Executed in 1955, L’art de la conversation is one of a series of works in which René Magritte pursued his exploration of the relationship between words and images, in this case, depicting letters as natural objects appearing in nature. Within an empty landscape, against a blue, cloud-filled sky stands a complex construction of rocks balancing upon each other. Two small figures stand in the foreground, dwarfed by the monumental and enigmatic edifice, from which the word ‘REVE’ or ‘dream’ emerges. L’art de la conversation was one of ten gouaches exhibited at the Galerie Cahiers d’Art in Paris in 1955. Organised by his dealer, Alexander Iolas, this one-man show was vital in enhancing the Belgian artist’s burgeoning international renown at this time. Exhibited alongside works such as L’empire des lumières and Le maître d’école, L’art de la conversation embodies the simplicity and monumentality that characterised Magritte’s work of the mid-1950s.
In 1950, Magritte embarked on a series of four oil paintings – all entitled L’art de la conversation – two of which illustrate the word ‘reve’, as well as ‘amour’ and ‘España’, as objects or spaces within the landscape. The present gouache relates to the fourth painting in this series (Sylvester no. 743; New Orleans Museum of Art), in which the monumental effect of the composition is heightened by the enormity and complexity of the rock formation that fills almost the entirety of the picture plane. In 1955, the year in which the present work was created, Magritte also executed a gouache entitled L’usage de la parole, which spelt out the word ‘désir’ using stars in a nocturnal landscape (Sylvester no. 1390). From the beginning of his career, Magritte had sought to examine the relationship between word, image and language, creating works in which the accepted relationship between these concepts is broken down, revealing the inherent arbitrariness of language. With L’art de la conversation and the other works in this series, Magritte presented a new type of word painting, in which words are illustrated and incorporated into the composition itself, reflecting his belief that, ‘In a picture words are of the same substance as the images’ (Magritte, ‘La Ligne de vie’, in G. Ollinger-Zinque & F. Leen, eds., René Magritte 1898-1967, exh. cat., Brussels, 1998, p. 47).
By presenting the word ‘dream’ as an immovable and solid construction of rocks, in the present work Magritte has subverted the meaning and qualities normally associated with dreams. In this way, Magritte has presented a paradox: presenting an intangible concept as a solid object. Encapsulating the idea of dreams, one of the central Surrealist concerns, L’art de la conversation is an example of Magritte’s desire to evoke the mystery of the world by creating poetic images that blur the boundary between reality and the imagination. In 1932, Magritte had woken up in his bedroom, and in a state between dream and consciousness, saw a birdcage filled not with a bird, but with a large egg. It was this revelatory and inspirational experience that launched him and his true Magrittean career. Magritte explained this purpose of his art, stating, ‘The creation of new objects, the transformation of known objects…the use of words in association with images…the use of certain vision glimpsed between sleeping and waking, such in general were the means devised to force objects out of the ordinary, to become sensational, and so establish a profound link between consciousness and the external world’ (Magritte, ibid., p. 46).