‘Charm and menace can reinforce each other by their fusion.’ René Magritte
(quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 331).
‘The German occupation marked the turning point in my art. Before the war, my paintings expressed anxiety, but the experiences of war have taught me that what matters in art is to express charm. I live in a very disagreeable world, and my work is meant as a counter-offensive.’ René Magritte
(quoted in S. Gablik, Magritte, London, 1992, p. 146).
Created in 1944, René Magritte’s dreamlike Le roman populaire centres on the graceful form of a young woman – a paragon of sensuous beauty and elegance, she appears lost in her own reverie, oblivious to the viewer’s gaze. Set against the rippling reflections of a river bound by a bank of weeping willows, her delicate features and rippling hair are rendered with a precision that offers a sharp contrast to the soft, blurred edges of the landscape bathed in the gentle pink glow of the setting sun. Combining the precise, highly-polished style which had been a hallmark of the artist’s oeuvre since the late 1920s, with a freer and more lively approach to brushwork and form, this composition highlights the divergent influences that were shaping Magritte’s artistic vision during the turbulent 1940s.
Living in the shadow of the Second World War, Magritte felt that a new visual idiom was required to adequately respond to the horrors of the conflict, and began to experiment with a distinctly impressionistic technique, inspired by the late career of Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Creating works filled with light, colour and vivid, free brushwork, Magritte called this new style Le Surréalisme en plein soleil (Surrealism in full sunlight), and believed that in combining the aesthetic pleasure of beautiful, colour-filled scenes with subversive, mysterious images, he could best reveal the inherent chaos of the world. Writing to his friend Paul Éluard in 1941, Magritte described this shift in his art: ‘I have managed to bring a fresh wind to my painting. In my pictures an enormous magic has now replaced the uncanny poetry whose effect I used so much to strive for. On the whole, pleasure now supplants a whole series of essential interests that I wish increasingly to leave out of account... the power of these pictures is to make one acutely aware of the imperfections of everyday life’ (Magritte, in a letter to P. Éluard, December 1941, quoted in S. Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, New York, 2009, p. 191).
In Le roman populaire, Magritte adopts a close-up view of the ethereal young woman, focusing our gaze on the way her luscious, thick golden hair falls in waves around her face, cascading across her right shoulder in a great stream of colour. Wearing a delicate chemise that leaves her shoulders bare, a garment that highlights her luminous, smooth skin and the elegant curve of her neck as she turns her head to the side, the figure exudes a calm serenity. In many ways, the pose recalls the model in Tony Robert-Fleury’s lost work Léda et le cygne, a postcard of which was found amongst Magritte’s belongings, particularly the manner in which the young woman gazes downwards towards the rose, with the brightly coloured flower taking the place of the swan’s beak. Appearing to float in mid-air, this rose injects a note of mystery to the scene – unsecured to her hair or pinned behind an ear, where we would typically expect it to be, it appears to hover, weightless, held in place by the power of her gaze alone. As such, Le roman populaire is aligned with several other important compositions from Magritte’s oeuvre, in which the rose is placed in incongruous settings and situations. From replacing the dagger carried by the fictional villain Fantômas in Le retour de flamme of 1943 (Sylvester, no. 535), to the anthropomorphic hybrid creature which melds the rose with the lower body of a young woman wearing heels in Les troubles du coeur (Sylvester, no. 529), or Le tombeau des lutteurs (Sylvester, no. 912), where an enlarged blossom fills the entire expanse of an otherwise banal room, the inherent romanticism of the flower transforms the atmosphere of each scene, turning the threatening into the passionate, the ordinary into the magical.
Upon the completion of Le roman populaire in June 1944, Magritte wrote to his close friend, the poet Marcel Mariën, requesting he conjure up a new, alternative title for the painting. Though the composition would retain its original name, this exchange highlights an important aspect of Magritte’s creative practice during this period – allowing a separate individual to choose the titles for his finished works, often passing the responsibility to his compatriots in the Belgian Surrealist movement. For Magritte, such titles lent another intentionally enigmatic layer to his compositions, provoking a deeper engagement with the subject. As he later stated: ‘The titles of pictures are not explanations, and pictures are not illustrations of titles. The relationship between the title and picture is poetic – that is, it only catches some of the object’s characteristics of which we are usually unaware, but which we sometimes intuit, when extraordinary events take place which logic has not yet managed to elucidate’ (Magritte, quoted in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings, transl. J. Levy, London, 2016, p. 112).