In Le choeur des sphinges, a gouache from 1964, Magritte re-enacts his signature pictorial subversions of the distinctions between the elements as well as the art-historical separation between interior and exterior, foreground and background in the landscape genre. In this work, he has done this by introducing references of the former into the latter, and vice versa. In this bright, serene gouache, the dense foliage of the forest floor refracts microscopically through the colour variations of a single tree-leaf and is enlarged macroscopically by a giant floating leaf which has taken on the dynamic proportions of a cloud.
This detailed gouache is the first stage of a series by the same title that Magritte created in the spring and summer of 1964. The series comprises two works in the same medium (CR 1572 and app. 184, vol. IV) and an oil painting (CR 993). In subsequent stages, Magritte fragmented the oversize leaf that appears here into a multitude of man-made shapes (vases and pipes) and natural forms (birds), whereby the magnified shape floating in the sky - the leaf - is removed from its original context - the forest. Here the scene can be imagined as part of a cinematic narrative following the adventures of a leaf blown off the forest floor and carried up in front of an aerial camera by the wind.
Magritte and his works had featured as actors in a 1960 movie by director Luc de Heusch that used, 'the latest technical equipment,' as Magritte wrote in a letter to his friend, the poet and painter René Bosman (Magritte, July 2nd 1960, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 46). Magritte was dissatisfied with the experiment: 'Cinema', he said, 'is the art of movement, while the reproductions of my pictures that we see on the screen are by their very nature static' (interview with Jacques de Decker, October 1960, quoted in ibid., p. 46). Despite this condemnation of cinematographic depictions of painting, Magritte's very imagery relies on a similar contradiction between stasis and movement that is enacted through the metamorphosis of animate and inanimate worlds into one another. The imagery of Le choeur des sphinges, for instance, is rooted in the imagined metamorphosis of clouds into objects that Magritte had painted in Galatée (1952; CR 990) and that reappeared in three gouaches of 1964 (Les courriers de Lady Beltham, CR 1559a; Les derniers voiliers, CR 1559b; Galatée, CR 1560), in which the shapes in the sky are made of patches of sea. The leaf and trees featuring in Le choeur des sphinges are part of Magritte's most iconic repertoire which includes the birds, clouds, sea, sky and pipes to be found in the rest of the series and in the other gouaches of the same year.