‘Pierre Mazars: Does Le balcon mean that you’re seeking to destroy classical paintings?
René Magritte: Not at all! I merely seek to show something different from those pictures, to use them, and I do not feel the need to ridicule death, since ridicule is a feeling and, consequently, invisible. How could painting, which is visible, portray the invisible?'
Combining in a single image the themes of life and death, as well as concepts of appropriation and imitation, René Magritte’s Perspective: Le balcon de Manet of 1949 is the first of a fascinating group of works in which the artist wittily paraphrased a famed masterpiece to create a new and striking painting. Inspired by the great French master, Édouard Manet’s celebrated Le balcon of 1869 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Magritte’s own invented version sees the fashionable bourgeois sitters transformed into a group of anthropomorphically-formed wooden coffins. The artist has therefore represented the 19th Century protagonists as they would have been in 1949: literally as bodies in coffins. Clearly pleased with the shocking and yet humorous effect of this darkly surreal metamorphosis, as well as the iconoclasm of this subversive act, Magritte subsequently took two more paintings, Jacques Louis David’s Madame Récamier (1800, Musée du Louvre, Paris) and François Gérard’s portrait of the same sitter (1802, Musée Carnavelet, Paris) and, remaining faithful to the other compositional details, likewise turned the female protagonists into wooden coffins (Sylvester, nos. 741 & 742).
The concept of a seated coffin had first appeared in a gouache of 1949 entitled Perspective (Sylvester, no. 1307). The Surrealist poet and friend of Magritte, Marcel Mariën, described exactly how this playful composition led to the present Perspective: Le balcon de Manet, providing a rare glimpse into the artist’s working practice: ‘This is how things happened and, as I can truly say, under my very eyes. Magritte began by painting a little gouache with a frontal view of a seated coffin installed in an armchair. I well remember that when Nougé and I saw it together for the first time, our immediate reaction was to burst out laughing, thus reawakening Magritte’s own amusement which had necessarily subsided in the interval since he had found the idea. Because the fact is (not the sort of thing to say!) that the image is comic – laughter and death, it is well-known, have always gone hand in hand. Half an hour or so later, there was still louder laughter when Nougé announced the title he had just thought of: Perspective (in both the temporal and geometrical senses). Only a few weeks later Magritte had the idea of applying his discovery to famous figures. They had obviously to be seated and easily identifiable through their presence in an equally celebrated setting.
That is how – with the help of humour – the two Récamiers came into being, David’s first with the variant of the bent-over coffin, then Gérard’s repeating the attitude in the gouache. Meanwhile, he had also made use of Manet’s Le balcon, and in that picture the new coffin appeared all the more strange through being accompanied by the three, as it were, regulation coffins’ (M. Mariën, ‘Activité surréaliste’, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, Antwerp, 1993, p. 146).
Perspective: Le balcon de Manet was the first of this series, created before Magritte returned to the same motif the following year, in an almost identical work of the same name and size, the main difference being the more ornate coffin handles, which is now housed in the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Ghent (Sylvester, no. 721). Perspective: Madame Récamier de Gérard, 1950 (Sylvester, no. 741; Private collection), and Perspective: Madame Récamier de David (Sylvester, no. 743; Private collection) likewise followed in 1950.
Manet’s Le balcon provided Magritte with the perfect subject with which to enact his humorous distortion, transforming the living to the deceased, flesh to wood, Impressionism to Surrealism. Adding a further layer of complexity to this artistic appropriation is the fact that just as Magritte was paraphrasing Manet, so Manet had also been looking to Goya’s Majas al balcón (circa 1800-1810, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in the creation of his work. Supposedly inspired by an image of people on their balcony at the fashionable seaside resort, Boulogne-sue-Mer, Manet’s Le balcon pictures four figures, for which the artist used his friends as his models, most notably Berthe Morisot, seated at the front with her startlingly intense gaze.
Manet’s painting was shocking when it was first exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1869 for a number of reasons. Firstly, the structure of the composition and the manner of its execution was radical. The turquoise railings slice unapologetically through the centre of the composition, cutting the bodies of the protagonists in two. Not only does the vivid tone of the balustrade and shutters contrast with the bright white of the women’s dresses, as well as with the black interior, but the man’s blue cravat likewise dazzles against his pristine white shirt and black coat. These violent chromatic contrasts – visual explosions denotated across the composition – were considered scandalous by contemporary French audiences.
In addition, the subject matter itself, though seemingly an innocuous genre scene depicting a fashionable bourgeois group set within an opulent interior, was in fact just as provocative as the composition. None of the figures are interacting with each other, holding distinct and intense stares in different directions. Unlike traditional scenes of this type, there is no discernible narrative; the viewer is unsure of the figure’s relationships to one another, nor able to see what they are all regarding so intently. Each individual is isolated, lost in thought, and seemingly frozen in time, stiff, lifeless and pale; aspects that critics also seized on in their condemnation of the painting.
It has been suggested that it was this strangely lifeless or ‘dead’ appearance of the figures that attracted Magritte to use this work as part of his Perspective series. In his reworking, Magritte remained faithful to the poses of each of Manet’s figures, heightening the already present sense of lifelessness by literally portraying these 19th Century Parisians as deceased entities, thereby exaggerating the stilted mood of the original and turning it into a macabre ‘séance of coffins’. Every other detail remains perfectly true to the original, bar the dog that stands at Morisot’s feet – even the pot of hydrangeas remains in Magritte’s version.
In 1964, the renowned French philosopher, theorist and author of the landmark essay of 1968, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, Michel Foucault saw Perspective: Le balcon de Manet in an exhibition at the Galerie Alexandre Iolas in Paris in 1964. Upon seeing Magritte’s painting, he thought he had found an affirmation of his interpretation of Manet’s balcon as being an evocation of death, writing to Magritte in 1966:
‘Will you allow me to put a question to you? Your version of Le balcon in which the human figures are replaced by coffins interested me enormously. Manet’s picture – particularly the window gaping onto darkness – has something of the “open tomb” about it, and I thought I saw in it a sort of modern version of a “resurrection”: the progressive emergence from the tomb of a personage divided into three (whose first, masculine, form is scarcely distinct from the shadows, whereas the last, feminine one is shown sitting placidly in sunlit clarity). I would very much like to know (excuse me if I am being indiscreet) what made you see coffins where Manet saw white faces’ (M. Foucault, quoted in ibid., p. 146).
On 4 June 1966, Magritte wrote back to Foucault, explaining that there was no other reason for transforming Manet’s figures into wooden caskets than simply because the original composition offered a perfect place to depict his coffins. In other words, there was no underlying meaning or symbolism suggested by this metamorphosis, and as he states, even if there was, it should remain a mystery.
‘… Your question (about my picture Perspective: Le balcon de Manet),' he wrote, 'asks for something it already contains: what made me see coffins where Manet saw white faces, is the image displayed in my picture where the setting of Le balcon was suitable for the placing of coffins. The “mechanism” which operated in this instance could become the subject of a learned explanation beyond my capacities. Such an explanation would be valid, even certain, but it would still remain a mystery… I think it should be pointed out that these pictures entitled Perspectives show a meaning other than the two meanings of the word "Perspective". This word and other words have a definite meaning in a context, but the context – you demonstrated this better than anyone in Les mots et les choses – can say that nothing is confused, except the mind which imagines an imaginary world’ (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 146-147).
It is possible that Perspective: Le balcon de Manet is not the only time that Magritte looked back to Manet. Indeed, James Thrall Soby has suggested that the artist held a strange, ‘incongruous’ fascination for his 19th Century predecessor. In Magritte’s famous lecture of 1938, ‘La Ligne de Vie’, when discussing the public’s antagonism to contemporary art, he explained, ‘There were calls for the destruction of Manet’s Olympia and the critics accused him of cutting up women because he showed only the upper half of a woman standing behind a bar, leaving the lower part concealed’ (R. Magritte, ‘La Ligne de vie’ in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., René Magritte 1898-1967, exh. cat., Brussels, 1998, p. 44). By referring to both the scandalous reclining nude, Olympia, as well as to Un bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882, The Courtauld Gallery, London), Magritte’s words call to mind his own multipartite nude figure, L’évidence éternelle, which he had painted in 1930 (Sylvester, no. 327; The Menil Collection, Houston). ‘It may be far-fetched’, Soby has written, ’to say that he did so in an oblique tribute to Manet, and yet Manet’s art seems to have haunted him...’ (J.T. Soby, René Magritte, exh. cat., New York, 1965, p. 140).
It was in the same lecture that Magritte also described a childhood memory, which offers a revealing insight into the origins of the coffin as a motif for his art. ‘As a child’, he explained, ‘I used to play with a little girl in the old provincial cemetery. We would go down into the family vaults, when we could lift their heavy iron doors, and would come up into the light again to find an artist from Brussels at work on a very picturesque path, where broken stone columns were scattered among dead leaves’ (R. Magritte, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen., op. cit., p. 44).
Magritte’s playful appropriation and subversion of a revered work of art encapsulates his own, career-long desire to disrupt and distort our expectations of life and thereby reveal the mystery inherent in the most quotidian or, in this case, recognisable, of objects or images. This manner of appropriation would go on to have a decisive influence on artists of the post-war era, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as well as Pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who similarly employed illusionism as a vehicle for at times playful, humorous, or disquieting pictorial subversions.