The Comité Magritte has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Le miroir invisible is a quintessential emblem of Magritte’s place within the Surrealist genre and the modern canon at large. Here is a mysterious rendering of a common seascape with a markedly Surrealist spin. The present gouache transposes two easily recognizable elements into an unexpected context: a calm seascape and a semi-translucent globe overhead (taking the place of the moon). A luminous horizon line divides the two. These paired images, instantly pleasing as comfortable symbols of our terrestrial existence, hold an array of hidden messages underneath their cool façade. Painted amidst the trauma of World War II, this work’s darker undertones shine through upon a closer inspection. The present juxtaposition heightens the play of reality and illusion to an almost disconcerting degree.
In May 1940, less than a week after German troops invaded Belgium and Holland, Magritte had fled Brussels for France; he left behind his wife Georgette, their relationship still suffering the impact of affairs that each had in the late 1930s (Magritte with the Surrealist model Sheila Legge, Georgette with the poet Paul Colinet). After spending just three months in Carcassonne, however, the artist returned to Belgium and reconciled with Georgette. He painted little during the first full year of the war, disheartened by the deprivations, the tedium, and the dangers of the Occupation.
But by early 1941, he had begun to rebound from this momentary impasse. “All my latest pictures are leading me toward the simplified painting that I have long wanted to achieve,” he wrote to his friend and patron Claude Spaak in January. “It is in short the ever more rigorous search for what, in my view, is the essential element in art; purity and precision in the image of mystery which becomes decisive through being shorn of everything incidental or accidental” (R. Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Oil Paintings, Objects, 1931-1948, New York, 1993, vol. II, p. 288).
Le miroir invisible embraces pure tranquility with its calming blue tones, its softly diffused clouds, and the mirroring white crests of sea foam. Its expansive horizon divides the sky from the water, establishing a sense of order and balance, reminiscent of the sharp dividing lines within the great Romantic masterwork, Der Mönch am Meer (1808-1910), by German artist Caspar David Friedrich.
Some of Magritte’s paintings from the early 1940s are full of menace and foreboding: Les eaux profondes, for instance, in which an oversized raven perches beside a black-clad woman, whose head is a plaster cast resembling the mythic death mask of an unknown girl who drowned in the Seine; or La Mémoire, in which the cast is wounded and dripping blood (Sylvester, nos. 491 and 505). In another group of works, as seems to be the case for the present gouache, Magritte took a different tack, turning his back on the violence of wartime and aiming instead to convey a sense of delectation and pleasure. “Magritte’s work was going to change, and change consciously, in the face of war,” David Sylvester has written, “and the direction it was going to take was towards an eschewal of violence—sometimes a disquiet in which any menace was subdued, sometimes even a feeling of positive reassurance” (ibid., pp. 316-319). In a letter to the poet Paul Eluard dated December 1941, Magritte cited as the first instance of this new approach the optimistically entitled L’Embellie or The Break in the Clouds (Sylvester, no. 492), an image of three female bathers—a modern-day Three Graces—seen from behind.
Magritte introduced a tension between a style of painting associated with capturing a moment of fleeting reality and his own surreal, poetic universe, while also providing a glimpse of sunlight during the dark days of the World War II. “My fit of exhaustion is almost over (it will never completely go, I think) and for some time I have been working with interest,” Magritte explained in his aforementioned letter to Eluard. “Doubtless I had to find a way of producing what was bothering me: pictures in which ‘the bright side’ of life would be the area to be exploited. By this I mean the whole traditional range of charming things, women, flowers, birds, trees, the atmosphere of happiness, etc. And if I have managed to bring fresh air into my painting, it is through the fairly powerful charm which is now substituted in my paintings for the disturbing poetry that I once struggled to achieve. Generally speaking, pleasure cancels out a whole series of worries that I want increasingly to disregard” (ibid., p. 290).
Whereas Magritte consciously expelled the deeply troubling imagery that could easily have seeped into his wartime compositions, he reveled in shocking even his most ardent followers by deliberately and irreverently adopting a style that was then associated with bourgeois taste. Magritte’s Surrealism was intended to jolt his viewers out of a complacent understanding of the world around them, but he was aware that his own admirers and followers had developed expectations of his works. As we might expect to instead seen a moon in the present globe’s place, Magritte raises the question of whether we have been removed from our own world and transported into another. Concurrent with the troubling socio-political atmosphere of Europe at war, Magritte may well have intended to challenge the traditional view and offer a new lens through which a viewer could interpret our world’s traditional elements under the pressures of discord.
The key to Magritte’s success in raising these important questions derives from his ability to present his rivaling images with such a realistic photographic quality. With delicate brushwork and a steadfast adherence to precision, what seems at a glance so real soon becomes distorted and even jarring with its underlying unusual intricacies. “A strong sense of disquiet is invariably present in Magritte’s paintings—even in the most outwardly benign and sunny,” Sarah Whitfield has written (Magritte, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1992, no. 82). In Le miroir invisible, a subtle, but prime instance of this disquiet appears. The crests of sea foam within the composition’s lower third are repeated in the tiny seascape within the looming globe. As an artist who would constantly play with hiding elements behind tangible objects, Magritte could well be hinting that our world repeats itself, in fact, possibly beyond the two representations visible here. In a sort of fractal pattern, we might envision our world endlessly occupying a string of points along the space beyond the looming globe, ad infinitum.