‘Mystery is what enlightens knowledge’
- René Magritte
‘I think as though no one had thought before me’
- René Magritte
Floating amidst the clouds, like a deity descending from on high, a statuesque nude woman stands, her luminous body framed by the jagged opening of a darkened cave in René Magritte’s Le pain quotidien. Painted in 1942, during the dark days of the German Occupation of Belgium, this painting is steeped in all the mystery, enigma and silence that has come to define Magritte’s work of this period. Gazing out across the expansive panorama of a cloud-filled sky, the viewer is situated within the mouth of a cave, confronted with the endless abyss of the world beyond. While his paintings are composed of a composite of recognisable, often banal objects and motifs, Magritte sought not to render the world as it appears, but instead, through strange and unexpected juxtapositions and combinations, to paint ideas, mystery and the inherent poetry that lies within the everyday. Le pain quotidien is imbued with a sense of philosophical poetry, encompassing not only the themes of representation and illusionism, a dichotomy that underpins so much of his work, but the nature of vision itself, making thought visible. Never before seen at auction Le pain quotidien has remained in private hands since the time of its conception.
Le pain quotidien is one of two paintings from this period that feature the same theatrical, repoussoir device of a cave that leads the viewer’s eye to an endless, expansive, cloud-filled sky. Le souvenir determinant (Sylvester, no. 513), however, features not the same floating female figure amidst this soaring panorama, but a single tree growing amidst a rocky terrain. Magritte had described in part this strange and impossible vision of a female figure floating silently amongst the clouds in his famous lecture, La ligne de vie of 1936. Describing his practice of revealing the mysteries inherent in reality through juxtaposing unexpected elements of the everyday, Magritte explained:
‘My pictures showed objects located in places where we never come across them. This is the fulfilment of a real, if unconscious, desire on the part of most people… For me, given my determination to make the most familiar objects yell, they had to be disposed in a new order, and take on a disturbing significance… A woman’s body floating above a town was a favourable substitute for the angels who never appeared to me. I found it very salutary to see the Virgin Mary in a state of undress and I showed her in this new guise… As for the mystery, the enigma that my pictures were for people, I would say that this was the best possible proof of my break with the body of absurd mental habits which usually serve for an authentic sense of life’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, Magritte, London, 1992, p. 228).
While it is not known which painting was completed first, both of the enigmatic compositions of Le pain quotidien and Le souvenir determinant have a decidedly philosophical impetus, bringing to mind in particular Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Magritte had a lifelong interest in philosophy, believing that it was akin to painting or writing, and the writings of Plato were among his favourite. Indeed, like a philosopher, through his painting, Magritte sought to unpick the elements of reality that we accept unquestioningly, challenging previously undisputed notions of everyday life in order to liberate the mind and allow imagination to take flight. His famous phrase, ‘I think as though no one had thought before me’ (Magritte, quoted in S. Gablik, Magritte, London, 1985, p. 10), perfectly illuminating his philosophical approach to painting.
Encompassing concepts of perception, illusion, reality and truth – aspects that also dominate Magritte’s oeuvre – Plato’s allegory describes a group of prisoners who have lived forever enchained in a cave. Unable to look outwards and never having seen the world beyond, they believe that the shadows that flicker across the inside of the cave are ‘real’ images. Socrates shows these prisoners that these sensory visions are false and presents the truth: the real world outside, a reality comprehensible through knowledge. Just as Plato’s philosopher revealed reality, so Magritte in his work attempted to expose the truth that lies behind the quotidian, opening our eyes to the mystery that exists within every part of the real world. In this way, Magritte offered a new form of reality, one that lies beyond the realm of the everyday: surreality.
Juxtaposing the firm solidity of the cave with the soft effervescence of the clouds, the interior and the exterior, the earthly and heaven bound, in Le pain quotidien, the cave becomes the realm of the human mind, and the vista beyond, the newly discovered, boundless dominion of thought. Magritte often revelled in the paradoxical notions of reality, illusion, artifice and truth in his work. But here, he moves beyond questioning forms of pictorial representation, instead elevating his artistic explorations to the realm of the philosophical; illuminating the universal human experience of vision, and the nature of reality. Le pain quotidien serves as an embodiment of our mind’s eye, and, turning away from the inside of the cave to gaze outwards, the expansive realm of infinite possibility stretches forth. In this way, this work serves as the embodiment of the liberation of the mind, the fundamental aim that Magritte pursued through his art; as he once stated, ‘I consider valid the linguistic attempt to say that my pictures were conceived as material signs of freedom of thought’ (Magritte, ‘La pensée et les images’, 1954, quoted in H. Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, New York, 1979, p. 72).
While Le pain quotidien embodies these universal concepts of vision and representation, it is also inherently tied to the time in which it was painted. In 1942, during the dark years of the Second World War, Belgium was occupied by the Nazis, having fallen in May 1940. Less than a week after Nazi troops had invaded, Magritte fled Brussels for France, leaving his wife Georgette, who had been engaged in an affair with the Surrealist poet, Paul Colinet. After three months of living in Carcassonne, together with a group of Surrealist writers and artists, Magritte decided to return to his native Belgium. After an epic and arduous journey across the border, he returned home, where he at once reconciled with Georgette. Following a brief period of little output, due largely to the deprivations of war, as well as the tedium and dangers of the Occupation, by early 1941, Magritte had begun painting again.
While Magritte never painted the war literally, during the early years of the war and the Occupation, a definite sense of foreboding and disquiet entered some of his work. Yet, at the same time, Magritte pursued a new, determinedly optimistic outlook, turning his back on the bleak realities of war to create works with an escapist, fantastical air of pleasure and ease; as he explained in a letter to Paul Éluard in December 1941, the year before he painted Le pain quotidien:
‘My fit of exhaustion is almost over (it will never completely go, I think) and for some time I have been working with interest,’ Magritte confided to Eluard. ‘Doubtless I had to find a way of producing what was bothering me: pictures in which “the bright side” of life would be the area to be exploited. By this I mean the whole traditional range of charming things, women, flowers, birds, trees, the atmosphere of happiness, etc. And if I have managed to bring fresh air into my painting, it is through the fairly powerful charm which is now substituted in my paintings for the disturbing poetry that I once struggled to achieve. Generally speaking, pleasure cancels out a whole series of worries that I want increasingly to disregard.’
‘So that you can better understand what I am aiming at,’ Magritte continued, ‘let me remind you of La magie noire, one of my old pictures which was the starting point of this quest for pleasure. I have continued along these lines… If these things must have an additional justification, although their charm is enough to render it unnecessary, I would say that the power of these pictures is that they make us sharply aware of all the imperfections of everyday life’ (Magritte, quoted in D. Sylvester, ed., René Magritte Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, 1993, pp. 290-291).
A sense of calm serenity and purity pervades Le pain quotidien, as well as a luminous quality that defied the darkness brought by war and the Occupation. This simplified, distilled composition was also characteristic of this period of Magritte’s work; indeed, it was a pictorial quality that he actively sought at this time. As he described to his friend and patron Claude Spaak in January 1941: ‘All my latest pictures are leading me toward the simplified painting that I have long wanted to achieve. It is in short the ever more rigorous search for what, in my view, is the essential element in art; purity and precision in the image of mystery which becomes decisive through being shorn of everything incidental or accidental’ (Magritte, quoted in Sylvester, ibid., p. 288).
A key motif from the ‘”bright side” of life’ that Magritte was exploring at this time was the nude figure, which became the subject of numerous works of this time, including Le pain quotidien. While in some paintings, L’aimant or Le beau navire (Sylvester nos. 493 & 496), for example, the nude is earthbound, standing amidst an interior or a landscape, in Le pain quotidien, the female figure has defied gravity, presiding over her new dominion in the skies. Like Botticelli’s Venus, who rises majestically from the sea, here the woman, idealised and serene, descends from the heavens, a celestial apparition from on high, or perhaps an Eve sent down to earth from above. The perfected, classicised female nude had first appeared in Magritte’s art in the mid-1930s in his famous composition, La magie noire (Sylvester, no. 355), the first of a series of works that featured a nude figure in a state of transformation, metamorphosing from flesh to sky. Taking as his initial model his wife, Georgette, Magritte invented a nude figure that, with her perfectly symmetrical facial features, smooth flawless body, and contrapposto pose is reminiscent of the idealised sculptures of antiquity, works that stood as the epitome of harmony, beauty and grace, concepts that were at this time far from the barbarity of war. Here, radiant and luminous amidst her heaven bound realm, the nude figure is glimpsed from the darkness of the cave, a luminous beacon of hope, or perhaps even a sign of religious salvation for those living through the bleak and seemingly interminable years of war. In this way, Le pain quotidien encapsulates Georges Bataille’s description of Magritte’s work when he wrote that it offers, ‘the creation of a palpable reality whereby the ordinary world is modified in response to the desire for the marvelous, for the prodigious, a desire implicit in the very essence of the human being’ (G. Bataille, quoted in P. Walberg, René Magritte, Brussels, 1965, pp. 156-157).