‘Mystery is not one of the possibilities of reality. Mystery is what is absolutely necessary for reality to exist.’ -René Magritte, Rhétorique, May, 1961, quoted in Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner, eds. René Magritte Selected Writings, London, 2016, p. 195)
In René Magritte’s 1926 painting Le groupe silencieux ('The silent group') all the pictorial devices, props and structures that go into the making of a so-called ‘figurative’ or ‘representational’ painting have been rendered in an unusual, subversive and surprising manner - one that, in each case, lays bare and even ridicules, all the conventions of traditional picture-making.
An important example of Magritte’s early ‘Surrealist’ style, the work is one of the finest of a pioneering series of oil paintings that the artist made between January 1926 and April 1927 in preparation for his first one-man show, held at the Galerie le Centaure, 62 Avenue Louise, Brussels in the spring of 1927. This seminal exhibition of Magritte’s work marked a pivotal moment in the Belgian artist’s career. It served to announce him not only as Belgium’s leading Surrealist painter but also as a important new talent on the European avant-garde art scene in the months prior to Magritte’s all-important departure for Paris where he joined André Breton’s Surrealist group in August 1927. As with many of the pictures on view at this famous, Le Centaure exhibition, Magritte’s chief preoccupation in Le groupe silencieux is with displaying the lie of all imagery and picture-making and in exposing the innate mystery that underpins outer appearance. In works such as Le groupe silencieux, Magritte does this in such a way that the surprising revelation of the uncanny that lies behind reality is one that is experienced like a shock of recognition by the viewer, as if seen for the very first time.
In both this respect and in the overt simplicity of its style, Le groupe silencieux is a work that draws directly upon the shock of recognition and the epiphany that Magritte himself had experienced when he first came across the work of Giorgio de Chirico. ‘This triumphant poetry’ Magritte wrote of the revelation of seeing de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings for the first time, ‘supplanted the stereotyped effect of the traditional painting. It represented a complete break with the mental habits peculiar to artists who are prisoners of talent, virtuosity and all the little aesthetic specialities. It was a new vision through which the spectator might recognize his own isolation and hear the silence of the world’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, Brussels, 2009, p. 71). Following the revelation that Magritte experienced in seeing de Chirico’s work, he embarked on the creation of a completely new type of picture in which the structures of painting and representation were not only exposed as the artifices they were, but also, as here in this work, subverted and twisted into new, strange forms aimed at exposing the innate enchantment and deeper mysteries of reality and perception. In order to do this Magritte had to abandon the faux cubo-futurist style of painting he had hitherto been practicing and embraced a new, objective style of painting in which objects were rendered in a simple, dry, matter-of-fact, manner. In what he called a ‘detached way of representing objects [which] seems to me related to a universal style, in which idiosyncrasies and minor predilections of an individual no longer count’ (Magritte, quoted in ibid., p. 110).
In its basic format Le groupe silencieux adopts the same, strange, irrational logic of De Chirico and Carlo Carrà’s metaphysical paintings in which an often bizarre collation of seemingly disparate objects was presented in a way that, as here, fused still-life and landscape traditions to generate a mysterious and poetic expression of melancholy, enigma and silence. In Le groupe silencieux however, Magritte’s similarly metaphysical method is more methodical, logical and focused in the way in which it concentrates on the components that go into making up a traditional pictorial image. In a flesh-coloured room that recedes in perspective to give out 48 49
onto a landscape view of a waterfall-like curtain of stone (into which a castle on a stone bridge is also shown disappearing), various elements of figurative painting are displayed as if they are abandoned stage-props. Most prominent among these is a backdrop-like board depicting a landscape of trees and shown leaning against one of the walls while partially covered by a crimson curtain reminiscent of the theatre. This representational, landscape-image is perforated with rectangular, picture-like, cut-out windows that reinforce the whole structure’s manifest sense of artifice. Against this theatrical presentation of artificial landscape also rests a square, picture frame. In front of this is a flesh-coloured wooden cube adorned with eyes. Perspective, pictorial illusion, sculpture, painting and even the act of looking itself are all here rendered simultaneously as both artifices and agents of mystery. To the right-hand-side of this impossible, flesh-coloured room rests the image of a wooden plank, cut-out in the shape of a human figure that leans against the right-hand wall. This form is reminiscent of the bilboquets that frequently appeared in Magritte’s art of this period. These biboquets as Magritte called them, were painted images of turned, wooden, bannister-like structures or objects that, in his paintings, both echoed and repeatedly functioned as either strange figures or peculiarly humanized trees. The similar presence here, of this near two dimensional, cut-out, human, plank similarly introduces an uncanny sense of a strangely inanimate human presence into the overt enigma of this scene.
Indeed, the deconstruction of the human figure and in particular the female nude, was another chief preoccupation of Magritte’s at this time and one that was to dominate much of his art throughout the late 1920s. In Le groupe silencieux, in conjunction with his deconstruction of the components of landscape and still-life painting into a de Chirico-like composition depicting a room of objects there is also a sense that the representation of the human figure has also been broken down into strange component parts. With its walls painted in a flesh colour, the human eyes appearing on the flesh-coloured cube and the standing presence of
René Magritte, Les chasseurs au bord de la nuit, 1928. Sold, Christie's, London, 4 February 2014, lot 114 ($10,700,000) the wooden human cut-out, the presence of the human figure pervades the painting in a way that emphasizes its absence. The picture is, in this respect, a work that, like ‘metaphysical’ pictures such as De Chirico’s Le jeu du savant of 1917 or Carlo Carrà’s Solitude of 1917-1926, which Magritte may have known from its appearance in the magazine Valori Plastici, evoke the human presence through humanoid objects such as mannequins and anatomical diagrams.
These are paintings that make use of surprising connections and disjunctions between objects and form to provide a visual image of the processes of thought and perception taking place on the picture plane. It is, in essence, a conceptual approach to the way in which a picture is perceived and understood that Magritte, here, in Le groupe silencieux, begins to map out through a poetic deconstructing of pictorial convention.
This painting is, in this respect, therefore, a landmark work that establishes the logic and framework of the aesthetic path that Magritte was to follow for the rest of his life.
‘When our eyes are opened a little, we have to admit that all our actions, emotions, sensations and ideas never escape banality. In becoming known, unknown things become common, even if the “common” is composed of only one person. What all knowledge – intelligent or stupid, rare or widespread, beneficent or maleficent, unusual or familiar, large or small, etc. – has in common is its banality. Love of the unknown is synonymous with love of banality: to know is to find knowledge banal: to act is to discover the banality of feelings and sensations. No association among things ever reveals what it is that unites different things. No one thing ever reveals what makes it appear in the mind. The banality common to all things is a mystery. The mind would assume the responsibility of a machine if the world is understood to be a language of mystery. This responsibility corresponds to no moral or physical code that might be extrapolated from it. Since this responsibility, like everything else, is mysterious, it cannot be defined with any conventional meaning since it is de facto mysterious…Human responsibility is no less mysterious than that of a machine, a stone or anything else. It is in strict compliance with convention to claim to know what we must do or think about the mystery of the past, present, or future. The responsibility we assume is mysterious de jure, although we believe knowledge can enlighten ignorance without ever shedding light on mystery. Mystery is what enlightens knowledge’ (Magritte, Bizarre, no. 111, December, 1955, p. 44).