Menil Collection in Houston) made in 1953, the present work of 1959 and La présence d’esprit (Museum Ludwig in Cologne) which Magritte made one year later in 1960. In each of these three large paintings the figure of the bowler-hatted man is presented facing the viewer and functioning as a pictorial anomaly. In Golconde he appears in multiple form as if either levitating or falling like rain from the sky. In La présence d’esprit he appears standing between an equally tall eagle and a fish as the central persona in a strange lexicon of seemingly unconnected, but in fact related, images.
While the first and the last of these paintings depict the bowler-hatted man in unusual circumstances, it is only in Le mois des vendanges that the apparent ordinariness of Magritte’s figure of the man in the bowler hat is used to create a powerful and disconcerting sense of unease and uncertainty about the reality of what is depicted. In this painting Magritte has returned to the window motif that he had previously explored so frequently in the late 1920s and ‘30s and which he had ultimately resolved in the series of paintings to which he gave the name La condition humaine (The Human Condition). Exploring the conventional pictorial device of the window as a picture-within-a-picture, Magritte, in these earlier paintings repeatedly illustrated, disrupted and exposed the artifice of pictorial representation and also the conventions and mechanisms which we use to see and interpret all imagery, both representational and real. In a manner that recalls the story of the cave in Plato’s Republic, with its tale of shadows and illusions, Magritte here pictorially calls into question man’s entire ability to comprehend either reality or representation. ‘We see [the world] as being outside ourselves,’ Magritte told his friend Louis Scutenaire, even though, in reality, and as such paintings as La condition humaine indicate, ‘it is only a mental representation of [the world] that we [ever] experience inside ourselves’ (quoted in L. Scutenaire, Magritte, Chicago, 1962, p. 83).
This sense of uncertainty about what we see and about what is represented echoes throughout Le mois des vendanges – a painting in which the multiple figures of bowler-hatted men also function obstructively and in much the same manner as the paintings on the easel in the window of his ‘Human Condition’ paintings. These bowler-hatted figures ‘block our outlook,’ as the Surrealist historian Mary-Ann Caws has written of Le mois des vendanges: ‘Their gaze, directed at ours, and all the more terrible for being a multiplication of the same look, blocks our outlook and renders us a prisoner of the room, denying us even the most ordinary of landscapes’ (M-A. Caws, The Eye in the Text: Essays on Perception. Mannerist to Modern, Princeton, 1981, p. 100). At the same time, these bland, identical figures also return our own gaze establishing the field of the painting itself as one in which a strange game of looking is taking place.
It is in this respect that Le mois des vendanges reveals itself to be a simpler, starker and more direct resolution of the same ideas that underpinned one of Magritte’s greatest and most memorable paintings, his L’assassin menacé of 1927 now in The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In this picture (the only larger work featuring bowler-hatted men in Magritte’s oeuvre) a complex game of looking is established between a series of everyman-type figures (some in bowler hats, some not) all centred around a windowed interior within which a murder has taken place. With its series of figures in the window appearing to stare both into the room and also directly at the viewer, the viewer’s own gaze is, as in Le mois des vendanges, directly implicated in the complex depiction of things (seen and unseen) that are going on in the painting. In Le mois des vendanges, by contrast, it is as if Magritte has removed the drama from this painting to present only an existentialist confrontation taking place between the act of looking and the act of representation. ‘Everything we see hides another thing,’ Magritte said in this respect. ‘We always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible doesn’t show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present’ (quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 1992, p. 28). It is essentially this conflict that Magritte articulates taking place between the viewer and the crowd of bowler-hatted men in Le mois des vendanges.
As his letters and comments on the painting attest, Magritte evidently considered Le mois des vendanges very highly. The large scale of the painting also attests to this. It reflects not only the ambition that Magritte had for the picture but also the importance that he had come to place upon several of the works he made in the late-1950s. Le mois des vendanges is, for instance, one of three notably outsize-scaled paintings that Magritte made in close succession throughout 1959. As David Sylvester has outlined, Le mois des vendanges appears to have been created over a period of around six months between the winter and the summer of 1959 at the same time that Magritte was working on Le clef de verre, an identically-sized painting now in The Menil Collection in Houston, and also Les château des Pyrénées, a vast, two-metre-high painting that was bought by Harry Torczyner and later given by him to The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
As Magritte wrote to his dealer Alexander Iolas while working on these three, large and impressive paintings, they reflected a decision on Magritte’s part to work on fewer but more important works. He had, Magritte explained, now come to a stage in his career and his life where painting had begun to ‘present me with new problems, and I cannot devote myself to easy work… There are enough pictures in the world, and... new pictures are not worth looking at unless they present us with necessary ideas’ (Letter to Alexandre Iolas, 19 October 1959, quoted in D. Sylvester (ed.), S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. III, Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes, 1949-67, Antwerp, 1993, p. 94).
Of these three major paintings, Magritte believed Le mois des vendanges to be an especially important work, telling Torczyner that in his selection of a study-drawing for this painting he had put his ‘finger upon… what is most deserving of exceptional attention.’ ‘My “other pictures”,’ Magritte told Torczyner, ‘are interesting or charming enough, but at the moment this is the one which best reminds us how strange reality can be, if one has a “sense of reality”’ (Letter to Harry Torczyner, 11 May 1959, quoted in ibid., p. 315). Magritte also wrote to Iolas around the same time exclaiming how excited he was about the developing work, writing: ‘At the moment I am busy working on Le mois des vendanges which is very promising – I think so and so do my friends who visit my “studio.” You liked the sketch for this picture. When you see it in its finished state, you will be delighted with it, I am certain’ (Letter to Alexandre Iolas, 12 May 1959, quoted in ibid., p. 314).
Magritte appears to have completed Le mois des vendanges by July 1959 when the painting appeared in Luc de Heusch’s documentary film on the artist, Magritte ou la leçon de choses. In this short film Magritte appears in front of the picture talking with his friends Louis Scutenaire, Camille Goemans and Irène Hamoir about the title of the picture which Magritte later, and with a twinkle in his eye, claimed had come about because the compressed crowd of bowler-hatted man resemble grapes. During this conversation it is also revealed that Magritte had originally thought of including some kind of object – perhaps a musical instrument – in the corner of the room but had ultimately rejected the idea. Other prospective titles for the painting are believed to have been, Le jugement dernier (The Last Judgement) and L’observateur (The Observer). Less poetic and enigmatic than Le mois des vendanges, these are both more direct titles that openly reinforce the unusually bold, confrontational power of this painting and its bleak and enduring sense of mystery.
Le mois des vendanges is today one of the four largest paintings by Magritte to remain in private hands. Seldom seen in public since it was acquired by the great collector Claude Hersaint in Paris in the 1960s it was to become an important part of his great collection, one of the world’s leading private collections of Surrealist art. Claude Hersaint had begun collecting Surrealist art even before the movement itself was formally inaugurated. He acquired his first work (by Max Ernst) in 1921 after having fallen in love with the German artist’s work when a friend’s sister took him to see it for the first time at the Galerie au Sans Pareil in Paris that same year. This acquisition, made at a time when Hersaint was only 17 years old, was to mark not only the genesis of his collection and a life-long passion for Surrealism, it also marked the beginning of a long, personal friendship with Ernst and close associations with many of the other leading figures in the Surrealist movement. These included artists such as Salvador Dalí, Oscar Domínguez, Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Jean Fautrier, Joan Miró and Man Ray and many Surrealist patrons, poets and art historians, among them Paul Éluard, Marie-Laure de Noailles, William Copley, Jean-Louis Prat and Jacques Maritain.