René Magritte’s Le thérapeute presents the viewer with an inscrutable seer. Under a starlit sky, the man wears a cloak and hat; within the silhouette of his head and torso, instead of a face and the trunk of a body, is a patch of day-lit sky, a cloud-flecked zone of light that speaks of another realm: the healer of this picture, Le thérapeute himself, appears to be the portal to another universe. Resting on a rock, with his hand perched on a stick, he is a mysterious, mystical figure, transcendental and apparently sage.
Le thérapeute was one of a small group of gouaches and paintings that Magritte created in 1962, a little more than half a century ago, for an exhibition organised by his dealer, Alexandre Iolas, at the gallery of Arturo Schwarz. Until the previous year, Schwarz’s gallery had been a bookshop, yet the increasing focus on art had helped to bring about this transformation. In the dozen or so years in which Schwarz’s gallery operated in Milan, it promoted Dada and Surrealist artists a great deal, subjects about which he would himself become an expert, publishing a number of books on them. This has helped to consolidate the impressive reputation as a critic, author and curator that he holds to this day. Magritte’s images for the exhibition held in 1962 showed a good range of variations upon some of his strongest motifs, emphasising the importance of Le thérapeute as a theme within the scope of this miniature survey.
The subject of Le thérapeute had its origins in a gouache created in 1936. In that work, also entitled Le thérapeute, Magritte showed the cloaked, hatted figure with a birdcage within the cavity that is occupied by the cloud-flecked sky in the present picture. This was a format that Magritte soon revisited in an oil painting from a year later which he exhibited in a show in Brussels that placed his works alongside those of Man Ray and Yves Tanguy at the end of 1937. From that point onwards, it became one of his most recognised images. In later years, it would find itself revisited in a number of guises, not least a bronze that was endorsed by the artist and executed at the end of his life, in 1967. In this, it was one of only a handful of motifs that Magritte granted the transformation into three dimensions. Magritte also revisited the theme in a group of photographs also dating from 1937, entitled Dieu, le huitième jour, in which a man is shown covered in a similar cloak and hat, with one of Magritte’s paintings placed where the torso should be.
Of the eight pictures relating to the subject of Le thérapeute, most are gouaches showing the birdcage - this is the case in works from 1941 and 1952 alike. However, in 1946, a related gouache replaced the birdcage with silhouettes of a bird, a pipe, a key and a goblet. The birdcage returned in the next couple of iterations, and then, in 1956, Magritte introduced the motif that is echoed in Le thérapeute: a night sky behind the subject, with daylight within him. This contrast, to which Magritte returned in Le thérapeute of 1962, allowed him to introduce a sense of luminosity within the figure of the ‘healer’, heightening the sense of mystical salvation that lies within the fabric of this impossible body. As well as being striking in a pictorial sense, it also introduces a similar effect to that seen in his iconic work, L’empire des lumières, in which a house in a night-shrouded landscape is shown below a light sky. In a sense, Le thérapeute shows an inversion of that concept, with the night dominant and the day a contrasting focal island within it. Perhaps this was the culmination of the theme for Magritte; after all, Le thérapeute appears to have been Magritte’s final incarnation of the theme, apart from the bronze which he had suggested towards the end of his life and whose creation he sadly did not survive to witness.
The visual impact of Le thérapeute was all the more concentrated by the fact that Magritte has heightened its sense of mystical alignment by adding the moon, which had played no role in the prior 1956 example. The thin white crescent of the moon in Le thérapeute is placed directly above the head of the titular healer, as though there were some cosmic interaction between them. He appears to be a part of the same constellation; they are linked in the underlying order of things. The moon serves as some peculiar coda, a halo-like emphasis upon the power of the healer. Is the healer a substitute for Magritte, another of his deliberately evasive self-portraits and self-portraits by proxy? Certainly, the idea of his body being largely replaced by the entrance to another world, by a glimpse of another way of being, parallels the entire process by which Magritte created art. His pictures, guided by inspiration more than mere intuition, present Surreal solutions to the problems posed by the real world. They are new ways of seeing, they are revelations of hidden mystery, invitations to awe. And what is more awesome than this pool of daylight within the very fabric of the being of the healer?