In La voix du sang and other works of the late 1940s, Magritte returned to the mysterious imagery and representational style of painting that had won him acclaim among the French Surrealists. The painter had spent the earlier portion of the decade producing parodies of Impressionism, but he now took the vocabulary that he had developed alongside his Parisian colleagues in the mid 1920s and applied it to his goal of upsetting the conscious ordering of conventional representation.
This mysterious image of a mighty, leafy tree transformed into a cylindrical cupboard with a white ball and illuminated house reveals the lasting impact of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico's pittura metafisica on Magritte's oeuvre. Indeed, David Sylvester refers to Magritte's discovery of de Chirico's Le Chant d'amour, 1914 (fig. 1) as "one of the famous epiphanies in the hagiography of modern painting" (in op. cit., 1993, p. 61). Recalling the significance of this experience in his text La ligne de vie, Magritte stated: "This triumphant poetry supplanted the stereotyped effect of traditional painting. It represented a complete break with the mental habits peculiar to artists who are prisoners of talent, virtuosity and all the little aesthetic specialties. It was a new vision through which the spectator might recognize his own isolation and hear the silence of the world" (quoted in ibid.).
The present painting builds upon an idea that Magritte had initially established in L'arbre savant, 1935 (Sylvester, no. 384; fig. 2, private collection, Turin), which shows a rootless, dead trunk with four cabinets in an interior. The uppermost door is only slightly ajar, but the lower three are open, revealing a mass of metal wire, a pyramid, and a lit candle. In the present work, the scene is outdoors and nocturnal, and the tree, now robust and in full leaf, has three cupboards in its trunk. Despite these changes, Magritte preserved the provocative conflation of interior and exterior in the earlier work by reversing the relationship between the contained and the container. The artist may have based the unfolding bark doors of this tree on an illustration of cork harvesting that he found in the Larousse encyclopedia (fig. 3), one of his preferred sources of existing imagery. Magritte's colleague, the playwright Claude Spaak, has suggested that Magritte found this image in a chapter from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) where she remarks that "one of the trees had a door leading right into it" (quoted in ibid., p 384).
Having established a new visualization of the compartmented tree with the present work, Magritte painted many subsequent versions that he also entitled La voix du sang; each of these works which retains this basic iconography with very slight modifications. In 1947, Magritte painted two gouaches of this scene (Sylvester, nos. 1235, 1236) and he produced a second oil painting with a crimson curtain, as well as two more gouaches in the following year (Sylvester, nos. 668, 1252, 1296). In 1953, the tree appeared alongside other iconic subjects in Magritte's repertoire such as his masked apples, bright blue skies, and the tree with an axe in an eight-sectioned cycle called Le domane enchanté of 1953 (Sylvester, no. 791) for the Casino Communale at Knokke-le-Zoute. Whereas Magritte cropped out the tree's canopy in these images, the fourth version in oil, painted in 1959 (Sylvester, no. 905; Museum moderner Kunst, Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna) expands the composition to encompass the whole tree, which he preserved in the fifth and final canvas done in 1961 (Sylvester, no. 928; private collection, Belgium).
The title of the present work translates as "Blood Will Tell," or alternately "The Call of Blood," which confers an ominous character onto the scene. The illuminated windows of the tiny house suggest an unseen and possibly nefarious activity. Magritte twice offered commentary on this work in 1948, yet his enigmatic words amplify the mysterious quality of the imagery. Addressing the scene in his text, Titres, Magritte states: "The words dictated to us by the blood sometimes appear foreign to us. Here, it seems to want to command us to open up magic riches in the trees" (quoted in ibid.). In an exhibition catalogue from the same year, Magritte refers to the tree as an enchanted creature, writing: "We could hear the hearts of the trees beating before the hearts of men" (quoted in ibid.). This cryptic subject matter is enhanced by an ambiguous sense of scale that is established in the sphere and house. The viewer must contemplate whether he can accept these two objects as a conventional sports ball and a dollhouse, especially if the house is possibly life-sized.
The grassy outcropping and mountainous landscape with a winding river and starry night sky may be a parodic quotation of the sublime and symbolic vistas that appear in Romanticist paintings such as Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 (fig. 4). Recognizing the utility of such imagery for his own painting, Magritte commented: "I think the picturesque can be employed like any other element, provided it is placed in a new order or particular circumstances" (quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: The True Art of Painting, New York, 1977, p. 120). Friedrich explores the spiritualist connotations of awe before nature and their impact on the individual's inner world, underscoring the individual's quest to unmask an "original" truth. Whereas the cloaking "sea of fog" inspires a moment of personal revelation for Friedrich's mountaineer, Magritte's tree confronts the viewer with an unknowable mystery and reinforces the inadequacy of language, pictorial or otherwise. The Belgian artist equally played with hidden objects and a sense of the unknown, but he refutes the idea of absolute truth by making the instrument of concealment a depiction of precisely what it hides. In one of his best-known quotes, Magritte addresses this issue, stating: "My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question 'What does that mean'? It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable" (quoted in ibid., p.70).
(fig. 1) Giorgio de Chirico, Le Chant d'amour, 1914. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25249668
(fig. 2) René Magritte, L'arbre savant, 1935. Private collection. BARCODE 26007151
(fig. 3) Illustration of a cork harvest from the Larousse encyclopedia. BARCODE 25249651
(fig. 4) Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818. Kunsthalle, Hamburg. BARCODE 26007168