‘The art of painting, as I see it, makes possible the creation of visible poetic images. They reveal the riches and details that our eyes can readily recognise: trees, skies, stones, objects, people, etc. They are meaningful when the intelligence is freed from the obsessive will to give things a meaning in order to use or master them’ – René Magritte
(Magritte, ‘A Poetic Art,’ in La Carte d’après Nature, no. 8, Jan 1955, reproduced in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings, transl. by J. Levy, Richmond, 2016, p. 161).
‘Instead of being astonished by the superfluous existence of another world, it is our one world, where coincidences surprise us, that we must not lose sight of’ – René Magritte
(Magritte, ‘A Poetic Art,’ in La Carte d’après Nature, no. 8, Jan 1955, reproduced in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings, transl. by J. Levy, Richmond, 2016, p. 181).
Executed circa 1957, Le baiser (The Kiss) presents a variation on one of René Magritte’s most poetic motifs: the oiseau de ciel, or ‘Sky-Bird,’ whose form, captured mid-flight, appears to be hewn from the very environment it inhabits. No longer made of flesh and feathers, the bird instead appears to be cut from the very sky itself, its body filled with the twinkling stars and crescent moon of a nocturnal landscape. Appearing almost like a silhouette or cut-out, the oiseau de ciel introduces a pool of night into an otherwise daylight scene – the surrounding sky is clouded over, its soft light suggesting an early morning scene. As such, the bird is transformed from an ordinary avian into a magical creature, becoming a portal, a route to another place, another time zone, another world. As with Magritte's most successful images, Le baiser prompts the viewer to perceive everyday reality in a new light, while also introducing a contemplative note. Here, Magritte takes the bird and uses it to prompt the viewer into questioning the wonders of flight, something so everyday that it takes a cue such as Le baiser for us to reassess and truly appreciate its inherent magic. If a bird as common-place as a dove or pigeon can achieve flight, it should be cause for wonderment, and yet seldom is; by creating this stunning and moving image of the nature of flight, Magritte restores some of our awe in this incredible ability.
While the subject had first emerged in the artist’s 1940 composition Le retour, now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, the oiseau de ciel gained international recognition largely through the adoption of the motif by the Belgian national air carrier, Sabena. In the case of the Sabena image, entitled L’oiseau de ciel and painted in 1966, the silhouette of a bird was shown filled with a cloudy, day-lit sky against a dark background. The present gouache, created on an uncommonly large scale relative to Magritte’s usual practice, is most closely related in its content and composition to Le baiser (Sylvester, no. 769) of 1951, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. However, here the artist proposes a complete inversion of the earlier scenario, with night replacing day in the body of the bird, while the surrounding seascape remains bathed in the soft light of the overcast sky. As such, these two works may be considered pendant pieces, exploring a contrasting but similar visual conundrum that causes us to question our very understanding of the world around us. The sky-bird, soaring above the empty beach while the waves gently lap the shoreline, suggests not only a world beyond that which we can see, but also the artificiality of the scene that we can, which now appears like a flat stage-set behind which another reality lies.
Of course, the idea of flight was one which was bound to appeal to Magritte. From 1926, he had been engaged in an almost comprehensive programme of investigation into the essential properties of a range of subjects taken from the ‘everyday’ world. Absorbing the fundamental characteristics of these objects and themes, the artist would then reconfigure them through a variety of scenarios and concepts, in an effort to jolt the viewer out of their implicit acceptance of the world as they perceive it. As the artist explained, these pictures had been ‘the result of a systematic search for an overwhelming poetic effect through the arrangement of objects borrowed from reality, which would give the real world from which those objects had been borrowed an overwhelming poetic meaning by a natural process of exchange’ (Magritte in 1938, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, pp. 215-16).
It is through such a ‘process of exchange’ that the bird in Le baiser is transformed into an object of wonder, its shape and pose so familiar, and yet its form so unexpected and improbable, that the assumptions and associations we have are upended. Over the course of his artistic career, Magritte became increasingly adept at converting his vision of the mysteries of the world into pictures that, through their icon-like simplicity, conveyed their messages all the more strikingly. Where some of his earlier Surreal pictures boasted a wealth of details and juxtapositions, from the 1930s onwards he pared back the individual elements retained within his compositions and in so doing, created more impactful images that through their very simplicity, became all the more puzzling. In Le baiser, Magritte distils the motif down to a single fundamental interplay between the bird and its surroundings, inserting the seemingly impossible into the otherwise ordinary, banal scene. Like a nesting doll, we are faced with a number of uncertainties by its presence and materiality, each one leading us to more questions rather than answers.
There is a logic, albeit one skewed through the prism of Magritte’s meandering explorations of his subjects, in the idea of a bird being shown as made of air. Magritte himself explained that the elements that comprise his works are not stand-ins for other meanings, nor products of the worlds of dream and the subconscious that had so fascinated other artists associated with the surreal. ‘In the images I paint, there is no question of either dream, escape or symbolism,’ Magritte explained. ‘My images are not substitutes for either sleeping or waking dreams. They do not give us the illusion of escaping from reality… I conceive painting as the art of juxtaposing colours in such a way that their effective aspect disappears and allows a poetic image to become visible. This image is the total description of a thought that unites – in a poetic order – familiar figures of the visible: skies, people, trees, mountains, furniture, stars, solids, inscriptions, etc.’ (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 224). As such, Magritte appears to be applying some pataphysical notion of gravity and the nature of flight to this subject, genuinely exploring the possibility of the oiseau de ciel and how such a thing might look.
In a sense, this variation of one of Magritte’s recognised themes provides a fascinating insight into his practice, especially in relation to his gouaches. For while he sometimes created works on paper that were essentially reprisals of subjects previously explored in oil, he would often choose to vary them in unexpected ways, creating works that were unique and individual in their own right, rather than identical copies. This was especially true of the commissioned pictures he painted during precisely the same period that Le baiser was executed for the American collector Barnet Hodes. As Magritte explained to Hodes, his works needed to be ‘rethought’ rather than merely reproduced. In Le baiser, Magritte extends his musings on the theme of the oiseau de ciel, testing its power in a completely new context, and discovering the potentially endless iterations of the motif, which he could then translate into ever more intriguing juxtapositions.