‘…when a man thinks about the moon, he has his own idea of it, it becomes his moon.’ – René Magritte
‘I have a very limited vocabulary: nothing but ordinary, familiar things. What is “extraordinary” is the connection between them.’ – René Magritte
‘Man is a visible apparition like a cloud, like a tree, like a house, like everything we see. I don’t deny him any importance and neither do I accord him any pre-eminence in a hierarchy of the things that the world offers visually.’ – René Magritte
‘The bowler […] presents no surprise. It is a headgear lacking originality. The man in the bowler hat simply constitutes the middle-class in its anonymity.’ – René Magritte
Painted in 1962, René Magritte’s A la rencontre du plaisir (Towards Pleasure) combines several of the artist’s most iconic motifs into a single, evocative image, creating an elegant summation of the poetic visual imagination which fuelled his unique form of Surrealism. Executed with a precision and attention to detail that only reinforces the uncanniness of the scene before us, the composition serves as a showcase for Magritte’s hyper-realistic style at its best. Purchased directly from the artist shortly after its creation, the painting has remained in the same family collection for over half a century, and comes to auction for the first time in its history.
At its centre stands one of Magritte’s most familiar and enigmatic characters, the solitary man in the bowler hat, who appears lost in thought as he gazes upon the twilit landscape before him. The bright glow of the moon casts a subtle sheen on the dome of his hat, while a soft, creeping mist hangs in the middle-distance, blurring the boundary between the forest and the open field. Seen only from behind, this well-dressed gentleman seems captivated by the vista, his stance and positioning amidst the sublime beauty of the natural world calling to mind the compositions of Caspar David Friedrich. However, there is a palpable sense of mystery to the scene, an uncertainty as to whether or not the view is real or imagined, and what exactly this figure’s role or place is in the world the artist conjures. Executed in Magritte’s characteristically descriptive painterly style, all is natural, and yet puzzling, encapsulating the artist’s belief that: ‘it’s not a matter of painting “reality” as though it were readily accessible to me and to others, but of depicting the most ordinary reality in such a way that this immediate reality loses its tame or terrifying character and presents itself with mystery’ (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte, New York, 1977, p. 203).
An emblematic, instantly recognisable character, and yet an entirely anonymous one, the bowler-hatted man had first appeared in Magritte’s art in 1926, acting as the central protagonist in Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Sylvester, no. 124). In this painting, the distinctly ordinary figure of the man in an overcoat and bowler hat is seen from behind, walking away from the viewer along the quiet banks of a river, while a naked corpse-like figure hovers in mid-air, following like a macabre apparition that permanently haunts him, no matter the distance he travels. This juxtaposition between the exceedingly ordinary and the strange or otherworldly is among Magritte’s earliest explorations into the inherent mystery underlying everyday appearances, and casts the bowler-hatted man as a central figure in a strange, indecipherable situation. The following year, he appeared again in Le sens de la nuit (Sylvester, no. 136) and L’assassin menacé (Sylvester, no. 137), although in both there are two figures shown in the iconic headwear. In the latter of these two paintings, the bowler-hatted men remain hidden from view behind a wall, lying in wait to capture a gentleman killer who listens intently to a gramophone while the corpse of his victim lies motionless on a bed behind him. The composition echoes a scene from a 1913 silent film featuring the cult fictional figure of Fantômas, an elegant and mysterious criminal and master-of-disguise who specialized in impossible escapes. Created by the writer Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas appeared in a series of novels and films, throughout which his true identity remained uncertain.
However, unlike Fantômas, who wore a top-hat, mask and tails in his most famous depiction, Magritte opts for a uniform of pure banality for his mysterious male character – a plain black overcoat and the simple, but iconic bowler hat. Explaining this choice, Magritte proclaimed: ‘The bowler […] presents no surprise. It is a headgear lacking originality. The man in the bowler hat simply constitutes the middle-class in its anonymity’ (Magritte, quoted in Life, 1966, in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. III: Oil Paintings, Objects and Bronzes, 1949-1967, London, 1993, p. 206). Originally designed for gamekeepers in the 1840s, the bowler hat had become a familiar part of city-life by the 1920s, adopted by city clerks, civil servants, accountants, bankers, detectives and insurance salesmen alike. It was the extensive popularity of this style that appealed so strongly to Magritte – so commonplace and ordinary, it had become a symbol of bourgeois respectability within the public consciousness. As such, the bowler hat allowed Magritte to create an archetypal figure, an ‘Everyman’ who represented a broad-section of society and would appear immediately familiar to his audience, whilst simultaneously remaining distinctly anonymous and ultimately unknowable.
Following his initial appearance, the bowler-hatted man disappeared from Magritte’s oeuvre for over two decades, and it was not until the 1950 composition, also titled A la rencontre du plaisir (Sylvester, no. 724), that he emerged once again. Here, two figures, one wearing a bowler hat and the other a trilby, are shown before a quiet landscape at dusk. The mysterious relationship between this pair, the clear connection and yet apparent lack of interaction in their passing, heightens the intense atmosphere of the scene, leaving the viewer baffled as to the possible narratives which may be at play within the picture. As Magritte’s art continued to evolve over the course of the following decade, the bowler-hatted man became a recurring leitmotif within his compositions, transported from the dark, threatening situations and disquieting scenes that had marked the 1920s paintings, and instead relocated into an array of familiar yet unexpected settings, the majority of which were marked by an overwhelming sense of quiet tranquillity. This is the case in works such as La boîte de Pandore (Sylvester, no. 772) and Le chant des sirènes (Sylvester, no. 778), where this enigmatic figure appears to wander through scenes that seem generic and ordinary, and yet radiate a sense of the otherworldly.
During this period the bowler-hatted man appeared with such regularity in Magritte’s compositions that, like the leaf-tree or the painting within a painting, he quickly became one of the most instantly recognisable object-icons of the Magrittian universe. A totemic figure, always dressed in the same smart, generic uniform and typically shown half-length, he came to epitomise the banal, normal, everyday aspects of life which, when combined with the surreal world of Magritte’s imaginings, served to heighten the mystery of the scenes the artist conjured. Indeed, the reassuring ordinariness of the figure serves as a kind of anchor of familiarity around which the strangeness of the artist’s unique vision pivots. Ironically, at this time the bowler hat was no longer the omnipresent sartorial choice it had been for previous generations, but rather an increasingly rare sight amongst city dwellers. Simultaneously nobody and, as the artist once described him, ‘Mr Everybody’, Magritte’s bowler-hatted man thus appears like an old-fashioned flâneur in paintings such as À la rencontre du plaisir, a reassuringly familiar icon from another time, wandering through different realms of reality, a visible but silent witness to the strange worlds that emerge in the artist’s paintings. At once a participant and an independent observer, he appears almost as if he is occupying the same space as the viewer, inviting them to enter the dream-world he inhabits, and as such may be seen as something of a proxy-viewer, acting as a bridge or intermediary between the painter and his audience.
In A la rencontre du plaisir, the bowler-hatted man occupies the very centre of the scene, once again standing with his back to us, the glow of the moon highlighting the curved top of his hat. Unlike Les chefs-d’oeuvre ou les mystères de l’horizon (Sylvester, no. 817) or Le maître d’école (Sylvester, no. 818), which both featured crescent moons floating above the head of bowler-hatted figures, the moon here appears as a full, glowing orb, emitting a light so strong that it appears to illuminate the entire sky. Casting the clouds that surround it alight with its brightness and lending the rest of the skyscape a gentle blue glow, this strange moonlight prompts the viewer to question whether the scene is daytime, the middle of the night, or somehow both. While it may be that the sky is caught in the strange half-light that occurs during the gloaming hour of twilight, the powerful glowing orb appears more like a sun than a moon. This seemingly simultaneous evocation of night and day calls to mind Magritte’s famed L’empire des lumières series of paintings, in which the artist transformed an ordinary, placid nocturnal street scene by juxtaposing the dark shadows and soft glowing streetlamps of the foreground with a bright blue, sunlit sky above. Creating seventeen versions of this theme in oil, and a further ten in gouache, the subject of L’empire des lumières occupied Magritte’s imagination repeatedly over the course of fifteen years, reappearing with subtle alterations and variations from canvas to canvas.
Invoking the opening line of André Breton’s poem L’Aigrette, ‘If only the sun would come out at night!’, the beauty of this intriguing paradoxical invention lay in its simplicity, (Breton, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 228). As Magritte once explained to his friend Harry Torczyner, the concept of the night-day duality was one that held a particular appeal for him: ‘If I believe this evocation has such poetic power, it is because, among other reasons, I have always felt the greatest interest in night and day, yet without ever having preferred one or the other. This great personal interest in night and day is a feeling of admiration and astonishment’ (Magritte, quoted in Torczyner, op. cit., p. 177). It is this sense of awe and wonder at the sublime beauty of the natural world, the inherent splendour of its cycles and ever-changing character, which lends A la rencontre du plaisir its powerfully poetic aura. The bowler-hatted man appears as if he has been struck by the magnificence of the landscape he has happened upon, the unusual light conditions forcing him to stop in his tracks and appreciate the world anew.
However, unlike the Empire des lumières compositions, here the nocturnal landscape is not the familiar city streets that recall the artist’s home, filled by houses which glow comfortingly with warm lamplight, but rather a mysterious, mist-filled pasture which leads to a dense forest of towering trees. To the left, a heavy curtain is gathered and tied back to reveal the landscape, though it appears to float independently, unanchored to any architectural feature. Hovering just above the ground, and apparently occupying the same space as the bowler-hatted man, this curtain creates a sense that the scene is both interior and exterior, its weighty presence blurring the boundaries between the two. Inspired perhaps by Giorgio de Chirico’s use of a similar object in L’énigme de l’oracle (1909), such drapery was a common tool in Magritte’s pictorial arsenal, inserted into compositions in a manner that complicates our understanding of the space depicted and indicates to the viewer that everything is not as it may seem at first glance. In this way, the curtain may be seen as a pictorial extension of the artist’s distrust in the very nature of perception itself, which led him to state: ‘Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature, I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me. I became uncertain of the depth of the fields, unconvinced of the remoteness of the horizon’ (Magritte, quoted in Whitfield, op. cit., pp. 13-15).
In A la rencontre du plaisir, the play between what is hidden and what is visible is amongst the most powerful aspects of the composition, not only in the identity of the central figure, whose face remains turned away, but also in the sense that only a small portion of the scene appears to have been revealed to us. 'There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible doesn’t show us,’ Magritte explained. ‘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 apparent’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 28). By this, he meant those elements of the image which are known to exist, but which the viewer cannot see – a letter contained inside an envelope, the sliver of landscape concealed by the drapery of a window or, as in the present composition, the facial expressions of the man who stands with his back to us. Indeed, Magritte had little interest in trying to depict the invisible, but rather sought to capture ‘the eternal struggle between the gaze and objects … there comes a time when one visible prevents you seeing another visible’ (Magritte, Letter to O. Hahn, November 1964, quoted in Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, p. 401).
This theme, which had run like a thread through much of Magritte’s work since the early 1930s, is taken in new directions in the present image – not only does the curtain along the left hand edge of the picture constrict our view, cutting off and concealing a segment of the landscape, so too does the bowler-hatted man himself. Positioned between us and the trees, he obscures a small aspect of the landscape, leaving us to speculate whether there is something that remains hidden from view by his body, another presence perhaps, or an incongruous object that occupies a space it would never usually be found. It is this desire to see, to know, to uncover that which is hidden that fuels the viewer’s intrigue in such paintings. Building the composition in this way, Magritte transforms the otherwise innocuous scene into an enigmatic tableau that captivates and confounds in equal measure, the combination of elements suggesting a visual riddle that remains ultimately unsolvable, but through which the artist is able to draw our attention to the endless potential for mystery and revelation that exists in the world around us.
A la rencontre du plaisir is a powerful illustration of the ways in which Magritte deployed symbols of a normal, ordinary, conventional life – namely an anonymous bowler-hatted man standing before a quiet, rural landscape – to contradictory ends: to surprise, unsettle and reconfigure the viewer’s expectations and thus, their experience of everyday reality. Encapsulating the artist’s belief that ‘the visible things the world has to offer are rich enough to constitute a poetic language evoking the mystery without which no world or thought would be possible,’ the painting is an eloquent meditation on the possibilities of the imagination when faced with an unknowable conundrum (Magritte, letter to A. Bosmans, 4 September 1964, quoted in G. Ollinger-Zinque and F. Leen, eds., René Magritte: 1898-1967, exh. cat., Brussels, 1998, p. 18). It was this powerful sense of poetic mystery that appealed to the original owners of A la rencontre du plaisir, who were close friends of Magritte and regulars at his weekly Saturday gatherings of friends, poets and intellectuals at his home. Over the course of these evenings, the artist’s latest work would be reviewed by all in attendance, and potential titles for the paintings proposed, discussed and assigned. As a result, the owners developed an intimate knowledge of Magritte’s work, and it was at one such soirée that they discovered the present composition, and purchased it directly from the artist.