The great tree in Le seize septembre—a monumental ash, perhaps, or a mighty oak—has its roots in a manifesto of sorts that René Magritte authored some three decades earlier, for the December 1929 issue of La révolution surréaliste. The eighteen Les mots et les images (“Words and Images”) that he illustrated and captioned outline the basic, conceptual procedures he was employing in his pictures. Over the drawing of a low brick wall, he wrote: “An object hints at other objects behind it” (K. Rooney and E. Plattner, eds., René Magritte: Selected Writings. Minneapolis, 2010, p. 33).
Throughout his oeuvre, Magritte exploited the intriguing effect of enigma inherent in the act of concealment—that of simply placing one thing in front of another—as a virtually failsafe pictorial ploy, fostering an irresistible sense of mystery that provokes conjecture and expectation for the adult viewer no less than for a child at play. In Le seize septembre, a faint light glimmers through the leaves of a tree at night—might one infer the moon to be lurking behind this tree? Leaving no doubt, Magritte responds, as if in a shout: “Peek-a-boo—yes!”, revealing the crescent lunar horn. The game does not end here, however, in simple fun—metaphysical, mythological, and phenomenological dimensions will thenceforth preoccupy the spectator.
The notion of the “hidden visible” guided much of Magritte’s production during the mid-1950s, generating clusters of works whose imagery may vary—in ostensibly random, unrelated ways—from one picture to the next, but which in practice nonetheless share this fundamental conceptual impetus as the artist’s latent, guiding logic. The four versions of Le seize septembre, painted between 1956 and 1958, comprise one such thread of pictures. The present canvas, completed in 1957, is chronologically the third and by far the largest in size—filling the canvas from top to bottom, the immensity of the tree against the cosmic expanse of night sky, an infinity dotted with tiny stars, is the most dramatic in effect.
Vast forests once blanketed Europe from end to end. The immense, solitary tree in Le seize septembre represents an archetypal memory of the profound relationship that has always bound humankind to its arboreal environment—as an essential material resource, and consequently as the magical dwelling-places of spirits and gods, leading to the advent of sacred groves dedicated to animistic and polytheistic cult worship. Universally a symbol of fertility and growth, the “tree of life” also represents the compelling urge in the human mind to acquire an ever-widening knowledge of its own existence and the outer world, and to postulate dreams of eternal life. The “cosmic tree” of the Babylonians and the “world ash” of the Nordic peoples—rooted in the earth, its trunk immoveable, its branches rising to the firmament above—served as the axis of the world, moreover the pivot around which the heavens revolved, unifying the four directions, the four primal elements, all things here and beyond, seen and unseen.
“Pushing up from the earth toward the sun,” Magritte wrote in an undated statement, “a tree is an image of a certain happiness. To perceive this image, we must be still, like a tree. When we are in motion, it’s the tree that becomes the spectator. It is witness, equally, in the shape of a chair, a table, a door, in the more or less restless spectacle of our life. The tree, having become a coffin, disappears into the earth. And when it is transformed into flames, it vanishes into the air” (ibid., p. 234).
In contrast to the relative permanence of the giant, stalwart tree, the presence of the moon in Le seize septembre is emblematic of the fugitive, but periodic aspect also inherent in the natural order. In an Akkadian seal, circa 2350-2150 BCE, a crescent moon hovers at the side of the “world tree”. The moon is the source of the waters of life; in its ever-repeating, monthly cycle, the lunar orb passes through phases of emergence, maturation, and decay, to vanish and soon reappear yet again, thus mirroring the process of agrarian planting, cultivation, and harvest—giving rise, in the spiritual, mythological, and subsequently religious imagination, to the belief in a god sacrificed and resurrected.
As a signifier of nature generally, the stand-alone tree early lent itself to becoming an ideal object for concealment in Magritte’s paintings. In La belle captive, 1931, and La condition humaine, 1933 (Sylvester, nos. 342 and 351), Magritte interposed the painting of a tree (placed on an easel) between the viewer and the very motif in the background landscape, thus blocking the latter from view. Magritte explained a further complication in La condition humaine: “In front of a window seen from the inside of a room, I placed a picture representing exactly the section of the landscape hidden by the picture. The tree represented in the picture therefore concealed the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room in the picture and, at the same time, conceptually outside in the real landscape. This is how we see the world, we see it outside ourselves and yet the only representation we have of it is inside us” (quoted in cat. rais., D. Sylvester, vol. II, p. 184).
In February 1956 Magritte commenced a series of gouaches he designated La place au soleil (The Place in the Sun), in which he superimposed an image on an outwardly unrelated, larger object. The best-known of the two oil paintings that were created from these gouaches shows the figure of Botticelli’s La Primavera adorning the back of Magritte’s familiar man in a black coat and bowler hat (Le bouquet tout fait; Sylvester, no. 837). Concurrently, Magritte was also painting variations on one of his most iconic, signature themes, L’empire des lumières—a nocturnal townscape beneath a brightly daylit, blue sky.
The first version of Le seize septembre was completed during April-early May 1956 (D. Sylvester no. 834; Kunsthaus Zürich). The artist wrote to Mirabelle Dors and Maurice Rapin on 20 April: “I have continued with my Places in the Sun, but by now the title is no longer suitable for a big tree at night time with a crescent moon above it! With this, a better or at any rate, a different description of ‘The place in the sun’ is given us: what is seen on an object is another object hidden by the one which is interposed between us and the hidden object. In such a way that the object which is interposed [the tree]—is hidden by the object [the crescent moon]—which was hidden. That which is interposed between an object and us is hidden by the object which is no longer hidden?!?!?” (D. Sylvester, op. cit., vol. III, p. 254).
“I have just painted the moon on a tree in the blue-gray colors of evening,” Magritte wrote to Dors and Rapin on 6 August 1956, having completed the second version of Le seize septembre (Sylvester, no. 836; Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp). “[Louis] Scutenaire has come up with a very beautiful title: Le seize septembre. I think it fits, so from September 16th on, we’ll call it done” (quoted in H. Torczyner, op. cit., 1977, p. 260). If Magritte or Scutenaire had something planned for that day some five weeks hence, we do not know; the significance of the title—if any—remains a mystery.
As Corot was master of the silvery light of early dawn, Monet peerless in evoking the declining light and shadows of late afternoon, Magritte was surely the arch magician among modern painters, most subtly adroit at summoning forth and revealing to us the many shades of meaning in the darkness and mystery of the nocturnal sky, as here in our lives on earth. “I do not admit that the world is incoherent and absurd,” Magritte explained in a 1958 interview with Georges d’Amphoux. “What is absurd and incoherent is the belief that the so-called logic of reason can influence the logic of the World as it thinks fit. It seems to me that a picture is effective if it is neither absurd, nor incoherent, and if it has the logic of mystery, as the World does” (K. Rooney and E. Plattner, eds., op. cit., 2010, p. 234).
Of the nineteen canvases Magritte painted of similar or larger scale, fifteen are located in public institutions, including The Art Institute of Chicago; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Menil Collection, Houston; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels; Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Najanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem and the Miyazaki Digital Museum.