‘Everything we see hides something else; we always want to see what is hidden by the thing we see. It is interesting to know what is hidden and what the visible does not show us’ – René Magritte
(Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ‘Portraits de Magritte’, transl. A. Pérez, in Rétrospective Magritte, exh. cat., Brussels, 1978, p. 47).
‘I have nothing to express I simply search for images and invent and invent… only the image counts, the inexplicable and mysterious image, since all is mystery in our life’ – René Magritte
(Magritte, interview in M. Bots, ‘Silhouette: René Magritte,’ in La Métropole, Brussels, 2nd July 1951, quoted in K. Rooney and E. Plattner, René Magritte: Selected Writings, transl. J. Levy, Richmond, 2016, p. 138)
Playing with concepts of depth, illusion and perception, Sans titre (La partition) is among the most complex papier collé compositions created by René Magritte during the 1960s. At this time, the artist was re-examining works from his early career, searching for motifs and subjects that could be translated or reinterpreted in different media, as he sought to unleash his creativity in new directions. In this composition, Magritte returns to one of his most familiar motifs, the framed picture sitting atop an easel, which suggests a completely different reality to the scene which surrounds it. Featuring a free-standing curtain, a large sphere, and a towering bilboquet which crosses over the edge of the frame, this picture within a picture presents something of a visual conundrum, as we try to understand not only the connection between the objects it contains, but also the mysterious relationship between the framed image and the wider scene it inhabits. The heavy swathe of drapery along the right edge of the papier collé, for example, creates a doubling effect when paired with the curtain at the centre of the framed picture, though the two remain entirely separate from one another. For Magritte, the curtain held the capacity to both conceal and reveal different aspects of reality, a theme which would remain one of the artist’s principal concerns throughout his career.
Magritte’s first experiments with papiers collés had emerged in 1925, at the same time as he began to explore surrealist imagery in his paintings, and were largely inspired by the ground-breaking works of Max Ernst. For Magritte, Ernst’s work with collage represented a radical shift in the act of art making, breaking through the traditional parameters by which an artist was judged. As he proclaimed: ‘scissors, paste, images and genius in effect superseded brushes, paints, models, styles, sensibility and that famous sincerity demanded of artists’ (Magritte, quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 260). Almost three decades later, Magritte returned to the papier collé technique as part of a commission to produce the cover of a ballet programme for a ‘Gala de la Section Bruxelloise de l’Association Générale de la Presse Belge,’ which would count amongst its attendees the King of Belgium. Sparking the artist’s imagination once again, the medium became an important creative outlet for Magritte through the 1960s, occupying him alongside his paintings in oil and gouache, and playful three-dimensional objects.
The most striking feature of these works lay in the whimsical use of music scores cut into the shape of some of the most recognisable motifs of the artist’s oeuvre, from perfectly spherical apples, to floating pipes, bowler-hatted men and open doorways leading to mysterious realms. Whereas the collages from the 1920s had all used clippings from the same score, the popular Edwardian musical comedy The Girls of Gottenberg, the works from the early 1960s incorporate disparate fragments from a variety of musical sources, from Carl Maria von Weber’s arias, to piano reductions of Beethoven’s symphonies, along with popular numbers from the music halls. In Sans titre (La partition), the sheet music has been identified as a piano medley of numbers from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), though the fragments have been inverted so that the notes appear upside down and only vaguely legible, and are thus transformed into an abstract, monochrome pattern. Deftly articulating the shapes and volumes of these objects with accents of colour and subtle shading, Magritte grants these flat sections of paper a new presence within the composition, giving them a more sculptural character that allows them to stand out within the scene.
Having said this, the other objects in the composition are rendered with an almost comical flatness, creating a sense that each element is a piece of stage scenery, placed against a backdrop and awaiting a troupe of actors to take their places. This lends the composition an inherent theatricality, while also a sense that nothing is as it may seem, each element simply another layer in a carefully constructed tableau, which together create an impression of another time, another place, another world. In his studies of Magritte’s papiers collés Siegfried Gohr has suggested a parallel between the composer of music and the composer of collages, namely in the importance of an audience in the reception of their work: ‘In both cases, the actual work consists neither of the notes nor of the pieces of paper – but emerges only in a performance, which ultimately takes place in the mind of the listener or viewer’ (S. Gohr, Magritte: Attempting the Impossible, New York, 2009, p. 72). Here, Magritte translates this concept of performance and theatricality in an unexpectedly direct manner, placing the viewer firmly in the role of audience member within a theatre, and in so doing, emphasises that their presence is integral to the realisation of the finished work of art.