Le miroir universel carries forward the major theme that Magritte introduced in one of the five paintings he included in an exhibition celebrating the first anniversary of Albert Skira’s review Minotaure, held at the Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels in May 1938. In La magie noire (“Black Magic”; Sylvester, no. 355), painted in 1934, Magritte depicted a three-quarter-length female nude leaning against a smooth rock behind her. A white dove rests on her shoulder, nuzzling her cheek. A hazy sky and sea fill the distance. This nebulous outdoor expanse abruptly breaks along a jagged edge into an interior space bounded by a wall with wainscoting. Most astonishing of all, the flesh of this woman’s upper body and head have assumed, chameleon-like, the cerulean tonality of the sky behind her. “La magie noire”–Magritte explained in a letter to Breton dated 22 June 1934–“is an act of black magic to turn a woman’s flesh into sky” (quoted in D. Sylvester, cat. rais., op. cit., vol. 2, 1993, p. 187). By 1946 Magritte had employed combinations of these pictorial elements, with variant re-workings, in a half-dozen paintings he similarly titled, and in twice as many others which he designated in other ways.
Magritte painted Le miroir universel soon after the Minotaure event. “Evidently the painting was more or less ready for exhibition by early June 1938,” David Sylvester has pointed out. “There are two explanations for Magritte’s 1939 dating on the verso... The painting is either a work of 1938 mis-dated by the artist, or a work of 1938 revised in 1939” (ibid., p. 270). Le miroir universel is, in either case, the largest of the early representations of the magie noire theme. It resembles the smaller L’invasion, a painting that incorporates magie noire elements set against a dark night sky, without the dove, which Magritte exhibited in Oslo in 1938 (Sylvester, no. 461). In its larger dimensions, the evening sky in Le miroir universel evokes the splendor of a truly vast celestial vault, with tiny points of stars enhancing the effect of infinitely deep space behind the nude female figure. A small highlight at the tip her nose, together with the glint of moonlight falling on her neck and breasts, reinforces the illusion that she has somehow emerged from the darkest depths of the night, to enter the brightly lit, intimate space of the room.
Apart from the sharp divide marking the boundary between celestial and interior space in this picture, the contrasts between the various elements in Le miroir universel–and in magie noire imagery generally–stem from a subtly gradual metamorphosis of one into another, in which the traditions of alchemy and painting have joined to become a new conjurer’s art, capable of generating novel and unprecedented visual phenomena. The night outside becomes the day inside. A distant horizon turns into a wall molding. A female form materializes in thin air, and props herself against a rock. We bear witness to a world of bizarre realities, set in our own time, but described as if ancient bards were declaiming their legends, and imagining fables among the stars.
These paintings, unlike many others by Magritte, neither brashly shock nor rudely startle the viewer, but instead invite a measured, contemplative approach to assimilating the complexities of the peculiar universe contained therein. In this respect, the magie noire paintings most effectively reveal the classical side in Magritte’s sensibility, in his perfect counterpoint of objects and forms, whether in harmony or in opposition, while always adhering to his rigorous requirement for a matter-of-fact statement of clarity in the imagery he describes in his compositions. He moreover exercises discretion and restraint in his use of color. Most appealing of all is that serenely effortless and understated demeanor by which Magritte proposes his ideas, gently enticing the viewer to become immersed in his world. The rewards are boundless, as Magritte regales his initiates with figments great and small of the mysterious, all marvelously come to life.
The female nude is the classical subject par excellence. As idealized form, the classical nude is a stylistic statement in itself, which Magritte ingeniously refashioned to suit his own purposes. Here Magritte has transformed his wife Georgette into a modern Venus, elevating her into the night sky as the queen of the all evening stars. Her figure becomes, of course, the first item of one’s scrutiny; “she”–or rather “it”–is the most important of the objects that here appear reflected in Magritte’s “universal mirror.” Reminded of the hardness in this figure’s classical form, more like the rock on which it leans than soft feminine skin, the viewer should address her as “it,” an object. For it is as a statue or manikin, not anyone like a flesh-and-blood woman, that this eerie presence represents the Eternal Feminine.
The idea of treating the nude in this manner occurred to Magritte after attending the exhibition Le Nu dans l’art vivant, held in February 1934, also at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, to which he had contributed three paintings. There he studied a Maillol sculpture, firmly classicized in that artist’s characteristic manner. An artist generally looks at nature with an eye to creating a style, for the sake of his art, as it reflects his response to these sensations. Most men, on the other hand, would have preferred the real, beautiful woman, one would think, to the beautiful sculpture. Magritte typically approached this matter from both viewpoints. He found the ambiguities and ironies involved in the art of representation to be no less absorbing than those he experienced in life itself, as he demonstrated in his early Paris painting, Tentative de l’impossible (“Attempting the Impossible”),1928. Those dilemmas and dichotomies that most artists would have laid aside, in order to get on with their work, fueled Magritte’s painting, and indeed became the very substance of his art.
To this end Magritte employed the simplest of pictorial strategies. “So I decided, around 1925,” the artist stated in his 1938 lecture, La ligne de vie, “that from then on, I would only paint objects with all their visible details... This decision...was made easier, as it happened, by a prolonged contemplative experience that occurred to me at the time in an unpretentious Brussels brasserie: I was in a frame of mind such that the mouldings on a door seemed to me imbued with a mysterious quality of existence and for a long time I stayed in contact with their reality” (trans. D. Sylvester, cat. rais., op. cit., vol. 5, 1997, p. 18).
Vision, for Magritte, provided the path to poetry. Poetry, in turn, became the doorway to reality, in its most exalted, multivalent state. Metaphor becomes metamorphosis, the very mechanism of life itself. As Magritte demonstrated in those spells of magie noire he cast in Le miroir universal, metamorphosis results in transmutation, the creation of new realities from relics of the old. “Taking the poetic phenomenon as being real, and if we are trying to discover its meaning, here is a new direction leading us at once away from that sterile region in which the mind exhausts itself in trying to fertilize,” Magritte wrote in 1934. “The object of poetry would become a knowledge of secrets of the world which would allow us to act upon the elements. Magic operations would become possible. They would provide real satisfaction for that profoundly human desire for the marvelous” (trans. D. Sylvester, cat . rais., op. cit., vol. 2, 1993, p. 28).
[A] René Magritte, Tentative de l’impossible, Paris, 1928. Toyota Municipal Museum of Art.
[B] René Magritte, La magie noire, 1934. Private collection.
[C] René Magritte, La magie noire, 1945. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
[D] René Magritte, Le beau navire, 1942. Private collection.