‘The German occupation marked the turning point in my art. Before the war, my paintings expressed anxiety, but the experiences of war have taught me that what matters in art is to express charm. I live in a very disagreeable world, and my work is meant as a counter-offensive’ (R. Magritte, quoted in S. Gablik, Magritte, London, 1992, p. 146).
Created in 1946, René Magritte’s Le triomphe du mois de mai appears in a riot of colour and lively brushwork, evoking an otherworldly, romantic vision, one in which a series of temporary decorative triumphal arches rise up from the waving blades of grass to span a fast running river as it cuts through the sun-drenched landscape. This motif, which is unique to the present gouache, is described by Magritte in Titres, his 1946 publication in which he explained many of the ideas behind his compositions: ‘To crown the month of May, triumphal arches of flowers have been constructed over the river, which is thereby made more attractive as in the month of May’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. IV, Gouaches, temperas, Watercolours and Papiers Collées, 1918-1967, London, 1994, p. 72). Perhaps inspired by the exuberant celebrations that were staged to commemorate the anniversary of Victory Day during the spring of that year, the composition exudes a sense of joy and festive celebration, not only through its subject matter, but also in its bright, effervescent colour palette. Painted in swirling, comma-like strokes of pastel-hued paint, the artist’s technique recalls the light feathery brushwork of the Impressionists, in particular Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and demonstrates the distinctive shift that occurred in Magritte’s oeuvre during the German occupation of Belgium during the Second World War.
In the opening years of the war, Magritte’s paintings were marked by a distinctly ominous, threatening mood and deep sense of foreboding that paralleled the overwhelming atmosphere of life in Belgium under the occupation. Whereas André Breton, Max Ernst, and a number of other Surrealists had fled at the outbreak of hostilities, Magritte chose to remain in Europe, and experienced first hand the darkness of the conflict. As the fighting continued to rage, Magritte felt that a new visual idiom was needed to adequately respond to the horrors of the war, and began to experiment with a distinctly impressionistic technique, creating works filled with light, colour and vivid, free brushwork. Calling this new style Le Surréalisme en plein soleil (Surrealism in full sunlight), Magritte believed that in combining the aesthetic pleasure of beautiful, colour-filled scenes with subversive, mysterious images, he could best reveal the inherent chaos of the world. In Le triomphe du mois de mai, the repetition of the effervescent arches and shifting perspectives playfully disrupt the audience’s perception of the scene, creating the impression that there is something strange occurring that we cannot quite comprehend. Its lively paint surface offers a striking contrast to the flat, highly-polished style which the artist usually employed, whilst the bright tonality allowed Magritte to introduce a new softness and sense of light into the composition. Following the liberation of Belgium, and the end of hostilities in Europe, Magritte continued to explore the potentials of this new approach, promoting his theories with great fervour.
In the summer of 1946, just before the present work was created, Magritte wrote a string of letters to Breton discussing Le Surréalisme en plein soleil, explaining his justification for embracing such a dramatic shift in his art. Over the course of their correspondence, Magritte hinted towards a critique of the surrealist movement itself, recalling that its members had attempted to bring about chaos and a new world order in the years leading to the war. As he explained, their endeavours were far eclipsed by what was actually achieved during the conflict: ‘The disarray, the panic that Surrealism tried to create so as to call everything into question again, the Nazi cretins achieved it much better than we did, and there was no getting around it…’ (Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 187). Magritte also suggested a new role for the artist in the aftermath of such horror: ‘In the face of widespread pessimism, I propose the search for joy, for pleasure. This joy and pleasure, which are so commonplace and yet so out of reach, seem to me to be up to us alone’ (Magritte, quoted in ibid). Magritte’s views were intrinsically shaped by his own experiences during the occupation, and led him to the belief that it was the artist’s duty to raise morale during times of privation and suffering. To this end, Le Surréalisme en plein soleil aimed to keep the beacons of hope and humanity alive during such difficult times, challenging the darkness of pre-war Surrealism with an alternative vision.
Le triomphe du mois de mai was included in Magritte’s landmark solo exhibition at the Galerie Dietrich in Brussels in November 1946. Showcasing examples of the artist’s most recent work, this exhibition was intended to launch and promote Le Surréalisme en plain soleil in the post-war art scene. Featuring oils and gouaches on an unusually large scale, the show included reinterpretations of familiar themes alongside original motifs, such as that in the present work, all captured in this light-filled, colourful impressionistic manner. For the catalogue, Magritte’s friend Paul Nougé wrote an endorsement of the new vision of Le Surréalisme en plein soleil, celebrating the ecstatic freedom so in evidence in works such as Le triomphe du mois de mai: ‘Magritte’s purpose, our purpose, has not changed. The world around us seems to be becoming smaller, shrinking, shrivelling into a thin black and grey system, in which signs take predominance over things. Our constant ambition, then, is to restore to this world its brilliance, its colour, its provocative force, its charm and, in a word, its unpredictable combinatory possibilities. There are no longer any forbidden feelings, even if they respond to the names: serenity, joy and pleasure. And if, occasionally, we come upon “beauty”, like Stendhal we promise it as a poignant promise of happiness’ (Nougé, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, Oil Paintings and Objects, 1931-1948, London, 1993, p. 137).