‘One cannot speak about mystery, one must be seized by it’ – René Magritte
(Magritte, from an interview with Suzi Gablik, Studio, March 1967)
‘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, ‘Nature and Mystery,’ in K. Rooney & E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings, transl. J. Levy, Richmond, 2016, p. 181)
Infused with an eerie sense of disquiet, Les fleurs de l’abîme (The Flowers of the Abyss) is a captivating composition that emerged during one of the most productive and innovative years of René Magritte’s career. The artist had moved from Brussels to Paris in the autumn of 1927, drawn to the French capital’s lively art scene and in particular, the hive of artists and writers active in the city’s Surrealist circles. It was here that Magritte’s visual language truly began to solidify, as he boldly set out to challenge and undercut established traditions of representation in painting and forge a distinctive new path within Surrealism. Discussing this period of his career, Magritte explained: ‘The pictures painted […] from 1926 to 1936 were also the result of a systematic search for a disturbing poetic effect which, produced by the deployment of objects taken from reality, would give the real world from which they were borrowed a disturbing poetic meaning through a quite natural interchange’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 284). Featuring one of the artist’s most iconic leitmotifs, the spherical iron sleigh bells known as grelots, Les fleurs de l’abîme centres around such an intriguing juxtaposition of elements, as the organic and the decidedly man-made are fused together to form an uncanny, mysterious plant that feels at once disconcertingly familiar and yet completely alien.
While Magritte’s early correspondence from Paris suggests he was already personally acquainted with several key Surrealist figures before moving to the city, including André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Benjamin Péret, it was not until his arrival in the French capital that he was able to truly engage with the visual artists involved in the movement. It was thanks to his close friend Camille Goemans, who had arrived in Paris shortly before Magritte, that the artist came to know Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Jean Arp and Salvador Dalí. Exposure to such different approaches to image-making stimulated Magritte’s creativity, resulting in a period of intense artistic evolution that led to a series of breakthroughs, including his explorations on the theme of metamorphosis and the emergence of his infamous ‘word paintings’ which played with the connections between image and language in unexpected ways. However, Magritte remained something of an outsider to the Surrealists during this time, both intellectually and geographically, living as he did in the suburbs rather than the centre of the city and deliberately staying away from the automatic techniques of his contemporaries. This allowed him to cultivate a highly personal aesthetic, rooted in strange disjunctions and disconcerting juxtapositions, that remained distinctly his own.
Central to Magritte’s artistic practice at this time was the adoption of common-place, everyday objects, from the pipe to the tuba, the iron sleigh-bells to the bilboquet, which were then placed in improbable situations or transformed through a series of visual conundrums to generate enigmatic, multi-layered scenes. The grelot was a central protagonist in these works, and had first appeared within the artist’s oeuvre in the 1926 composition Le gouffre argenté (Sylvester, no. 87), floating freely within a strange chasm that can be glimpsed through a gap in the stage-like wall. These familiar jingle bells, typically found on the harnesses of horses or decorating sleighs, were rooted in memories from the artist’s childhood, and appeared in a variety of guises throughout Magritte’s oeuvre, floating in the air in strange configurations (Sylvester, nos. 240 & 241), placed reverentially in a wicker chair (Sylvester, no. 298), or as nodules on strange rippling pieces of sheet metal (Sylvester, no. 330). Here, the artist re-locates the bells, placing them in a cluster at the centre of a small plant in such a manner that their shiny metallic forms appear to be budding flowers or ripe fruit, rather than the cold, hollow vessels they are. Clinging to the side of a sheer cliff, just beyond the edge of the plateau above, the plant appears enticingly out of reach, its verdant green leaves and lustrous bell-flowers drawing our attention, but ultimately remaining beyond our grasp.
For Magritte, part of the appeal of using the grelot lay in the fact that it was a distinctly mass-produced item, its smooth finish and distinctive shape fabricated to a standardised format. In comparison to the bilboquet, which was often altered or anthropomorphised by the artist to enhance its visual intrigue, the grelot appears almost perfectly uniform across its many appearances within Magritte’s oeuvre, its spherical shape sharply consistent, its profile unchanging from canvas to canvas. This deliberate consistency accentuates the banality of the object, making its dislocation to such strange contexts all the more powerful, whether they be enlarged to massive proportions and suspended in mid-air, seen drifting weightlessly through a strange landscape, or nestled in the centre of a fleshy cluster of leaves atop a rocky outcrop. In this transformation of the exceedingly ordinary into the curiously extraordinary, Les fleurs de l’abîme illustrates one of the key concepts which drove Magritte’s art at this time: ‘Our secret desire is for a change in the order of things,’ he explained, ‘and it is appeased by the vision of a new order… the fate of an object in which we had no interest suddenly begins to disturb us’ (Magritte, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 110).
Here, the dislocation of the grelots is somewhat disconcerting, as if their perfect forms and enticing, reflective surfaces belie a potentially threatening secret. The dark, folding, rippling mountainous terrain, reminiscent in many ways of the slag heaps that dotted the landscape around the artist’s childhood home of Hainaut, lend the scene a foreboding atmosphere, whilst simultaneously emphasising the incongruity of the fertile, blooming plant within this otherwise barren environment. In this way, the composition appears to fulfil Magritte’s vision for the bells, which he outlined in ‘La ligne de vie’ in 1938: ‘I’d prefer to believe that the iron bells hanging from our fine horses’ necks grew there like poisonous plants on the edge of precipices’ (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, transl. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 93). As such, Les fleurs de l’abîme shares the same dark intensity that was a hallmark of Magritte’s paintings from this Parisian period, carrying overtones of suspense, anxiety and danger as to what may happen next in the enigmatic narrative he proposes. This overwhelming sense of unease is accentuated by the inherent mystery of the grelot itself, its characteristic jingle-jangle caused by an object concealed within the perfect sphere, which we can perceive through the sound it makes, but which we cannot see. Instead, we can only catch a glimpse of its shadowy form through the narrow slit that bisects the bell as it dances around the inside of the sphere.
It is this interplay between the perceptible and the imperceptible, the visible and the invisible, which allows Les fleurs de l’abîme to resonate so powerfully in the imagination of the viewer. These innocuous, joyful bells are suddenly transformed into silent, hybrid forms that captivate and confound in equal measure, causing us to question our understanding of their very nature. In this way, Magritte suggests the endless potential for mystery and revelation that exists in the world around us, presenting a scene so unexpected and jarring that it demands our attention and prompts us to reconsider our reality. Indeed, the image proved so striking that Salvador Dalí chose to highlight the composition in one of his reports on the contemporary art scene in Paris, published in the Catalan newspaper Le Publicitat in May 1929. While the motif of the grelot-plant would appear in several subsequent works by the artist through the 1930s and 40s, it would never again be granted such prominence within the composition, nor carry such a menacing aura.