‘Our secret desire is for a change in the order of things, and it is appeased by the vision of a new order … The fate of an object in which we had no interest suddenly begins to disturb us’ (René Magritte, quoted in Robert Hughes, ‘The Poker-Faced Enchanter’, in Time, 24 June 2001).
Le domaine d’Arnheim (The Domain of Arnheim) is René Magritte’s first realisation in oil of one of his greatest and most enduring pictorial motifs. One of a rare group of landmark paintings made by Magritte in the late 1930s that formed part of the famous collection assembled by the great English patron and collector of Surrealist art, Edward James, it is a picture of strange, but possible, contrasts centred upon the magisterial view of an eagle-shaped mountain seemingly taking wing. The epic scale and undeniable romantic grandeur of this painting’s magical mountain imagery is mysteriously echoed on a window ledge in the foreground of the painting where a small, simple, almost minimal, still-life rests in the form of a pair of bird eggs. This dramatic exercise in strangely logical polarities so appealed to Magritte that, between May 1938 when he painted this first version of Le domaine d’Arnheim and 1962 when he painted the last, the artist repeated this haunting theme nine more times under the same title (seven in gouache and two other oil versions). The second of the oil versions, made in 1944, is a work that translates the same bird-mountain theme into Magritte’s extensive series of broken window paintings. Magritte’s last oil version, made in 1962, is a nocturnal rendering, complete with crescent moon, that Magritte gave to his wife Georgette as a gift. This work is now in the Musées Royaux des BeauxArts in Brussels.
Marking a seamless fusion of the images of a bird, the sky, an egg and a mountain into one imposing and, in fact, possible landscape vista of strange but magical beauty, Magritte’s ‘Domain of Arnheim’ pictures are, in part, an extension of the Romantics’ fascination with the natural sublime. Only here the sublime Alpine vista has been translated into the inner, and arguably wider, realm of the human imagination. At the same time, these works also articulate, in believable landscape form, a pictorial solution to the uncanny connection between a mature flying bird and its origins in the egg. This ‘elective affinity’ (as Goethe once defined the natural connections that cause two very different entities to join together) had, by the 1930s, become one of the guiding principles of Magritte’s art. Throughout the 1920s Magritte had repeatedly been preoccupied with images of birds, and in 1932 this fascination was suddenly resolved for him when a waking dream caused him to see the image of an egg in a cage. Magritte’s subsequent painting of this dream - a picture which he named ‘Elective Affinities’ - served as the foundation stone for much of his pictorial research thereafter. His theme of the strange metamorphic connection between bird and egg received another famous outing in the 1936 painting he entitled La clairvoyance (Clairvoyance). La clairvoyance was a work that showed the artist working at his easel, looking at an egg on the table in front of him but painting the image of a flying bird. With its subtler, understated presentation of the connection between a still-life of eggs, the open landscape view and the seemingly petrified figure of an eagle in flight, Le domaine d’Arnheim establishes itself as the ultimate encapsulation of this same basic theme.
That Magritte himself saw Le domaine d’Arnheim in this way is reflected in the lecture he gave at Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp in November 1938 when he traced the progression of his painting from the ‘elective affinity’ of his painting of an egg in a cage through to his most recent creations of which Le domaine d’Arnheim was one. Ever since the revelation of Les affinités électives, Magritte asserted, his paintings had essentially become products of the ‘outcome of a systematic search for a disturbing poetic effect which, having been achieved by the presentation of objects borrowed from reality, would enclose the real world from which the objects had been borrowed with a disturbing poetic sense - through a perfectly natural exchange’ (R. Magritte, ‘La ligne de vie’, 20th November 1938, in exh. cat., Magritte Centenary Exhibtition, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels, 1998, pp. 44- 48) His work was seeking, he said, to make everyday objects ‘shriek aloud’ in response to what he believed was the secret or unconscious ‘desire’ of most people for a ‘change in the order of things’: a desire that is appeased when they encounter the ‘vision of a new order’. All those conventional still-lifes that appear each year in the spring exhibitions, Magritte exclaimed, ‘how can the public bear to look at [them]?... All those onions and eggs, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left… or that swan which, since antiquity, prepares to penetrate thousands of Ledas? I think the picturesque can be effective, provided it is set in a new context’ (ibid.) And it is precisely this recontextualising of the picturesque that Magritte achieved with Le domaine d’Arnheim, combining the motifs of still-life, landscape and figurative painting into a uniquely disturbing poetic vista. The painting is, Magritte declared, a work that ‘creates a vision that Edgar Allan Poe would have liked very much’ (ibid.). It is for this reason too that it is after one of Poe’s most famous short stories - ‘The Domain of Arnheim’ - that Magritte’s painting was named.
‘In landscape arrangements alone is the physical nature susceptible of exultation,’ Poe had written in ‘the Domain of Arnheim,’ saying also that this story ‘expresses much of my soul.’ For Magritte, it was his painting’s same expression of a landscape of magical potential – of a landscape in which the human mind could exult – that led him to title the work after Poe’s story. Magritte was not a ‘literary’ artist, as Robert Hughes has pointed out, ‘his work was more about situation than narrative [but] his titles were important to him, and they are never neutral. They were, so to speak, pasted on the image like another collage element, infecting its meaning without explaining it. They reflected his browsing in high and popular culture... The Domain of Arnheim... is the title of Poe’s 1846 tale about a super-rich American landscape connoisseur who creates a Xanadu for himself. “Let us imagine,” says Poe’s hero, “a landscape whose combined vastness and definitiveness - whose united beauty, magnificence and strangeness shall convey the idea of care, or culture… on the part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity…” Yes, one can well imagine Magritte liking that. His work too sets up a parallel world, extremely strange and yet familiar, ruled by an absolutist imagination’ (R. Hughes, ‘The Poker-Faced Enchanter’, in op. cit.).
Magritte appears to have first had the idea for creating a landscape painting in which the form of a mountain took on the image of a bird around 1926 when he came across a photograph of the Alps in a travel brochure (illustrated in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 219). His first tentative image of a bird mountain makes its debut in his work in the background of and early painting from 1926 entitled Les épaves de l’ombre. It was almost ten years later that Magritte returned to the theme and in 1936 he made it the centrepiece of two small oil paintings to which gave the title Le précurseur (the forerunner). All these works depict the bird-mountain without the added drama of the snow-encrusted cliffs that here lend the painting its imperious sense of stark majesty. This more grisaille aspect of the present work was also an important pictorial feature for Magritte that he felt bestowed a new dimension to his painting but was only first addressed by him in 1938 in a painting of a cave’s-eye view of the bird-mountain that he originally entitled La chambre de l’orage (The chamber of the storm) before later resorting to naming the work, once again, Le précurseur.
With regards to the present work - the first painting to bear the title of ‘Domain of Arnheim’ and Magritte’s first fully realised picture to depict the relationship between the bird-mountain and the egg - Magritte wrote about his inspiration to his most recent patron, Edward James. James was also the man who, just over a year later, would buy this great painting almost as soon as he saw it on exhibition in Brussels in 1939. Writing to James in May 1938, while evidently still working on Le domaine d’Arnheim, Magritte told the Englishman that the idea for its title had come to him because of the sentiments expressed in Poe’s story ‘the Domain of Arnheim’ or ‘The Landscape Garden’ as this story had also sometimes been known. His own painting entitled ‘The Domain of Arnheim’, Magritte wrote, has been made ‘in memory of the story by Poe, a man who, in my view, can give rise to thoughts such as the following: we move mountains so that the sun appears according to a specific wish’ (R. Magritte, ‘Letter to Edward James: 6 May, 1938’, in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 262).
Magritte also elaborated in this letter on the importance of the use of grisaille colouring in this work, pointing out that such a rendering of much of the scenery had been a deliberate move made in response to the influence upon him of some collages by Roland Penrose that he had seen while in London the previous year. ‘I have been struck by a feature in them that might lend itself to unexplained developments,’ he told James. ‘Whereas normally colours are used to represent objects, Penrose has managed to use these objects to represent colours! After thinking a good deal about this (and I am writing a piece about it to be published soon), I have discovered that the procedures I mentioned to you earlier can take on a totally new meaning: the objects which I do not represent or that I sometimes show in shadow have lost their colours. It is for this reason that they are conjured up differently from when their images are brightly lit. I am at present working on a picture on the basis of these findings. It is “The Domain of Arnheim” (R. Magritte, ‘Letter to Edward James, 6 May’, in op. cit., p. 262).
What Magritte was seeking in this work is perhaps best expressed in the grisaille rendering he has used to depict the eggs. Helping to associate these familiar forms even more closely with the harsh grey and white vista of the bird-mountain scenery behind them, this simple pair of objects here take on a near magical sense of presence and potential. In Magritte’s hands, therefore, these everyday objects do indeed now ‘shriek aloud’, taking on the function of molecular-type echoes of the vast expanse of landscape behind them. In this way they have become strange, compact entities, the potential containers of whole worlds within their simple, elegant oval forms. It is this poetic combination of magical possibility here wedded to a romantic view of grand nature that most closely connects Magritte’s Le Domaine d’Arnheim with Poe’s own imaginary ‘domain’.
‘No such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce,’ Poe wrote in ‘The Domain of Arnheim’. ‘No such paradises are to be found in reality as have glowed on the canvas of Claude. In the most enchanting of natural landscapes there will always be found a defect or an excess - many excesses and defects. While the component parts may defy, individually, the highest skill of the artist, the arrangement of these parts will always be susceptible of improvement. In short, no position can be attained on the wide surface of the natural earth, from which an artistical eye, looking steadily, will not find matter of offence in what is termed the ‘composition’ of the landscape. And yet how unintelligible is this! In all other matters we are justly instructed to regard nature as supreme. With her details we shrink from competition. Who shall presume to imitate the colours of the tulip, or to improve the proportions of the lily of the valley?’ (Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Domain of Arnheim’, 1850, in A. Barger, ed., Edgar Allan Poe’s Annotated Short Stories, London, 2008, p. 32). How unintelligible is this! In all other matters we are justly instructed to regard nature as supreme. With her details we shrink from competition. Who shall presume to imitate the colours of the tulip, or to improve the proportions of the lily of the valley?’ (Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Domain of Arnheim’, 1850, in A. Barger, ed., Edgar Allan Poe’s Annotated Short Stories, London, 2008, p. 32).