Executed in 1957-58, La traversée difficile shows the artist revisiting the formative period of his Surrealism. While there are numerous small differences, La traversée difficile is nonetheless clearly a gouache reprisal of one of Magritte's paintings from 1926, in which the artist was experimenting with newly-discovered techniques of juxtaposition in order to create pictures that were filled with illogic, with enigma, and with impossibility, to the extent that they would prompt a revelation in the viewer. In this strange and impossible room, one wall is replaced by the scene of a shipwreck. Is this a window onto a storm or is it a mural, some form of picture-within-a-picture? Certainly, the jarring difference between the atmosphere in the calm, still room and the stormy seascape beyond heightens the mysterious internal tension of La traversée difficile.
Magritte's epiphany, his Pauline conversion to Surrealism, had come when he saw de Chirico's painting Le chant d'amour, from 1914. It is clear from La traversée difficile to what extent de Chirico's own finely-judged juxtapositions influenced the young Magritte. The room itself appears almost a tribute to de Chirico's pictures, while the hand of a mannequin on the table is a clear reference to the painter of the Metafisica. However, Magritte added his own particular vision: a bird is in the hand; a 'bilboquet'-- an element that would come to feature in many of the Belgian's later works-- here, furnished with an eye, looms in the foreground. Meanwhile, there are strange, discreet anthropomorphic elements within the table that hint at the monstrous, and thereby at another of Magritte's influences-- Max Ernst.
The fact that Magritte has chosen to revisit the older work shows his own appreciation of its continuing visual power, while also hinting at his own personal attachment to the works from this period of the development of his unique style. The oil of La traversée difficile had even featured in Magritte's first one-man exhibition, held at the Galerie Le Centaure, a watershed moment in his career which exposed him to praise and criticism in unexpected measure. Of the disconcerting and deliberately incongruous juxtapositions of everyday objects that characterised his early works, and by extension La traversée difficile, Magritte explained that he had initially been criticised 'for having shown objects situated in places where we never really find them. Yet this is the fulfilment of a real, if unconscious, desire common to most men. In fact, ordinary painting is already attempting, within the limits set for it, to upset in some small way the order in which it generally views objects. It has allowed itself some timid bravado, a few vague allusions. Given my desire to make the most ordinary objects shock if at all possible, I obviously had to upset the order in which one generally places them' (R. Magritte, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, translated by R. Miller, New York, 1977, p. 215).