René Magritte painted Le banquet in 1957, at the height of his popularity. Although the Belgian artist participated in the Surrealist movement in Paris, living there from 1927 to 1930, he became internationally famous only after signing a contract in 1948 with Alexandre Iolas, the New York dealer who remained the artist's agent until his death. A later work, Le banquet exemplifies several important themes that Magritte developed throughout his life. At first glance, the painting appears to be a straightforward depiction of a glorious sunset over trees and water, but one quickly notices that the sun is strangely superimposed over the shadowed trees in the center of the canvas. Logically, the sun should not only be behind the trees, but should also rest close to the horizon line. Strangely, due to its central position and small round shape, the sun also evokes a full moon depicted in bright, eerie red. These types of displacements give Le banquet, and much of Magritte's work, its enigmatic and compelling character.
Le banquet addresses the hidden and the invisible, concepts with which Magritte was concerned throughout his career. In 1957, he stated, "In the invisible, we must after all distinguish what is invisible from what is hidden. What is visible can be hidden--a letter in an envelope, for example, is something visible but hidden, it isn't something invisible. An unknown person at the bottom of the sea is not something invisible, it's something visible but hidden" (quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte: The Silence of the World, New York, 1992, p. 28). In Le banquet, Magritte has made what was hidden, the sun, visible. While the sun was clearly always behind the trees, here the artist visualized all these elements simultaneously. Yet, as Magritte would have been quick to admit, by placing the sun in front of the tree, part of the tree is now hidden: "That which is interposed between an object and us is hidden by the object which is no longer hidden?!?!?" (D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, vol. III, p. 254). This last statement was made in reference to another painting from 1957, Le seize septembre, which closely relates to Le banquet and depicts a crescent moon in front of a large tree (fig. 1). The artist unmistakably took great pleasure in such paradox and circular logic, which he had no intention of clearing up.
It is no coincidence that the sun in Le banquet also evokes a moon; the evocation and conflation of day and night was a common idea in Surrealism. For example, the Surrealist leader André Breton wrote, "If only the sun were to come out tonight" (quoted in S. Whitfield, Magritte, exh. cat. South Bank Centre, London, 1992, cat. 111). Magritte himself said that while he was greatly interested in both day and night, he did not have a preference for either (D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, vol. III, p. 145). One of the most best-known images of the painter's lifetime, L'empire des lumières clearly illustrates the coexistence of the two times of day and perhaps even questions these designations (fig. 2). Like Le banquet, L'empire des lumières appears to treat a standard subject: in this case, a domestic street scene. Yet, a bright day sky shines above a dark night street. The artist wrote to a friend, "After I had painted L'empire des lumières, I got the idea that night and day exist together, that they are one. This is reasonable, or at the very least it's in keeping with our knowledge: in the world, night always exists at the same time as day. (Just as sadness always exists in some people at the same time as happiness in others...) But such ideas are not poetic. What is poetic is the visible image of the picture" (Letter from Magritte to Marcel Mariën, 27 July 1952. quoted in S. Whitfield, op. cit., cat. 111). This questioning of supposed opposites is also apparent in Le banquet. Yet it is clear in this quote that Magritte did not want his images to be explained so easily, and instead referred to "poetic" power, meaning an image's ability to surprise and delight the viewer without providing a definitive meaning.
Le banquet also illustrates Magritte's idea of "elective affinities." Like most of the Surrealists, Magritte admired Giorgio de Chirico's combinations of completely unrelated objects, and much of his early work reflects the Italian artist's influence (see lot no. 9; Les surprises et l'océan). Then, in 1933, Magritte painted Les affinitiés electives (Elective Affinities), which depicts an extremely large egg inside a bird cage (D. Sylvester, op. cit., 1993, vol. II, p. 182; private collection). From this point on, he preferred to use such "elective affinities" to examine unexpected encounters between objects already in some way associated with each other, believing that this method can produce the same shock as the depiction of unrelated or invented objects. "Elective affinities" soon became the basis for much of Magritte's most interesting work, and clearly influences the depiction of the enigmatic sun/moon of Le banquet; the sun and the moon are clearly similar in form and their celestial associations, yet they are often referred to as opposites. Elective affinities is also the title of a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (originally titled Die Wahlverwandtschaften in German) published in 1809. Goethe extended this originally chemical term to human relationships, both personal and political. Like alkalis and acids, people, although seemingly opposed, may have a remarkable affinity for one another, and thus the term refers to the unpredictable realignments and divisions that may result when new encounters disturb equilibrium. The erudite Magritte, certainly aware of the term's many scientific and literary layers, added his own artistic meaning.
Later in life, Magritte frequently deliberately referenced his artistic forebears, playing on such famous artists and works as Jacques-Louis David's Madame Récamier, 1800, and Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, 1503-06, both in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. In Le banquet, Magritte has obliquely referenced artists connected to the Belgian Symbolist movement of the late 19th century, such as Jean Delville (1867-1953), William Degouve de Nuncques (1867-1935) and Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921). Nocturne in the Parc Royal, Brussels by Degouve de Nuncques is a pertinent comparison since it evokes the mysterious blue ambiance of the twilight hour (fig. 3). Called "l'heure bleue" ("the blue hour") at the turn of the century, this is a time that is no longer day, but not yet night. Moreover, this painting has no less than five round lights seemingly suspended in air. Ostensibly streetlights, none are visibly connected to a light pole, and thus all five could also be the moon. This confusion, particularly within such an established subject as a park landscape, undoubtedly appealed to Magritte, as did the connection to fellow Belgians. The sky of Le banquet, while not the smoky blue of Degouve de Nuncques' painting, exhibits rich pinks, oranges, and purples, perhaps a fortunate remnant of the period immediately after World War II when Magritte briefly painted in what has been called a Renoiresque manner.
Magritte often asked his Surrealist literary compatriots in Belgium, particularly Paul Nougé and Louis Scutenaire, to help title his paintings upon their completion. Although the titles of his early works are often logical, images and titles gradually became independent from each other. In this case, the use of the title Le banquet (The banquet) is as enigmatic as the image itself. Magritte consistently resisted any sort of explanatory title, insisting that his titles were not meant to help interpret or define the work. Instead, as with the visual impact of his paintings, he wanted poetic titles that would surprise and enchant rather than instruct, thus opening the door to the viewer's imagination.
(fig. 1) René Magritte, Le seize septembre, 1957. The de Menil Foundation, Houston, TX. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 25238679
(fig. 2) René Magritte, L'empire des lumières, 1952. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625528
(fig. 3) William Degouve de Nuncques, Nocturne in the Parc Royal. Musée D'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 20625511