Le baiser, executed circa 1957, presents one of Magritte’s most poetic subjects: the oiseau de ciel, or ‘Sky-Bird’. This gouache, created on an uncommonly large scale relative to Magritte’s usual practice, presents the viewer with a rare and yet greatly celebrated motif that had first entered his work in Le retour of 1940, now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique; the ‘Sky-Bird’ would come to gain international recognition in part through the later adoption by the Belgian national air carrier, Sabena, of a variant of this theme. In the case of the Sabena image, entitled L’oiseau de ciel and painted in 1966, the silhouette of a bird was shown filled with a cloudy, day-lit sky against a dark background, whereas in Le baiser, created roughly a decade earlier, he has shown it as a pool of star-speckled night sky against the backdrop of day, with the sea and a beach underneath. This picture is more closely related in its content and composition to Le baiser of 1951, which is now in Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, yet is a complete inversion, with the night replacing the day and vice versa. Indeed, the fact that the present work shows a bird hewn of the night makes it all the more unique.
In a sense, this variation of one of Magritte’s recognised themes provides a fascinating insight into his practice, especially in the area of his gouaches. For while he sometimes created works on paper that were essentially reprisals of his more recognised oils, he often varied them, creating works that were unique and individual in their own rights, rather than slavish copies; this was especially true of the commissioned pictures he painted during precisely the same period that Le baiser was executed for the American collector Barnet Hodes. As Magritte explained to Hodes, his works needed to be ‘rethought’ rather than merely reproduced. In Le baiser, though, the rethinking is more extreme, resulting in what is essentially a new work.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Magritte’s first exploration of the ‘Sky-Bird’ theme came in 1940, against the backdrop of the Second World War. While he was adamant that he had seldom allowed the War itself to enter his paintings (a rare exception being, perhaps, Le drapeau noir of 1937, which has sometimes been linked to the bombing of Guernica), Magritte clearly was influenced by the conflict. On the German Occupation of Belgium, he had fled to the French town of Carcassonne, but had had to leave his wife Georgette back in Brussels; accordingly, he soon devoted great efforts to returning to her side, and spent the rest of the War there with her. Was the 1940 painting Le retour some reincarnation of the dove of peace made so recognised from religious art and subsequently made so famous in Picasso’s drawings? Did it mark some craving for a return both to peace and to his wife? Certainly, in Le retour and Le baiser alike, there is a deeply lyrical notion of ephemerality and insubstantiality to this hole-in-the-sky notion of flight.
Of course, the idea of flight was one which was bound to appeal to Magritte. For, from 1926, he had been engaged in an almost comprehensive programme of investigation of the various properties of a range of subjects taken from the ‘everyday’ world. He would take these to pieces and reconfigure them in order to try to prise out some hidden truth and mystery, and to allow the viewer to wonder all the more at the miracle that is the universe around us. These pictures had been, ‘the result of a systematic search for an overwhelming poetic effect through the arrangement of objects borrowed from reality, which would give the real world from which those objects had been borrowed an overwhelming poetic meaning by a natural process of exchange’ (Magritte in 1938, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, pp. 215-16). It is this ‘process of exchange’ that has been tapped into in Le baiser, in which the notion of the bird itself has been thrown into question, placed under Magritte’s Surreal scrutiny. For flight is one of the great miracles of the world. That a bird as prosaic as a pigeon can achieve it should be cause for wonderment, and yet seldom is; Magritte, by creating this stunning and moving image of the nature of flight, has restored some of our awe in this incredible ability.
There is, of course, a logic, albeit one skewed through the prism of Magritte’s semi-conscious meandering explorations of his subjects, in the idea of a bird being shown, as in Le baiser, as made of air, of the sky itself. In a sense, Magritte appears to be applying some Pataphysical notion of gravity and the nature of flight to this theme, genuinely exploring that notion of the oiseau de ciel. At the same time, this bird’s silhouette introduces a pool of night into this daylight scene; it is a portal, just as flight can be, a route to another place, another time zone.