René Magritte employed the faculty of sight, and as its agent the eye, to denote the presence of human consciousness as a knowledgeable awareness of the world. The eye features prominently in his oeuvre, most famously as Le faux miroir, painted in 1929 (Sylvester, no. 319). By imprinting the image of the eye on an inanimate object, such as the baluster-like bilboquet – a toy in which the player catches a ball on a string in the cup at the end of a stick – Magritte created various kinds of humorously hybrid, surrogate personages, which he would even dress in a suit and tie.
In Le monde poétique II, however, Magritte depicted the human eyeball, with its connecting optical nerve, disembodied from its owner’s skull, as if it were the monstrous, all-seeing brain of some serpentine creature. This roving eye becomes a metaphor for our mind in the world as we navigate the mysteries of existence – in Magritte’s imagery, the curtains of illusion, the sharp pyramidal spires of life’s painful difficulties, ominously set before a rent and tattered sky.
This painting owes its genesis to the wealthy and eccentric English aristocrat Edward James, an aspiring poet and a devotee of surrealism. James began to collect Dalí in 1934, and helped to finance Albert Skira’s magazine Minotaure. Impressed by Magritte’s contributions to the exhibition Pictures by Young Belgian Artists that Roland Penrose mounted in January 1937 at his London Gallery, James was especially drawn to the artist’s Le monde poétique, painted in 1926 (Sylvester, no. 107), which seemed to allegorise a poet’s reality.
‘I would be delighted if you could come and spend a month or so in London, here at 35 Wimpole Street,’ James wrote to Magritte on 28 January. ‘You were kind to me in Paris and took me to all the fine museums. So I should like, in turn, to show you London and the English countryside with all its beauties, which are many. Write to me giving the date of your arrival, and spend a month or two at my house, as soon as you can’ (E. James, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Oil Paintings and Objects, 1931-1948, vol. II, London, 1993, p. 512).
From Magritte – ‘a painter whose imagination is so poetic and personal,’ James wrote – the collector commissioned three large paintings for the ballroom of his home. He had already acquired three panels from Dalí. Magritte completed the paintings during a five-week stay in London, between 12 February and 19 March 1937. Two of the canvases were enlargements of earlier works: Le modèle rouge (Sylvester, no. 428) and Au seuil de la liberté, moreover recast in a vertical format (no. 430; The Art Institute of Chicago). The third, La jeunesse illustrée (no. 429; Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam) was enlarged and reformatted from a painting Magritte had completed only a few weeks earlier.
While Magritte was working at 35 Wimpole Street on the three commissioned canvases, James likely requested that the artist create for him a version of Le monde poétique, the painting he had particularly liked at Penrose’s gallery show in January. The original painting belonged to the artist’s close friend and dealer E.L.T. Mesens. Magritte was delighted to oblige. Following his return to Brussels, Magritte painted between 10 April and 19 May the new version of Le monde poétique, closely adhering to the 1926 canvas. The three ballroom pictures and Le monde poétique II are early instances of Magritte replicating pictures in similar or variant form, a procedure that he practiced on numerous other occasions for clients throughout his career. While painting Le monde poétique II, Magritte also worked on and completed by the same day an unusual ‘portrait’ of James, depicting both the collector and his reflection in a mirror from behind – La reproduction interdite (Sylvester, no. 436).
The pictorial idea for Magritte’s crawling eye, as David Sylvester noted, probably derived from Odilon Redon’s charcoal drawing Le Fantôme, circa 1885 (D. Sylvester, ibid., 1993, p. 243; Wildenstein, no. 1095). Disembodied, cyclopic eyes and the gargantuan orbs of fantastic, nightmarish creatures appear frequently in this artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints. Both Redon and Magritte appear to have been responding to a single literary source, Le chants de Maldoror, a bizarre, transgressive, prose-poem book – rife with absurdity, sadism, and misanthropy – authored by Isidore Ducasse, under the pen-name Le Comte de Lautréamont, first published in 1868-1869. Ducasse’s writing inspired Georges Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil, 1925. Reproductions of Redon lithographs were used to illustrate a 1924 British publication of Ducasse’s book; Dalí (1934) and Magritte (1948) provided original illustrations for modern editions of Le chants de Maldoror. Modern covers of this title have been adorned with close-ups of the eye to signal the author’s visionary content.
The surrealists adopted Les chants de Maldoror as a forerunner and model text for their own conception of the subconscious, liberated through the derangement of the senses and the wilful disavowal of bourgeois mores. A single line in Ducasse’s text foretold the essential paradigm that guided the surrealist aesthetic, especially in Magritte’s painting – the desire to create an art ‘as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella!’ (A. Lykiard, trans., Cambridge, 1994, p. 193).