Steps of the eye
Through the bars of forms
A never-ending staircase
One of the steps is hidden by a cloud
Another by a big knife
Another by a tree which unfolds
Like a carpet
All the steps are hidden
Green leaves have been scattered<->mmense fields deduced forests
At sundown leaden banisters
On a level with the clearings
In the light milk of morning
The sand pours its rays
Onto the silhouettes of the mirrors
Their cold, pale shoulders
Their decorative smiles
The tree is tinted with invulnerable fruits
(Paul Eluard, 'René Magritte', 1935, reproduced in D. Sylvester, ed., S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol.II, London, 1993, p. 37).
Painted in 1940, La parade is an historic painting by René Magritte. One of only fifteen paintings executed during the course of that turbulent year, La parade was exhibited in a small exhibition held in Brussels during the Occupation in 1941, and was acquired by Magritte's friend, the poet, Surrealist and member of the French Resistance, Pual Eluard.
La parade reveals the extent to which Magritte had carved out his own unique and idiosyncratic territory in his pictures, both within Surrealism and the wider art world. The deceptive simplicity of this picture's composition, with its near-desert landscape, a tree and a curtain, lends it a forceful immediacy. The image is easy to read, yet more complex to decipher. In this way, Magritte appears in part to have used his experience in advertising to lend his picture a greater impact, manipulating the viewer. At the same time, it is after the initial jolt of recognition that La parade slowly reveals its mysteries. The gnarled tree is shown against a red curtain similar to that which appears in several of Magritte's paintings. In this way, Magritte throws various conventions of artistic tradition into question: the contrast between interior and exterior, represented by curtain and tree, has somehow been exploded. Likewise, the idea of concealment and revelation represented by the curtain, a device which has featured in trompe-l'oeil form in Old Masters from the Netherlands and elsewhere, has been reversed: the tree, far from being hidden, is displayed to the viewer, while the potentially barren landscape in the background has been suppressed. Magritte has used the rich red of the curtain to thrust the meticulously-rendered bark of the tree into bold relief, creating an intriguing and aesthetic dissonance between the textures of the wood and of the soft material in the background.
The tree itself appears as a dominating presence in La parade. During the course of 1940, Magritte appears to have investigated the tree to a greater degree than any other motif or device, exploring various incarnations and apparitions. In several pictures entitled La recherche de l'absolu, he showed an autumnal 'Tree-Leaf' where the veins of the leaf doubled as branches of the tree. In other works, he played with concepts of scale and in one, Le plagiat, showed a still-life of flowers where the silhouette of the flowers had been cut away to reveal a landscape with a blossoming tree. In those works, and also in La parade, Magritte has subverted the usual presentation of trees in paintings. Here, he has done this by showing the tree firstly without leaves, and secondly cropped in such a manner that most of its bulk and height is implied to continue far above the top edge of the canvas. To some extent, it recalls the expressive trees in the paintings of, say, Caspar David Friedrich, for instance his Dolmen in the Snow from circa 1807 in the Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden. In both paintings, the trees appear to function in part as substitutes for human subjects, proxies able to convey some sense of sublime fallacy. But in Magritte's painting, that sentiment is transformed into something distinctly Magrittean - it has an understated wit and playfulness, as the artist plays with our perceptions and expectations.
It is in this way that Magritte managed to reveal his awe at the world around us in his paintings, encouraging us to see it all afresh. The assonances and affinities that he captured in his pictures were sometimes the result of visions, dreams or dedicated contemplation, and were aimed as invitations for us to discard, even if only for a moment, all our preconceptions about the nature of the universe. Affiliated primarily with the Belgian Surrealists, who remained autonomous from their Parisian counterparts, Magritte was not hampered by that other movement's obsession with such issues as the subconscious. Similarly, Magritte eschewed the exploration of new techniques for channelling thoughts and feelings. Instead, he painstakingly painted visions from his own mind which expressed poetic affinities between objects, asking his viewer to look at them afresh. While in some cases, this involved seemingly impossible combinations, in La parade Magritte has created a vision which is possible, yet distinctly mysterious. Looking at La parade, the legacy of Magritte's Surreal epiphany, prompted by his seeing Giorgio de Chirico's 1914 painting Le chant d'amour - which featured a bust and a rubber glove in an Italianate cityscape - is clear in this new juxtaposition. Yet so too is the distance that Magritte had travelled in the intervening years.
It is not known whether La parade was painted before or after the invasion of Belgium on 10 May 1940. Perhaps the leafless tree speaks of anxiety beforehand or austerity afterwards. The Occupation caused a year of great upheaval for Magritte: as the German forces advanced, he was part of a small group, alongside Paul Scutenaire, Raoul Ubac and their respective wives, that fled to France, departing on 15 May. Magritte was particularly concerned that some of his political statements would provide the authorities with grounds for persecution, hence his precipitous departure (see D. Sylvester, ed., S. Whitfield & M. Raeburn, René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, vol.II, London, 1993, pp. 80-84 for details regarding this flight). Travelling by taxi, tram and lorry, they reached Lille, whence they went by train to Paris. Magritte went on from there to the celebrated walled city of Carcassonne, where he initially stayed with the poet Joë Bousquet, who had been bedridden ever since his participation in the First World War. Magritte appears to have enjoyed the constant parade of personalities who passed through Carcassonne during this tumultuous period, a group which included among others Eluard. However, he yearned to return to Brussels to be with his wife Georgette, who had remained there. He eventually managed. There, Magritte carried on with his work, exhibiting and publishing during the Occupation, for instance his show in 1941 at the Galerie Dietrich in which La parade featured alongside fourteen other paintings and five drawings (see ibid., p. 87).
Magritte's friendship with Eluard, who was the first owner of La parade, had begun in the late 1920s, and resulted in several artistic and poetical collaborations. Eluard also accumulated a significant collection of Magritte's works. Their friendship had initially formed because of the increasing connections during the late 1920s between the French and Belgian Surrealists, a period during which Magritte had spent more and more time in Paris. The relationship appears to have blossomed during the holiday they spent together during August 1929 in Cadaqués, where they and several other figures from the movement had been invited by Salvador Dalí. Eluard dedicated poems to Magritte, and Magritte provided illustrations for some of his works, all the more so after their rapprochement, which followed a schism that had lasted several years between the Belgian artist and the French Surrealists gathered around André Breton. This break thawed during 1932, in part because of direct overtures from Eluard; within a few years, Eluard would write 'René Magritte'. This was a friendship and collaborative relationship that would last for well over a decade between two of the most important figures associated with Surrealism, the one the hero poet, the other the iconic and ironic bowler-hatted Belgian.