Executed circa 1957, René Magritte’s La grande marée includes some of the central components of the artist’s unique iconography: a framed painting of a segment of the sky, which is set within a mysterious and anonymous interior scattered with grey rocks. Rendered in Magritte’s distinctive illusionistic style, La grande marée is a painting of paradoxes: combining interior and exterior settings, contrasting density and lightness, and juxtaposing elements of reality and illusion; themes that had intrigued Magritte throughout his career. In La grande marée, Magritte welcomes the viewer into his unique and surreal world; using objects from reality yet altering their usual associations by displacing them, creating an uncanny and enigmatic vision of objects. The present work has been housed in only two collections since it was painted making it a rarely seen work in Magritte’s prolific oeuvre.
Magritte had first painted this arrangement of objects within an interior in an oil painting of 1935 entitled Le paysage secret (Sylvester no. 367). He returned to the theme again in 1951, when he painted an earlier version of La grande marée (Sylvester no. 767). Throughout his career, Magritte created new compositions that were often new combinations or arrangements of his favoured motifs and objects that he had used in the past. In the present work, by juxtaposing the seemingly incongruous objects – large rocks and a canvas of painted sky – and placing them together in an unexpected and surreal context, Magritte revealed the mystery that he believed was inherent in the everyday world; he stated, ‘I try – insofar as possible – to paint pictures that evoke mystery with the precision and charm necessary to the realm of thought. It’s obvious that the precise and charming evocation of mystery is composed of images of familiar objects, brought together or transformed in such a way that they no longer satisfy our naïve or sophisticated notions. In coming to know these images, we discover the precision and charm that are lacking in the “real” world in which they appear’ (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York, 1977, p. 221).
The motif of a ‘picture-within-a-picture’ was one of Magritte’s favoured and most frequently used pictorial devices in which he brought into question the very nature of representation and the relationship between the painted image and reality, questioning the viewer’s assumptions about the way we see the world. Magritte had first explored this theme in the late 1920s, having been inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s interior scenes, such as Great metaphysical interior (1917, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which a range of disparate objects and framed paintings are depicted within strange interior spaces. This concept fascinated the artist and remained one of the most insistent themes of his painting, manifesting itself in the image of canvases propped on easels in the landscape or in front of windows such as La condition humaine (1933, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). By incorporating an image of a painting into the picture itself, Magritte heightens the ambiguity between the real image, the painted representation of it and the viewer’s interpretation of it. With these paintings, Magritte disrupted the notion of painting ‘as a window on the world’, highlighting the artifice of painting. La grande marée encapsulates this idea, illustrating how Magritte played with visual certainties and convention.
The ostensible ‘subject’ of La grande marée is the framed painting of a patch of blue sky that is propped up by the rocks surrounding it. This motif of framed sky appears in a number of works preceding La grande marée and had also been the subject of paintings in its own right, such as La malediction of 1931 (Sylvester no. 337). Magritte’s friend, the Belgian poet and philosopher Paul Nougé remarked on the artist’s novel treatment of the sky in his art: ‘The sky. No one has yet pursued the analysis of this considerable object far enough’, he continued, ‘Magritte, however is the exception. To pass from the most elusive, the most luminous or the most murky depths to the organisation of these depths […] Let us call to mind the torn sky, the blocks of sky in a dark room, the sky in the course of construction, the sky full of triumphal archways’ (Magritte, quoted in ibid., n.p.). In depicting the infinite realm of the sky as a flat object that could be cut or truncated – in La grande marée as a two-dimensional illustration painted onto a piece of canvas – Magritte was playing with appearances, presenting a paradoxical vision of this limitless atmospheric component. Indeed, Magritte viewed the landscape as a compilation of flattened layers: ‘Despite the shifting abundance of detail and nuance in nature’, he wrote, ‘I was able to see a landscape as if it were only a curtain placed in front of me…I became uncertain of the depth of the fields, unconvinced of the remoteness of the horizon’ (quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 14-15). In La grande marée, Magritte has painted the scene as a collage-like arrangement of flattened painted surfaces, creating a new and compelling artistic vision.