Magritte painted Composition on a Sea Shore in 1935-36, a period of intense activity both in the studio and out of it. For during this period, he was gaining international recognition and his pictures were being exhibited to an increasing audience. Meanwhile, he was hugely involved with the Surrealist movements both in his native Belgium and in France, following the revival of his friendship with André Breton.
It was during this time that Magritte had developed a new style of juxtaposition of objects that presented his Surreal 'solutions' to the problems posed by the objects in the real world around us. Thus in Composition on a Sea Shore, we are presented with a strange group of objects on a sea shore. A curtain-like sheet of corrugated metal interspersed with spherical bells leans against a picture-within-a-picture showing an incongruous stormy seascape that seems to be an approximate continuation of the shore behind it. Meanwhile, there is an amorphous, flesh-coloured column or pillar, the upper half of which resembles the silhouette of a woman. Is the painting shown here a window into the turbulent forces that, though hidden, underpin our reality? Magritte's vision, the product of his own inspiration rather than imagination, evokes a profound sense of mystery. There is an alien logic at work, a hieratic sense of ritual and purpose in this arrangement of objects on a beach, and the sense of discreet wonderment that the viewer feels is heightened by the horizon, by the view itself, which vaguely recalls the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, albeit in much calmer guise.
'I try-- insofar as possible-- to paint pictures that evoke mystery with the precision and charm necessary to the realm of thought,' Magritte once explained. 'It's obvious that this precise and charming evocation of mystery is composed of images of familiar objects, brought together or transformed in such a way that they no longer satisfy our naïve or sophisticated notions. In coming to know these images, we discover the precision and charm that are lacking in the 'real' world in which they appear' (R. Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 221). In Composition on a Sea Shore, then, Magritte has assembled these disparate objects in order to prise the viewer out of an all-too-complacent understanding of the universe and to glimpse the strangeness that surrounds us. In this sense, Composition on a Sea Shore itself acts, as does the maelstrom-filled painting within it, as a window into a reality to which we have gradually blinded ourselves.